In order to critique it, we’re going to have to show it

I am always saddened to hear that some teacher or librarian is in trouble because of something I have written. They are the true heroes in my mind. But I have come to believe that if a book has power, it will always have the power to offend someone. I don’t want to write books that have no power to move or inspire the reader. 

Katherine Paterson

RACIST MAIN CHARACTERS

HARRY POTTER AS CASE STUDY

Attitudes are changing, and children’s literature is an excellent barometer with which to measure these changes.

Rowling’s Harry Potter series has been so popular it has attracted plenty of academic critique over the past 20 years. (Academics fail to come up with any inherent reason why this series took off while others didn’t.) With a long-running series like Harry Potter, Rowling seemed to accommodate societal changes as she wrote.

A good example of this is in her ‘alimentary racism’, a term proposed by Elspeth Probyn, quoted below by Carolyn Daniel:

Elspeth Probyn refers to Westerners’ unquestioning derision of the food choices of other cultures as ‘alimentary racism’. J.K. Rowling promises an alimentary racist discourse in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Ron Weasley views food that is not British with suspicion:

“What’s that?” said Ron, pointing at a large dish of some sort of shellfish stew that stood beside a large steak-and-kidney pudding.

“Bouillabaisse,” said Hermione.

“Bless you,” said Ron.

“It’s French,” said Hermione. “I had it on holiday, summer before last, it’s very nice.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” said Ron, helping himself to black pudding.

Ron’s closed-mindedness is crushing. He dismisses the bouillabaisse as other along with those who eat it, including Hermione. Her experience is dismissed within the subtext as it is within the larger context of the Harry Potter series … Humor is evoked (mainly for adult readers) by the irony of Ron’s unsophisticated dismissal of bouillabaisse in favour of “black pudding”, a sausage made with pig’s blood. Within Rowling’s narrative even the name of the French dish is constructed as the sign of a disease.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Carolyn Daniel clearly has no time for Ron’s distaste for French food. Here’s the problem faced by contemporary children’s writers: If storytellers give a character a moral shortcoming (in this case, distaste for foreign things, or perhaps for unfamiliar things in general), will this blow back onto the author? Will the audience assume the creator of this character shares their moral shortcomings?

Criticism of authors creating unpleasant characters seems to depend on a few factors, and I’ve noticed authors distance themselves as much as possible from wrong worldviews:

  • It depends if the character has been deliberately written as sympathetic. Writers sometimes weasel their way out of this one (e.g. Vince Gilligan) by saying that if the audience sides with an unpleasant character, that’s on the audience, not on the writer. But there is such a well-worn stable of tricks that storytellers use to create audience empathy that I don’t believe writers get a free pass on that one, even if we do think the best of our audience and hope they make up their own minds.
  • It depends also on whether a character is punished for their wrong (racist/sexist/ableist views). Punishment in the old-fashioned corporal sense is out. However, punishment still happens in any story when a character does not get what they want.
  • It depends on whether there is narrative complicity. This is my biggest problem with Ron’s distaste for French food: It is played for laughs. This scene uses similar comedy to the jellybean scene on the train, in which disgusting food is presented, and we watch the characters’ reactions to it. The reader is therefore invited, alongside Ron, to despise French food.

Yet Catherine Tate, creating a skit for adults, is clearly mocking the same attitude:

Are the rules different for children’s writers? Perhaps. But there’s more going on here. This couple exist as flat characters. We only see them in this particular scenario. There hasn’t been a build-up in which the audience is invited to empathise.

So the rule may be this: Empathetic characters in children’s stories are flawed, but that flaw cannot be racism, sexism, ableism or anything else serious like that. I suspect this is a rule because I fail to think of a single example of a deliberately written racist, sexist or ableist main character in contemporary children’s stories.

Then again, who’s to say which characters have been deliberately written in that way? Only an author knows that, and no one is likely to admit on record that they accidentally wrote a racist character because they themselves were unconsciously racist while writing him.

