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So far, 2017 hasn't been a banner reading year for me. I've read quite a lot (47 books at the time of writing) but haven't found as many heart-stopping, must rec favs as I did in 2016.

Even so, I've read enough wonderful books to put together both a Top 10 & an Honourable Mentions list for the year so far, so it can't have been all that bad. Here's what I've loved so far in 2017.

Read more... )
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Hello friends, this week sees the release of Wonder Woman - an actual film you can pay to see! And I might be just a tad excited. In anticipation of this much-longed for event here's a quick roundup of some of the best Wonder Woman trailers, news, and images in the final lead up to release.

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Down for a lot of words about killer robots, ladies, and feelings? Then please join me for bi-weekly recaps of The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Spoilers )
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Down for a lot of words about killer robots, ladies, and feelings? Then please join me for bi-weekly recaps of The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Spoilers Follow )
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Tired of waiting for Wonder Woman, American Gods, The Dark Tower or yet another big SFF event to drop? In a new regular feature, The Waiting Game, I'm going to recommend five stories you could be digging into while your favs keep you hanging on.

This week, I rec five stories fans can try out while they wait for Peter Capaldi's last appearance (sob) as The Dr in Dr Who Series 10 (starting 12th April, 2017):

Read more... )
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Everything is A LOT at the moment, right? It can feel like everything is out of our control. Our actions get drowned out by newsreels of permanent despair, and every new dawn brings a chorus of 'Those fuckers did what now?' It's easy to believe what fascists want us to believe - nothing we do makes a difference and we may as well give up.

To counter this narrative, which is designed to keep us from beating them down, I thought it might be useful to start signal-boosting things that got DONE over the course of a month. My goal - to produce a five-item list, each month, of ways people improved the world and made a difference, big or small, in the middle of this political wasteland. Regular people are pushing back, and resistance is anything but futile.
Read more... )
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So, the latest Wonder Woman trailer is out and I have watched it approximately twenty times.

Just look at it.

Here are just five things I love about this new trailer for one of my most anticipated cinema events of 2017. Wonder Woman is going to be in a movie, everyone!

Read more... )
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Everything is A LOT at the moment, right? Trump. Brexit. Aleppo. And this whole Marie le Pen thing is starting to look far too plausible. It can feel like everything is out of our control. Our actions get drowned out by newsreels of permanent despair, and every new dawn brings a chorus of 'Those fuckers did what now?' It's easy to believe what the fascists want us to believe - nothing we do makes a difference and we may as well give up.

To counter this narrative, in my own small way, I thought it might be useful to start signal-boosting things that got DONE over the course of a month. My goal - to produce a five-item list, each month, of ways people improved the world and made a difference in the middle of this political wasteland. Regular people are pushing back, and resistance is anything but futile.Read more... )
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Having established that I have some strong things to say about the way people talk about boys and reading, let me turn to one suggestion that seems to be coming up more and more as people continue to talk about how to get boys interested in YA.

The solution that seems to be coming from many commentators is that publishers should get rid of gendered, girl-centric covers and replace them with ‘boy friendly’ graphics. Every time I see this solution appear I find myself so frustrated. I’m dying to see the back of gendered marketing and the idea that girls all respond positively to books with pink covers, but the campaign for ‘boy friendly' covers rubs me wrong.

Renay wrote a really great post about why calling for more male book representation isn’t a particularly helpful solution to the get boys to read more, if we consider the discussion of boys not reading in the context of a continual, world wide fight for gender equality. My ideas on the issue of creating have formed are absolutely indebted to that post and I don’t intend to restate Renay’s points because her writing can speak for itself, so I encourage you to bob over there now so that you’ll understand the rhetorical standpoint I’m using to deconstruct arguments about creating more covers that will appeal to boys.

The creation of more ‘boy friendly’ covers is a solution that several kick-ass feminist commentators have embraced, so it is in no way an easy, lazy piece of sexist skulduggery. While tweets like this one, which appeared during last week’s Twitter chat about ‘Why Men Write YA’ show a clearly sexist slant, creating ‘boy friendly’ or non-gendered covers appears to be an attractive, practical, non-problematic solution to the problem of boy’s lack of interest in young adult fiction. However, it is a solution that places boy’s practical needs above a fight for genuine, all encompassing equality.

Twitter quote reading: can hardly blame boys for taking one look at the jackets on the YA shelves & heading for the hills.
As Renay said when we discussed this tweet 'Of course they do, they're sexist and our culture is making them that way! The solution isn't to remove the feminine, that's just erasing girls.' No one is jabbing the pointy finger of blame at these boys, who are 'heading for the hills'. Feminist commentators are declaring their issues with a culture that tells boys they should be fleeing from these kind of jackets, that in fact it's ok to drop these books and leg it because normal boys should be against anything that looks vaguely traditionally girl-centric. When they march feminists carry signs declaring themselves against the social system of sexism, not against boys.

Let me suggest a comparison argument to illuminate why I think the dicussion about 'boy friendly' covers has strayed from the task of promoting genuine equality. Last year there was some talk over at Book Snob about the repercussions of allowing female soldiers to fight on the front line. One line of rhetoric that was discussed, suggested that male soldiers would be unable to perform their front line duties effectively if women were on the front line, because they would find it distressing to see their female colleagues injured. In this argument supposed male practical needs (to be protected from seeing something so distressing that their professional effectiveness would be compromised1) are placed ahead their female colleagues right to equality (to be given an equal chance to work in any kind of job a man works in)2.

The idea of putting ‘boy friendly’ covers on books is far removed from the subject of women on the front line and the scale of practical importance is hugely different, but the structure of the rhetorical arguments used about the importance of ‘boy friendly’ or ‘gender neutral’ covers is much the same. In the discussion about the army, some of the links cited are leery about using ‘natural arguments’, which rely on establishing a biological difference between men and women in order to show that women are unsuited for a task. These arguments seem less than reasonable to some involved in the discussion. I can remember seeing posts for ‘boy friendly’, or gender neutral book covers where the author makes it clear that boys don’t need these kind of covers because of a natural antipathy to pink, or a natural inclination for blue.

In the discussion at Book Snob, cultural arguments against women serving on the front line that are mentioned by commenter’s and in a linked article, are given much more credence. Men’s instinct to protect women is mentioned, and linked to the mental destruction of soldiers who see female colleagues injured. It appears that this may be used as a reason for keeping women from serving on the front line. Implicit in this line of thinking is the idea that culture has shaped men into protectors and Rachel explicitly mentions that men’s idea of themselves as protectors of women is a problematic internal image created by societal pressures. Cultural conditioning is a well established, respected idea among liberal commentators who reject biological determinism. The discussion at Book Snob includes people who recognise that culture shapes our perceptions of the opposite gender in problematic, undesirable ways which limit our society’s struggle for equality. Participants in discussions about putting ‘boy friendly’ or ‘gender neutral’ covers on books also frequently acknowledge that boys culturally created unwillingness/inability to read books with traditionally girly covers is created by societal sexism and is very much a problem.

Although the people involved in the Book Snob discussion and the people discussing boys reading recognise that cultural conditioning exists, after this realisation they focus on how near impossible it would be to change male attitudes. It seems that over at Book Snob everyone is just stymied by how huge a task this seems and I don't blame them. It is a huge, scary task. Some of the people involved in thinking up ways to get boys to read are very aware of the need for practical solutions right now, so that the boys that exist now don’t end up alienated from reading. Undoing centuries of gendered conditioning doesn’t look like the strategy to take when there appears to be a more practical solution, fast track that they can campaign for. People involved in these discussions believe cultural conditioning can be undone, even though it would be incredibly difficult (although I do think that the comments on Renay’s show there are plenty of other people who are hostile to the idea that working against gendered social conditioning is the way to get boys reading). People, at least in the discussions about book covers boys will like, are just focused on creating strategies that could immediately fix the highly visible problems affecting men and boys. And while they’re focusing on those strategies, the less visible problems of equality facing women and girls go into second position.

I get why, really I do. The idea that any boy might leave school illiterate scares the hell out of me. The idea that boys might not enjoy reading makes me a little sad for complicated reasons. And focusing on getting boys book covers that appeal to them doesn’t immediately seem to equate with keeping girls from achieving deserved equality. The problem is that if people keep telling boys that they don’t have to be interested in anything that looks traditionally female then it’s just another perpetuation of the idea that something which is linked (traditionally, or really) with the female can never be as good, or as interesting as something linked with the male. Pink can never be as good as blue, forever and ever and ever.

I know that might not seem important in the face of potentially illiterate boys. It sounds like the ramblings of a theorist with no eye for the practicalities of the world and I can imagine people saying that girls read a lot, women have a lot of literary representation, okay, the picture’s not perfect but women are at least in it. What does it matter if creating covers that are friendlier towards boys makes unfortunate suggestions? Let’s get those boys reading! I just have to maintain that idealistic theory is important, otherwise what are we aiming for? What’s the point if we don’t want to achieve everything? Ideas about intersectionality (specifically how not to hurt one group while empowering the other) need to be applied in these discussions on reading and boys, or we're all just going to end up with the same gendered mess we've always had.

1Personally I find the practical need I’ve identified at odds with the idea of what the army does. Everyone on the frontline sees a range of horrifying things that can affect their professional effectiveness and it seems that since the army is sometimes rather powerless to protect soldiers from these sights, they concentrate on ways to help them after the event.

2Disclaimer to say that I’m not accusing anyone who took part in that discussion of being deliberately anti-feminist and trying to keep the ladies down – sexist analysis can get in anyone’s brain, including mine and it is hard to combat. Nor am I saying you have to agree with my analysis of that exchange. I was very pleased to be able to have such a respectful conversation.
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Ana said she’d like to hear what I thought of ‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursula K Le Guin (I suspect she is looking forward to hearing about how I have come to my senses on the Le Guin matter – alright you were right :P). I want to put together something, especially as Le Guin is a woman writing sci-fi and right now certain parts of the UK sci-fi community are looking around, wondering where all the women are*, but I’ve read quite a few books since I finished ‘The Dispossessed’ and it is a complex book to review even when all the pieces are spinning vibrantly in your mind. So, my thoughts here are going to be focused on providing a broad outline of the main chain of ideas that I noticed when I read ‘The Dispossessed’, rather than an in depth analysis of the human relationships, the writing, or more specific components of those ideas. Let’s see how this goes shall we?

‘The Dispossessed’ follows a gifted physicist named Shevek, as he travels from his home planet Urras to a planet called Anarres. Annarres is Urras’ moon and was settled by colonists when anarchists on Urras decided they needed to follow the path of their leader Odo by creating a new, fairer society. Shevek believes he is returning to Urras to encourage the sharing of scientific knowledge between the two planets, as Anarres culture (which initially sounds much like an ideal vision of a communist society) has imbued him with the idea that sharing resources freely is fundamental to a healthy society. However, as the reader learns more about Shevek’s life on Anarres and his time on Urras, it becomes apparent that Shevek’s motivations and his current work are more subtle than this idea of sharing might imply.

