Feminist Fridays: Sex and Gender in YA Fiction

I find I’m always interested in feminist perspectives, whether it’s in regards to literature, pop culture, or current events. Feminist Fridays is going to be my forum for discussing these issues, and may come in the form of book (or other media) reviews, link roundups, or my rambling thoughts essays. If you’d like to make a habit of discussing feminist issues on Fridays, join in and leave me a link. If you’d like to contribute a guest post for Feminist Fridays, I’d be happy to chat with you about that was well, so contact me!

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There are a few interesting posts I wanted to discuss this week: both have to do with sex and gender in YA fiction.

I’m continually surprised by how often discussion of sex comes up at work, but I guess it makes sense. I have parents ask about how explicit the sex is in certain books so they can decide if it’s  appropriate for their kid. We’ve read several titles that deal with sex (to varying degrees) in book club, and I’ve been impressed with the maturity and frankness that the entire group exhibits when it comes up in discussion. When talking about books with teens, I’ve found that it’s often led to discussions not just of sex, but of healthy relationships and slut-shaming.

Now, when I was a Real Actual Teen, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with these types of conversations (seriously, my own mother called me a prude) but women’s studies courses and volunteering with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault has made me much more comfortable talking about sex. Reading books (and a variety of books) helped, too.

I came across two posts this week about writing sex in YA fiction from authors who have different takes on the subject. Malinda Lo’s post is in response to Carrie Mesrobian’s post. While Mesrobian led a talk with her editor about how YA authors should approach sex in their writing, she argued that writing about sex is a political act, that writers must acknowledge the influence of porn on teenage sexuality in the internet age, and implored authors not to not shy away from mechanics, and to go boldly into those cringe-inducing places where sex so often resides.

Lo contends that not all teenage sexual experience are awkward and uncomfortable, therefore it’s problematic to assume so based on personal experience. She argues that the approach to sexuality should be more about the character than the author. She also points out that while some experiences may seem awkward or embarrassing in retrospect, as a teenager living in the moment, they most likely aren’t.

Sex is complicated, and I think both should be represented in YA lit—the romanticized version, and the gritty reality; the awkward and the swoon-worthy. There’s no reason why both can’t exist. I also think there’s plenty of space for more YA fiction that has less sex in it. For every request I get to help a patron find a steamy paranormal romance, I have someone looking for something without an excess of mushy, romantic scenes.

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Earlier this month a tweet led to Maureen Johnson’s coverflip project, where she asked people to reimagine book covers if the author had been the opposite gender to prove a point about the way books are marketed based on the genders of the author and the gender of the perceived audience for the book. I thought it was great to start this conversation about the way we perceive the quality/style/audience of fiction by the gender of the author and/or audience  but the results seemed to just be reinforcing the same stereotypes about the way we think about gender and what appeals to certain demographics of readers. I did like Johnson’s response in the HuffPost (this post also links to a lot of the coverage of the Coverflip project…) but I still thought there was more to the conversation that hadn’t been introduced yet. I love her ideas for librarians and teachers, but still, it didn’t seem to address the root of the problem.

Actually, I tried to write a post about this topic for Feminist Fridays last week, but had trouble sorting through my thoughts and ended up not posting anything. It happens.

Then, I came across this post from Rachel Stark that articulated a lot of my feelings on the Coverflip project. Because this is about more than just book covers, this is about the way we privilege masculinity and the way we perceive gender across the board with regards to more than just books. I encourage you to read the entire post, but here’s the kicker:

So that’s what I encourage you to do today: sit down and think about what you believe to be good, and attractive, and literary, and valuable. Think about what you consider to be masculine and feminine. And then try to figure out why you think that, and try to challenge yourself on it. Decide for yourself what is for you. Decide for yourself what has value. And go support that in whatever aspect of the publishing industry you participate in. Meanwhile, support others in their choices so that they, too, can be empowered to define themselves as individuals whose values and interests are not determined by their gender or biological sex. And subvert the hell out of any stereotype you see. 

Because it’s only through every single one of us doing that, in every single corner of the industry we inhabit, that anything is ever going to change.”

So yeah. Let’s do that all that.

This is about way more than just covers. When I’m recommending books to teens, I try to ask open ended questions: What was the last book you loved? What do you like? What don’t you like? Then I recommend based on these answers rather than my pre-conceived notions of what the person in front of me wants to read based on their gender (or other characteristics). If they have a negative reaction to the cover, I challenge them to read a few pages and then decide if they want to continue or not. I do my best to set aside my own opinions about what is “good” and “right” for them. (I’m not gonna lie, sometimes this is hard…)

Publishing companies aren’t trying to undermine feminism or support patriarchy; they’re trying to sell books. Am I sick of flowy dresses on book covers? YES. Does taking them away change the underlying problem? NO. Let’s challenge ourselves to confront our own internalized misogyny.

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2 thoughts on “Feminist Fridays: Sex and Gender in YA Fiction

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful article. I always appreciate when I discover books that are frank and plausible when it comes to teenage relationships in literature.

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