THE SHINING AS A CASE STUDY

I’ll offer the Twitter thread without further comment. Except to say this discussion is interesting because it’s a discussion that never happened (at least publicly) until recently.

SEXIST MAIN CHARACTERS

Let’s more now from unconcious racism to sexism.

Referring to “feminism” in the singular implies erroneously that what is actually a polymorphous and polyvocal set of theories, movements, and political actions has a unified number of principles. This is far from the case, but because referring to those sets of principles that advocate women’s issues as “feminisms” is stylistically cumbersome, [let’s] use the term “feminism” herein.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, notes to the preface of Waking Sleeping Beauty

There are many views on how to make the world a better place. This also applies to children’s stories. You’d be hard-pressed to find a children’s writer who deliberately aims to write a gender repressive story. Children’s writers are a left-leaning crew, and so are publishing industry professionals.

What makes for a feminist children’s story?

Here’s the short answer:

Genuinely feminist writers create genuinely feminist children’s stories.

If you are a woke feminist this is going to show in your work. That’s all you need to do.

Or is it?

The answer gets more complex than that, because like building a computer program, like editing a piece of writing — like making any changes to any big project — if you go out of your way to be feminist, unintended consequences can arise.

Here are my reading, writing and critiquing experiences lately:

  1. Certain popular stories widely hailed as feminist triumphs look to me to be no such thing. I often feel quite alone in my response to a text, reading through other people’s reviews online. I often find myself thinking, “How can everyone not see how terrible this is? How?”
  2. The concept of ‘the strong female character’ has become increasingly problematic (though it never wasn’t).
  3. If you’ve ever tried writing a non-sexist story, you may have noticed that your right-minded wish to address certain anti-woman ideas causes fresh problems.

THE PROBLEM OF REVISIONIST HISTORY

If you’re writing a story set in earlier times, girls and women normally didn’t go anywhere or do anything because they weren’t afforded that freedom. Writers can either write disproportionately about the few who went forth regardless, or they can rely on tricks like dressing girls up as boys.

IS IT SEXIST IF A GIRL DRESSES UP AS A BOY TO ACHIEVE HER GOAL OR GO ON AN ADVENTURE?

@Bhvide asks:

Is the girl hides her gender to become a knight/mage/falconer etc” story one that kids/teens are interested in anymore? I found them freeing — being able to see myself fighting actively against traditional gender roles. But maybe those stories are too old fashioned now? As a publisher of SFF, I do not have skin in this particular game. But I am VERY curious.

Replies brought up the following problems:

It would be nice for the girl to become a knight without having to hide her gender and in a dress even.

I think it depends on how it addresses the inherent possibilities of trans/homophobia in it (i.e. I feel like there’s traditionally that element of the “reveal” where the love interest is all OH THAT EXPLAINS THINGS)?

Plus also how the whole “not like other girls” thing is addressed — one thing I remember always loving about the Alanna books was how she found friendship with other women & learned to appreciate their traditional femininity even if it wasn’t what she wanted.

It always made me super uncomfortable, esp. when framed as “oh yay I DON’T like men” — I think in general those stories are still relevant tho when they’re less “must disguise to succeed” & more “exploring traditional femininity/masculinity & gender identity, especially in gendered roles”

Honestly, it usually feels very contrived and I feel the stories would have more impact if ‘fighting gender roles’  didn’t mean ‘imitating another gender to fit in.’ Also echoing what others have said about trans/homophobic content— I’ve seen that done badly more often than well.

THE REALITY OF BINARY GENDER ROLES

An excellent case study can be found in feminist responses to Disney movies such as Snow White and Cinderella.

By real world standards, Cinderella is an abused victim. The ScreenPrism video below argues that Cinderella is a role model in overcoming extreme adversity, and that it is victim-blaming to criticise her for being weak.

Moving now to Snow White.