Shevek has come to Urras to forge a General Temporal Theory, ‘the unification of Sequency and Simultaneity ’. Shevek is responsible for creating the Simultaneity Principle and explains the idea behind his earlier breakthrough best when he uses a metaphor about books and pages, so here are his articulate words:

‘Well we think that time ‘passes’, flows past us, but what if it is we who move forward, from past to future, always discovering the new? It would be a little, like reading a book you see. The book is all there, all at once, between its covers. But if you want to read the story and understand it, you must begin with the first page, and go forward, always in order. So the universe would be a very great book, and we would be very small readers.’
Shevek’s Simultaneity Theory is a perceptive metaphor for how people experience life. Each new person arrives into a fixed world, but as they grow each person feels they are discovering new things. A teenager suddenly discovers anti-capitalist theories and they think they’re discovering something new. ‘Why has no one ever thought like this?’ they wonder. Of course, as they grow they realise their brave new ideas have been well established for decades, it’s just that world economics continue to operate on a capitalist model. That doesn’t stop them from getting to their twenties, generating another idea and seeing it as revolutionary, even if again it’s been long understood. Shevek’s own life story, from his early childhood on Anarres to his decision to go to Urras, is told in chapters that alternate with chapters about his experience on Urrass. As he grows his understanding of how Anarres society operates develops. Anarres societal structures stay the same way they have been since Shevek was a child, with all their problems, but he discovers these flaws almost as if they were new. Shevek’s life story is, in its simplest interpretation, an example of the Simultaneity Principle at work in everyone’s lives.

Le Guin offers her reader a science fiction metaphor that proposes an explanation for how people experience life and presents a detailed study of one life that illustrates and humanises that metaphor. Just looking at this one strand of exploration shows that ‘The Dispossessed’ contains some thinky thoughts. If the patterns of personal development was the only idea this novel dug into it would be a satisfying novel to engage with, especially as the novel focuses on Shevek who is a strangely like able character to follow despite his remoteness and his idealism. Still, it’s fun to read a science fiction novel that contains multiple ideas, which turn up in every part of of the novels workings. ‘The Dispossessed’ is getting its intellect on and it wants readers to KEEP UP!

Shevek’s scientific principle doubles as a metaphor for Marxist theories of history. Wikipedia will now explain Marx’s theory of historical materialism to you in full. In brief, he felt that history was made up of a number of identifiable economic stages, each one characterised by particular material conditions. Each set of conditions led to circumstances that caused the destruction of each economic model and encouraged the growth of a nw economic model. Marx believed that circumstances would eventually create a dominant communist economic model. The pages that the reader keeps turning represent different stages of material circumstances. The book represents an over arching historical time line and the future time line, which Shevek’s metaphor suggests is fixed with a predetermined ending. Readers move through the book, just as society moves through history, discovering more as they go along, but the book has already been written and it has a set end point. Marx thought that he had identified all the stages that had already taken place and that he could predict which stages would follow. In his theory of material circumstances, he predicted that the state of material conditions would cease to change once a communist model of circumstances dominated the world. In Shevek’s metaphor communism would be the end of the story.

Le Guin uses her fictional societies on Urras and Anarres to set up a Marxist commentary on systems of society. First a very important caveat: I have to admit that when we ran through introductory modules to schools of historical study and literary criticism at uni, Marxist theories of analysis were the ones I paid the least attention to. I did read some of The Communist manifesto, I did study Marx’s theories on stages of history, but I did so with little joy. To eighteen year old me, The Industrial Revolution (which our introductory module focused on) seemed like a snooze fest, full of problems that my set texts were reluctant to criticise. So, when I talk about how Le Guin’s anarchist utopian society on Anarras represents Marxist theories I do so from a very shallow knowledge base. Robin Edman on the Dreams and Speculation ‘Women of Sci-fi’ discussion thread said that the anarchist society on Anarras ‘degrades into communism’, implying a separation between schools of anarchist thought and communism, or Marxism and I think I’m going to try to keep the idea that there is some distinction in mind as I write my thoughts. Otherwise I guess I’ll just hold up my hands and say ‘there may be some glaring inaccuracies here, please correct them as you find them’.

Urras contains a system of nationalist societies that in some ways represent those found on Earth. It also operates a capitalist system of trade, which influences all other areas of life. Racial, gender and class inequalities are common. In contrast Anarres operates an anarchist society where everything is shared. People generally live in dormitories, eat communally and only take as much as they need. Everyone takes part in work rotations, so that they all share in the upkeep of society. That all sounds like the standard trappings of a communist society and it’s a little complicated to explain how Urras’ system of society differs from traditional conceptions of communist societies, without going into the details of how every aspect of Anarres society is set up. The key difference between Anarres’ anarchy and a communist society from history, like 1930s communist Russia is that on Anarres people only share voluntarily.

So, women choose to share themselves with a variety of sexual partners. Parents choose to send their children to live in collective places, instead of keeping them at home. everyone shares the hard times, as well as the good. When a prolonged drought decimates crops everyone in Anarres society shares the discomfort equally. Those who don’t participate are not reprimanded, shunned, or shamed. Although Anarres society will necessarily display displeasure, this displeasure is a manifestation of how citizen’s are free to act as they wish (although culture regulates citizens from behaving in physically harmful ways, without impinging on their freedom) not an attempt to bring those who won’t share back in line. The idea of sharing freely was one of the ideas behind Russia’s communist society, but during Stalin’s rule the governing forces relied on enforcement of those ideas, while in Anarres these choices are supposed to be made voluntarily with co-operation from citizens. That’s the theory anyway, although as the book goes on the reader sees how this theory has been quietly breaking away from the early ideals.

Shevek’s science fiction theories are the centre of the novel and encourage the reader to discover the ideas I’ve outlined. However, the intellectual appeal of ‘The Dispossessed' doesn’t end with Shevek’s ideas. I mentioned the narrative of Shevek’s life seems to provide evidence for his Simultaneity Principle. As the book progresses the narrative structure is revealed as Le Guin’s attempt to plot out of the pattern of the Simultaneity Principle in her chapters, narrative lines of investigation, tense and story choices. There are two linear narrative lines. The first narrative line is set in the present, where Shevek works on Urras, which progresses in a linear manner. The second narrative line is set in the past, following Shevek on Anarres and again moves in a linear fashion. The narratives are told in alternating chapters. So, we’ve got two narratives one present, one past that through their intermingling alternate chapters come close to existing at the same time, like the present and the past do according to Shevek’s principle. The present narrative moves in a constantly linear direction, as a person traveling through the present does according to the principle. The past narrative continues to reassert its existence even as the present narrative keeps going, just like the principle.

Connecting narrative structure to ideas within the novel, transforms the structure into an active part of the novel. The revelation that the structure is connected to the science fiction ideas is surprising, as all the best meta should be, delighting the reader with a sense of cleverness and wonder at trickery concealed until the appropriate point. Once the reader notices that Le Guin has taken to connect structure and rhetoric, the crafting of ‘The Dispossessed’ takes on a newly rigorous appearance. It becomes clear how deliberate each writing decision must have been to create a structure that reflects the novel’s ideas, instead of wandering off where ever it fancies.

As ‘The Dispossessed’ comes to a close Shevek is running from the people of Urras, desperate to return to Anarres, yet through the chapters set in the past the reader has seen that Anarres utopian ideals have been gently twisted. Corruption would be too strong a word, but the society no longer operates in the pure way Odo wanted it to and Shevek is too much of an idealist (and I mean that kindly, with approval even if I never could be an idealist of Shevek’s kind) to be satisfied with a mildly flawed society. At this point he meets an Ambassador Keng from Terra, who provides some clarity on his dislike of Urras:

‘ “Now, you man from a world I cannot even imagine, you who see my Paradise as Hell, will you ask what my world must be like?”
Sheveck was silent, watching her, his light eyes steady.
“My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves.” '
There’s a clear didactic message for the reader in Keng’s comments about Terra’s fate, identified by Keng as the direct substitute for the Earth we all know by her use of Earth as a name and by the use of Terra as the Urras name for the planet. Much like Charlton Heston’s ‘You maniacs! You blew it up!’ speech at the end of Planet of the Apes, Earth was destroyed by its own people’s appetites. However, the fate of Terra is a minor note, not a major plot point. The didactic commentary that relates to the novel’s sustained metaphorical plot ideas is Shevek’s rebuttal to Keng’s idea that Urras is like paradise.

Each planet Terra, Urras, Anarres represents a stage in the development of history and how society works. Terra is an old stage collapsed, Urras is the capitalist present and Anarres the anarchist/communist future, representing Marx’s idea that collapsing stages of economic circumstances lead to the creation of new economic epochs. Shevek alludes to the importance of past and future stages in Marx’s theory in this passage:

‘ ”You can’t understand what time is,” he said. “You say the past is gone, the future is not real, there is no change, no hope. You think Anarres is a future that cannot be reached, as your past cannot be changed. So there is nothing but the present, this Urras, the rich real stable present, the moment now. And you think that it is something that can be possessed! You envy it a little. You think it’s something you would like to have. But it is not real, you know. It is not stable, not solid – nothing is. Things change, change. You cannot have anything.... ’
Then he reinforces that each stage is dependent on and leads to the next when he says later that ‘least of all can you have the present, unless you accept with it the past and the future.’ and he reminds the reader that each stage collapses when he says ‘it’s not stable, not solid’. Through the device of placing different stages of development on different planets that remain in the same universe Le Guin reminds readers that each stage continues to exist as parts of the same grand progressive narrative, as pages do in a book even after a reader has moved to new pages. Shevek’s Simultaneity Principle is in operation and nothing can be achieved without an appreciation and acknowledgment of the wider narrative.

By Shevek’s logic nothing can be created in the present without a proper understanding of the past and the future; nothing can be maintained in the present. He provides a damning savaging that could easily be seen as an argument against the sense of security and finality that capitalist systems promise to provide. Although it seems weird to talk about that sense of security during a recession I’m not sure recession has really rocked the majority’s ideas about capitalism and the end of this speech by Sheveck seems to agree that people may not really want change from this system:

‘You are right, we are the key. But when you said that, you didn’t really believe it. You don’t believe in Anarres. You don’t believe in me, though I stand with you in this room, this moment...’

None of the ‘stage planets’ matches the ideal in this book and Shevek vows to build a new society that works based on Odo’s pure ideas. As Robin Edman put forward the idea that Anarres degrades into communism, I would suggest that the reader is being shown that communism could never be the end of history’s development as Marx predicted. Instead Le Guin proposes a continuum of development that never ends, unlike the book that Shevek used to illustrate his Simultaneity Principle. A sci-fi author, with a continued interest in how the future might develop – all is right with the world then!

* just to note that there were many cool for cats women who had already noticed this and have been doing work in the sci-fi arena for a long time

Other Reviews

Asking the Wrong Questions
Dreams and Speculations
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Last year I asked Simon at Savidge Reads to see if his readers could come up with a list of books that included single women, who stayed single until the end of the book and didn’t die of despair because of their lonely hearts. The Savidge Reads commenter’s made a pretty strong effort and furnished me with a list of contented, fictional single women to check out.

But, see, I am never satisfied. Even as I added these books so full of promise to my list, I was thinking one step on, identifying and grousing over other gaps in fictional female representation.

Although I think addressing the lack of fictional female representation in certain subject areas is important, I don’t intend to get shouty and moan (again) that books about female pirates, or warlords, or scientists are never going to trend as their own separate sub genre. Sure, I’d like more books about female pirates,** but in this post I want to go beyond asserting (again) that female protagonists don’t make it into novels about certain, very cool subjects, as often as male protagonists. However, I think that at least people recognise that this problem exists and these people are committed to pushing for a more equal representation. At least we can see that problem.

