For a long time, my husband and I have had a running joke about how I didn’t know I was beautiful until I met him. After all, if I were to believe many young adults or even adult books featuring female characters, this was the ideal. The way I was supposed to feel, as the ugly duckling who doesn’t become a swan until a boy meets her and shows her her true beauty. In fact, as of late, it has become so pervasive within YA that I am frankly surprised when it doesn’t happen. How dare a girl have self-esteem without it being spoonfed to her by a love interest?
And for a while there, it was funny; how could so many stories published by many different writers share these same stereotypical plot lines? How could so many young girls not know their own value until someone, typically their love interest, informs them otherwise? How many times can a girl speak up and no one believes her, listens to her, or even takes her seriously? And don’t get me started on stories where girls repeatedly say no to cute boys, overly involved friends, or even adults who need them to do just one more thing only to be steamrolled or guilted into doing it otherwise. Sure, we laughed about it at my house, until I once more realized that for the young people reading these books, these stories are presented as “realistic fiction.” As the way the world should be, as the way things are.
When viewed through this lens, this is just straight scary.
And here’s the thing, we may not be the ones writing the stories, (and how these are repeatedly getting published once again shows a lack of concern for the portrayal of females within the publishing industry), but we are the ones that purchase them, that book talk them, that place them in our libraries as just another YA book and don’t even think about the message that these books may be sending to kids about how they really should be to be accepted. That’s on us.
And so these books, in their repetitive storytelling start to share a common message:
I didn’t know I was beautiful until he told me.
I said no, but he persuaded me otherwise.
I am weak but he made me strong.
I speak up for myself but no one listens or I am called a bitch for doing so.
I am a fierce female except for when it comes to men, then my emotions weaken me and I become indecisive and lost… (Looking at you Divergent…)
When we tell girls, or any kid for that matter, that they need to feel ugly for them to be truly beautiful, we are telling them that low self-esteem is a quality to strive for. When we repeatedly make the bitchy character the most beautiful kid in school, we teach kids that to be pretty means to be a horrible person. And don’t you dare think you have worth unless someone has told you so.
When we constantly make girls weak, who say no but then say yes a little bit later because after all, what is the big deal, then we are teaching boys to keep asking and girls to relent.
When we constantly show the girl who is traumatized being saved by a boy through his love then we are telling girls that they cannot save themselves.
And we wonder why we live in a culture that doesn’t believe the victims when they say #MeToo (and yes, ME TOO here).
As readers of these books. As teachers who book talk. As people who share book titles, we must do more when it comes to the portrayal of females or any gender child and the cliches of YA. It may not seem like a big deal but these are the books my students read to find out who they want to be. These are the books my students read to see how to navigate their social situations. And while I try to place only books that go past these stereotypes, I don’t always. They are there in our library being read and shared because the rest of the story may be good. And yet, what is unconsciously being submitted to all of my students who read these? And how am I counteracting it?
I read a lot of books. I also abandon a lot of books, leaving them unread and unrated, as I am not here to tell others of books that didn’t work for me. And yet, I wonder if I am doing others a disservice when I don’t speak up? When I don’t ask publishers to reconsider? When I don’t ask authors why they wrote it? Is it because we feel like others before us should have done so? Is it because we worry that we will come off as censoring? Yet, isn’t every book decision just that – a way to build our collection and not place in certain titles? And so that’s what I will ponder. What more can we do as readers when we see books once again perpetuate the female character as weak, as ugly, as needing to be saved, as needing to be persuaded? What more can we do as adults when we know how damaging these types of narratives being repeated can be? Do we just hope that our students will know better or do we start to raise our voices?
I, for one, am sick of holding my tongue.
I hope you have read Anne Ursu’s article describing sexual harassment within the kidlit industry, it has weighed heavily on my mind all weekend and this post is a direct result of that.
I also hope you read Jillian Heise’s post on consent, I saw the same problematic portrayal in the picture book she described and yet did not speak out but instead did not recommend or share the book. I am glad she did, I should have as well.