Camp One: Snow White is a frustrating character because she is so nice and good and kind to the male characters, unable to see past the restrictions of her gender and therefore a poor role model for contemporary girls.

Camp Two: Snow White is an excellent role model because she is so nice and good and kind and good at work that really does need doing, like needle work and cleaning the house. Girls aren’t going to be using her as that kind of role model. Both boys and girls can learn from her kindness.

Those camps don’t exactly cancel each other out, either. We’ve now got a landscape of literature which includes a disproportionate number of girl characters who love archery and soccer, which is fine, okay, but they also tend to despise anything pink and purple, girl toys, helping their mother in the kitchen, or anything associated with girldom. These characters are basically femme phobic. The most recent crop of girl heroes tend to have a few typically masculine interests alongside some girly ones, to off-set this accusation. Fancy Nancy is one of the few popular  characters who embraces her fully feminine side, and I expect very few boys are reading those. Which raises the question: Is that okay, actually?

In effect, if writers want decent sales of their work, and they choose to write female main characters, those characters are not allowed to be too girly. In fact, if any boys are going to be reading books about girls at all, she’s probably a ‘tom boy’. She’s also likely to be very smart, and perhaps better at archery than your typical boy, in a role with Northrop Frye would call high mimetic — just a little more superhero than your average child. Low mimetic girls are unusual.

A good recent example of the high mimetic ‘dream girl’ is Bella from the latest Beauty and the Beast from Disney. Bella is very talented mechanically:

I do, however, feel bound to point out that Belle’s invention is a washing machine, a contraption she rigs up to a horse, to do her domestic work while she teaches another, miniature feminist how to read. The underlying message baked into this pie is that laundry is women’s work, which the superbly clever woman will delegate to a horse while she spreads literacy. It would be better if she had used her considerable intellect to question why she had to wash anything at all, while her father did nothing more useful than mend clocks. It’s unclear to me why anyone in this small family needs to know the time.

So, you take a classic heroine and you strip her of her stereotypes: she is no longer weak and pliable, pleasing and emollient, cute and girly. But now you have to put some other stuff in there and – presto! – she is an adventurer and a bookworm, a dreamer, a nurturer, a person who may not be able to pick a lock on her own but can definitely put her hands on a tool for when a man wants to pick a lock. The problem is that all her new traits are pretty saccharine, so she still reads as a traditional heroine, just with bits missing. 

The opposite of a damsel in distress is not a damsel with a plan, it’s a damsel with a sense of humour.

Review of Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson

THE PROBLEM OF ‘STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS’

‘Strong’ is meant to be a shorthand for ‘well-rounded’. ‘Strong’ means to give a girl her own character arc rather than bolster that of a boy. But too often the word is taken literally, in which we take a classic male action hero and give him secondary sex characteristics. Voila, now we have a character who… continues to appeal to a typically male sensibility, and does nothing to add to a corpus of literature in which the female perspective is represented.

The idea that girls and women must be depicted as ‘strong’ as in good, moral, upstanding, caring and as models for young readers was perhaps at its height in the late 1990s:

The Sea Witch, in the Disney cartoon film of The Little Mermaid, takes the form of a tentacular polyp. Serpentine she-monsters also appear in comics—but mostly those with an adult or at least young-adult readership. They are not, however, susceptible to reform to the same utopian degree as male beasts but tend to a static,  indeed archetypal fixity, as in the case of the wicked stepmother and the wicked witch. Yet sensitivity to obvious misogyny has helped to tilt monstrosity’s gender from female to male. Anxiety about negative representations of women and girls has rolled them back from recent mainstream entertainments—Disney’s Sea Witch and Cruella de Vil from The Hundred and One Dalmatians being alluring exceptions. [I’d also add Ruby Deagle from Gremlins.] The reflex of these recent blockbuster movies, which have been and will be seen by several millions of children, clearly results from the women’s movement of the 1960s, whose members have grown up and as mothers and grandmothers have decisive spending power. (The wicked stepmother of ‘Cinderella’ or the wicked queen in ‘Snow White’ would be sent back for a rewrite, and Milton’s baroque glorying in his vision of Sin as a foul mother would not pass the Disney Corporation’s rules of representation today.) But this account of feminist achievement fails to take the temperature of contemporary misogyny accurately. ‘Adult Only’ material does not offer such a reassuringly sensitive picture: the siren, harpy and gorgon still prowl, inwardly monstrous even if outwardly lovely, through many successful movies like Fatal Attraction (1987) and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1991), as well as thriving in lurid corners of the horror and porn video industry, where cannibal schoolgirls and vampires rampage. It is nevertheless a symptom of the changing face of monsters that the Disney cartoon Hercules (1997) does not draw attention to the indisputable femaleness of the Hydra in Greek but refers to her as ‘it’ and dubs her voice with bestial snarls, hisses and blasts. (In the accompanying merchandise, ‘Terrifying Hydra’ comes Jabberwocky-like, with ‘Pop-up Evil Heads!’ and ‘Biting Jaws!'”: ‘Chop off head and 3 Grow back!’ urges the selling line.) Megara, the film’s siren-like heroine, is given the name of a sinister Greek Fate, portrayed as the spellbound daughter of Hades and sent to do her father’s fatal work on earth. But she becomes subject to a benevolent metamorphosis, and is cured of wickedness by love: the redemptive promise of fairy tale turning decisively against the Greek myth that cast sea monsters’ female bodies as the engines of perpetual death.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman, which was published 1998

THE PROBLEM OF VOICE

Feminine silence is a huge problem, from picture books up: Girl characters don’t get to talk as often as boy characters, and that’s on top of the fact there are way more male-coded characters in the first place. There is a long history of the silencing of women, but when I talk about a 1:3 ratio of girls to boys, I’m talking about 2018.

As antidote, there are plenty of female characters in middle grade fiction who have a lot to say. You’ll find them described in reviews as ‘feisty’, even though a male equivalent would not be marked that way. These girls tend to be the granddaughters of Ramona Quimby.

But these girls tend to get into trouble precisely because of their voice, and by the time they reach adolescence they’ve learned to shut up entirely. Well, the middle grade characters themselves never age, but these characters are all but absent from young adult fiction. I have seen literary agents asking for them, wondering where they are.

Why aren’t writers writing these girls? There must be a good reason. Vocal teenage girls are not ‘likeable’. They’re not ’empathetic’. They stop being funny and start to irritate. That feeling of irritation, by the way, is a description of our reactions to them — it’s not inherent in the girls themselves. These characters are also, frankly, a little unrealistic. A far more common experience for girls is that they do learn to keep quiet by the time they’re in senior high school.  Also, learning when to speak and when to keep quiet is part of everyone’s cycle of maturity. And vocal silence does not mean someone is powerless — they might have a powerful inner voice or imagination or creative life:

‘Silence’ as a noun is not necessarily a bad thing. Patricia Laurence notes that women sometimes adopt ‘a stance of silence’ through which they are able to find their voices. Moreover, ‘…women’s silence, viewed from the outside, is a mark of absence and powerlessness’; however, if ‘the same silence is viewed from the inside, and women’s experiences and disposition of mind inform the standard of what is real, then women’s silence can be viewed as a presence, and as a text, waiting to be read’.  Indeed, speech cannot not exist by itself; in order for a speaker to be effective, he/she must be heard. The speaker and listener come together, then, in creating this ‘ritual of truth,’ and ‘…there is a power in listening or in not listening, as well as in speaking or in not speaking’ as shown by Elinor’s transformation into a bear.

from a paper on Pixar’s Brave

Trites makes an important distinction between ‘enforced’ and ‘chosen’ silence. In other words, agency is key:

While the capacity to embrace silence is certainly a necessary component of maturity, the difference between enforced and chosen silence is a monumental one. Self-imposed silence presumes the subject has access to speech. But those who are denied speech, denied language, are also denied their full potential as humans; they are denied community.  Language and its articulation provides [girl characters] with the strength they need to participate as full members of their communities so that in the future their silences will be self-affirming, not self-limiting.

