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.
If we don’t call out or critique problematic baloney, nothing will ever change & we actually contribute to the perpetuation of said baloney.
— Leila Roy (@bkshelvesofdoom)
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– cleaning up grammar, checking my hyperlinks, adding one or two more examples – I began to worry that it might be an outdated conversation.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 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 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.”
What else can we do to combat sexism in YA? Sound off in the comments below!