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I’m just a girl? Gender issues in ya lit

“‘Cause I’m just a girl, little ‘ol me
Don’t let me out of your sight
I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite
So don’t let me have any rights” – No Doubt, Just a Girl

I watch the Walking Dead.  I have seen every episode.  Afterwards, I hop online and go to the forums at TWOP (Television Without Pity) to discuss the show.  One very troubling aspect of this show is that in this zombie apocalyptic future, the women do the laundry while the men get the guns and protect the women.  TWD has been widely criticized for its retrograde view of gender roles in a post apocalyptic world.  It’s like Leave it to Beaver, but with zombies.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHzOOQfhPFg]

Recently, Crunching and Munchings brought up the same conversation regarding gender roles in ya dystopian, using Crewel by Gennifer Albin as an example.  You can read their discussion here.  This is such a natural extension of our discussion of ya lit and body image, I thought I would share my two cents.

As a woman, I do have a problem with gender roles in ya literature – all ya literature.  And yet, I do see this return to more “traditional” (though in my view vile) gender roles as being a realistic trait in dystopian literature – especially when you view it in terms of today’s political climate.  In fact, as I mentioned above, it is not just in lit but in all types of post apocalyptic worlds that we see a return to sterotyped gender roles.

Click this link to see the recent gender assignment that @gameism recently shared. In this assignment, students were asked to put the following things into boxes labeled Boys, Girls or Both: Erector sets, Legos, Barbies, Cooking, Arts and Crafts, Bikes, Computers, War video games, Board games, Jump rope, Stomp rockets, Playing school, Puzzles and Swimming.  In my world, they should obviously all be in the both category.

So tet’s examine a few ya lit titles, shall we?

In Crewel by Gennifer Albin, the world is run by a group of men called the Guild, despite the fact that some women have the literal power to weave the world.  Here, women are culturalized to value beauty and spend a great amount of time and effort trying to attain this beauty.  Basically, the men are distracting the women.  It’s easier to control distracted people.  I view this as being very culturally accurate actually; the cosmetics industry spends billions of dollars advertising getting us to spend thousands of dollars a year on cosmetics.  And then there is clothing, diet fads, etc.  It’s easy to get so caught up in how we look in this world that we lose focus on what’s really important.  And trust me, the culture has a lot of (negative) things to say about how we should look if we want to be “pretty”, aka accepted and valued.  If I was going to take over the world, I would definitely use this tactic – it is much less violent; just tap into people’s greatest insecurities and get them to focus on that while you sneak in off the sidelines and slowly chip away at their rights. (Previous discussion: It’s a Crewel World; Gennifer Albin talks Crewel)

Gennifer Albin on Adelice and Beauty: “Adelice’s background growing up with parents who did not wish her to become a powerful Spinster, a mother who disliked the obvious chauvinism in her workplace, and a father who clearly loved and respected his wife, allow her to have a more balanced approach to her own life. She is not dissuaded by cosmetics, clothing, and parties, because she has more self-respect than most girls her age. Her parents showing that they valued each other as well as her and her sister, helped to create this anomalous attitude, which filters into her personality. Whereas someone like Pryana has been groomed to be an ideal Eligible to the point of fostering ruthless ambition in her, Adelice sees herself as an equal to those around her. This causes her problems in interactions with people like Maela and Cormac, who don’t share this belief, but it also enables her easy interactions with boys, whom she doesn’t fear or idolize.”

In Shadow and Bone, there is again an emphasis on beauty that, quite frankly, troubled me and distracted me from the other lush parts of this world created. Here, the privileged class, who also happens to be magical, uses their magical abilities to help each other attain almost perfect beauty standards.  It’s a perfectly good waste of magical abilities if you ask me.  But although I hated this aspect of the book, there is a lot of great stuff here.

In pretty much every paranormal out there the lead female is overly sexualized, so there’s that.  Also, she is always falling in insta-love, usually with a guy you wouldn’t want your best friend dating in real life – because we must have a man to be complete.  I could give you specific examples but just go browse the shelves and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

Then you have books like The Forsaken where the main character initially seems maybe strong and fierce, but when she is sent to a feared place called The Wheel, when she is rejected from her very world and is sent to what is essentially a life or death situation – she falls in love with that dreamy guy over there on like the second day.  Here, she has no idea if she will survive and what the rules could possibly even be – and yet on day two she is swooning over a fellow outcast.  I found this storyline to be so incredibly unbelievable because, let’s face it, in this instance survival and figuring out where you are and how to survive would be your sole concern.  In fact, I view the issue of insta-love as being a side shoot of the gender issues: it sends the message that girls need someone, often even an unhealthy someone – again, I’m looking at your paranormal – in order to be “complete”.

