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

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Arguing that boys can read stories about girls ignores a different problem – that men and men’s voices are being raised and appreciated, even among the plethora of lady leads in young adult literature, and there are plenty of characters of the same gender for boys to relate to. Hale noted that, the week one of her books hit the New York Times bestsellers list, that men outnumbered women on each of the lists, with at least 4 more men on each list than women.

What happens when the YALSA list of best fiction for young adults is broken down by gender binary? Even though nearly 50% of books nominated featured female leads, and over 70% featured female authors, the top ten list featured 50% male authors and 80% stories told through a male character’s perspective.

sexism in ya yalsa top ten by the numbers graphThe preference for male voices, even when women are writing, holds up across other studies of the statistics. Though women authors consistently were higher represented on the overall ‘best of’ lists of the year, Jensen found that the representation in main characters was almost always split evenly between male main characters and female main characters for books published between 2011 and 2014.

“Despite having more female authors on the “best of” lists, the difference in male voices in the books against female voices in the books remains not hugely different [over the years],” wrote Jensen. “There are plenty of books featuring male main characters and they’re earning recognition.”

Though librarian Whitney Winn refused to speculate in her original post, she did wonder: “when there are many excellent books with female protagonists and written by women, it’s worth thinking about why the male-centered and male-written stories rise to the top.”

It’s not the first time Winn looked at YA books by gender. In 2010, she looked at gender in young adult literature of books published in 2009 and found 70% of women wrote YA, with 54% of YA books featuring female protagonists (though, of those female protagonists, 90% of them were written by women).

“It’s pretty clear that the majority of the well-regarded books from 2009 were written by women and feature a female point-of-view,” wrote Winn. “While this is great for women and providing role models for teen girls, it does raise a few issues. One is that it excludes boys and the male perspective. Yes, this is a problem with YA literature, and we need continue to support the strong books that do get published and get them into the hands of readers.”

Yet based on her number crunching in 2016, it doesn’t matter how many women’s voices, either character or author, are published – the ones that get the most attention, that are deemed the best, still focus on the voices of boys and men. And this holds up across the years.

In 2012, The Atlantic asked: why do female authors dominate young-adult fiction? Writer Meghan Lewitt based the question on NPR’s list of 100 Best-Ever Teen novels, where 63% of the list featured women authors. She called the slight prevalence of women authors on the list something that would be considered “a minor miracle in some other genres,” noting that “you’d have to scroll all the way to number 20 on last summer’s Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy list to find a woman’s name.”

Lewitt’s article itself wasn’t particularly problematic – it applauded the surge of women authors, noting the dismal representation of women across other genres and literary categories, and encouraged readers to read YA – but the title of the article raised eyebrows. After all, women weren’t “dominating” – there were simply a handful more women than there were men: 59 female authors and 44 male ones.

“If the numbers were reversed, we would perhaps say appreciatively that the list was close to being gender balanced,” wrote the Lady Business team in their breakdown of YA award winners by gender from 2010 to 2012. “We expect to find male dominance everywhere – anything else is an unusual occurrence, and as such it stands out. And this affects how we view the world far more than we realise.”

They, too, found that while women authors surpassed men in writing YA books nominated for awards (56% to 42%, with 2% of books co-written), it was books with male or dual protagonists (49% and 15%) that dominated award lists. (Their full list breaks down each individual award and offers a further behind-the-scenes look at the statistics.)

sexism in ya award winners from 2010-2012 graphJennifer Lynn Barnes noted that more men than women were featured in Time magazine’s Best Of lists from 1996 – 2012, though those lists aren’t specifically YA, in “Author gender, null results, & examining privilege” as part of her response to whether John Green’s popularity had to do with his gender.

And just this year, the longlist for the National Book Awards showcase novels that featured men’s stories over women’s stories, regardless of who writes the story. While six of the authors are ladies, only three of the titles feature women characters as protagonists, with even less featuring relationships (friendship, familial or romantic) between female characters.

In an opinion piece for the School Library Journal, Kelly Jensen wondered if we honor girl’s stories the same way we do boy’s stories. The statistics show no – that, when forced to choose, we follow what society has ingrained in us and favor the stories about boys.

But we also – as in the case with Scott Bergstrom’s The Cruelty, the book that sold for six-figures to Macmillan’s Feiwel and Friends imprint; or perhaps when it comes to John Green, whose success with The Fault in Our Stars caused him to become the face of YA in the media – award men higher praise for writing women.

“But when men write girls—any kind of girls,” wrote Jensen, “they’re seen as special. As empathetic. As doing new, creative, amazing things.”

YA might be a girls’ world, but at the end of the day, it is men who are more frequently rewarded for writing in it – and women who are left to fight that what they’re writing is worth something.

So what can we do? Click to the final page.

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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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