My query to Simon was about a much less visible lack of female representation. The low numbers of single, happy women in fiction is clear from many of the comments made on that post, but what’s also clear is that for some commenter’s it was the first time they’d realised there was a gap in the representation. A couple of months before I sent to Simon asking for recommendations I hadn’t really noticed just how absent single, happy women were from fiction. I am a very single woman who reads all the time. If anyone should have noticed and been annoyed that in a modern society, which would likes us to believe that it validates a single woman’s choice to be single, it should have been me.

When I eventually saw the lack of single female happiness made me think about what other kinds of general female experience are underrepresented and struggle to get that under representation noticed. As soon as I started looking I realised that it had been a loooong time since I’d read a book where a female character was described as plain, unattractive, or ugly where that character ended up some kind of happy by the final chapter.

‘The Woman in White’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ are both good examples of books where female characters don’t have to be attractive to get their happy ending. In the nineteenth century, when looks (in tandem with money) played a large part in defining how marriageable you were and marriage was seen as the gate to prosperous female fulfilment. Despite these societal truths neither the ‘ugly’ Marianne, or the ‘plain’ Jane found in these nineteenth century novels, die out of despair that their looks have doomed them to solitude. Jane actually gets to marry a man she loves. Wilkie Collins doesn’t lead Marianne to traditional, validating romantic happiness, but she doesn’t die, go mad, get assaulted, or end up in the poorhouse. In fact, she is shown as an intellectually sharp, happy, healthy character at the end of the book. I always find Collins treatment of Marianne vs. his treatment of Laura annoying, but since I wouldn’t have wanted her to marry Walter anyway (whatever Walter you are not that cool) I’m generally content to call Collins depiction of an ‘ugly’*** female character progressive.

I guarantee you if this problem was set up as an opinion piece on a big newspaper’s site these are the two books everyone would pull out to knock down the idea that plain girls don’t get a place in fiction. Yes, there are two whole books! Ok, they were written in the nineteenth century, but they’re both classics right? That means female characters described as unattractive are like, taking over the world!

Yes (Mr Straw Man), fine, blah, blah, classics, blah, blah, higly visible – theimportant thing, the thing to focus on is that there are just TWO books. Apart from those two books I find it hard to name any other books where a main female character is described as plain, unattractive, or ugly and offered some kind of happy ending.

Few authors describe female characters as unattractive and write them happy endings. I could make a couple of educated guesses about why that is:

Judging by programs that push make overs as therapeutic, fresh starts that will bring all the wonders of the rainbow, the way society perceive a woman's happiness is still tied up with how society thinks she looks

Not much has really changed and society still thinks happiness comes from romantic fulfilment, which it assumes is denied to women it deems unattractive. Fiction doesn’t reflect happiness for female characters which writers describe as unattractive, because society is narrow in its happiness recognition and assumes female characters described as unattractive could never find traditional happy endings

Some vestige of Victorian scientific analysis still remains in society and it’s still believed that character, personality and fulfilment are reflected by outward appearance. Unfulfilled characters are automatically written as unattractive, because people feel that unfulfilled lives are reflected in people’s dress, or features (or more generously writing descriptions is still seen as a reasonable short cut route to characterisation)

Wish fulfilment

And I’m sure the publishing industry has practical, writing as a business reasons as well (meh).

Now that I actually see this trend to reward only the fictional and beautiful with happiness****, I’m already bored of it. If you can recommend any books with happy endings for female characters who are clearly supposed to sound unattractive to the reader, please leave recommendations in the comments, I will love you. I’m not accepting books where a first person female character describes herself as unattractive, yet everyone around her falls at her feet, which makes it a bit trickier. I don’t expecting we’d get a lot of suggestions wherever we took this topic, but being proved wrong can only make me happy!

* Btw the late, great Diana Norman’s book ‘The Pirate Queen’ is perfect for anyone who wants a starting place

** Can we totally have female pirate week sometime this year?

*** There are tons of complicated cultural ideas past and present that go into that word and into Marianne’s presentation as an ‘ugly’ woman, but let’s push on and I’ll recommend that you hit up an aware fashion commentator like threadbared for analysis of these issues

**** Not every character described as unattractive has to be left happy. I’m not arguing for blanket positive messages that obscure complexity. I just want a little variation from the current standard of ‘beautiful/not considered totally unattractive and happy’ and ‘unattractive, so dying inside’
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I’m not a huge fan of Glee and I drop in and out of watching it. I tend to be hyper critical of the show (probably it falls down so often under the weight of my dreams for it). Sometimes it’s just another episode about the never ending girl fight over whichever bland hero is deemed hottest that week. Sometimes I find shiny gems. This weekend it delivered up such a perfect, female centric musical moment that I thought I’d share it here at LB:

I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to being a Gleek (the idea that Flynn is regarded as hot boy material still seriously stretches the bounds of realism for me) but the fact that this televisual moment exists makes me very happy indeed.
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My book buying ban is almost up! Yeah, no more standing outside Waterstones pawing at the window for me (ok, so I didn’t do, but in my mind I was pressed up against the glass). The dilemma: what to buy first? The crazy answer in my economically careless mind: EVERYTHING.

I must be stopped and I have nominated you, Renay and Ana, to stop me. Friends don’t let friends blow their growing house deposit on books. But I don’t want to make this all ‘Tie me down with chains people’ and I do want to buy some books. So let's play a game here in the land of net sleepovers.

Below is a list of books I would really, really love to own. The list contains twelve books with female protagonists.You get to pick two books each and I will definitely buy them at the start of June. I know, the power! I’ve added some vague comments that will explain what I expect to find in each book. So much awesome, just to make your decision even harder.

Oh and I have deliberately removed books that I know you want me to read, because that would make the choosing too easy for me to predict. I am mean now – not being able to buy books will do that to you.

On with the game! 

List of Fate 

'Tricks' – Ellen Hopkins: It’s inappropriate to describe a book about kids struggling with really hard lives as awesome, but ‘Tricks’ sounds like an amazing story. It contains five intersecting teenage lives and if the author can write five main characters centre stage without compromising the character development of any of them, then I would like to see that circus trick. 

'Reavers Ransom' – Emily Diamand: Drowned worlds, sea-cat companions, girls on boats and sea fairing raiders. I like books that involve sailing (understatement of the time space continuum).

'Plain Kate' – Erin Bow: A female woodworker, who goes a questing. Apparently this has been retitled ‘Wood Angel’ or summit in the UK, to which I say, weva. If you chose this one, I’ll be putting my money down on the US edition, which has the courage to imply that it contains a plain girl. 

'The False Princess' - Ellis O’Neal: A different twist on the commoner becomes princess, trope. A princess finds out she’s just a regular girl, who was used as a princess impersonator, to shield the real royal gal from a curse. Off she must go to spin wool in a shack. I can just imagine the rich adults all ‘Gawd, be cool’ while she weeps. This rec reached my eyes via The Booksmugglers who bring the rec-ing ball repeatedly to bear on my TBR list (oh terrible puns, will I ever tire of you?). It also has a pink cover that I actually like! 

'The Princess Curse' - Merrie Haskell: The story of the dancing princesses is one of my favourite fairytales and it doesn’t get adapted enough. The princesses must escape their rooms at night and dance in the woods, because they are cursed. That set up is so ready for some feminist deconstruction. The cover of this reimagining is made of tooth crumbling sweetness.

'Tell Us We’re Home' - Marina Budhos: Shameless promotion – this book is on the Nerds Heart YA 2011 short list. Three female best friends, whose mothers work as housekeepers, find their relationship rocked when one mother is accused of stealing. I predict complicated, but loving relationships, which are my favourite kind. 

'Dirty Little Secrets' - C J Omololu: Another NHYA book. This one is about hoarding and teenagers dealing with parental mental illness. Personally I think the cover on this one is special. It draws you in through the key hole to the girl, clutching her knees. The black surround makes the eye focus, until puzzling out the girl’s situation (is she locked in, has she locked herself in?) is all important. 

'Huntress' - Malinda Lo: I keep reading about Ash, but the more I read, the more I feel I’ll be disappointed by it. Huntress, on the other hand sounds action, adventure, romance awesome. In my opinion a journey quests should always lead to the characters falling in love/forming deep, deep friendships (ok maybe I’ve seen LadyHawke more times than is healthy).

'Diary of a Chav: Trainers vs Tiaras' - Grace Dent: I have to admit I’m kind of repelled by the glaring colours of the covers, although they’re a deliberate tie in with ideas about chav culture. Bookshelves of Doom tells me that this series about a girl growing up on an estates is fun and thoughtful. As, like a lot of British people I have chav issues it’s probably time to expand my empathy.

'Chains' - Laurie Halse Anderson: I’m a new LHA convert, which means I’ve got so much to catch up on. I kind of worry that this book will hurt my heart a bit. Hard things happen in LHA books and slavery is an institution that gives an author space to show really awful things happening to their characters. 

'Wrapped' - Jennifer Bradbury: Victorian high society meshes with spies and secrets at the unwrapping of an Eygptian mummy. I found out about unwrapping parties last year (rich people had mummies unwrapped at their evening parties). Number ten thousand on the list of why being rich would be cool. 

'Steel' - Carrie Vaughn: Female pirates, female pirates, female pirates, fencing!

So what am I going to buy ladies? My money is in your hands.
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Last year I reviewed a book in a new series by Y S Lee. The first novel ‘A Spy in the House’ begins just as orphan Mary Quinn was being saved from the gallows. She is taken to be educated in a charitable institution, Miss Schrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, ostensibly so that she could earn useful skills and take up a career appropriate for a poor girl. After several years at the Academy it is revealed that an all female spy ring operates out of the academy and Mary is to be recruited for her first mission. While I found the solution to the mystery in the first book a little tricky to unravel I was so happy with the overall book. Spies, romance, proto-feminism, history, and charmingly awkward encounters in a wardrobe…This book is full of all kinds of little touches that made me ridiculously happy.

Last month I finished the second book in the series ‘The Body at the Tower’, which was just as good (and I understood the solution to the mystery this time). I realised I was sad that there was only one more book in the series and that’s when I knew it would happen again. Yes, I would become a book pusher for this series. Are you ready, because here comes the YA evangelism:

Reasons why I am attempting to push ‘The Agency’ series on you

Spies who are ladies: Let’s face it, men have traditionally been given the most adventurous roles, so I love when writers give female characters roles that in the past, belonged exclusively to male characters. I mean, there are problematic side issues that can play into this role reversal, but done well stories where girls go to work in male industries can yield some truly fun results. For me ladies + super secret spying activities = some sort of messy squeeish explosion. James Bond was a pretty big influence on shaping my tastes in cool, but sadly there were no female Bond’s when I was growing up. Girls got to kiss the spy, but rarely did they get to be the ones stealing documents and making roof top getaways.

While Mary is no Bond equivalent and her story is set in Victorian London, ‘The Agency’ series is based around Mary’s induction into a secret organisation of female spies, who use their gender as the ultimate disguise. In Victorian London, patriarchal prejudices guarantee that no one looks at a sensible female companion and suspects her of being a wickedly clever spy. Mary and her colleagues go unnoticed as they carry out their surveillance work, when a man would appear suspicious if he started poking about. This set up, where prejudice makes male society more susceptible to female spies, appeals to my smug, inner feminist. Oh boys, if only you weren’t so damn sexist you’d have seen that sting coming.

I’ve seen people clamour for more female detectives (I totally support this clamour btw, I would even support caterwauling calls), but as yet there just aren’t enough books with a full range of female spies. Y S Lee goes to the top of my author list for adding more female spies to my shelves. And obviously it’s all about me.

