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

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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.

How is Andrew Smith a great example of problems in YA? Click through to page 4.

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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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