Author Jennifer Weiner, who has garnered a reputation for fighting against sexist comments made in publishing, wrote an article about “Goldfinching” for the Guardian in November 2015. The nickname, chosen “after Vanity Fair’s 2014 yes-but-is-it-art interrogation as to whether Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prize-winning, mega-bestselling book The Goldfinch is or is not literature” is described as “the process by which a popular and previously well-regarded novel and, more importantly, its readers, are taken to the woodshed, usually by a critic who won’t hesitate to congratulate himself on his courage, as if dismissing popular things that women like requires some special kind of bravery – as if it doesn’t happen all day, every day.”
“Sometimes,” wrote Weiner, “slamming a single title isn’t enough – think of Slate’s sneering dismissal of Young Adult literature and the ought-to-be-ashamed adults who read it , or novelist Jonathan Franzen’s disdainful characterization of ‘most of what people read’ as being YA in its ‘moral simplicity’.”
People both within and outside the publishing world, even those who make a substantial chunk of their living on YA books, often act like Bergstrom or Franzen – dismissing YA and those writing it as simplistic because its primary market is teen girls, its primary authors women.
If you don’t believe that sexism exists in some form, then all this article will do is enrage you and send you off to the comment section or my Twitter feed to tell me all the ways I’m wrong. But, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination … on the basis of sex,” sexism crops into all aspects of life and media.
There have been studies that prove that, when a room is split evenly with men and women, and each do an equal amount of talking, men will consider the conversation dominated by women.
Studies show that male-identifying characters are represented almost twice as often as female-identifying characters in children’s fiction, and that female-identifying characters never have more representation than men on any significant children’s fiction list.
A study showed that 25% of women report being sexually harassed on Twitter, and even more report being stalked on Twitter. “Pew found that women overall are disproportionately targeted by the most severe forms of online abuse including doxxing and violent threats,” wrote Women, Action & The Media on their website. (The full study is available online.) Another study showed that 95% of all harassment online is named at women.
Multiple incidents of literary agents requesting more information on novels they had previously rejected under female names when male names were used have been recorded. Take Catherine Nichols, who wrote about her experience querying adult literary fiction on Jezebel: “[My male pseudonym] is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.”
Women are routinely cat-called and harassed on the street. One in four women will be raped in their lifetime, often by a close acquaintance, often more than once. New York Times bestselling author Maggie Stiefvater talked about her own experiences with sexism, including language and assault, in a blog post called “The Anatomy of Rage” that is worth reading in its entirety.
(Stiefvater, who loves hobbies that many consider traditionally masculine and who cites Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle as one of her heroes, struggled with writing fictional ladies like her, hoping for a “future-Maggie to grow up with a list of fictional role-models populated by both genders. I spent so many years depressed that I’d been born into a gender I didn’t seem to belong to. I want future teen me to know that she really can be anything she wants to be … and see examples of it all around her.”
“Don’t get me wrong, there were strong female characters in many of the books I read,” wrote Stiefvater in a Tumblr post entitled “So. I see I’m a Girl. :/”. “They were just strong in different ways. When they appeared as secondary characters, they were the rocks the tempestuous men tied themselves to. They were the helpmeets and the scholars, the ones who did their homework and the ones who appeared with solutions at the last minute. And as narrators, they were often plucky and fearless and capable. But they were never just a female version of any of the people on my list of Dudes I Wished I Was. Where was the woman I wanted to be?
“She didn’t seem to exist.”)
Covers of books written by women are often presented as something gender-specific, whereas covers for men are presented in more gender-neutral or story accurate codes. Maureen Johnson hosted Coverflip to prove a point about marketing of covers, where readers were challenged to redesign the covers of books as if their author had been the opposite gender. Johnson used her own story The Key to the Golden Firebird, which focuses on sisters recovering from the loss of their father and has numerous covers featuring silhouettes of girls in pink, as an example for the challenge.
“In the case of gendered covers, the cumulative effect is to suggest that books by or for women, no matter what their content, are more trivial, more fluffy and less significant than books by or for men,” wrote Allison Croggon for the Guardian.
Despite women being the majority of readers, magazines that review books continue to focus heavily on books written by men, with the Guardian reporting in April that all magazines studied featured more men than women. The New York Times book review, the most fairly distributed of the magazines, still featured a hundred more men than they featured women. And while there are more women writers than men in the publishing industry, Sara Sheridan points out on Huffington Post that not only do men get more coverage, they make more money, with women earn 77.5% of what men earn. (That study does not showcase the difference between what women of color and white women earn, or queer women and cisgender or heterosexual women earn, though other studies prove that women of color make even less.)
Men last longer on the New York Times bestseller list, thanks to more money in marketing and numerous other factors. Kelly Jensen studied the New York Times YA bestseller list in 2013, before the shift to a hardcover list and a paperback list. The list featured almost twice the number of men than women, with women almost never outnumbering the men on the list, and men lasting three times as long on the list as women do.
Sexist imagery crops up in our fiction. Any girl or woman who attends high school or college can tell you that the classics that are established as The Canon are often white and male and, if not outright sexist, deal with very explicit and sometimes triggering attacks on womens bodies. Rebecca Solnit reflects on this in her essay “Men Explain Lolita To Me,” where men tried to argue that Lolita is an allegory – despite also being ” a novel about a big old guy violating a spindly child over and over and over” – and tried to say that if there were a novel “‘about a bunch of women running around castrating men. If it was great writing, I’d want to read it. Probably more than once.’ Of course there is no such body of literature, and if the nice liberal man who made that statement had been assigned book after book full of castration scenes, maybe even celebrations of castration, it might have made an impact on him.”
It’s not limited to the canon we read in high school and college, though that’s where it starts. Bergstrom’s character in The Cruelty dismissing her own appearance and accepting cat-calling as normal is a great example of sexist writing in YA. The controlling behavior of Edward Cullen in YA classic Twilight is another prime example. Or the controlling and stalking behavior of Patch in Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick. Or the internalized misogyny of the girl who explains away her rape as part of ‘slutty’ behavior in Tommy Wallach’s We All Looked Up. Or –
Well, you get the idea.
But sexism also crops in the culture surrounding that fiction. Women’s achievements in the YA publishing world are repeatedly, consistently dismissed in favor of their male counterparts. There’s the heralding of John Green as the savior of YA over the women who jumpstarted the category first; there’s the celebration of men’s books and men’s book deals, even if the men put down both YA and women, over the women who celebrate and love the category.
And there are more minor celebrations of men over women in everyday media coverage. Take, for example, this Mic article that originally proclaimed Wallach’s We All Looked Up as “the first of its kind” for combining a novel’s narrative with a musical album. While Mic modified the article after complaints from the YA community, simple Googling before the article was published would have revealed that Kelsey Macke used this same technique for her October 2014 release Damsel Distressed.
No example of sexist critique summarizes this more than the curious case of Andrew Smith.