Waking Sleeping Beauty, Roberta Seelinger Trites

THE BELIEF THAT FEMINISM IS FOR GIRLS

But where are the stories about boys (aimed at boys) learning to move over and let girls speak? That would make for an excellent feminist story. Not enough male characters undergo their own feminist awakening. The work of feminism, even in fiction, is overwhelmingly the work of girls.

THE PROBLEM OF OVERT AND DIRECT FEMINIST IDEOLOGY

First, overt is the inverse of covert. Direct is the inverse of indirect. When talking about ideology, those are two separate axes.

When it comes to race, picture books such as The Snowy Day were groundbreaking in their depiction of a child of colour in a story that wasn’t about race. It was just a little boy, written in the universal, going about his day. Feminist writers face a similar issue — girls must often fight against the restrictions of their gender before getting on with their lives. In fact, their character arc may be specifically a gendered one: learning to get on in a world of boys and men; finding her voice though the culture wants to silence her. Boys get to face all sorts of problems, but girls disproportionately have to fight the patriarchy first.

FEMINIST DILEMMA: If we pretend everything’s equal from the get-go, if we ignore the reality of gendered treatment. We then risk writing a ‘strong female character’ (in a bad way).

THE PROBLEM OF ENTERTAINMENT VS FEMINIST DIDACTICISM

I face this problem a lot, as a reader and viewer. Mad Men is a classic example: I recommended Mad Men to various female friends because it was a well-written show with an unusually wide array of varying story structures each episode. I recommended Breaking Bad, as well. But I learned about the significant proportion of women who can’t watch these shows as entertainment because of the misogyny. Mad Men showcased sexism as much as it raised awareness. Skyler White and her sister Marie were written to be unsympathetic (regardless of what the writers say they intended).

When we ask girls to read stories which showcase girls overcoming gender problems, we are also alerting them to gender problems. We’re trying to show them how to rise above it, right? Is this entertainment, really? It’s exhausting. No wonder girls turn to Twilight in large numbers. At no point does your typical paranormal romance ask you to consider how you’re going to rise above your station in the world.

THE CONTRADICTION OF WOKE FANTASY

Speaking of paranormal romance, to what extent can writers expect readers to bring their wokeness to the story?

Some stories rely on the readers’ ability to see characters’ bad behaviour for what it is. Do readers understand Edward Cullen’s pattern of coercive control? Do they enjoy it as a pure fantasy, or do they unconsciously yearn for it in their real relationships with real young men? Readers are individuals. Some are woke; some are not — many are not woke yet but will be by middle age. Some young readers will see Edward for who he really is; others won’t. Other readers are so traumatised by realworld realities of domestic homicides that Twilight could never function as pure entertainment, and we don’t quite understand how it could.

Are some readers better able to put realities aside and sink into fantasy? When we write terrible fantasy boyfriends, are we giving girls a gift, or are we perpetuating terrible patterns which indirectly contribute to the cycle of gendered violence?

THE HURDLE OF LIKEABILITY

Any female politician or CEO will say, sometimes after she’s stood down, that the balancing act between likeability and strength is absolutely exhausting for a woman. The same standards are applied to fictional female characters. Readers hold girls to higher standards. We therefore have disproportionately few female villains. The bad girls we do see tend to be stereotypes. There are plenty of mean-girls, plenty of witchy mothers, but we are missing that in-between character — the Greg Heffley. Could we ever have a female Greg Heffley? His girl counterparts in MG graphic novels tend to go out of their way to seem nice. They’re given Save the Cat moments, are well-intentioned and though they may struggle with emotional regulation they are people young readers might choose as fun friends. Greg Heffley is a terrible friend but this makes for a great comic character.