A notable exception in all of this is the lead character in Rae Carson’s series, The Fire and Thorn Trilogy.  Here our main character is overweight and, although she gets in better physical shape over the course of the story, she is never an overly idealized character.  Many of my friends and family have loved books 1 and 2 of this series, in part because the main character is so inspiring, realistic and relatable.

So let’s return back to Crewel, shall we?  I read Crewel as a more feminist piece of literature where our main character, Adelice, eventually grows wise and begins to reject the constructs of her world.  She sees the men in power around her, and the evil that they do in its name, and plots to if not overthrow it, at least find a way to personally escape it (which she does do with the help of two male allies, but they have become friends to some extent and they have inside information that she needs).  To me, there was a turning away from this notion that men are the leaders that has the tremendous potential to be followed through with the next book.  In fact, this was definitely a more promising storyline in Crewel than in some of the other dystopians that I have recently read.  It is hard for me to judge the gender issues of this book alone because it is clearly a central issue of the trilogy and it is just being set up in book 1. (You can read my full review of Crewel, which I loved, here.)

But why this return to gender stereotypes?  My primary guess would be because they accurately represent the world we are currently living in.  Today we have presidential candidates talking about binders full of women and how he lets his female staff go home early so they can cook dinner for their families (he has obviously never tasted my cooking).  Our elected representatives are vetoing legislation asking that women receive the same amount of pay for doing the same job because, well, it apparently would be too hard on businesses to treat women the same as men.  And there is a vast war going on regarding a woman’s right to make reproductive health decisions for herself.  In short, we still very much live in a man’s world.  And make no mistake about it, if a huge apocalypse happens, there are a lot of people out there who would love to take advantage of the situation to seize power and put women in “their place.”

So when I see this type of world building in ya dystopians, I see it as being an accurate reflection of what is the most probable scenario.  That doesn’t mean I like it.  But it does make for some great discussion in book clubs.

Let’s take for a moment and evaluate the very realistic post-apocalyptic world of Mike Mullin’s Ashfall to get a better look at what would probably happen. (Insert obligatory spoiler warning here) In this disturbingly realistic account, all rules of law have broken down and it is quite literally a matter of self-survival.  The strongest and best armed survive and take control.  Men rape women.  I don’t like it, but history seems to suggest that this is indeed what would happen. The world becomes a dangerous place in the absence of rule of law.  That is part of what makes Ashfall such a disturbing (although good) read, you can imagine this happening; it often seems like we are one super volcano away from this reality.  Also, the girl in this book, Darla, is pretty badass and essential to her and Alex’s survival. (Want another example of a nuanced look at the roles of women in a zombie apocalypse? Check out the Ashes trilogy by Ilsa J. Bick.  Alex is tempted but makes awesome choices.)

Which is why I want to see more feminist tendencies in my ya lit.  I want there to be a strong message to our developing teens: you are more than your body, you control your destiny, you are an important part of the whole.  You do not need a man.  This is not always the case unfortunately.  We do over-emphasize looking certain ways (both in our stories and on our covers), our girls fall in love with the first cute guy they see (even when they have controlling or sadistic tendencies), and far too many of them still have to be saved instead of being the ones saving themselves.

At the end of the day, we are still sending very strong cultural messages of what girls are supposed to be in the books we read, the tv we watch, and even in our classroom assignments.  We even use the idea of being a girl as an insult: “you throw like a girl”, “don’t cry like a girl”.  These insults suggest that there is something wrong, something less than, with being a girl.  At the end of the day, I want teen girls to know that they and they lone get to define who they are – and they have value.

I am the mom of a tween.  She spends time doing her hair and wears foofoo dresses every Sunday to church.  She also goes to Karate three nights a week and asked for a Science set for Christmas.  She plays with Barbies, but she also plays with Legos (the real ones, not those new pink ones that emphasize shopping and once again tried and uncultured girls to a certain dictated standard of femininity).  She reads Origami Joda and Wimpy Kid with her Judy Moody and Ivy and Bean.  Nobody puts baby in a corner, and nobody should be putting her in a box either.  Think of how much potential our girls have and let them explode outside the box – you never know what kind of things they can accomplish.

You cand download this poster at https://www.box.com/s/kvvgnd4z5xlrlrpq4uj4

What ya lit do you feel has strong female messages for our tweens and teens?  What do you feel are some of the worst gender role/stereotyping issues that you see in ya lit? Tell us in the comments.


  1. This is such a problem… And I wish I had a good title recommendation. I have two daughters, one tween, one teen, and this is an uphill battle. I'm hoping as trends move away from vampires and dystopia, we'll see stronger female leads.

