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In ‘Young People’s Fiction: Feisty Girls, Feckless Boys’ Eleanor Updale, Costa judge, posits a link between the domination of a ‘feisty’ cliched female character and a negative ‘bias’ towards male characters, that she thinks can be found in young adult fiction. She then goes on to suggest links between this negative bias and female publishing executives, as well as female consumers.

Our journal is called ‘ladybusiness’ everyone. I’m sure, you can guess we are less than supportive of the kind of argument that links the destruction of male characters with women who are out spoken, or in control. Ana and I decided to take a really hard look at this article, so we could spell out our own objections to the construction of Updale’s article and the logic she uses to support her arguments.


Jodie: I have a couple of big objections to this article, but I’d like to hear what you think first off since I basically sprang this project on you ;)

Ana: First of all, I would say that Updale is factually wrong. She's wrong in terms of this being "the fashion of the times": this study by McCabe et al about the predominance of male protagonists is often quoted when people start decrying the absence of boys and men in YA, and with good reason. I suppose some will dismiss it because it's not exclusively focused on contemporary children's and YA literature, but as Angie at Fat Girl Reading pointed out, "it’s not like 4 of the 7 children’s/YA titles that sold over 1,000,000 copies in 2010 had male protagonists and were written by men."

I can think of plenty of examples that contradict this off the top of my head: authors such as John Green, Patrick Ness, Scott Westerfeld, Neil Gaiman, Meg Rosoff, Diana Wynne Jones, Eva Ibbotson, Cory Doctorow, Ursula Le Guin, Maureen Johnson, Sara Zarr, Philip Pullman, Sherman Alexie, David Almond, Rick Yancey, Paolo Bacigalupi, M.T. Anderson, Franny Billingsley, David Levithan, etc. all write competent, positive boys, even when the books are "girl-centred" (which, I should add, is by no means predominantly the case with these authors). Note that these are NOT obscure authors: they're nearly all rock stars of contemporary children’s lit and YA.

But of course, this proves nothing. It's merely pitting my impressions against Updale's. If we were actually debating this we could go, "You're wrong", "No, YOU'RE wrong" at each other forever. The only way to settle the matter would be to come up with actual numbers: to take all (or a random representative sample of) the YA published in a recent year, come up with some clearly defined criteria to measure positive/negative representations of boys/men, and do a count. I'd happily do this myself if it weren't for the fact that it would be a full-time job. (Can we haz research grant, O Powers That Be? We'd use it wisely and for the greater good.)

This brings me to one of the things that frustrate me the most about this kind of article: the fact that they're so vague. Updale doesn't name a single example. She makes no references to authors, particular books, or specific male or female characters to illustrate this supposedly universal trend. If she did, we could read the books in question, see if we agree with her readings, and have an actual discussion. But instead she chooses not to exemplify her points. I have to say I'm a little suspicious on this kind of reliance on generalities.

Jodie: McCabe’s study is really useful, but some commentators argue that a study of children's literature which includes The Caldecot Medal ( a picture book award) as one of its main three sources can’t be offered as proof of sufficient male representation in YA. Commentators like Hannah Moskowitz in her post ‘The Boy Problem’ are quite happy to admit that MG books (the age equivalent of the nebulous ‘books for younger readers’ category in some countries outside of America) handle male representation well, then go on to maintain that YA contains an anti-male bias. So, I think you’re right, at the moment the research is incomplete and that allows discussions about boys lacking representation to continue.

Earlier this year, Renay and I actually talked about creating a survey of male characters in YA literature, published by large companies. Renay loves graphs (especially ones that kick down prejudice) and I feel like people respond better to numerical proof than written arguments. Real life got in the way, but maybe at some point we’ll be able to revisit the idea. While analysing quantity would be relatively easy, I imagine defining universal standards of positive representation would be tricky, which would leave the door open for more dissent about problems with the study. Still, I suppose all projects face things like that, so it’s not a reason to keep from having a go!

Ana: Yes - as much as I believe that the results would not be very different for YA, we need numbers to prove it. Finding objective criteria of “positive” and “negative” would indeed be the most challenging bit, but I’m sure we could come up with a checklist that both sides of the debate would agree upon. Ah, I have so many DREAMS.

Jodie:Anyway getting back on track. It bothered me that Updale didn’t offer any examples as well. I wondered if, because she was talking about her experience as a Costa judge, she couldn’t name particular titles for reasons to do with the awards. Still, if she believes he trend extends outside the selection of books she read for the award she should be able to offer examples of other novels, right?

