In the introduction to Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World, Kelly Jensen writes, “What unites feminists is the belief that every person–regardless of gender, class, education, race, sexuality, or ability–deserves equality.” This intersection between multiple social justice movements characterizes what we call Third Wave feminism, a term coined in the 1990s, and it seems to be a unifying force right now in the resistance movement spreading across the US in response to the 2016 presidential election.
But what does that have to do with books?
What makes a novel feminist?
In a series of conversations, four young adult authors–Amber J. Keyser, Elana K. Arnold, Mindy McGinnis, and Isabel Quintero–discuss what makes their recent books feminist and why they feel it’s important to give teen readers unvarnished reality in their fiction.
Today, April 11th — Mindy McGinnis and Amber J. Keyser talk about barriers. What happens when a girl smashes up against society’s expectations for what a girl should be?
April 20th — Elana K. Arnold and Isabel Quintero address reproductive rights and the power of depicting sex and abortion in fiction.
HOW TO BE FEMALE
A conversation between Mindy McGinnis, author of THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES, and Amber J. Keyser, author of POINTE, CLAW.
Amber: Let’s talk about Alex first. She’s a character that I can’t stop thinking about. She is about as far from the stereotype of what a girl should be as you can get, and yet she is driven by an experience that is all too common–the victimization of girls by men. Tell us about her.
Mindy: She’s angry, that’s the simple answer. Female rage is something that goes largely unexplored except in a sexualized manner, yet women get pissed – maybe even more so than men. There is nothing more violent in nature than a mother protecting its young. Animals know that – we’ve been socialized away from it.
Mindy: You deal with anger and protective feelings for fellow females as well in POINTE, CLAW, and – like me – chose to couch it in terms of an animalistic nature. What made you decide to take that route?
Amber: I’m trained as an evolutionary biologist and much of my research was on animals. We observe a behavior and then ask questions. What are the evolutionary pressures that would result in that behavior? How does that behavior enhance survival or reproduction? How are multiple behavioral strategies maintained in a population? I brought that perspective to the story. At the same time, I was growing more and more convinced that maintaining highly-social mammals like whales, primates, and elephants, in captivity is immoral. That led me to pose other questions. What is the survival strategy when you have been caged? In an essay I read long ago Alice Walker proposed that if women could not express their true selves then they either go mad or die. All of that came together in POINTE, CLAW. I’m not sure I can even put it into coherent sentences. I had hoped that understanding animals would help me understand humans.
Amber: I’m interested in the contrast of Alex’s underlying violence and her gentleness and competence with animals. It strikes me that both of us have more sympathy for animal nature than human nature. It’s a direct contrast to the Judeo-Christian world, which has so elevated “humanity.” Is there a difference in your mind between human, female, and animal?
Mindy: Not necessarily. For me the inclusion of Alex’s compassion for animals was to show that she is not a sociopath. Killing in defense of others is a choice that she makes, and while she tells herself she doesn’t feel bad about it, the guilt does weigh on her in the end. The difference for her is that animals don’t KNOW better. Animals don’t live in a moral world; humans do.
Mindy: How about you? How did you weigh the more animal nature of one character against the other?
Amber: This idea of a moral world is bouncing around inside my skull. Humans lay such claim to the moral high ground. Or maybe I should be more precise: many men claim a moral high ground, from which they tell girls and women what to do. So much of POINTE, CLAW is about the barriers girls and women face when trying to express their true selves. When they embrace the more animal side of their nature–the lust, the anger, power–society slaps them down. There’s a quote by John Steinbeck on the inside cover of my book: We are no better than the animals; in fact, in a lot of ways we aren’t as good. This guided my writing as I explored the ways humans fail to act morally toward animals and toward each other.
Amber: In an earlier post, Elana and I talked about “unlikeable” female characters. I have a feeling Alex would fall in that category. (I can’t help it… I like her.) The other two female characters in THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES, Branley and Peekay are, at least at the beginning, fit a more “typical” girl stereotype. Can you describe them for us? Both Peekay and Branley push, in different ways against the boxes they are shoved into. Can you talk about that?
