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

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Numerous other bloggers and writers and authors have talked about the issue of sexism in YA. It was the focus of Libba Bray’s keynote at the 2015 Teen Author Festival; it is something Shannon Hale regularly Tweets and blogs about; it is a core point of what Kelly Jensen writes and the reason that she has been driven off of social media multiple times.

There is much that hasn’t been covered in this article, particularly the fact that women of color, disabled women, queer women, and religious women are far more likely to be harassed and attacked, and far more likely to have their work erased. I’ve stuck to discussing mostly ‘women’ and ‘men,’ though gender is far from a binary and amplifying the voices of transgender and genderfluid authors and characters needs to be a priority in the community.

As I put the final polishes on this piece – cleaning up grammar, checking my hyperlinks, adding one or two more examples – I began to worry that it might be an outdated conversation. A lot of the discussion I quote is from 2014, where there seemed to be a surge in fantastic pieces that looked critically at the sexism in the young adult community. Was I too late?

Then the New York Times posted an interview with Paul Rudnik, titled “What Is Paul Rudnik Doing Writing Young Adult Fiction?”. The piece, which could have celebrated one of the fastest growing categories in the industry, one that resonates with both adults and teenagers, instead gave us more of the same.

“I want to write things that will be a relief from the earnest torment of typical Y.A. literature,” said Rudnik, whose new novel It’s All Your Fault features cursing, “sex, booze, drugs and celebrity behavior” – though, of course, “they’re even cleaner than other Y.A. books.” As if, somehow, that makes it unique among the sea of successful and loved YA books that feature sex (Under the Lights by Dahlia Adler), alcohol (Clean by Amy Reed), drugs (Crank by Ellen Hopkins), celebrity behavior (For the Record by Charlotte Huang) or a combination of all four (Sugar Skulls by Lisa Mantchev and Glenn Dallas).

Because the focus of young adult literature is the experience of teenagers, and so often teenage girls, it will continue to be dismissed, particularly by those outside the community, and by those who think they’re somehow above it.

“But at the core, people who dismiss YA books are, almost invariably, not engaging in good-faith criticism of the books’ aesthetic values. What they’re really scoffing at is teenage girls,” wrote Dianna Anderson in her piece “Why criticizing Young Adult Fiction is sexist.” “[Y]oung adult literature is just as varied as adult genres. Writing it off entirely is like writing off all of popular music because you didn’t like that one Miley Cyrus song.”

What teenage girls value – what women value – are so often put down that it has become a subtle staple of the young adult community, the very community that thrives on the money and experiences of the teenage girl.

For Andrew Smith to dismiss his poor writing of teenage girls and to attack those that critique it is sexist and misogynist; for Scott Bergstrom to write a snarky dismissal of YA as a genre into his own YA book shows both a lack of understanding of young adult fiction and a complete disregard for his own audience.

But, wrote Anderson, “[y]oung women are a complex, wonderful, messy group of people, and we should not so quickly push aside their stories and their experiences, simply because we have grown cynical in our age. We may learn from the most unexpected of places, and that is the true beauty of reading.

Women see this.

Women try to explain this, and many refuse to accept it as fact.

But that doesn’t make it any less true, and things need to change.

For things to change, money needs to be funneled behind lady authors and books that don’t fall into sexist ideologies. Individuals need to take more responsibility for what they’re pushing through the industry, whether they be agents or editors or booksellers or bloggers.  And, of course, more money and time and space needs to be given to minority women.

As Adrianne Russell wrote on her blog, “So while it’s extremely important to lift our voices and let publishing know we’re sick to death of being told the women who consistently write amazing books and create complex, multi-layered, characters don’t mean shit compared to the latest Mediocre White Dude, here’s what everyone keeps glossing over: nearly everyone involved in making publishing decisions is a white woman.”

(Lee & Low’s diversity in publishing survey showcased that 80% of publishing staff and review journal staff surveyed identify as white, among other alarming statistics; the full survey results can be seen on their website.)