Ana: Yes, exactly. She makes it sound like finding exceptions to this rule would be a challenge, so surely she could come up with an example or two from outside the books she judged? If you do not have the knowledge to do so, I’d perhaps suggest thinking twice before writing an article from the point of view of an expert for a major publication. Just saying.

Jodie:One of my biggest problems with this article is the way that Updale interrogates father characters. She states:

‘If she has a father, he’s likely to be a self-indulgent idiot, preoccupied with his work, with sport or with drink and his mates. More likely, he is completely absent, having selfishly lunged into the arms of a glamorous airhead far away. He doesn’t understand our girl as she battles to overcome a disability, prejudice, bullying or the sheer grinding awfulness of having been spawned by such an inadequate man.’


YA is well known as a genre which is full of bad, absent or dead parents. Let me stress that again: bad, absent, or dead parents not just fathers. The unkind parent, or the parent who doesn’t understand the teenage protagonist is by no means universal in YA, but it is a common trend and as Maggie Steifvater explains in here ‘Inflammatory Blog Post About Parents in Books’ there are some very valid narrative reasons why the trend persists. Books often crop up where a mother, or a father is a negative force in a teenage characters life and the large amount of negative father characters may have less to do with their gender and more to do with their status as a parent.

Updale does not encourage readers to investigate whether the reoccurence of negative father figures is really an issue of gender. She doesn’t offer a comparison of how mothers are represented. So, for all we know mother characters are portrayed just as negatively in books that feature ‘feisty’ heroines, which could suggest that there was no straight forward correlation between gender of a parent and negative representation.

Ana: My impression is the same as yours. The orphan hero/heroine is a huge trope in children’s lit for a reason. This is an issue with parents, not fathers. I understand why they have to be conveniently got out of the way for a certain type of story to be possible at all - though obviously these are not the only stories about young people worth telling, and if we have a problem at all it lies in this. So the parents are either nice but dead (Harry Potter, The Monstrumologist), both dreadful (several Diana Wynne Jones books, the Eva Ibbotson we reviewed recently), or both absent (Looking for Alaska, where they are absent because the narrator is at boarding school). I think that if anything there’s a tendency to villanize mothers more than fathers, because we live in a world where a bad mother has more shock value than a bad father. For example, His Dark Materials. I love it with all my heart, but it clearly takes advantage of the extra shock value of a bad/heartless/cruel mother. And I would argue that very often getting just the mother out of the way offers the freedom of movements necessary for certain stories to take place, but getting just the father out of the way wouldn’t have the same effect. But this is just a general impression; I have no concrete examples to back it up so feel free to take it with a grain of salt.

Jodie:No,I agree, I have the impression that there are lots of books (and on a tangent also major tv series like ‘Merlin’) where the mother is removed while the father remains and there’s a long tradition of heroines and heroes with dead mothers, stretching back to fairy tales like ‘Cinderella’. It would be interesting to compare just how many stories there are with dead or absent mothers vs dead or absent fathers. I’d also like to see if my impression that writers typically write missing mothers as dead, but write missing fathers as alive and absent are correct. Again, we digress into our research dreams.

Continuing to look at the logic of Updale’s arguments, when she starts talking about how negative the father characters are in young adult fiction, she focuses exclusively on young adult novels that features ‘feisty’ heroines. Later in her article she diverges briefly to talk about books ‘written with male readers in mind and males at the heart of the story’, where she talks about how negatively she perceives the ‘key’ characters in these books. I’m operating under the assumption that she uses ‘key’ to mean teenage male protagonists and if that's correct, she doesn’t examine father characters in books with male protagonists. As a consequence she doesn’t clarify whether father characters are also portrayed negatively in books where boys are at the heart of a story.

Now, Updale uses a rebuttal argument later to explain how despite the lack of feisty female characters women (with the help of marketeers who are apparently a sexless breed) are still the reason why negative teenage male characters appear in male focused books:

‘Meanwhile, publishing, with its potent mix of low salaries and enlightened employment practices, has become a deeply feminised industry (I sometimes think that the collective noun should be a “maternity leave” of publishers). Most of these women are clever enough not to fall into the stereotype trap, but increasingly they are servicing a retail trade dominated by marketers who are less interested in editorial content than in replicating things that have sold well before. This inevitably leads to the mimicking which has landed us in this very disconcerting place. Add to that the view that girls and their mothers are the people most likely to purchase books, and the cycle spins ever faster.’


Charming wording by the way.