Mindy: The vast majority of reaction to Alex from both male and female readers is that they love her. I think she says and does a lot of the things that they *want* to, but are prohibited from doing. Peekay definitely has violent fantasies about things she wishes she could do, but isn’t the kind of person who can – or even should. Branley we don’t see from an internal POV, but the blonde sex-bomb patina chips away and we see her as a real person by the end.
Mindy: This is an interesting dynamic at work in POINTE, CLAW as well. You have an attractive female who is filling a stereotypical role, paired with a girl who is anything but. What do those two have in common?
Amber: Ballet is such a weird thing. You get all these little girls who love their tutus and pink tights and want to grow up to be famous dancers. Often their mothers fuel these dreams, but the dream is impossible. Only a very select few succeed. They’re the ones whose bodies grow in exactly the right way so that the proportion of femur to tibia is perfect, their feet have the right shape, and the length of the Achilles tendon allows the right kind of movement. You can work hard and have great talent but if your body isn’t exactly perfect you will fail to achieve the dream. What a set-up for disaster! In the book, we have Jessie. She is almost perfect, and it’s still not enough to get her to where she wants to be. Dawn is very far from the societal ideal of a “perfect woman.” She’s stocky and queer and butch and completely unconcerned with social niceties. But here’s the deal. Dawn might be 1000 miles away from perfect woman and Jessie is an inch from it, but neither one can hit the mark. That tells me that the whole concept of perfect woman is a complete and utter waste of time. Be “woman” whatever that means to you.
Amber: But let me throw that question right back at you. What do Alex, Peekay, and Branley have in common?
Mindy: They’re all three definitely sexual creatures. Branley has learned how to use her attractiveness and sexual drive – which she definitely has and celebrates, and hooray for her – in a way that gains her power. She’s conventionally beautiful, and has all the elements of sexualization working for her. Jack makes a comment at one point that he misses the girl who rolled her pants up and walked in the creek with him, the girl that was his friend before she figured out that she was cute as hell. I thought it was interesting to throw out there that Branley has figured out her power over men, and she believes it’s her greatest strength because that’s what society has taught her.
Peekay is budding into someone who is more secure in herself physically and wants to explore more sexually, partially in rebellion to her “preacher’s kid” label, but also because she is a sexual being and she wants to have sex. However, because of her upbringing she wants that to be with someone she loves and and trusts, and is planning on losing her virginity to her long-time boyfriend when Branley “steals” him.
Finally, with Alex it was important to me to show that Alex is by no means frigid, or frightened of her sexuality. What happened to her sister is horrific, but she hasn’t allowed it to internalize into an “all men” statement. She trusts Jack – maybe even loves him – and because of this is able to be with him physically in ways he wasn’t necessarily expected, with her having had such trauma in her past. Alex is very much a creature of instinct – and the sexual instinct is strong. She’ll follow that, for sure.
Mindy: You made a bold choice by including female desire in the form of masturbation in your book. Sadly, I can think of very few books that portray female masturbation – and even less in a positive light. What made you decide to include this facet in the narrative?
Amber: Like anger, which you wrote about above, female desire, especially when separate from romantic love, is an underexplored topic. When I was working on THE V-WORD, a nonfiction anthology of personal essays by women about first-time sex, I interviewed author and teen librarian Kelly Jensen about depictions of young women and sex in YA. One of the things she mentioned was how rarely female masturbation is depicted in fiction, especially compared to the frequency of male masturbation. I took that as a personal challenge to work into my next book! But in the context of POINTE, CLAW, the scene where Jessie masturbates and the other short glimpses of both girls touching themselves are absolutely organic. The entire book is about various forms of desire: sexual, creative, a yearning for self-expression, the need to be truly seen, and of course, the desire for freedom. It would be completely weird to explore those things without acknowledging that young women also have sexual desires and can satisfy them in various ways.
