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

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Despite a huge chunk of both Smith’s fans and YA readers being female, some argued that Smith’s words and writing weren’t something to be worried about because girls weren’t his target audience. This is foolish for a few reasons: characters (girls or otherwise) should be fleshed out as a part of good writing, regardless of who the target audience is; and because a target audience happens to be of one gender doesn’t mean that representation of the other gender should lack. Some are also quick to point out the issues in YA that reflect poorly on and put pressure on boys, as if claims like that mean that sexism doesn’t exist. But sexism against women creates archetypes and tropes that put constructs on boys. To talk about that pressure without tracing back where it came from is to ignore the institute of sexism as a whole.

In a piece full of unsourced statistics and an underlying misogynistic tone, Robert Lipstye broadcasted his thoughts on why boys don’t read to the New York Times. Lipstye longed for the days of ladies who “wrote well about both genders” and stated the old argument that “while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.”

The Mary Sue already raked Lipstye across the coals for the opinion piece, dismantling each argument with the expertise of a site long frustrated with the dismissal of lady-led narratives, but Lipstye isn’t the only one who views lady-led novels as something boys will not inherently read. It’s a belief that runs through the publishing industry, tainting the way books are marketed, the way covers are presented, the way that books as a form of media are engaged in.

And never once does Lipstye stop to wonder why it is that boys don’t want to read about girls.

“There’s a myth that books need to have characters young readers can ‘identify with,’ but the exact opposite is true: literature gives us a chance to view the world through another person’s eyes, to consider a perspective that is different from our own. This is vital because it teaches empathy,” Eastern Michigan University professor Annette Wannamaker told Graham Shelby in his Salon piece “Katniss is a hero for boys, too.

If boys don’t want to read about girls, it’s because they’ve been taught that reading about a girl is wrong, that it’s something to be shamed for – something that girls never need learn, as reading about boys is perfectly okay. If boys don’t want to read about girls, it’s because they’ve been taught that acting like a girl is wrong, that it’s something to be shamed for – something that girls never need learn, as acting like or empathizing with a boy is perfectly okay.

“We do a huge disservice to our children and their ability to grow into compassionate, thoughtful, empathetic adults when we steer them away from things we think of as ‘belonging’ to the other gender,” wrote Elizabeth Bluemle for Publisher’s Weekly entitled “He Won’t Read Books About Girls.” “If The Hunger Games had featured Katniss on the cover instead of a gold medallion against a black background, sales to boys would have been fractional. This is a frustrating truth. And it’s our fault. We steer kids—no, we steer boys—away from stories they might respond to from a very early age.”

The idea that boys cannot read about girls is one that is taught to them from a young age and in convoluted ways. Booksellers deal with it on a regular basis – one noting that they could not sell a board book to a customer because owls “are only in boy books.” If boys don’t internalize biases from parents, they can pick up on it in other places, like school.

Shannon Hale reflected on the boys who do come to her signings in a separate post entitled “Why boys don’t read girls (sometimes),” noting the same things I do: that boys, if they don’t internalize biases from home, will internalize them at school. Many of the boys who proudly attend her events are homeschooled, with boys at school events often booing things in her presentation considered feminine or, if they do enjoy her work, are too embarrassed to come up to her (or, in at least one case, not allowed to come.) And if boys come with their sisters to her events and become interested in her work, Hale has seen – on more than one occasion – a parent turn down their son because her books are “girl” books.

“I probably don’t have to explain to you that there is not a single element in Shannon Hale’s books—biological, social, intellectual, emotional—that eschews male participation, unless you simply believe that books about girls written by women are automatically of zero interest to a young boy and have zero value to his development,” wrote Jordan Brown in his post “On Curiosity” for Stacked. “Which, apparently, many people do.”

“[I]f a boy wants action and adventure? And loves stories about spies, with some humor? And you tell them about a great series about teens who are in a secret spy school, learning how to be spies in their regular classes and going on missions, and using and inventing cool gadgets, and the only reason that boy says “no” to that series is because it’s author is a woman, the spies in question are teenage girls, and the covers show girls, then there is something wrong. The book has all the elements for the reading story that reader wants, and the reason for the “no” is based entirely on the main characters being girls,” wrote Elizabeth Burns for “Boy Books or Girl Books” for the School Library Journal’s blog. “If boys will read fantasies were the cast of characters is mice or cats, why not read ones with girls?”

Or, as Gayle Forman asked at the Gender Less panel of Reading Matters 2013, “Why is it acceptable for girls to go into the boys’ world, but not for the boys to go into the girls’ world?”

Let’s look at books by the numbers. Click through to page 6.

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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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