I imagine if she had also identified negative father characters in male-focused books this is the argument she would use to explain the pattern. Her creation of two separate logic tracks means she doesn’t have to feel like she’s contradicting herself, even if she finds some incongruous results. Still, I think it’s important to highlight that she starts off by stating that there’s a link between the dominance of ‘feisty’ girls and large numbers of negative male characters, then identifies negative male characters in books where the ‘feisty female with a bag of chips on her shoulder’ isn’t a central character, or even present. Instead of concluding that the appearance of hard core female characters can’t explain some negative depictions of masculinity she creates another female-centric argument to justify the way real results deviate from her central thesis (as the caption under her photo says: ‘Eleanor Updale believes the urge to create positive female characters in young people's writing has led to empty and damaging stereotypes’). And she manages to do so smoothly without suggesting that she has found any results that disrupt her hypothesis.

Now to my mind, this change of tack and lack of comparative analysis indicates that her attempts to suggest a correlation between ‘feisty’ heroines and negative father characters is at least justified using bad methodology.

Ana: Yep. I think here is where she really throws logic out the window in favour of “feminism has gone too far and now boys are the real underclass” rhetoric. Again, I find the lack of specific examples really frustrating. First of all, who are these heroines who “don’t suffer fools gladly”, and in fact “don’t suffer anyone gladly”? You’d think that with them being all over the place I’d be able to think of a few. But the only character I can think of who more or less matches the description is Saba from Moira Young’s Blood Red Road. She’s very tough, impatient, and as far away from representations of traditional femininity as it gets. Her mother died long before the story starts, and her father is killed a few chapters in, but guess what? He remains a positive figure all through the novel; someone Saba misses and looks up to (the mother is positive too but remains vague - but this could be because she died when Saba was so young). The same goes for her brother and for her friend/love interest Jack. So although Saba more or less fits Updale’s description of the kind of girls that dominate contemporary YA, her power doesn’t come at the expense of “empty and damaging stereotypes” about boys. She’s not represented as powerful in comparison with male buffoonery, but as powerful alongside competent men.

Jodie: The lack of specific examples makes me wonder if Updale is allowing something similar to the vague, Mary Sue mis-definition to infiltrate her examination of female characters. Many positive female characters are wrongly classified as Mary Sues, because readers interpret them as ‘too positive’, or unrealistically strong/brave/competent/winning at life. Maybe in Updale’s case every strong, put upon female character becomes unrealistic, purely because she seems too strong and put upon. I could be totally wrong, but because there are no examples I can’t check whether I think her idea that many female heroines unfairly see themselves as ‘inherently in the right: the victim of a society determined to do her down’ seems reasonable to me.

Ana: I do recognise the kind of representation of boys/men Updale is talking about, but from popular culture. In sitcoms like New Girl, which I was ranting about just the other day, jokes are made at the expense of men’s dimness and inability to communicate. It’s classic John Gray “cavemen” stuff. But what I think is really crucial is that these representations don’t exist alongside empowered, competent portrayals of femininity. No, they go along with silly, irrational, clingy, overemotional women - with stereotypes of femininity that are every bit as damaging. And although I read “cavemen” representations of masculinity as negative, I wouldn’t bet that this is how they’re generally read, especially in comparison with corresponding stereotypes of femininity. Anyway, it’s not the desire to “create powerful female characters” that create this, but rather the inability or refusal to see beyond gender stereotypes. And it’s not in media created by women that I see this, and certainly not in feminist media. Nor is it in literature for young people in particular.

That Updale thinks so is revealing of a really troubling zero sum game mentality. The irony is that she believes that this is exactly what she’s critiquing - the belief, on the part of the women who “dominate” the world of publishing, that positive representations of girls must come at the expensive of positive representations of boys. But all the while she’s slipping into this kind of thinking herself - why else would anyone suggest that a female-dominated industry would automatically have an anti-male bias?

Jodie: You know how I feel about the idea that any industry dominated by women is subconsciously prejudiced against men right? I went on for quite a while in my post ‘Ladies, Gentlemen, Ring the Alarm’ and the comments that followed, so I won’t rehash, but essentially I do not agree.

I have no problem with the idea that female publishers are ‘servicing a retail trade dominated by marketers who are less interested in editorial content than in replicating things that have sold well before.’ or that theoretically marketers (again no mention of their gender here) have the ability to draw female publishers down paths paved with institutional gender inequality for the promise of bright, shiny coins. But I still have some problems with a straight correlation between the real, dominant gender of consumers and what gets published.