Feminist YA: It sounds so negative to say there’s a dearth of well written young adult books that explore feminist issues effectively and explicitly. I don’t mean to say that young adult writers aren’t trying to engage with feminism. There are some really good examples I could cite, such as ‘Flygirl’ by Sheri L Smith, but YA books that grapple with sexist chicanery are definitely still a minority.

So far, ‘The Agency’ series (especially ‘A Spy in the House’) is full of successful feminist critique. The feminist arguments that Mary Quinn uses are well thought out and would withstand tough examination. Y S Lee never lets her story or characters disappear under the feminist commentary, yet at the same time she never compromises her attractive feminist line to further her story. She’s made feminism a vital part of her story in a couple of ways that I’d just like to examine a bit if you’ll come with me.

I guess to an extent I’ve come to see any a female character put out front, as at least a goodwill gesture of pro-female intent from an author. Obviously there are some notable, anti-feminist exceptions to that rule (a certain vampire series which manages to be grindingly female undermining, despite being written from a heroine’s perspective). In general though, if an author is putting girls in books and making them positive characters/heroines/complex human beings who aren’t always nice , rather than setting them up to be doormats/dead/stereotypes/soulless people then that’s great.

Having complex woman take major roles in books is wonderful. The idea that the personal is political is a strong one in our society, so we see a lot of female characters who challenge gender stereotypes, or create female positive spaces, just by presenting themselves to the world in one way or another. Y S Lee contributes to this type of political female representation by including heroines and female spies, in a setting where these kind of female presentations go against stereotypical cultural ideas.

I don’t mean to sound unsatisfied with this type of female representation. The more major female characters appear and the more female characters that present complicated, but essentially anti-sexist fronts the better. I don’t want to seem like I’m underestimating how each heroine contributes to the politics of female representation by showing up, being themselves and working for what they want. At the same time, I sometimes I wish there was also a greater amount books that had their characters explicitly examine sexist and feminist arguments with the words. I’m not trying to advance a value judgment about one aspect of the personal politic (speaking out) being more worthy than another (showing up every day). I just wish we could have both approaches turn up in YA as often as possible.

In ‘the Agency’ series Y S Lee makes Mary a heroine who presents a complex, successful female personality to the reader. By looking at how Mary’s character acts and the career she’s chosen readers can absorb the ideas that girls are capable in roles traditionally taken by men and that realistic female characters can challenge simplistic gender stereotypes. Just by showing up in a novel and acting like a person who is being true to herself, Mary presents a personal politic that advances a female-positive idea. But Lee goes a step further and shows that Mary is capable of elucidating the logical reasons behind the pro-female stance, through conversations like this one:

‘He sighed patronizingly. “When men enlist, they know they are risking their lives. When gently bred young women flock to a military encampment, they not only endanger themselves, they also distract those who must look after them, and who ought to be thinking of other things.”

“And males are only too eager to blame all their shortcomings on the distraction represented by females,” Mary retorted. “As though nurses are the only women in an encampment!” '

Lee includes her kickass, realistic, complex female character and she has Mary argue for her own gender. In doing both she advances two fronts of political, female positive representation.

I understand there’s a tendency for authors to avoid giving their characters arguments to make, because this didactic approach can come off as preachy. I’m usually against the staged conversations, because they’re often poorly inserted into the story. The speech in these conversations can take on an unnatural quality, in much the same way that conversations consisting of world building info dumps sometimes make characters sound oddly formal. Everything characters say in these passages can becomes exceptionally precise, as the author tries to keep their purpose clear and encourage their characters to talk about issues they might naturally avoid.

The conversations in which Lee includes feminist commentary avoid this stiffness because of her skills as a dialogue writer. Some writers just can’t write sustained periods of dialogue that sound natural (to me anyway). I even noted in my review of ‘Spy in the House’ that some of Lee’s own commentary on items of Victorian history, sounds a little obviously teachery, though set piece conversations like the one above sound normal. She also shapes her story into a narrative which invites feminist commentary (Victorian society, where a secret group of female spies solves London’s problems) and gives Mary reason to be female positive (head strong, intelligent girl in patriarchal Victorian society, raised in an all female organisation), which makes it seem natural for Mary to hold and voice views on woman and sexist theories. Crucially, as I said above, Lee never lets the active, moving story get buried under feminist commentary.

Even if didactic arguments are well done, it is arguable that the use of didactic conversations, thoughts, or third person commentary is not appropriate in modern literature. I would argue though that these kinds of conversations don’t just act as instructive tools for the reader. Didactic feminist arguments also act as a way for writers to show women shouting, arguing back and asserting a vocal version of a female personal politic. We have so few novels that focus on traditional feminist activism (of the protest rally, or organised feminist group kind), so novels where women speak their minds and knock down sexist arguments with words seem just as important as novels where women knock down sexist assumptions with their sheer presence. I want more novels where the female characters take up arguments and hurl them loudly at the world around them and I want these arguments to be well done and integrated into novels with skill. Let me hear a cry of: ‘You are demanding!’ Well, I will just be over here with my Y S Lee’s books having my demanding side catered to *cradles books*.

History Geek Out: Y S Lee has all the history facts. All of them. When an author can take a done to death period like Victorian London and teach you new things about it you have to award them some kind of history crown, or possibly a sceptre. I so enjoyed learning about parts of history that were new to me, like details of the community of Lascar sailors that inhabited London’s docks. You can see some of the interesting things Lee knows about Victorian England by looking through her blog tour posts.

Five reasons why the second book ‘The Body at the Tower’ is particularly awesome

Wait, the body is where now?: The mystery concerns a body that was found dead in the ‘cursed’ Big Ben. Freak out with me a little right now history fans! This is a novel where Big Ben has yet to be finished, where the characters were walking around the half completed Big Ben. I mean, that’s almost like time travel to the birth of a great monument. If you don’t understand, I don’t know how to explain, but this is just, wow, I got such a palpable feeling of history being created. I got a sense of great affection for history in the making from this book and a kind of playful deconstruction, which is similar to the feelings that roll of an episode of Dr Who where they travel back in time.

Cross dressing: Heroines dressed as boys is a favourite trope of mine. Mary must infiltrate the building site by posing as a young male labourer Mark Quinn to investigate the death at the tower. What I especially liked about Lee’s use of the cross dressing trope, is that she makes it into something deeper than a very useful and liberating disguise. Mary has posed as a Mark before, to avoid being raped when she lived alone on the streets. Returning to her old disguise brings up issues of identity that threaten Mary’s ability to complete her mission. I like how Lee takes this common trope and makes it individual to her heroine, by adding back story and how this also increases the realism of an almost fantasy situation (girl in repressed society easily escapes restrictions by adopting male dress – problems solved).

Social commentary: ‘The Agency’ books betray an interest in issues of social justice. The focus of the social commentary in ‘The Body at the Tower’ is a little different from that in ‘A Spy in the House’, which focuses on society’s attitudes towards women and Chinese sailors. ‘The Body at the Tower’ spends a lot of time looking at the poverty of many London residents, as Mary returns to places that remind her of the hard life she faced after her mother died. It also looks a little at issues of conflicted identity, as Mary continues to pass in white society but is always recognised as British-Asian by Chinese characters. While racial identity is a (vital) theme I’ve seen explored in a few young adult novels, I haven’t read many young adult novels that deal with poverty, so it was interesting to see Lee dig around in that area of Victorian history.

Lee comments on the specific social injustice of Victorian Britain, rather than setting up historical situations that lead to obvious lessons about modern injustice. Although she avoids leading her reader to direct comparisons about modern day social injustice she makes strong points about what should and shouldn’t be acceptable in any society (sexism, child labour, racial prejudice).

The Romance: The romance between James Easton and Mary was swoon worthy in the first book, but they parted expecting they would never meet again. Then James appears on the building site, weakened from a fever he caught in India. It’s obvious they are in love, but Lee keeps throwing obstacles in their way until…

I never thought I’d topple so hard for James, as he often shows himself to be a smug Victorian male in the first book. However, he’s also just in his twenties, determined to make his business a success and oh so uncertain about life underneath all that arrogant charm. He’s much more vulnerable in ‘The Body in the Tower’ and open about his feelings for Mary. I’m beginning to feel that the more he sees of Mary, the more reconciled he would be to her being her own unconventional person. He wouldn’t push her to fit into the shadows of his life, like the stereotypical Victorian wife. I feel like he’s become a decent partner for Mary over the two books and if she could find a way to fit her life as a spy, with her love for James they would make the best couple. Their relationship is going to work out, or I am going to cry.

Ladies, detecting: Ladies: solving crimes with their minds! It’s like girls are smart or something. Mary is all ‘I will sleuth in my disguise and uncover the crime!’ and she does work capably, but she also makes mistakes, as you’d expect of a new spy. One of my favourite bits of sleuthing comes when Mary has to go to the pub to ‘gather information’ and accidentally gets rather drunk. She isn’t perfect, but she also isn’t rubbish. There are more fruitful, professional spying moments, like the daring night time game of hide and seek at the building site, as she follows a criminal in her search for clues.

‘The Agency’ series is so much fun for fans of mysteries, spies, ladies and Victoriana. Won’t you come and squee with me, before the third (and possibly final, gah, NO) installment comes out in June?

Other Reviews of 'The Body at the Tower'

Reading in Color
A Striped Armchair
The Booksmugglers
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At least once a year, probably more, a conversation starts about how boys aren’t reading, because there aren’t enough books which represent boys' interests. Let me put the complications of what kind of books represent boys interests phrasing away for a moment, as I think I’ve spent enough time deconstructing the idea of ‘boys books’ in earlier posts. The issue I want to focus on in this post is that participants in these conversations often neglect to consider the overall context of gender representation in which their conversations must take place. Their ignorance of this context, can resulting in an exclusionist focus that ignores the true shape of reality.

What is, ha, I want to say shocking, but that would be ridiculous, instead I’ll say what is troubling, is that male commentators on this issue (and let me make this absolutely clear, even though I’ve tried to qualify any reference of men in this post: I’m not talking about all men here, just men who engage in specific behaviour, this post will not apply to some men, but it will apply to others) often appear totally uninterested that there are many, many areas (large and small) where the female gender is not overwhelmingly represented. Every year the English male rugby team competes in the six nations tournament. Their matches are shown by the BBC, who control some of the main television channels in my country. The English women’s team took the Grand Slam this year as they did in 2010. They also won the Grand Slam three years running from 2006 - 2008. The Grand Slam has famously eluded the men's team since 2003. And the women’s six nation tournament is shown...where, exactly? Are male commentators so concerned about the exclusion of men from areas of literary representation rocking up to engage in conversations about the lack of representation for women? Are they fuck!

We know that when women see themselves represented in media sources, these representations are not championed by much of male society. In fact, when women are represented that representation is actively scorned, usually by men (discussions on The Orange Prize, or the encroaching feminising of sci-fi are good examples of this kind of disparagement). When women aren’t represented in media sources that lack of representation is ignored, or explained away by these same men. These men’s sole focus is on the small areas where women have made a space for their own gender and how this may exclude men, or boys. Men who engage in these conversations rarely consider that society has and continues to create vast plains of spaces for maleness, which it is even now desperately trying to keep free from female involvement.

When people start passionately proclaiming that there is a ‘boy problem’, or that boys may be underrepresented in a few areas, it is hard for many ladies to keep from rolling their eyes. It is hard for some of us to keep from questioning why men, and society in general, talk so little about the many, many, many areas where women are underrepresented, or poorly represented, or just fucking pushed to the side.

