Monday, May 21, 2012

The Feminist in Me by Siobhan Vivian (guest post)

High school can be cruel.  Everyone wants to put a label on you: Jock, Geek, Loner, Stoner, Prep.  There are even school sanctioned labels: Most Likely to Succeed, Prom Queen.  Labels, sometimes, can make or break us.  How do we live up to them - or live them down?  Today we are honored to have a guest blog post by the talented ya author Siobhan Vivian.  What label does she give herself? And how did you she come to write the amazing THE LIST?  Read on to find out.
I am a feminist.


And though that facet of my personality might not be the first thing you pick up on when you meet me, I do hope it’s a theme you see present in all my young adult novels. Real girls, real problems. That’s always been my inspiration, where I set my moral compass as a writer. And in my new novel, THE LIST, it is front and center.



THE LIST takes place at a typical American high school called Mount Washington, where they have an annual tradition. Every year, on the Monday before homecoming, an anonymous person hangs a “list” all over school. Copies are stapled to locker doors, hidden in homeroom desks, hung on bathroom mirrors.


On this list are the names of eight girls…those deemed to be the “prettiest” and the “ugliest” of each grade.

But let me rewind just a bit.

It was 2009, and I came across a news story on Good Morning America, about a high school in New Jersey not far from where I grew up. The media had found out about a tradition, one that had gone on for years and years and years, where a secret group of senior girls would make a list targeting the freshmen girls.


This had gone on for about fifteen years without much in the way of authority intervention. But someone leaked this particular years’ list to the media. And they jumped all over it. No matter how hard the principal of the school tried, he could not get any of the girls to give up who, exactly, had written this list.


This particular list at this particular school was more sexual in nature. And, it’s important to note that the things these senior girls were writing were completely made up. Some of the digs were terribly mean and cruel. But some were a little more flattering, if you can imagine. Think about the way some girls use the word “slut” as a term of endearment.


Obviously, it’s no surprise that girls can be cruel to each other. But what really struck me were the reactions to this media scrutiny from the girls at this high school. They flooded the comments sections of these articles. Some were happy that people were finally bringing this terrible tradition to light. Others thought this was a big fuss about nothing.


And then I spotted this comment. 


“I know a lot of girls were upset because they weren’t on the list.”


That to me showed a real power; that the judgments of a group of anonymous people could hold so much sway. Some girls were so desperate to be seen, to be singled out in any context was something to aspire to.


Now, I had already written about the judgments that teen girls face in regards to their sexuality in NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL. But there was something really interesting and sticky about this story. I couldn’t let it go.

And, when I thought about it a bit more, I noticed that though this particular list was billed as a “slut list’ it was actually based more on appearances. “Pretty” girls had kind things written about them, “ugly” girls had mean, jokey things written about them.

So I made up a character named Jennifer, who’d basically been called ugly her whole life. I wanted her to have been put on the yearly list, named the ugliest girl in her class for four years straight. And then, for senior year of homecoming, that something similar might happen to her.

I pitched it to my editor, David Levithan, who loved it.

But then he said, “Well…what about the other seven girls on the list? What’s their story?”

And suddenly, my very small book became a lot bigger.

My book features eight girls. The novel follows each of them for one week in their lives. It’s basically eight short stories. And to make these girls real, I realized I would need to go beyond Jennifer’s experience and dig into my own issues with beauty and identity.

As much as I was accepted in high school (I was loud, I was funny) I was also very much an outcast.

The more I thought about my own high school experience, I realized that there were so many times where the difference between feeling pretty and ugly was so precariously thin.


I’ve always been inspired by THE CHOCOLATE WAR. It’s a wonderful book and very, very, accurately captures the struggles of peer pressures on young men.

To me, the war that girls are facing today is the pressure to be considered beautiful.

They are looking for a definitive answer. One that would dictate who they are and how they should feel about themselves.

We’ve always been told that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The girls of today are seeking validation. To be considered beautiful equaled permission to be confidant, to be proud, that you have worth.

I am hoping that my book can start a dialog that brings them to understand that it can’t be a random survey. It can’t be something we seek outward.

Ultimately, I want my readers to end THE LIST and think about the impact that these issues has on their lives. Are they the ones who judge? And are they also judged? And how does that affect them?

If we are able to reinforce girls from the inside out, we make them more powerful. And as a feminist, I couldn’t imagine a better outcome.

About Siobhan
Siobhan Vivian was born in New York City on January 12, 1979 . . . which might sound like a long time ago, but really isn’t. She grew up in Rutherford, NJ, where she got into trouble for such things as constantly talking out of turn, bringing a stray dog into school in a stolen shopping cart, passing notes to her friends, telling jokes, sneaking out, and not doing her homework.


Siobhan attended The University of the Arts, where she graduated with a degree in Writing for Film and Television. She received her MFA in Creative Writing: Children’s Literature from The New School University.

Siobhan has worked as an editor of several New York Times best-selling novels at Alloy Entertainment, a scriptwriter for The Disney Channel, and she currently teaches Writing Youth Literature at the University of Pittsburgh.  Visit Siobhan at her webpage or follow her on Twitter @siobhanvivan.  Be sure to check out her other ya titles A Little Friendly Advice, Same Difference and Not That Kind of Girl.

4 comments:

  1. I loved The List and appreciate your sharing this post so much. I din't like labels, but this book - and you - are awesome! Karen

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    1. Din't would be don't if I was on a computer as opposed to a phone. Sorry.

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  2. I'm looking forward to reading this - I may need to bump it forward in my list (just a reading list, I swear!). I appreciate hearing how the story idea came about, and I'm grateful writers like you exist to explore real issues girls face. I didn't know your editor was David Levithan (I saw him at a book event and immediately bought Will Grayson, Will Grayson).

    My own novel-in-progress has a side plot of a popularity list where girls are ranked (top junior,etc) but the ranking is totally subjective and changes on a whim, making girls quesion every move (and the guys don't really care about their rankings). I hadn't heard of the real life example you gave so I'll check that out further.

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  3. Excellent guest post! I really enjoyed learning the story behind the book, and the process, and also some of Siobhan's take on the issue of the pressure to feel beautiful.

    Honestly, I wasn't too interested in this book before I read this post. But now I have it added on Goodreads. I'm really curious if Siobhan ever read Naomi Wolf's "The Beauty Myth"? I've read excerpts for various classes (my minor is in Gender Studies), and it touches upon a lot of the topics she did in this post.

    Thanks for TLT and Siobhan for re-introducing this book to me. I look forward to reading it!

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