  2. Hey, i want to read the orange poster, but it's too small on my screen, and I can't find it on the web site – do you have a bigger link?

  3. I meant, direct link – more coffee!

  4. If you click on the poster it should take you directly to TE post are Girl Effect.org

  5. I agree so much! A problem I've been having with teen fantasy/dystopia/paranormal fiction lately is the main (female) character not believing in herself until the pretty boy love interest TELLS her how awesome she is. I noticed this most recently in Divergent. Very frustrating (though it was great to discuss that factor with my teen book group!)

  6. Yes!

  7. I think it is an issue in more than just paranormal/dystopian fiction. One of my biggest issues with a certain sparking vampire series is that the female lead completely subsumes her identity, such as it is, to be the wife of a centuries old being who shouldn't be the least bit interested in her. It is a textbook unhealthy relationship. And it isn't just a “girl” issue. How many YA books feature smart, confident men who aren't handsome/supernatural/sports gifted? The male characters, especially in the romantic novels, tend to be “bad boys” who are reformed by the good girl – after compromising her values/dreams/self worth. 'Everneath' by Ashton Brodie is a perfect example of this on both the male and female side. On the surface I enjoyed the story, but the main character has to “save” the male lead by having sex with him. Even though she isn't really ready for that. It ruined the book as far as I'm concerned.
    What is so hard about representing healthy relationships in YA lit? I know that unhealthy relationships bring more tension to the story and provide more fodder for the tale, but couldn't we see some healthy relationships between secondary characters?

  8. All true and excellent points. One of the reasons I love The Downside of Being Charlie by Jenny Torres Samchez is because it is about a regular guy. I have had a post about guys in ya brewing in my head for a while now. Soon we shall write it. Love this discussion, thank you.

  9. I've been really interested in this discussion. While I enjoyed Crewel, the gender aspects troubled me. While I wanted to read it as a feminist text, I didn't feel like the gender roles were critiqued, so much as normalized. No one ever explicitly challenged the social arrangements. Maybe it's coming in the sequels. The emphasis on ball gowns in both it and Shadow and Bone disturbed me, and it crops up everywhere. And then I saw a review from a book blogger who I really respect and generally share the same taste in books with say they enjoyed Graceling except for the “radical feminist agenda.”

    I'm glad these kind of discussion are taking place.

  10. I felt that Adelice's parents were raising her against those cultural beliefs, but by in a way that made clear sense to Adelice, in part I imagine because their thinking was so revolutionary it made them criminals. How do you teach a child not to think what are basically seditious thoughts without putting hem at tremendous risk because they don't fully understand the very large political ramifications of the world around them. To me, she is only 16 which means there are some cognitive issues in place and I would say some parental protection going on; like, you don't want to overly traumatize your child with such a dark, bleak view of their world. This book is one of the few dystopians I can think of where the parents were against the government – perhaps Matched was another? I think when Adelice went on “tour” with the Guild guy she started to slowly having a waking up and seeing what her parents were trying to protect her from. There is definite potential out there to make a stronger feminist statement in this series than some of the others I have read. I think they all show though how culturally we still view women as this is the go-to world building dynamic that we see. And I have totally had enough of the ball gowns and pretty dresses. Like you, I am interested in seeing where this goes. I am so las you commented on the topic my feminist friend 🙂

  11. I really liked the Wolves of Mercy Falls series for showing healthy romances, with the secondary characters realizing that they were falling into bad traps and trying to avoid them. And I thought in Shadow and Bone that Alina's being prettied up magically was rare – it sounded like just using magic made most of them more beautiful every day. Not sure if that's less disturbing, though.

  12. I haven't read it yet, but I want to check out A Girl Named Digit because it features a girl using her brain to save the day, instead of mystical powers that she has Just Because. Don't Turn Around by Michelle Gagnon has a fierce hacker teen girl protag.

    But neither of these are sf/fantasy. What do y'all think about Bitterblue?

  13. Hi! Are you familiar with the Amelia Bloomer Project (http://ameliabloomer.wordpress.com/)? I've been on the committee going on 2 years, and it's just incredible. It's our mission to identify books with strong feminist content for young readers. Crewel is up as a nomination this year, I'm sure there will be lots of great discussion about it. You can find last year's list here: http://ameliabloomer.wordpress.com/2012-bloomer-list/.

  14. I am (former Bloomer, 2005-2011 lists), and Amelia Bloomer Project is wonderful! Glad to see that Crewel and other wonderful books are up for the list, and excited to see what makes the 2013 list at ALA Midwinter!

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