Men who engage in conversations about boys and reading will often conveniently ignore the widespread lack of representation for girls and women, then refocus the conversation on one of the few areas where boys may, may, lack representation. Add that tunnel vision approach to the way these conversation quickly spin off into women blaming and you reach a situation where some ladies need to open their mouths, because if they don’t their heads will explode. I imagine that is why Maureen Johnson felt she needed to tweet, wondering why we don’t ever talk about the WMBA, even though it caused some people to question the relevance of her contribution to the conversation. The calls come that ‘It’s not time for talking about women’s issues now, it’s time to talk about the men.’ and it feels like, well, when isn’t it time to talk about the men? Men control the dialogue on representational inequality. They decide what we’re talking about and not talking about, but unfortunately the direction of their focus is not determined by looking at what real inequalities of representation exist, but by deciding what they want to talk about. These are not conversations about gender inequality, they are conversations about men. Again.

When women want to talk about the sexual and gender inequalities perpetuated in so many areas, or take a look at how many areas of power are dominated by men, it is typical to find lots of men in the comments sections mansplaining. “What is happening is not sexist, dude, it’s just not!” Alternatively these men remain silent on these subjects, instead of offering support. It is not like we can expect these men to step outside their gender box and stand as allies when there are dudeboys to be talked about at length, forever. They simply do not have the time and it is implied that women must be ‘strong’ enough to continually create their own spaces of representation. They must continually counter slander again and again if they want to prove the worth of these spaces.

Dudes I get it, I think all the feminist and female positive women got it long ago. Ladies have to make it on their own, carve their own space for these arguments. We cannot and should not rely on the opposite gender to do so for us. If a guy asked ‘Why is there no Orange Prize for the mens?’ (y’know after cursing and rehashing years of literary inequality under my breath) I’d refer him to the official Orange position. If men want something gender specific, then they need to make it their own damn selves, and the same applies to women. I’m not asking these men to do the job for us, I’m just asking that they not make the same repetitive points over and over until I feel so damn tired that I sequester myself away from the world with books and booze, vaguely hoping that a giant tidal wave is on its way. And maybe, if it’s not too much trouble, they could listen to what women are saying instead of imposing their own agenda in our spaces.

If I put these thoughts to the kind of men who fill blog posts with derailing comments men and maybe they’d start thinking "Damn, this isn’t equality*. You’re saying it’s not acceptable for men to talk about the way the world fucks guys over in spaces given over to feminism. But then you say it’s fine to talk about how society fucks women over in spaces where the original conversation is about male equality. How the fuck does that work?” Let me explain: ours is not an equal society. Although women really are equal to men and strive for recognition of this equality, they often experience dramatically unequal treatment. Anyone throwing round ‘reverse sexism’ arguments should take a minute to ask the women around them about women’s representation. Can these women watch a sports team representing their gender without having to buy a special tv package? Can they watch a female team play their favourite sport at all? How many consecutive years have women won their favourite non-gender specific awards? How many female politicians are there in the party they support? When did they last see an Oscar nominated film that was all about the ladies**? How many all female indie bands have they heard about in the last twelve months? To sum up: Areas where women are represented more than men are rare.

In an ideal reality, we would see spaces created for discussion about a few very real inequalities that may exist for men and we would happily note the worth of these spaces, these discussions. However, because we live in less than ideal circumstances where similar discussions about the many very real inequalities that face women are systematically derailed and shut down in a mess of anti-productivity, it is hard for many women not to laugh in the face of these discussions. Women are being asked to care deeply about issues of inequality that affect men (and let us acknowledge that often we do not even agree that the issue at hand is correct) when many men could give a short, unsatisfactory fuck about issues of inequality relating to women, many of which have existed for decades.

That, thank goodness, is the end of me pounding out a series of posts about the rhetorical inequality at the heart of arguments on boys and young adult fiction. Gendered argument inequality extends past the specific points I’ve deconstructed, and responses to arguments are often based on sexist simplification, or gendered rhetorical inequality as well. For resources about that aspect of rhetorical arguments you can visit our Education Manifesto.

As much as I’ve tried to keep it tamped down this series is built on anger and I could write a lot more posts built on angry foundations. I’m not sure what use these posts are, but they do make me feel at least a little better – tired, but calmer, like all the words mobbing my brain are out of my head. Next Wednesday no angry shouting I promise. Next Wednesday, lady spies and happiness.

Let me Catch You Up: Ladies, Gentlemen, Somebody Ring the Alarm, Girls Omni-Reading,Girls, Like They're Boys, The Pointy Finger of Blame: Girls, Needs and Boys Not Reading

*Link courtesy of Ana
** Link courtesy of Renay
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This is the fourth installment in my series of posts on the way society talks about boys reading young adult fiction. The purpose of this series of posts is to critique the rhetorical arguments used when people talk about girls and boys reading, looking specifically at whether the structure of these arguments is logical and whether they include sexist rhetoric. This week I’ll be looking at a doozy of a mind twister, the idea that more books that ‘suit’, or ‘are friendlier towards’ girls are being published, than books that suit, or ‘are friendlier towards’ boys.

If we look at the real life situation (the number of boys reading young adult fiction is falling, boys are said to be struggling to find young adult fiction they want to read) it’s easy to focus solely on the genuine concern that boys not reading young adult fiction raises in the minds of readers, educators, parents and people in general. While it is important to focus on why boys aren’t reading young adult fiction, it seems like this topic has been and continues to be focused on plenty. What is rarely discussed is the construction of the argument that rises along the way in many of these conversations: it is presumed that girls have more books around them that suit their needs (the covers being used are traditionally feminine, the books are female orientated, or contain traditional areas of female interest, or the female sex is represented positively), or that more books are being produced ‘for’ girls.

I think it’s important for us to discuss the construction of a phrase like ‘more books are being produced that suit girls' needs’ (which is admittedly paraphrased from blog posts and comments I’ve seen over the last couple of years) because the content of such a simple snippet reveals much about common, negative arguments put forward for why boys aren’t reading. This kind of phrase contains a logically flawed argument, as do the rest of the arguments I’ve talked about so far. It treats girls as a homogeneous cultural group, and I outlined in my first post why it is incorrect to do so. And it poly-fills its logical hole with many pointing fingers, keen to indicate that women and girls are conspiring against boys' enjoyment of young adult fiction. By examining this statement, we can learn a lot about the construction of unhelpful, distracting arguments that pretend to explain why boys don’t read young adult fiction and work our way towards really understanding the real situation.

Unsound logic

My biggest issue with this kind of phrase is that it is based on unsound logic. ‘More books are being produced that suit girls' needs’, but as I said in my second post, girls seem to be recognised as omni-readers. Being omni-readers, girls will, in general, read a bit of everything. They don’t need to find anything especially gender related in their reading to be encouraged to read. It’s tough to maintain that girls are recognised as omni-readers by society AND that they read because they are receiving a wealth of books that ‘are friendlier’ to their gender.

It can be done. Of course it can be done, rhetorical arguments that look logical to many people can be constructed to justify anything, but that doesn’t mean that they’re based on factually correct information. A lot of educated people thought witches existed because rhetorical arguments that seemed to make contextually logical sense justified their way of thinking. A lot of women died. The arguments continued to make contextual sense to many. There still weren’t any witches.*

Imprecise language

But for the minute I’ll keep exploring this argument as if there isn’t a gigantic logical hole in the middle of it. I will avert my eyes from the hole, while being careful not to fall into it. Now I need to address the idea that phrases similar to ‘more books are being produced that suit girls’ needs’ can be described as examples of good points being made with imprecise language. What someone using this phrase actually means, some would claim, is something along the lines of ‘more books are being produced that are designed to appeal to girls’, ‘marketers seem to think that using X, which is culturally difficult for boys to embrace, will attract girls to books’, or ‘more books are being produced that focus on traditional feminine subject matters’.

If that is what these people mean, WHY DON’T THEY BLOODY SAY IT THEN?

Saying that ‘more books are being produced that suit girls' needs than books that suit boys' needs’ makes girls sound complicit in the destruction of boys' reading enjoyment. Here’s the chain of thought I hear laboriously clicking into place every time I hear a similar phrase used: first, girls (all girls, as no distinction has been made about a particular group of girls) have these needs, which they apparently can’t control and telegraph to book marketers through their buying habits. The market reacts to these needs by creating more books to suit the girls’ needs. Such a large amount of resources are being dedicated to satisfying girls’ needs that boys’ needs are being ignored. If only the girls could stop having these stupid, exclusionary needs and validating how important those needs are to their reading experience, then the market would stop producing so many books that respond to these exclusionary needs! OMG girls needs are the reason why boys don’t read.

In case I haven’t said it enough in this series of posts. Um…no.

This phrase and its like implicitly connect girls and their stupid needs to boys losing out when young adult fiction is created. It makes girls an active part of disenfranchising boys in their reading experiences. It points the finger of shame at girls and says, ‘your reading is costing boys their reading enjoyment’. It contradicts all the work people who genuinely think deeply about boys not getting something positive from young adult fiction put into saying that they well understand that girls reading more does not harm boys' reading experience.

Let me be clear, the girls who are reading and shaping ideas about what sells are not in any way enemies of boys reading. Using imprecise language that implies that girls who read take part in destroying boys' reading enjoyment is harmful and it distracts the focus away from a proper search into why boys really aren’t reading young adult fiction. Sometimes people who use this kind of phrase have good intentions and sometimes they don’t. I’m finding it harder and harder to automatically give people the benefit of the doubt when I have to decide whether someone is being a dick, or whether they have just picked their words badly. People with good intentions might like to choose the words they use with care.

Womanly Needs (I just threw up in my mouth a little)

My final problem with this kind of phrase is the way it alludes to girls’ ‘needs’. ‘Needs’ (and other words such as ‘tastes’, ‘interests’ and phrases like ‘books that are friendly to girls’) are such vague terms that they can encompass a wide variety of things. No clarification is provided as to what these ‘needs’ might be. The vagueness of these terms makes it harder for anyone to engage with the arguers points and they allow the arguer plausible deniability. Again here is a hypothetical, hyperbolic version of the way this vague terminology seeks to hide the lack of knowledge and precision this argument is built on:

'Oh no, Ms Opponent, we did not mean to imply that girls have those kind of needs, that would be a sexist claim. No, we meant some other needs that we will again fail to clarify. These needs are still girl specific, but they’re not sexist. Even if you can get us to tell you what we think those needs are and then explain why thinking girls have those needs is sexist, we can still use the vagueness of the term to say ‘Ahha, you have proved us wrong on that count, but there are other nebulous needs we do not have time/all the information to identify right now, but they totally exist. You can’t prove they don’t exist, which means we can prove they do!'

Circular, bad logic at its best there.

Since the nature of girls' ‘needs’ (and every time I write that it feels a little creepier) are often left unspecified, I thought I might present my best guess at some of the things people are really talking about when they say ‘lots of books are being produced that suit girls' needs’. It would take me a long time to debate all these points and this is a long ass post already. So instead of reiterating all these points from scratch, I’ll use links where necessary to explain what I think the points people are referring to when they mentions girls’ reading ‘needs’. I'll also show off some of the good work others have done illuminating the sexist rhetoric of similar arguments:

1.) There sure is a helluva lot of young adult romance out there…

'Over the next several years, the Sci-Fi channel became increasingly feminized, losing many of its traditional male viewers in an attempt to go after female viewers...Scripts were rewritten to have “more relationships” (more drama) and fewer “space battles.” ' - 'The Spearhead'

I’ve seen (and other people like Candy at Smart Bitches have also seen) a few posts from sci-fi fans saying that romance is killing their genre by feminising it.

