“Women built this castle”: An in-depth look at sexism in YA.

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On November 24, Publisher’s Weekly posted an article on Scott Bergstrom and The Cruelty. The article highlighted the monetary success of Bergstrom – who landed a six-figure deal with Macmillan’s Feiwel and Friends imprint after selling in 16 foreign territories; the movie rights to The Cruelty also sold to Paramount, with Jerry Bruckheimer attached to the film – and subtlety nudged at the idea that Bergstrom and The Cruelty would be the next big thing.

Initially self-published in 2014, The Cruelty follows Gwendolyn Bloom, who sets off to rescue her kidnapped diplomat father. With the U.S. refusing to help, she follows the name of a Palestinian informer living in France and discovers that, to save her father, she must become as cruel as the men who took him.

But the article in Publisher’s Weekly highlighted not the descent of teenage girl into a creature as cruel as her enemies, but the transformation of a “slightly overweight 17-year-old” into, in a quote from Bergstrom, a “lean warrior with hair dyed fire-engine red.”

The choice to self-publish wasn’t described by Bergstrom – who writes not under Scott, but under S. Bergstrom, claiming to face the “precisely the same” problems that J.K. Rowling and S.E. Hinton did when they chose to use initials – as an excuse for creative control, but a way to avoid being confined by the “walled garden” of YA publishing. While YA publishes books that look at the moral complexities of killing and murders (The Hunger Games, Violent Ends, This Is Where It Ends), of the choices teenage girls face in their day-to-day lives (a topic Nova Ren Suma and Courtney Summers cover in all of their works), Bergstrom felt that his heroine was “more complicated than a lot of YA,” dismissing the category he was writing in – and the teenagers he was writing for – as doing no more than trying to escape places “set up by outside adult forces” in a story that acted as “a metaphor for high school.”

But the opening chapter, available to read online for free, showcases that Bergstrom fell into his own trap. It begins with his protagonist Gwendolyn in her high school, that “walled garden” “set up by outside adult forces” he dismissed in other stories – a high school Gwendolyn eventually abandons to go rescue her father.

All, of course, while becoming a “lean warrior” stereotype of modern beauty ideals while rescuing her father – not that she didn’t get attention from men at the beginning of the book, and not that she wasn’t initially pretty, if “poor as a church mouse.”

“I’m … a little chubby,” thinks Gwendolyn in the opening chapter, adding “My dad and my doctor say I’m not really that overweight – that it’s mostly muscle from my years of gymnastics – and that everyone’s built differently, so don’t accept anyone else’s definition of beauty. But then again, it’s their job to say that.”

Bergstrom also writes, in his opening chapter, that “guys out on the sidewalk in front of the shops whistle after [his protagonist]. They love this – the school uniform, the flash of seventeen-year-old legs.”

His protagonist sees nothing wrong with this, makes no further comment about how it bothers her or how it’s wrong to catcall after women. Instead, the protagonist sees the behavior as almost romantic, the unwanted attention of men’s eyes on her as something to be desired. It is, as Tristina Wright described, a subtle form of grooming behavior. It is something that a man would want a woman – want a seventeen-year-old-girl – to think of his behavior.

In the same opening chapter, Bergstrom’s character attempts to read a “novel with a teenage heroine set in a dystopian future” on the subway. “Which novel in particular,” wrote Bergstrom, in an uncanny reflection of his own quote to Publisher’s Weekly, “doesn’t matter because they’re all the same. Poor teenage heroine, having to go to war when all you really want is to write in your diary about how you’re in love with two different guys and can’t decide between them. These novels are cheesy, I know, and I suck them down as easily as milk.”

Subtle jabs at books like Red Queen and The Hunger Games and Divergent – dystopian fiction that features teenage girls who deal with the emotional realities of relationships and the emotional realities of war simultaneously, things that resonate with teenage girls in high school – weren’t saved for Bergstrom or for the Publisher’s Weekly article.

“Kicking butt to save your dad is actually a lot easier for me to swallow than kids killing kids in The Hunger Games,” said Bergstrom’s agent Tracey Adams to Publisher’s Weekly – missing, of course, that The Hunger Games doesn’t kill for sport or gratuity, but to highlight the actual atrocities of kids killing kids and the powerful bond between Katniss Everdeen and her sister Primrose.