Girls are in my experience typically socialised omni-readers. They mostly read everything, they buy ever kind of book, blah, blah, blah, you have heard this one before. Just because ‘girls and their mothers are the people most likely to purchase books’ doesn’t necessarily mean they’re exclusively purchasing books with female protagonists, so their money doesn’t necessarily show up as a huge neon pink signal to publish more of this kind of book. Updale’s argument is that male characters are being put down because of an increase in a particular kind of female character. The growth of this kind of female character has, she argues, been fueled by increased female demand for these kind of characters. If girls and their mothers are also buying books with male characters, then their money isn’t (according to her logic) exclusively pushing the publishing trend for feisty girls and feckless boys.

Except wait, Updale later says that negative male characters are also turning up in boy focused books. She thinks girls and their mothers are the major consumers of books and that their preferences shape what gets published. Is she implying that female consumers enjoy seeing negative male characters in novels and translate that enjoyment, via their consumption, to marketers? I find that argument uncomfortably close to the 'man hating feminist' stereotype, which I don't see so much of in reality.

Further point: If we look at comparable fields like the film industry, we see that just because female consumers spend money on a form of entertainment, that doesn’t necessarily mean their money shapes that entertainment into a more female-centric form. Despite 2010 statistics showing that women buy cinema tickets and actually buy more cinema tickets than men, we have yet to see an increase in female-centric films, or even a growth in positive roles for female actresses. I’m not saying there’s never a correlation between the dominant gender of the people consuming a type of media and what gets produced (the comic book world seems to stand as a pretty good example of a gender/publishing correlation) just that it is often way more complicated than that.

Maybe she’s not saying that at all, I certainly hope not. Maybe her idea is more that marketers see women, say ‘Let us make some incorrect assumptions about women and what they like, I know, push more books where the girl is the winner and the boy is a boorish twit’, sell these (books which produce a harmful trend) to omni-reading girls and women who buy them along with other books because they want to read ALL THE THINGS and repeat. I can get behind the idea that marketers make faulty assumptions, based on gender to inform their marketing strategy and that this business behaviour can cause harmful trends to saturate a market. I can’t help feeling though that the line ‘Add to that the view that girls and their mothers are the people most likely to purchase books, and the cycle spins ever faster.’ implies that the female consumers are reinforcing this behaviour by...being female...and buying the books marketers make visible to them. Books which, by the way, don’t come with big red ‘Contains negative male characters’ stickers on the cover. I’m not sure how she proposes female readers break this cycle, as they...continue to be female. Should the ladies just stop buying books?

But again, I’ve seriously deviated, bring us back on track to article dissection wise and serious Ana.

Ana: I’m sure you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I’m with you on the “subconscious biases” issue. And like you, I’m unsure of what Updale thinks is going on here, exactly. Are marketers catering to what they perceive women to want (certainly a problem in many sectors, though yeah, like you said no direct causal link between the consumers’ gender and content can be inferred), or do women and girls actually like men and boys to be portrayed as dimwits and “apprentice losers”? Her insistence that it’s female-dominance of the publishing industry and the increasing numbers of female consumers that cause this makes me think it’s the latter. Plus the cautionary tone of her article seems to suggest that we women need to become aware of these subconscious anti-male biases that we have by virtue of being female so we can put a stop to the cycle. I hope I’m wrong, because the whole thing is really troubling.

There was a particular sentence about the kind of male character Updale has a problem with that I wanted to discuss with you. She says, “masculinity emerges as a redundant quality, a burden on males and females alike, and an automatic bar to cleverness and compassion." What exactly do you think she means by “masculinity” here? I can certainly think of a few books in which overly aggressive and domineering traditional“macho” behaviour is portrayed as a “bar to compassion” (less so to cleverness, perhaps) and shown to have negative consequences for men and women alike. Many of these are not YA novels, but novels defined as literary fiction - Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, for example. And I should add that they pale in comparison with the growing number of YA books in which an aggressive brand of masculinity is presented in a romantic light. Do you think Updale is pulling a Christina Hoff Sommers here and conflating patriarchal behaviour with a monolithic and essentialist definition of masculinity? Does it also seem to you that Updale, like Sommers, is implying that women/feminists/female publishers are trying to “emasculate” men by presenting what is “natural” male behaviour as a “burden”?

Jodie: Before I try to answer your question, I just want to say omg Ana this:

‘And I should add that they pale in comparison with the growing number of YA books in which an aggressive brand of masculinity is presented in a romantic light.’

is so spot on. What’s more, it provides more evidence against the link between fierce female heroines and witless male characters. One of the most common complaints against books like ‘Twilight’, where aggressive male behaviour is justified by romance, is that the heroines are weak women, heroines very different from Updale’s feisty girl stereotype. Maybe the heroines with the ‘supercilious smirk’ (if we allow they exist in such huge numbers, which clearly we don’t) just allow narratives to show up the behaviour of their opposite male characters for the negative shit it is?