'But somehow, everyone has a very firm idea of what the average romance reader is like. We bet you already know her. She's rather dim and kind of tubby — undereducated and undersexed — and she displays a distressing affinity for mom jeans and sweaters covered in puffy paint and appliquéd kittens. So even though repeated surveys conducted by independent research reveal that an astonishingly diverse and often affluent population reads romance novels, in popular depictions, we're all the same.' - 'Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels'

Readers of adult romance often ask questions about why a genre/subject that has a mostly female readership is
so often derided, despite it being extremely commercially successful and despite rallying cries from many genre fans in defence of other, male dominated genres.

I think it bears considering that when people link young adult romance and female needs with the fact that boys don’t enjoy reading young adult fiction, there may be an element of sexism in this argument.

2.) …and there are tons of books that look like they suit the traditionally feminine girls needs too.

This comes back to what I was saying in my first post: girls are not all part of a homogeneous cultural group just because they are all female. While many books may look like they’re designed to project traditional ideas about femininity to attract female readers, these tactics often do not work, because not every girl responds positively to traditional ideas about femininity. Saying that this kind of book suits girls’ needs is to make assumptions based on false premises (that all girls are the same and that because something looks traditionally feminine it suits a girl's needs). In doing so, the arguer makes an incorrect link between marketing and real women.

3.) There are an awful lot of books with heroines as well.

'We've stripped boys of substance and we did it to empower girls. Somehow, the message "girls can do it too" became "only a girl can do it," and men became the weaker sex in YA.' - 'Invincible Summer'.

I don’t mind the general argument here (that maybe there should be more and varied young adult novels with male leads because boys need representation - although I still want to see some numbers on this). On the other hand, I reject the idea that novels featuring heroines are expanding outside their segment of the pie, and in doing so are knocking out available resources for books featuring male leads. That argument seems to claim that because there are novels about girls flying on dragons fighting with swords, no one is going to publish any more books about boys flying on dragons with swords, so boys miss out on seeing themselves represented. I really don’t see that – if books about fighting on dragons with swords are popular, surely publishers will rush to publish all books about fighting on dragons with swords, right? And again, the idea that books with heroines are eating the slice of the pie allotted to books with heroes seems to link boys not enjoying young adult fiction with girls expanding their areas of representation and reading interests.

'Backlash is when a movement toward equality for a marginalized group gains momentum and the privileged group(s) freak out. This usually takes the form of denying that there's a problem or firmly announcing that the problem has been taken care of, all while doing a little dance in the opposite corner of the room to refocus the attention on who's really suffering.' - 'Manifesta'

I say hell yes to this post and the way it corrects the mistaken idea that as girls grow more empowered and see more diverse representation of themselves in young adult fiction boys automatically see less representation and find less to enjoy in YA. It turns reminds us that when someone points a blaming finger at the ladies in error three fingers point back at them.

4.) It’s time to make vague gendered assumptions about what girls' want and need. Again. Hurray, I never get tired of this carousel ride.

Girls like pink covers, or reading about romance. They are actively involved in the pink cover/romance domination of the young adult market. Blah, blah, blah, these arguments progress in a predictable way, probably with assumptions about natural behaviour thrown in. Need I repeat myself? Assumptions of homogeneous culture…. link to girls actively encouraging market to alienate boys…total fucking crap.

5.) Girls reading actively keeps boys from reading.

'Let’s face it guy readers, we are pwn3d by female book bloggers, let alone female readers. And considering the fact that we are tremendously outnumbered by them, we will continuously be pwn3d over the next millenia.' - 'Guy Gone Geek'

Please see the rest of this post and hear me shout NO, NO, NO, NO, NO. To borrow some words from Renay:

'the WHAT ABOUT THE MENZ?!?!?! meme is a staple of being a lady in the world who sees arrows in her entertainment.' - subverting the text

These are the kinds of implicit sexist rhetoric I hear behind every bit of vague talk about how the majority of young adult novels being published are 'friendlier' towards girls because they fit with girls 'needs'. Prove me wrong - clarify your ideas opponents.

With this post (and with this series in general), I hope to affirm that there is a sexist slant to arguments about why boys don’t read young adult fiction. In doing so I want to demonstrate that a false barrier has been identified between boys and how little young adult fiction they may read (girls and their needs). Focusing on this incorrect barrier distracts people from defining and combating the real barriers that keep boys from enjoying young adult fiction. Focusing on this barrier also reinforces sexist culture. Neither of these things get me any closer to the cultural society I want to live in.

* Yes, ok, my dissertation topic was rhetorical arguments for witchcraft – it is still a good example.

Next Wednesday: The final installment (or thankfully I can stop talking about this after one last, angry post)

Previously: 'Ladies, Gentlemen, Somebody Ring the Alarm', Girls Omni-reading, Girls Like They're Boys
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I think it's pretty clear from last week’s post that I think that a rhetorical double standard is employed when discussions begin about the difference between boys and girls reading. Boys are said to naturally only enjoy reading that promotes one type of traditional gender culture. Girls are said to naturally enjoy aspects of fiction that can be associated with both traditional gender cultures. Biologically guided rules are used to explain both boys and girls reading habits, as they’ve been used to explain male and female actions throughout history. But this time girls are the ones said to be benefiting from their biological leanings, while boys are the ones losing out. The fact that the arguments about what is natural for boys and girl when it comes to reading young adult fiction do not use biology, or ideas about natural behaviour to exclude girls from enjoying anything allows the ‘it’s natural’ argument to pose as an argument adapted for time of equality.

The trouble is that even though these kinds of arguments no longer denigrate the female sex, they still suggest a link between the male sex’s ‘natural’ capability to read certain things for enjoyment and the disparity of how few boys read for pleasure compared to girls. The ‘it’s natural’ argument appears to have adapted itself for times of equality, but really it’s just switched it’s focusing and is now intent on belittling men instead. It's not so long ago that society thought women's interests and abilities were entirely guided by their biology. Now, when I hear arguments about what boys 'can' and ‘can’t’ be interested in I feel like I'm watching the same reasoning unfold, but few people seem bothered.

In the spirit of real equality let me take you on a quick tour of why I find some of the arguments about boys and reading unpalatable, by examining the way I and general society would feel if these arguments were used to explain how girls might be expected to read:

1.) In the last post I talked about arguments that claim boys naturally need exclusively traditional male culture in their reading, if they’re going to enjoy young adult fiction. Like I said, to my ear these arguments sounded remarkably similar to nineteenth century thoughts about the ‘natural’ limitations being female placed upon a woman. If anyone now said that girls could only be interested in X traditionally feminine thing people would immediately, loudly explain why this is wrong thinking. When applied to girls this argument about natural interests look outdated, sexist and limiting. Don’t they look the same when they’re applied to boys?

2.) It is sometimes argued that by saying boys can be interested in the same kind of books that girls are interested in people (read women) are trying to feminise the whole male sex. Again think about how people might react if someone said girls being encouraged to read about male culture might make them overly masculine. I’m imagining a chair flying across a crowded room.

3.) Then there’s the cover debate about how pink, or traditionally feminine covers put boys off reading many books. Most of these discussions now range around the sensible idea that boys are culturally conditioned to avoid traditionally female covers, or covers that suggest a story is less active. However, mixed in among this valid point are ideas that there’s an element of biologically coded naturalness to the way that boys avoid these kinds of covers. And inevitably ideas arise about how we have to play within the culturally created confines of boys cover likes and dislikes because boys can’t wait until we’ve changed an entire sexist culture, they’re growing up and they need to be reading now.

This conversation, ideas on how society impacts boy’s reaction to traditionally feminine covers and my feelings on this whole cover discussion are way too complicated to sum up in a paragraph. Perhaps I’ll have time to come back to that issue later in the years, or perhaps I will decide I’d like to spend my time doing something more productive. What I can do here is pose a couple of simple ideas for you to think around. Suppose that someone suggested girls naturally could not be expected to pick up certain books because of their covers. How might that go for them? Think about the unhappy noises that many women use when it is suggested that traditionally feminine pink covers featuring handbags are specifically designed to attract women to books. Finally, imagine that someone said we needed to get culturally conditioned girls reading by playing within a sexist system and handing them exclusively very traditionally female material. Just think about what the response to that would be. Now, are you wondering why society is so committed to validating arguments that boys ‘can’t’ read books with traditionally feminine covers, ‘would’ be excited by traditionally masculine covers and ‘must’ have their cultural conditioned impulses catered to?

By changing the focus of certain arguments and asking how society would feel if they were re-applied to girls reading, I hope to highlight that the majority of modern society would rightly never stand for girls to be talked about in such a way. It is insulting to suggest that a person’s sexual organs and biology place a set of barriers on their ability to enjoy, or benefit from something. It is weird to assume that because cultural suggestion operates in a dysfunctional, stereotypical way, it is to the benefit of a particular group to go along with cultural stereotypes. Like I said last week society should be appalled that men are being corralled into such a small space of reading territory, as arguments are made about what their sex can and cannot handle in young adult literature.

I get annoyed hearing boys spoken about in this way, because it’s insulting to boys and saying that traditionally feminine elements in young adult literary culture are inhibiting boys reading throws all kinds of varied insinuations at girls and female culture. Clearly other people are annoyed as well, but I feel like we’re not seeing the same kind of foot stamping, flag waving indignation that would be present if we were talking about girls in this way.

Why when society says limiting things about boys reading capabilities do we find people nodding their heads as if, of course it’s just natural that boys need these traditionally masculine things in order to be interested in reading? Well the theory I've come up with is simple, not exactly unexpected, but never the less still kind of depressing.

We encourage girls to be omni-readers for lots of reasons, but one of them is that if a girl is an omni-reader she's more likely to break out of the gender constraints the world imposes on her. Reading and enjoying books about pirates, spies, or rebel fighters will, we hope, keep her from conforming to society’s restrictive gendered expectations about what a girl ‘can' and ‘should’ like. We hope that being encouraged to break out of gendered stereotypes in her reading will lead her to understand that a girl can be anything she wants to be. And we're invested in young girls seeing beyond what gender stereotypes encourage them to like, because being unaware of gender stereotypes has huge, harmful potential consequences for a girls future feelings of self-worth, her career aspirations and her ability to make a really happy life for herself.

When it comes to boys it's not the same story. Society is not as invested in getting boys to break out of gender stereotypes. Oh it would be great if they could, but it’s also possible to see them (if we take the erroneous assumption that all men are internally happy living the default traditionally masculine life) having happy lives without breaking from gender stereotypes. In fact, they might actually live happier lives if they do conform, as society will be less likely to hassle them than men that do present themselves as different from the traditional masculine image. Mainstream society doesn't really see the danger in men pursuing traditional gender roles, but it does now understand the real troubles that can spring from women doing the same. So, when it comes to boys and reading is it any wonder that society doesn't quibble with the idea that boys need boyish subjects and covers to be interested in books, in a way that it would never let pass if someone said girls needed girlish subjects and covers to be interested in books. Is it doing boys any harm to read only these kinds of books? Might it not be doing them some active good to read traditionally masculine books to the exclusion of all else?