And Bergstrom has made jabs at genre fiction before; in an interview with The Pen and Muse, he wrote that “what troubles [him]about so much of today’s fiction aimed at young adults is that it is set in an imaginary time and place… you’ll see that dystopian future is really the dystopian present,” as if unwilling to acknowledge that fictionalizing ongoing problems can give readers another way to digest the issues at hand.

“This is a very welcoming community, as I’ve learned firsthand during the last year, and Mr. Bergstrom basically walked in the door and sneered at us,” wrote Red Queen author Victoria Aveyard in a blog post.

In his interview at The Pen and Muse, Bergstrom also discussed the appearance of his protagonist and the appearance of women in media. “As the father of two daughters, I became pretty appalled at the image of women they received from the culture,” Bergstrom told The Pen and Muse. “It was all princess-this, Barbie-that. It was almost a satire of femininity. … What century were we living in if the feminine ideal little girls learned about was still a woman in a pink dress and a nineteen inch waist?”

As if there is something inherently wrong with pink dresses.

As if there is something wrong with Barbie, who has had careers in every field and inspires young girls around the world.

As if Bergstrom’s protagonist did not transform from a “slightly chubby” girl to a “lean warrior,” reinforcing that a feminine ideal – even for a warrior – was a skinny, toned girl, with maybe a slightly wider waistline than Barbie’s nineteen-inches.

The Cruelty features a chubby girl who becomes a “lean warrior,” who has no problem with men catcalling her, and who dismisses the category of fiction meant for teens; whose author is blissfully oblivious to YA as a whole, who dismisses it as lacking moral complications and who sneers at genre fiction, and who sees no problem in slimming down his leading lady while making derisive comments about Barbie.

This is what Feiwel and Friends paid six figures for; this is what Paramount wants to make a movie out of.

This is “the next big thing” in YA.

If you don’t see a problem with that, you won’t like the rest of this article.

Let’s look at the history of YA. Click through to page 2.

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About Author

Nicole Brinkley

Nicole is the editor of YA Interrobang. She has short hair and loves dragons. The rest changes without notice. Follow her on Twitter at @nebrinkley or Tumblr at nebrinkley. Like her work? Leave her a tip.

37 Comments

  1. Shalee Coleman on

    LOVE THIS.

    So tired of my interests being trashed due to my identity, when the moment I choose to pass on a cultural phenomenon because I am not really interested in reading yet another story about a shy white boy who gets the girl, I am somehow being discriminatory…

  2. “If you are only reading straight able-bodied cisgender white women, you are contributing to larger problems of ableism and homophobia and racism that still exist in YA and, as I’ve mentioned, are too prevalent and numerous and complicated for me to include in this piece without turning it into a full-length book instead of a novella-length article.”

    Can we please get an article about this, though? Soon?

  3. This feels SO timely. Just this weekend, I listened to a white, male YA author who has been roundly praised by the industry, talking about his upcoming novel that clearly owes a huge debt to a recent novel by a woman. Will he be asked to acknowledge that debt? We’ll see. (I did point out one specific similarity, and he swiftly explained it away, so…)

  4. A superb article – excellent points throughout. At the same time as I was reading this, I was taking part in a Twitter discussion about women writers and the work of Octavia Butler. Now, everyone has gaps in their reading history and Octavia Butler is one of my gaps, I just haven’t read her work yet. But it occurred to me that while there’s plenty of male writers from her same generation that I also haven’t read, I’ve been more broadly exposed to those male writers being mentioned in articles, reviews, etc over the years, while Butler, despite being a giant in the field, has been less prominently featured in the sci fi and gaming mags I grew up with. Beyond the problems in the publishing field directly, there is the hinterland of the magazines and blogs that surround out, and the problem of a lack of recognition for the work of women often extends to there. Thank you for the article – lots of things to think about. And as for Bergstrom coming in and shooting down a whole genre? First time I heard of that convinced me I would never bother picking up a book of his.

  5. The deliberate sexism in YA mirrors the bigger crisis with the suppression and erasure of people of colors voices in literature. I’d also love to see an article on “contributing to the larger problems of ableism and homophobia and racism that still exist in YA.” More than that, I’d like to see tangible steps towards a solution.

  6. This is such a great read. I’m getting ready for teaching a class about editing YA books and this is PERFECT for the discussion! I’ll print this and hand it out to the class. Thanks and congrats, Nicole!

  7. One in four women has been the victim of rape or attempted rape.

    This mother of all factoids is based on a fallacious feminist study commissioned by Ms. magazine. The researcher, Mary Koss, hand-picked by hard-line feminist Gloria Steinem, acknowledges that 73 percent of the young women she counted as rape victims were not aware they had been raped. Forty-three percent of them were dating their “attacker” again.

