Feminist Fridays: Sexism in the World of Science Fiction + Diversity in Dystopian Fiction + Badass YA Heroines

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 as well, so contact me!

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Sexism sucks.

I have friends who think that feminism is passé, that it has served its purpose, that its day is long gone. And it saddens me because I regularly find myself fucking immersed in sexism.

There has been a lot of chatter about these two Old White Guys who were pissed that the “warrior woman” cover and their comments in a column were criticized by “lady writers” who just wanted to censor them. Their response attacked “anonymous” critics and bemoaned the discrimination against Old White Guys. They basically made the point that women should keep their icky, girly, romances out of sci-fi, which is for serious dudely writers only.

And the statements from fans that agree with these Old White Guys are really, really disturbing.

I found a scan of the column in question here.

This is why we still need feminism. And why we need “ladies” like Ann Aguirre who will speak openly about their encounters with sexism, even when they are met with terribly offensive comments.

Feminist critiques of the media can be problematic—but that doesn’t mean we should stop.

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I am kind of over dystopian books, but the kids that frequent my library are not. At the end of the school year I featured dystopian/post-apocalyptic books on display, and had to restock it four times over a two week period. Granted, this time last year there wouldn’t have been enough of the genre to fill a display, so perhaps they are less popular (or there are just more titles, which is true). While dystopian/post-apocalyptic books aren’t the rage all over the country (I’ve had librarians tell me that they never had much of a demand beyond The Hunger Games and no one was clamoring for similar titles) in my library, they are still going strong.

The patrons of my library are a diverse crowd, and I see kids from all sorts of ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. It’s awesome to be able to put a book in their hand that features characters that mirror their own identity (at least if that’s what they want; some do, some don’t care).

So I was excited to see a list from Bitch Magazine of YA dystopias that feature POC characters. I’ve only read two of the titles, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with either, but it’s nice to know that they are out there.

I do, however, think it’s important to consider the context and quality of diverse fiction, and not just give it a thumbs up for including diverse characters. Some of the synopsis of these books I find use race in a troubling way.

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And if we should look beyond the existence of diverse characters in YA lit, we should also think critically about the so-called badass female heroines in YA, too.

So what makes a female heroine badass?

Leigh Bardugo and Veronica Roth were talking about them this week in Entertainment Weekly.

BARDUGO: “I’m glad we live in an age of badass heroines, and I think Tris’ toughness feels real to me because she never loses her humanity and because she truly has to grow into her strength.”

“I think in YA there’s sometimes a temptation to create heroines who are infinitely resilient and wise and confident because those are the behaviors we want to see teens embrace and maybe we want to see those things in ourselves. We aren’t always comfortable witnessing real frailty or vulnerability in our heroines, but I like characters who struggle, and doubt, and who don’t always do the wise thing.”

ROTH: “Alina is a great character — her humor is what really struck me, at first, because I don’t see that many leads in YA sci-fi/fantasy with a truly solid sense of humor. She’s also smart and strong, I would say, but she doesn’t suffer from what you’re describing above, that almost superhuman resilience. She’s a strong character who is also insecure a lot of the time, unsure of herself, and she makes big mistakes and errors in judgment throughout the books, and I find that really appealing, as a person who makes big mistakes and errors in judgment myself.”

“Most of the female characters I admire come from science fiction and fantasy, maybe because there’s more permission to shake up gender roles in genre.”

I am not a hug fan of either Roth’s or Bardugo’s debut books, and found their heroines to be…lacking? I’m not sure the best what to characterize my feelings towards them other than “lukewarm.” It’s hard to sometimes say you don’t like widely popular books, especially when you think the authors are generally nice people.

It’s interesting to see the examples they site and their notion of what makes a “strong” or “badass” heroine, because it seems different from mine. When I think of stand out examples of heroines in YA lit, Katsa and Bitterblue from the Graceling Realm series and Isaboe and Quintana from the Lumatere Chronicles. What I love about these ladies is that they are complicated, fierce, determined, and have a strong sense of self.

And the notion of “strong” male characters is YA fiction is never discussed.

I also take issue with the lack of “strong” characters in realistic YA fiction—I think of Eleanor from Eleanor & Park and how hard she had to struggle to survive her horrific life circumstances and how difficult the choice to leave the only person she’d ever loved would have been, or Mia from If I Stay, and how strong she had to be to put her own dreams and goals ahead of a relationship because that’s what she needed, how she went on after losing her entire family and nearly dying herself.

You don’t have to literally kick ass to be a badass character, in my opinion.

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What are your thoughts on sexism in science fiction, diversity in dystopias, or badass female characters? 

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3 thoughts on “Feminist Fridays: Sexism in the World of Science Fiction + Diversity in Dystopian Fiction + Badass YA Heroines

  1. I haven’t read Bardugo’s book (I’m not a fantasy reader), but I have read the first two of Roth’s books (I have no idea why I read the sequel), and I found the main character to be very underwhelming. It seems like she’s labeled as “strong” and “fierce” a lot, but that seems wholly related to her physical fortitude, perhaps, because I didn’t get that feeling. I’m really interested in emotional strength, I guess. When I think about the characters I consider most “badass,” they aren’t necessarily the fiercest fighters or what not (this again probably reflects my reading preferences too), but are instead characters like Carly from Raw Blue and Davey from Tiger Eyes, both of whom have difficult character arcs, but ultimately find the inner strength to move forward in their lives.

    1. I totally agree — I tend to admire emotional strength more than typical “badassness” though of course they aren’t mutually exclusive. I feel like I rant about this all the time — I wrote about it for women’s history month at The Hub — but I still feel like it’s an issue that’s important to discuss.

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