Well, this is where we need to turn to arguments about why diversity in reading is important. When we talk about what cultural groups need from books we generally talk about them needing books that are windows and books that are mirrors (sometimes these are the same books). Just like any other cultural group boys need to be encouraged to read both types of fiction and they need other things as well. They need books that present men in traditionally masculine situations and books that present situations totally outside traditional male experience. They also need something in between. They need books that present men in less traditional versions of masculinity and books that present girls in less traditional versions of femininity. I don’t think boys need these things because they are boys and I believe boys need correcting with educational young adult fiction strategies. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I think they need these things because they are a cultural group of human beings with the same need for both representation and information on people and situations outside their experience that all human beings need to develop and grow.

I don’t have a magic way to get boys interested in reading. I also haven’t a clue how to quickly whisk away the cultural barriers that society puts in the way of boys as they try to gain an enjoyment of reading widely. I know that makes people feel uncomfortable, because there are boys not reading right now and it seems like it would be worth the cost of play exclusively inside the system as long as it gets those boys engaged with books. I don’t have answers and I really wish I did, but I do know that arguments which deal in inequality need to be thrown out. Boys are equal to girls, girls are equal to boys and any arguments that disagree aren’t worthwhile.

Next Wednesday: What kind of book suits a girl's needs?

Previously: 'Ladies, Gentlemen, Somebody Ring the Alarm', 'Girls, Omni-reading'
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Screencap of tweet by Maureen Johnson saying: I've seen that sentiment a million times. I always come back to the same thing: everyone comments on how girls are OMNIREADERS...

Screencap of tweet by Maureen Johnson saying: As a girl, I read almost ENTIRELY male-authored (and centered!) books. Girls have no problems with that. Maybe ask WHY we became this way.

‘Omni-reader’ is a term Maureen Johnson used on her Twitter feed two week ago. She used this word as a way of describing beliefs that girls are readers who will read about anything regardless of whether the subject matter looks traditionally masculine, or traditionally feminine. Articles like this one by Sarah Pekkanen of The Washington Post agree that girls 'tend to accept a broad range of books' and will 'read a book featuring a boy on the cover' (and since non-fiction is not specifically mentioned in this article I'm going to assume that when commentators generally talk about boys and girls reading they’re talking about boys and girls reading fiction). My personal experience of seeing girls and women reading fiction is that they'll read a lot of stuff, because they're interested in a lot of stuff. They (and I am a woman who sees her own behaviour in this statement) don't shy away from books that are written by male authors, star male protagonists, or are focused on traditionally male subject matter.

Society cheers girls for being omni-readers and at the same time questions the hell out of why boys aren't omni-readers. What mainstream society and its cultural commentators like Pekkanen rarely question, is why girls have become omni-readers and whether we're cheering these girls' diverse reading habits for the right reasons. I’m not questioning whether girls being omni-readers is a good thing. What I'm interested in is how society's gendered perspectives might affect the way that people shape their arguments about girls as omni-readers, boys as non-readers (of fiction) and what these people think needs to be done to encourage boys to read more.

Many of the answers arrived at for why boys aren't reading are often along the lines of 'It's natural for boys to be interested in boys stuff and male ways of storytelling’ (there are areas I would more wordily call traditional male culture and male focused stories). Boys, as a consequence of their biology, can only gain enjoyment from entertainment if traditionally masculine culture is present. Asking a boy to be interested in anything that does not exhibit signs of traditionally masculine culture is asking them to deny their maleness and become girls.

People talk a lot about this made up thing called reverse sexism that feminists apparently use to justify hypocritical stances, but few people seem to recognise genuinely negative gendered arguments, like the one above, when they're being aimed at boys. To my feminist ear the argument that boys, can't possibly be expected to enjoy or take interest in areas that aren't traditionally masculine, because they’ve been born male, sounds like a neat reversal of the average Victorian man’s arguments on women. Having escorted her to a divan, lest she faint, he would have patted his lady love's hand, murmuring 'There there, you can't be expected to be interested in science/literature/serious thought/maths/politics -- these are men's areas and naturally your female brain cannot handle stepping outside its gendered comfort zone.' Imagine if we were to say something similar about girls and how their sex defines their reading interests…oh wait, some people do that, but we don't like those people so THAT'S OK. Anyway, the relevant point thrown up by this comparison is that boys should be outraged at being told that they are limited creatures, men should be outraged as well. I will talk about my theories on why the outrage seems to be lacking in a later post.

Now that the majority of society would disapprove of talking about girls interests as exclusively, traditionally feminine and pre-determined in this way by a girl’s sex, people must find new ways to describe girl’s reading habits. Let us assume that the general description of girls as omni-readers is agreed on by the majority of society and that it is correct. Let us also assume that the majority of society agree that boys are naturally influenced by their sex in what they enjoy reading. For complex reasons which would need someone much cleverer than me to explain, society needs to reconcile these two ideas. Now, how does society go about reconciling the idea that girls are omni-readers, whose reading interests aren't dictated by their sex, while boys are infrequent readers whose interests are dictated by their sex?

The easiest and in my opinion the worst way is to go the well travelled route of reminding everyone that boys and girls are different. I mean cisgendered girls have vaginas, cisgendered boys have penises and the differences don't stop there, they extend into the biological brain makeup of the different sexes. Someone wrote a book about it remember? ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.' It must be true. Men and women are almost separate species. It's not a stretch, using this really stupid argument, to say that boys are naturally inclined to prefer traditionally male culture, while girls are naturally inclined to enjoy bits of traditionally male and traditionally female culture. We don't need to take note of the fact that until the late twentieth century society was determined to underline the fact that girls only naturally enjoyed and understood girls stuff, in the same way that boys are now thought to only naturally enjoy and understand boys stuff. Instead, what we can do is just say historical people wrongly identified quite how sex naturally influences the areas that girls enjoy, but continue to maintain that they were right, that sex does naturally influence girls bookish enjoyment in a different way. Yes, this is a smart argument.

From my sarcasm you'll guess that I'm against arguments that human cultural enjoyment is influenced by sexual biology. Sorry, but I think many ideas that see a natural relation between a person’s sex and behaviour are super creepy and pretty uninclusive of people with non-traditional sexual and gender presentations. I'm suspicious of ideas that human beings are naturally inclined towards any kind of culture because of their sex, because historically ideas like this have been proven wrong. Many girls do show an enjoyment of subjects like science or politics, when in decades past the thought of women being capable of understanding, let alone enjoying, these subjects would have been thought absurd by large numbers of people, because women were, well...women. Shifting the goal posts to ostensibly provide a more inclusive view of what women are naturally interested in doesn't seem like a positive shift to me. It seems like people are desperate that old ideas not collapse, so they rearrange their logic without changing their essential, previously damaging central position. Basically I have no faith in these kind of rhetorical constructs.

My own ideas about why girls are omni-readers and boys aren’t lie along cultural lines. Girls are not naturally inclined to be comfortable reading about masculine culture. They're also not naturally inclined to be interested in reading solely female centred stories. Girls (and boys) are not naturally inclined to align themselves with one particular gendered culture, they are taught which cultures to align themselves with by society. Typically boys are taught to align themselves solely with traditional male culture. Girls are generally taught something slightly more complex; they should align themselves with traditional feminine culture in certain areas (for example appearance) but align themselves with male culture in other areas (for example intellectual pursuits, such as literature). If we're very lucky (and it seems that with each generation of girls we're becoming luckier, if the widely accepted status of girl as omni-reader is anything to go by) they'll grow up aligning themselves with traditionally masculine literary culture, traditionally feminine literary culture and everything else that exists besides that binary set of poles.

So, as a general rule I believe the trend of girls being omni-readers is a socialised trend, not a natural one. That's not to say that all of girls' reading interests as individuals, aren't genuinely their interests just because there is the potentially for them to be socially constructed interests. Many girls like books about fashion (traditionally female interest), or about fighter jets (traditionally male interest) and I would never seek to rob any girls of agency by saying 'the only reason you like these things is because the gender culture in our world impacts on you', that would be as creepy as saying their sex naturally predisposes them to enjoy certain things. I'm just saying that gender culture has an impact on girls becoming omni-readers. At the same time it's not the only thing that has an impact, but the sex someone is born as is not, in my opinion, one of these other impacting factors.

If I apply the same rules to boys as I have done to girls hopefully you'll be able to see that I don't agree with the idea that boys are naturally unable to enjoy certain kinds of books. What puts them off these books? Again a combination of the gendered culture we live in (that reinforces the idea that boys shouldn't like certain traditionally feminine things, or even masculine culture that incorporates traditionally feminine elements and should only like traditionally masculine culture) and other factors, none of which are a natural link between a boys sex and book enjoyment. So, in my theory boys could become fictional omni-readers, the potential is there, but there are cultural roadblocks in the way – roadblocks that can, unlike perceived natural roadblocks of sex, be removed to the benefit of both boys and girls.

Please understand, I'm not saying that girls and boys aren't inclined to seek out representations of themselves in things like literature. I think everyone wants to see themselves reflected somehow in the entertainment they consume. Typically when we talk about racial diversity in young adult fiction we're encouraged to think that we need more racial diversity in the main characters who appear because people need books which mirror their experiences, as well as books that open up other experiences to them. I do think teenagers seek out representations of their own sex and gender presentation, whether they be cisgendered boys and girls or transgendered boys and girls. So once again I'm not saying boys need to just deal and start reading books about girls and traditionally feminine situations all the time, exclusively, any more than I'd be cheering if girls were told to read books about boys and traditionally masculine situations all the time exclusively. Boys need to see themselves represented in fiction, just as girls do. We need books featuring cisgendered male characters doing all kinds of traditionally masculine things, for the cisgendered, traditionally masculine boys out there just as we need representations of every other cultural group.

I'm just asking if we can knock off this idea that boys 'can't' enjoy books that are in some ways less traditionally male. Might we be able to stop pushing the absolute idea that boys can only enjoy reading if they're given a wide range of traditionally masculine boys engaged in traditionally masculine situations, or written in what might be seen as a traditionally masculine way (lots of plot, fast pace, romance not a central feature). I'd like to see people address the blocking culture in which boys live, in the same way that society has spent several decades recognising and trying correct the gendered, blocking culture that girls exist in. Maybe if society took a double pronged approach where it agitated for more traditionally masculine young adult books, but also encouraged boys to see the value in other kinds of novels boys might become omni-readers too.

The reason why society should be invested in helping boys to become omni-readers, like girls, is simple. All the cheering society does about girls being omni-readers must mean that omni-readers are viewed as having a positive approach to reading. Girls interest in reading about everything is often implicitly linked to their interest in being able to read and their large reading consumption, so if society is really invested in getting boys reading they might want to take the hint that encouraging boys to be omni-readers might have appositive impact on concrete things like boys literacy and boys views on reading for pleasure.

Book lovers have more personal reasons reasons for wishing boys were also omni-readers. Omni-readers get to read about everything and that just sounds so cool to us as booklovers. We want boys to be having the same experience and that's why so many of us become frustrated when boys seem to be culturally anchored to rejecting a lot of literature, because they are missing out on a whole heap of interesting things. I do not intend to make boys 'be girls' (although if society could stop using that phrase as if it should horrify men everywhere that would be cool) or say 'be interested in 'Twilight' because I think that to prove they're not sexist boys should fully embrace all culture traditionally perceived as female unreservedly. I just want boys to stop knee jerk rejecting anything that sounds bit like something a girl might like. I just want boys to really understand something, to really see something and make a fair assessment about whether something is 'not for them' rather than making a gender biased assessment.