    I am all for the cause of feminism. Please let us use real facts instead of quoting hyperbole. It is the only way we can make real change.

    • Dude, this is the only thing you have to say about this article? Seizing on a chance to tout false rape reports? Really? Slow your roll and read the article again and maybe don’t use alarming phrases like “hard-line” and “hand-picked” and “fallacious” with feminist when you’re trying to convince us you’re all for it. Please, take several seats.

  8. Wonderful comprehensive (with the noted limitations) piece. It never ceases to amaze me how ubiquitous the phenomena of belittling YA is. It seems to pop up somewhere at least once a month. And too often female (and often marginalized) voices bear the brunt.

  9. Great article. Thank you for taking the time to put this all together. I’ve been guilty of pushing books on my 11 year old son, but you’ve opened my eyes. Why can’t he read books about girls? They won’t diminish his masculinity. If anything, they’ll make him more compassionate and empathetic.

    • My 14 yr old son loves Tamora Pierce books, Diana Wynne Jones books, Patricia C. wrede books, lots of older fantasy. He also loves Lois McMaster Bujold books and I have Elizabeth Moon queued up for him next, when he comes up for air out of the Vorkosigan Saga (Bujold.)

      He cares if the book is a good *story*. The rest is window dressing. I recommend Howl’s Moving Castle as a nice gateway. Or Alanna. Enjoy!

  10. Amazing article! Thank you for your thorough research and thought-provoking words. And thank you for ending with concrete things that people can do to change the situation, to bring about some justice in this field. I would also add that readers should learn about and support the work of small presses, which are often the ones at the forefront publishing women authors of color, women authors with disabilities, and LGBTQIA authors. And check out the roundtables of We Need Diverse Books, which explore #ownvoices perspectives. I hosted one for authors with disabilities, and six out of seven are women with the one man a genuine ally.

  11. Seriously? A post about sexism in YA fiction and the publishing industry brings on a rant about supermarket distribution centre gender breakdowns? And how feminists are frauds and wage gaps don’t exist?

    As a previous poster suggested, please also take several seats.

  12. There is no way to edit my previous post but the commenter I was responding to has been modded out.

  13. This is a wonderful, much-needed article. I’d also add, as someone who has worked for a long time with YA authors and loves YA, that we need to make sure the debate encourages writers from diverse backgrounds rather than making them feel publishing is a white monolith of heterosexual ladies and they have no chance of success. There is a real hunger within publishing for good writing from many different voices and perspectives, at long last, but editors cannot publish books they never see, or that weren’t written in the first place. White men tend not to get discouraged by rejection; they get angry. They self-publish. They self-promote. They demand and expect respect. Maybe we all need to think more like white men.

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  17. *slow clap* I absolutely loved this article. There were so many good points made here. When I have more free time, I need to read the hyperlinked articles that were mentioned.

  18. Wow, interesting article that has given me lots to think about. In my own personal experience (I’m a white, 20-something female living in a mostly-conservative, mostly-white area, and I’ve taught middle school for three years), the issues talked about on page 5 of this article were super-relevant to me. Very few of my friends, family, or acquaintances knows or cares who is on the bestseller list this week or what some author they’ve never heard of said on Twitter. But there is a very clear assumption that books about girls are for girls, while books about boys are for everyone. In my teacher education classes in college, this was presented as a fact, not something that we should or could change. I remember reading Shannon Hale’s “Princess Academy” when I was younger and thinking, “My younger brother would love this,” but I hesitated to recommend it to him because I knew my mom (who is an elementary school teacher) wouldn’t like my brother reading a “girl book” – she’d think it was weird. I can’t remember a time when I saw one of my male middle school students reading a book with a female protagonist besides “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent” – books with those nice, gender-neutral covers. And as an English teacher, we had so little class time to teach any literature that there was no discussion among the teachers about reading literature with diverse protagonists. (But the topic of literature and public education is a whole other can of worms.)

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  20. This is a fantastic article.

    You know what warms my jaded heart? That The Cruelty seems to have flopped HARD. Turns out that readers are smarter than you think and don’t like being condescended to and put down by someone who knows almost nothing about the genre.

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  22. What a wonderful article! I’m so excited to see such in-depth research and writing on a subject very near and dear to my heart. I hope this becomes an article series, because I would love to see more on intersectionality in YA!!

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