So do writers create likeable girls because otherwise readers will throw the book away in disgust, or do we just write boys if we’d like to write comedy? Look at the numbers and most writers are going the latter route.

WHAT ABOUT THE BOYS?

Here’s something that’s been bothering me for ages. The so-called crisis in boy literacy. I call it a so-called crisis because there is no real crisis. After graduation, young men are finding better-paid work than young women. If boys aren’t going to university, it’s because they know they don’t have to. If there’s a crisis in reading, it’s because if boys aren’t reading they’re missing out on a prime opportunity to learn what it’s like to put yourself in someone else’s head. This is a crisis which falls back on girls, actually. Boys would benefit most from putting themselves in girls’ heads, and girls would benefit from boys doing that, too.

But how to get boys into reading? I’ve heard various opinions on that. Look at the best-seller charts to see these strategies in action:

  • Write books with mainly boy characters. Boys will only read if they can read about boys. Boys are naturally uninterested in girls and anything girls are likely to be doing.
  • When writing a book about a boy and a girl, alternate boy and girl points of view, and give the first chapter to the boy. This will reel boys in.
  • If you write children’s literature but you’ve been saddled with an unambiguously feminine name such as ‘Joanne’, go with your initials instead. Boys don’t want to be hearing from women. They hear enough from their mothers and teachers. Better if they can at least imagine you’re a man.

This is how we teach boys that girls are lesser. By trying to reel boys into reading, we’re symbolically annihilating the girls, making the entire situation turn in on itself, perpetuating a sexist culture.

Yet some writers who try these tricks are well-intentioned, in their own way. They might be trying to trick boys into reading what actually turns out to be a feminist text. Do writers go with firmly entrenched gendered reading culture, trying to overturn it sneakily, by tricking boys into reading stories which include a few girls, or do we reject this reality altogether?

THE DEFENCE OF SATIRE

An adult example of sexist characters who parody a certain mindset in the realworld: Silicon Valley. My husband works in IT and recognises the archetypes as depicted on this show. The characters are being satirised. In order to be satirised they need to be actively sexist. (The sexism on that show is complicated — often a gag starts out like it’s going to be sexist, and then the writers recapitulate, evading overt sexism altogether, or throwing it back on the viewer.)

A good example from the world of children’s literature is the Dogman series. I’ll take Lord of the Fleas as an example. The comic is metafictional — supposedly written by the two boys from Captain Underpants, an established franchise. The female characters in Dogman are tokenistic. There’s the reporter, who turns up to take notes mostly and as you can guess — writes about what the male characters have been up to. The fictional equivalent of a woman in a work meeting being asked to take notes. (Kids won’t interpret it like that, unless they’ve been asked to take notes in work meetings.) The doctor is coded as a man — which, fine, many doctors are men — and the nurse is referred to as ‘nurse lady’. (Don’t talk to me about how they’re actually animals and not really gendered at all. They’re gendered.) By referring to the nurse as ‘nurse lady’, the gender of the nurse is underscored — I would argue unnecessarily. But when writers create satire — or aim to — they have now created their own escape clause. This comic is being written by young boys who might well traditionally gendered roles in their stories, with little in the way of self-reflection and certainly with no mind to diversity. So any criticism of the narrow gender roles feels almost churlish and petty and ridiculous.

Paranorman is another good case study of that. Paranorman satirises the zombie genre, for adults, in which women are sexualised and terrified for our viewing pleasure. This aspect is a bit more subtle than watching an actual B-grade zombie flick, but it’s right there the whole time, under the surface and therefore — disturbingly, more insidious. The sexism then becomes ‘the water we’re swimming in’.

Where do you fall on this? Is satirical sexism fine, because all children are super smart and know satire every time they see it, because they’ve had enough life experience to pick every instance of it out? Or is satirical sexism just… sexism in a different costume?

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