Anyway I think it’s difficult to know what Updale is doing, because she tosses around terms but never defines them (maybe because of column space, maybe because she assumes that the words she uses represent the same thing to everyone). I think when Updale uses the word “masculinity” she’s just being really imprecise and referring to men/anything that comes from men. I’m afraid I don’t know much about Sommers’ arguments, but I guess from what you’re saying she argues that masculinity is X traditional concept and women are emasculating men by saying X is crap – she’s essentially supporting the idea that men are naturally X and we should support them in such traditional behaviour?

If so, I don’t think Updale’s talking about a specific kind of traditional maleness as masculinity and saying that kind of masculinity has been degraded by women presenting it negatively. I think she’s decrying at least one traditional kind of masculinity (the violent, anti-intellectual, sports addict who cares for none but himself) and asking for a growth in the diversity of male representation. She’s angry that ‘Even those who do read will find that the stories collude with a long-established playground pressure not to seem too clever.’

Ana: No, I think you summed up Sommers’ position up pretty well. I really can't tell if Updale is concerned with this particular model of masculinity only being presented negatively or with it being the only model presented (which, again, I'd say she's wrong about). Maybe there's a bit of both, but she does contradict herself and falls back into the essentialism trap.

Jodie:Her allusion to ‘spy and war books’ has me kind of concerned about the way she defines masculinity, because it shows that she can’t quite escape the idea that we should expect to find ideal men in these kinds of traditional male narratives. Am I making too much of this if I suggest that her comment shows an expectation of finding positive male characters in books concerned with another branch of traditional masculinity? Even though she argues for an expansion of masculine representation past what could be called a traditional, negative stereotype, does she maybe still want any positive male representation to fit a different ideal of traditional masculinity? I don’t want to make too big a deal about what her personal definition of masculinity might include and exclude, because it’s a passing point that she makes. Her article isn’t concerned with exploring just what ‘masculinity’ means, but it’s pretty interesting to see suggestions that positive male behaviour may need to be accompanied by traditional masculine behaviour for it to ‘count’ as positive male behaviour.

Honestly I think we could go on pulling out things we don’t agree with from this article for days. Shall we wrap up with an important final point from each of us?

Updale says ‘ It’s hard not to be concerned by the recent National Literary Trust survey which suggests that reading has become a largely female occupation.’ Well, for me, it’s much harder not to be concerned with the results of studies published by Oxford University, which makes claims that reading at 16 is linked to better job prospects.

The study says that boys who are not reading for pleasure at 16 have a 10% lower chance than boys who read of getting a managerial job. Obviously there’s a discrepancy between boys who read for pleasure and those who don’t, so you can see one reason why people want to get boys reading.

However, the tangible benefits of being a teenage boy who reads for pleasure seem less than impressive when compared with the tangible benefits of just being male. Boys who are found not to be reading for pleasure at 16 also have a 9% higher chance of achieving a managerial position than girls who do read for pleasure at 16. So even if they don't read, boys have a 9%, or 22% higher chance of gaining a managerial position than girls (depending on whether the girls read, or don't read, at 16).

Let’s look at whether boys who do read for pleasure also beat out the girls in terms of managerial jobs. Boys who do read for pleasure at 16 have a 19% higher chance of getting a managerial position than girls who do read and a 32% higher chance than girls who don’t read. Again we can see that there’s a gap of professional advancement between those who read and those who don’t read for pleasure at 16, that translates across the genders. We can also see that there’s a gap of professional advancement between those who do read, but happen to be of different genders.

How much support have we seen recently from people desperate to address any perceived inequality to do with boys reading? And how much excitement has there been from those same people about this inequality that affects girl readers and non-readers? Yep, there's been a lot of that.

Ana: Those are all such excellent points, and unfortunately so often forgotten in these discussions. Much of the time this is by no means accidental - op-ed articles about the boys’ reading crisis are often written by people who hold a wider ideological stance according to which feminism has not only done its job, but has gone so far that it’s men and boys who are now second-class citizens. Needless to say, I find arguments of this kind completely disconnected from reality and absolutely infuriating. But at the same time, we also have people who are not using this debate to advance a political point; people who care about both gender equality and getting boys reading, and yet completely lose sight of the whole question of tangible benefits for boys and girls who do or don’t read exactly because this point is so seldom brought up. Articles like Updale’s frustrate me because they divert attention from the questions we really should be asking. Fortunately there are some people out there asking tough questions. If only they got the attention of the mainstream media as easily as the Updales of this world.

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