Sexism is just one of the problems in YA – the most obvious, the most prevalent, the one that affects all women in the industry, and the easiest for many to talk about for those reasons. It needs to be discussed.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are issues too big to adequately address in this piece without making it novel length – and as an able-bodied white woman, I know I’m not the one most qualified to write on those issues. If sexism is the tip of the iceberg floating above, the one everybody is talking about, we need to dig and start talking about the other issues in YA: the racism and the prevalence of white voices and characters; the ableism and the lack of disabled characters, both mental disabilities and physical disabilities; the huge prevalence of cisgender and heterosexual characters in YA, especially in the biggest YA novels; and the lack of intersectionality, and how we rarely ever see a combination of queer and of color and disabled.

But for now, let’s look at how an industry comprised of nearly 80% women place such a heavy value on men’s voices and men’s interpretations of the industry.

On a grand scale, things will not change overnight, either for representation of women in fiction or how women are treated in the industry. Corporations respond to money, and throwing marketing money behind books and authors that aren’t necessarily the most lady-friendly is something that repeatedly worked for them in the past – something that can be seen at a glance by looking at titles dominating the New York Times bestsellers list over the past few years.

But how we act, on individual levels, can change.

Kelly Jensen, in a response to somebody questioning the double standards of women and men in YA, wrote, “It’s time white men who are privileged, who continually get praised for being ‘so smart’ and ‘so empathetic’ writing women or ‘complex’ stories are no longer elevated beyond the women, men of color, and others from marginalized groups who have been stepped on, spit on, and expected from without even a fraction of the same defense or recognition.”

Jensen’s Book Riot post on how to support rad lady authors is a good place to start for those who want to actively change how they read and how they perceive the literary world around the. Once you decide to change, doing things she suggests – tracking your reading, buying books from lady authors at your local bookstore, nominating them for awards when applicable – are all productive and excellent uses of your time, especially her calls to note intersectionality in your reading.

(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.)

But don’t take what you should do from me.

Take it from some badass lady YA authors who know their stuff, and who had some fantastic advice when asked.

“Read lots of books featuring underrepped groups by authors from those groups,” said Justina Ireland, author of Promise of Shadows. “Promote #ownvoices books, because sexism is just one facet of larger forms of oppression within our society. And if your feminism isn’t intersectional, it’s really just self interest.”

“Look beyond the lists and the hype,” said Tristina Wright, author of the upcoming 27 Hours. “Find the midlist authors and #ownvoices authors who maybe aren’t getting the big money publicity pushes from their houses. Read inclusively. Read intersectionally. Read women of color, read disabled women, read queer women, read non-christian women. Read and talk. Talk about these books even if you feel your voice has little reach. If your voice reaches one person and causes them to pick up that book, then you’ve done something amazing. Don’t rely on the list-makers and taste-makers to find every gem out there. Dig and find them yourself, then show them to everyone.”

“To help others, first help yourself,” said The Girl from Everywhere author Heidi Heilig. “It’s damn hard to battle misogyny–even harder when it’s internalized. If you find yourself uncomfortable or angry with another woman, ask yourself if it’s something they should really change about themselves, or something you should really change about yourself. Fight the patriarchy on the beaches AND on the landing grounds, if you get my drift.”

“There’s the easy way and the hard way,” said Behold the Bones author Natalie C. Parker. “The easy way is this: buy books, read books, talk about books. I call this the easy way because all it requires is that you do something you enjoy and then share it with others. It’s like sharing your favorite ice cream with friends, which is basically the nicest thing anyone can do.
“The hard way is this: speak up. I don’t mean that it’s necessary to become overtly political if you want to support other creative women. I do mean that it’s necessary to become visible when women are marginalized/ disregarded/ belittled in the industry. I call this the hard way because it doesn’t involve ice cream. It involves voicing your dissatisfaction with the current state of things. It involves voicing that dissatisfaction in your community whether that’s online or in person. Which is kind of like offering your friends some raw broccoli. Maybe it’s not your favorite thing, but it’s a necessary thing and everyone will fare better for having eaten some.
Parker added, “I think the best way to support other creative women involves a mixture of ice cream and broccoli — sharing things we know others will love and things that require a bit of negotiation.”

What else can we do to combat sexism in YA? Sound off in the comments below!

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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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