This series of posts has been long in coming: partially inspired by my own reading, partially by recent (and recurring) debates online, I decided to devote some time to considering the following questions: where exactly do you draw the line between a novel that doesn’t acknowledge or question its own problematic aspects and a novel that is simply being subtle, letting the story speak for itself, and not hitting readers over the head with unnecessary heavy-handedness? Should a novel be required to always question the status quo? Why does any of this even matter? What do these discussions tell us about the nature and the role of fiction, and about readers' expectations?
Before I start, a few warnings: first of all, this is one of those posts where I attempt to figure out my thoughts by writing them down. So if the end result turns out to be confusing, it’s because I’m indeed confused. It’s quite possible that I’ll end up with more questions than I started out with, but then again that’s part of the fun of writing (and indeed of thinking about things). Secondly, I’m going to attempt to keep spoilers to a minimum, but none of what I have to say would make much sense without concrete examples, and often these have to involve a story’s ending. Apologies in advance for that.
To attempt to answer the above question, I’m particularly interested in considering the following cases, all of which are YA novels or short stories that have been read in both feminist and anti-feminist ways:
- Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. I make no secret of the fact that this is one of my favourite novels of recent years, and that I completely disagree that it “glorifies, by failing to address or question, rape as revenge”. But rather than just tell you that I disagree, what I meant to do here is explore the reasons why.
- “The Truth About Dino Girl” by Barry Liga, from the Geektastic anthology. A horrifying exercise in gratuitous slut-shaming, or an “empowering, realistic” story about high school dynamics? If you’re me, it’s very much a). But once again, what matters here is the why.
- Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins – Just another story about girls fighting over a guy, or something that goes beyond it? My review should let you know what I think, but I hope to be able to elaborate on it.
- The 10PM Question by Kate De Goldi – I posted my review of this earlier today, and I mentioned it’s one of my favourite reads of the year so far. I have recently become aware that there were readers who felt that the way the story portrayed the protagonist best friend’s mother had too many hints of slut-shaming for comfort. Since one of my favourite things about the novel was exactly how this aspect of the story was dealt with, this gave me considerable pause.
I’m a big believer in the value of a plurality of perspectives when it comes to literature; of approaching reading as democratically as possible. But at the same time, I have no problem acknowledging that there is
such a thing as misreading a text by making claims for which there’s no textual support whatsoever. Because it’s been some time since I read the texts I mentioned above, I don’t feel that I’m in a position to comment on the existence or nonexistence of textual support for readings that contradict my own. Therefore, I’m going to assume that the texts do not
completely rule out these readings, and that the issue here amounts to how certain plot elements are framed, as well as the lenses/worldviews through which they’re filtered.
My first example is Tender Morsels
: I have to say that it feels like cheating to start here, because someone has written down
all the reasons why I disagree with the Bitch Media reading of it, and worded it far better than I ever could. I encourage you to read the whole post, but I wanted to highlight the following paragraph:
There is certainly no victory to be had in this kind of vengeance and therefore, I would argue, absolutely no validation of it within the text. Liga, on whose behalf vengeance was enacted, finds no happy ending in its aftermath. There is no need for Lanagan to sit you down and provide an explicit critique of the preceding events — I’m not even sure how such a discussion could have been presented within the pages of Tender Morsels as a novel.
I’ve spent a long time thinking about this point, because while in the case of Tender Morsels
I agree instinctively, there are other cases in which I’m the first to reject the “there is no need for an explicit critique” argument (see my Barry Lyga example below). What, then, is the difference between texts about which I feel this is true and texts about which I don’t? I think it comes down to how central the problematic issue is to the novel as a whole. In the case of Tender Morsels
, the consequences of sexual assault are at the very core of what the book is about. This makes it easier for me to accept that when the impact of the rape of a group of secondary characters is not dwelt on at length, it does indeed speak for itself. After all, the reader has just spent about 400 pages witnessing the impact of rape on the protagonist’s life, so it doesn’t take that much of an imaginative leap to understand that the same kind of violence will also have an impact on this group of men. And no, this is not a good thing, even if these men are not characters we like. It doesn’t take a scene where we see them suffering psychological horrors for that to come across.
But take my second example, Barry Lyga’s “The Truth About Dino Girl”. I’m going to have to spoil the story for you before I continue my argument, so apologies in advance. In this story, Katherine, a nerdy and unpopular high school student, takes revenge on popular and arrogant Andi by taking a photo of her naked in the school’s locker room, photoshopping it to pretend it was taken at a motel, and distributing it to the whole school with captions such as “Do you like sex? She does!!!! Call Andi!”. As a result, Andi’s boyfriend breaks up with her, her friends shun her, and she becomes a social pariah – the end.
This story horrified me when I read it, but since then I’ve seen readers say that it’s realistic, that it’s empowering because geek girl fights back and triumphs, and that the fact that the story portrays slut-shaming doesn’t mean that it’s endorsing it. In a different story, this could
be true – portraying something is certainly not the same as endorsing it. But as for the other arguments, as the other Ana so well says
, the “It’s realistic!” card doesn’t tell us much on its own. Also, before I go any further I wanted to say that even though I know that what I described is dreadful, I fully acknowledge that it’s no more dreadful than a group of magical clothesmen violently and gleefully raping Liga’s rapists in Tender Morsels
. It’s not the dreadfulness of what happens in itself
that I object to – it’s how it’s handled by the text.
As we have seen, Tender Morsels
is about sexual assault. But “The Truth About Dino Girl” is (arguably) about bullying, not about slut-shaming, or female sexuality, or the many challenges that teen girls who want to enjoy safe, happy and fulfilling sexual experiences without having these determine who they are and how other perceive them have to face. The story is about high school power and arrogance and the mistreatment of others. If I read it generously, I’ll say that it’s attempting to explore how someone like Katherine could be driven to a horrifyingly malicious revenge by years of bullying. I therefore acknowledge that it’s indeed possible to read a story like this as doing something other than glorifying revenge.
However, it’s the form
that Katherine’s revenge takes that troubles me. She uses female sexuality for shaming purposes in a way that feels completely incidental to the story. The act of revenge itself may or may not be questioned, but the idea that female sexuality is fair game for such purposes never, ever is. Unlike what happens in Tender Morsels
, there is no other characters we can use to draw a parallel. There’s absolutely nothing but a dominant social assumption – that teen girls who have and/or enjoy sex are sluts and deserve to be ostracised – being replayed. Readers may leave the story thinking that Katherine shouldn't have done what she did, but not because of the nature
of her actions. It isn’t just that the text doesn’t explicitly
critique Katherine’s use of sex to shame Andi – it’s that it doesn’t do it implicitly either, not by any stretch of the imagination.
My whole point, then, is that slut-shaming is too important as a social phenomenon to be included in a story as casually as thoughtlessly as it was here. By all means it should be written about, but not as an unquestioned afterthought (of course, this raises all sorts of questions along the lines of “Why not?”, and these will be addressed later on in this series of posts). Sexual assault is of course also important and painful, but being at the very centre of Tender Morsels
, the same arguments don’t really hold.Coming soon:
Part the second, where I analyse the final two texts and attempt to reach some conclusions about what these examples have shown us.