Amber: There’s a lot of consensual sex in THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES and also rape and attempted rape. One of the biggest and thorniest issues of growing up “girl” in today’s world is the intersection of sex and violence that even the most feminist of men don’t seem to grasp. Can you talk about how Alex, Peekay, Branley, and Peekay’s gay friend Sara navigate this territory? What does Jack’s perspective add or reveal?
Mindy: Branley as the “hot one” deals with a lot of sexual humor that is aimed at her, like penises drawn on her locker, even rape jokes during a school assembly. Her answer is to ignore, which is always an option, but I wanted the reader to be able to see the anger that percolated in her during these occasions, even if it remained unspoken.
Peekay is drugged and nearly gang-raped, which she reacts to as I think a lot of people do – with disgust, and self-blame. She’s sickened about what nearly happened to her, and can’t help but analyze what role her own actions played in the events.
With Sara – who is a lesbian – I wanted to be clear that she is not eliminated as a possible target for rape because of that. Peekay’s father says as much to her in a family-meeting style sit down. Without putting it too heavily into the text, rape is more about power than it is about sex. Rapists can and do go after young or old, attractive or unattractive, fat or thin, gay or straight. Victims can include pregnant, physically or mentally disabled individuals, even the very elderly. Your own orientation or physical appearance rarely has anything to do with the targeting – rape is a crime of power and opportunity.
For Jack, it was important to me to show a man who is at heart, a great person. There are plenty of expectations on young boys as well as women, and Jack falls into that. He’s supposed to be okay with having casual sex with Branley. He’s supposed to be okay with killing animals in a slaughterhouse for a living. These are masculine traits that he, as an all-American boy, should revel in.
But he doesn’t. Jack questions his actions with Branley and looks for ways to distract himself while at work so he doesn’t have to think too hard about what he’s doing. He wants more out of his life than what is being asked of him. It was also important to me to show Jack and another male step up – out of outrage – when they see what was about to happen to Peekay at a party. They are not okay with that, and make it clear… it’s just that Alex beat them to it
Amber: One of the things that all the female characters in our books have in common (and maybe I’m going out on a limb here but I’m going to say that all women share it) is the ever-present threat of sexual assault. After the Trump pussy-grabbing video came out pre-election, I read an article about how many hetero couples were talking about this issue for the very first time. Even the most feminist of men were shocked at how often the women in their lives experienced sexual assault or lived with the apprehension of sexual assault. Margaret Atwood wrote about how sexual assault has always been a weapon of war and tool of oppression. I wonder what it would be like to live and write in a world where we didn’t have to live under this threat of violence. Honestly, I hate that I am even writing that sentence, but both of our books make the claim that women are fundamentally not safe in this world and that fact shapes how we live our lives, how we interact with each other, and how we inhabit our own bodies.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Mindy McGinnis (THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES) is an Edgar Award-winning author who writes across genres, debuting with a post-apocalyptic duology set in a world with very little water (NOT A DROP TO DRINK & IN A HANDFUL OF DUST), and following that up with a Gothic historical thriller, A MADNESS SO DISCREET. Her first in a fantasy series, GIVEN TO THE SEA, releases April 11th, and a psychological thriller, THIS DARKNESS MINE, releases October 10th.
Mindy runs a blog for aspiring writers at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire, which features interviews with agents, established authors, and debut authors. Learn how they landed their agents, what the submission process is really like, and how it feels when you see your cover for the first time. Mindy recently began hosting a podcast, where authors give listeners straight talk about the publishing industry.
Amber J. Keyser (POINTE, CLAW) is the author of THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), a heart-wrenching novel of loss and survival, which is a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and THE V-WORD (Beyond Words/Simon Pulse, 2016), an anthology of personal essays by women about first-time sexual experiences, which was selected for the New York Public Library’s Best Books for Teens 2016, the Chicago Public Library’s Best Nonfiction for Teens 2016, the Rainbow List, and the Amelia Bloomer List. Find out more about her work at www.amberjkeyser.com and @amberjkeyser.