Before I close out this post on the problematic culture that produces the positive effect of encouraging girls to be omni-readers I have to mention one final thing. I am fully behind the idea that if the majority of girls are omni-readers they'll be having a fantastic and diverse reading experience. However, I'm willing to be a grown up and admit that while girls being omni-readers is awesome for them, awesome for booksellers and fills the world with more pleasant shiny feelings for us booklovers, there is a certain amount of implicit gender bias swirling in all this cheering. Is society (including me) cheering so loudly because being omni-readers means girls will experience all sections of literature, or are we cheering because being omni-readers means girls won't mistakenly miss out on all the coolness we assume books that intersect with traditionally male culture have to offer them? Are we as excited when girls read books about horses AND fashion AND vampire boyfriends AND all kinds of different girls, as we are when girls show an interest in reading about all these things and battles on space ships? If your answer is closer to the former than the latter then you are a fabulous omni-reader supporter, when I really examine my mind I find my own answer is less fabulous.

It's an issue. I will work to correct it and I’ll have more on this in my next post.

You can go away now and think 'well she's a woman (and so naturally prone to thinking girl stuff is interesting, haha, oh, please refer to Maureen Johnson’s tweet again) and as a woman she's also an omni-reader, so naturally interested in everything, so of course she thinks girls stuff is interesting, but boys naturally wouldn't think that.’. I cannot control your thoughts and I cannot make you agree with me on any point. I can just show you my hand as openly and honestly as possible and we can discuss things in the comments.

Next Wednesday: How we would react if we talked about boys girls reading the same way we talk about boys reading

Previously in this much too long series: Ladies, Gentlemen, Somebody Ring the Alarm
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[personal profile] bookgazing
image of some ladies

There is very little I like to see more in books, films, or on tv than ladies being friends, but I'm also happy to see women being in complicated relationships that don't boil down to 'every lady apart from me, central character lady, is a hateful fuckwit'. I grew up with a lot of female friends and right now all my close friends, online and off, are women. As we're forming what I want to call a triumvirate of ladies here at Lady Business (but can't because did you know triumvirate comes from the Latin for 'of three men', *sulks* shall we call it an alliance instead?) this seems like the perfect place to spotlight some example of groups of three women who are close as they get on, fall out and continue being awesome.

The Halliwell sistersPhoebe, Piper, Pru; Phoebe, Piper, Paige: 'Charmed' had two groups made up of three ladies in its lifetime, as Pru died after three series. The Halliwell's are such a great example of three ladies having each other backs. They go through so much strife together and are torn apart by relationships, demons and relationships with demons, but their magic is strongest when they're together. Somehow they always find their way back to the support of their sisters when the world is falling in on them.

Caroline, Elena, Bonnie: Fine, fine, there are unbearably hot, evil vampires in 'The Vampire Diaries' but more importantly there are girls who are such tight friends, but also such realistic characters. The three girls have been friends forever, but there's still some tension between Caroline and Elena. Caroline is sometimes shown as competitive and insecure in this relationship, but that never means that she and Elena aren't still great friends. Women can be competitive, judgmental, freaking flawed human beings, in their relationships with other women, but men are exactly the same in their friendships, in fact men are praised for any competitive streak, but we never question whether they're still able to be friends with other men.

Why do some people think that being X 'negative' quality stops women from also being supportive, fun, enthusiastic friends? I mean I'm hugely judgmental, about a lot of things, but when I look back at my life I tend to think there have been times when I've been a decent friend, at the same time as being a general, judgemental person (and there have been times when I've been a terrible friend of course). Bully to Caroline for showing that sometimes out relationships with women friends are full of niggles, but that doesn't make those relationships any less real, or important. And there are female friendship moments in this series that broke my little heart. After Bonnie has been involved in some vampire business she goes away and doesn't respond to Elena's messages. When she comes back Caroline is all 'I know we spoke on the phone every day, but I missed you' and Elena is really hurt. Female friendship – as important as partners since 0BC.

The Crawley sistersMary, Sybil, Edith: Ho, ho these ladies are not the best of friends and their relationships with each other aren't an example of good female friendship. Edith hates Mary because Mary is the pretty one (yes we are required to imagine Edith's lack of attractiveness, because the actress is very pretty) and was engaged to the man Edith hoped would notice her. Mary hates Edith because, well Edith is kind of spiteful and spreads a ruinous (but true) piece of gossip around about her sister. Sybil floats around separately, engaged in the suffragette movement while the others roll their eyes at her political views.

The sister's relationship while troubled and spiteful (I'm still not sure I can forgive Mary what she does in the last episode) is an example of how the world sets awesome ladies against each other, which has a lot of relevance today. Edith and Mary are against each other because society places more value on Mary's version of womanhood (pretty, huge dowry), than it does on Edith's and by virtue of being the less pretty, second sister Edith will live her life as an unwed virgin, left to take care of her parents, when she desperately wants a romance. Mary responds to her jealousy by repeatedly poking at this sore point, ensuring that they're in a perpetual fight. Mary and Edith both find Sybil's politics ridiculous and while there's a definite class aspect to how they respond to her politics, they also find her specifically stupid for being involved in female suffrage, because to them it seems like such a silly cause. The Mary and Edith judge their sisters by what society values in women (a pretty face, money, a lack of interest in politics) although they each have ambitions which would require them to break away from what society requires of a certain kind of woman.

Sybil is just a soft luv, with wonderful, idealistic ideas about politics. She's appalled by the back biting. Everyone loves Sibyl, because she's so uncomplicated in some ways, but Mary and Edith both deserve some love and understanding. Complicated women, with complicated relationships with other women tend to get decried as 'ladies doin' it wrong', because, as always it's easy to blame the individual lady instead of thoroughly investigating how culture messes with their relationships. This is why we're not all sitting round a campfire eating marshmallows and talking about the joy of sisterhood isn't it?! Culture owes me some marshmallows.

Back to Sibyl, because she's fun. Did I tell you she wears harem pants at one point? ARE YOU WATCHING DOWNTON ABBEY YET?

The Weird Sisters (Macbeth): Sure these ladies are evil (maybe our alliance will be evil, who can tell yet, mwahahaha?) but they're also one of the most powerful female alliances in classic literature. They make plans to meet up and they're always in a group, that says friendship and alliance to me : )

Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Magrat: A funner version of the alliance between the witches in Macbeth, but just as powerful. This combination of witches (which like the Charmed alliance changes one member over The Discworld witches books by Terry Pratchett) starts in 'Wyrd Sisters' but I prefer 'Witches Abroad' as a starting point. What I like so much about this group of three is that you couldn't call it anything but a supportive group, but this support is so no-nonsense that it often doesn't look like traditional female support is supposed to. Granny Weatherwax has no patience for nonsense and while Nanny Ogg is more easy going, she's got a core of steel that comes out if Margrat ever complains too much. In the end though there is a great deal of rough, practical backing that any of the group can call on when they need it. Sisterhood accompanied by a good shake.

Ida Mae, Lilly, Patsy
: These are the three girls from 'Flygirl' by Sherri L Smith, who help each other through make it through flight training. I like their friendship, but I think it's a reminder that sometimes being woman doesn't mean we all share our secrets immediately. Ida can't share everything about herself with her new friends, but again I'm not sure that makes their friendship any less real (although obviously not being able to share key things with your friends has an impact on how close you can be). Sisterhood is a great concept, but it's not an image of perfect utopian relations. Purses lips at the death of one of these ladies. I know when you're writing a WWI narrative someone important almost has to die, but I would have liked them all to make it to the end of the war together.
Nic, Battle, Katrina: I love the girls from 'Empress of the World' by Sara Ryan but I have rattled on for ages now so I'll just say they have such a cute and crazy friendship!

Care to contribute your own favourite groups of three ladies so I can go and add even more things to my tbr list? I would really love to hear about anything where girls are friends in whatever numbers.
bookgazing: (Default)
[personal profile] bookgazing
I kind of want to riff off some things Ana mentioned in her first post (I am going to frame this as having a conversation with another post, not stealing Ana’s idea, even though I’m now going to quote Ana’s words…):

‘There’s a lot of potential hurt involved when someone who’s already in a relationship falls in love with another person, but guess what? It happens, and it doesn’t make them a traitor.’

Love triangles, which always end with one disappointed party, can be unsatisfying, to say the least, but they crop up again and again in romance and young adult fiction. I have to say I often feel kind of over the love triangle and I know romantic trigonometry is not welcome around these parts, so this seems like the oddest way to begin our joint blog venture. I feel like we should all watch that highly entertaining, educational video of James Blunt singing ‘My Triangle’ on Sesame Street at this point to diffuse any tension…

Love triangles commonly move fast. The three main characters appear early on and a spark is established between the characters who aren’t yet together. In ‘When the Stars Go Blue’ Caridad Ferrer sets her love triangle up slightly differently, giving her first romantic pairing more time together to give her readers a real feel for their attachment and their flaws.

Soledad, a gifted, classically trained dancer has a backstage conversation with Jonathan, a talented horn player. Jonathan asks her to tour the summer competition circuit with his drill corps, which needs a dancer to complete their portrayal of Carmen. Soledad has always wanted to be a ballet dancer, but has been advised by her mentor, Madame, that she should focus on a discipline less likely to destroy an athletically built dancer like Soledad. Upset by what she sees as her mentor’s lack of faith in her, she decides to take the role instead of taking up a place that Madame has arranged with a latin dance troupe.

Approaching Soledad about the role of Carmen is Jonathan’s way of finally getting up the courage to talk to the girl he’s liked for four years. When she wins the role he makes his feelings clear and they find themselves embarking on a romance just as they’re about to spend a whole summer living out of coaches together. Both of them are highly focused, creative people who have previously left little space in their lives for romance, which means they’re both in the dangerous position of having to test out how relationships work on each other. Their romance is physically and emotionally intense (read hawt), but their high level of intensity quickly shows up both characters serious emotional insecurities.

Soledad’s insecurities manifest as a need to be wanted. Her mother left her with her grandmother when she was very young and she never returned. Although Soledad has a loving relationship with her grandmother, she does have abandonment issues, which seem to have partly shaped her professional ambitions to be a great dancer. The feeling that she needs to be the best, in order to feel worthy impacts on her relationship with Jonathan, as she feels the relief of being wanted and recognises that she has the ability to give something perfect to another person:

‘what I felt as I kissed Jonathan back was the most tremendous sense of tenderness for this sensitive, beautiful boy and underneath that was, well…he wanted me.

He wanted me so much and I could give that to him.

Tell me, how was I supposed to resist?’

Jonathan buries his insecurities under an extremely rigid façade, but his issues are essentially the same as Soledad’s. His lack of self-confidence also stems from parental disapproval and abandonment and he needs to be wanted, but also to be the one and only perfect person for Soledad.

In a more equal situation Soledad and Jonathan would be well matched romantic partners who could help each other through similar issues, but Soledad is always a more self-assured character than Jonathan. She also doesn’t make a successful relationship with Jonathan the centre of her focus, while Jonathan almost sees Soledad as his redemption from the severe criticism his father constantly hurls at his personality. Early on in the book, once Soledad is involved with the corps and him Jonathan reveals he’d be happy to sack off the corps and they could just, like, travel and explore each other all summer. Soledad meets with the corps because Jonathan introduces her, but then she accepts the role because of her own personal drive. She is never so focused on him that she forgets her own dreams, while he would gladly give up a professional career as a musician for her.

Soledad’s strength and confidence in some areas makes her rather intoxicating to watch, but the fact that Jonathan can’t match her confidence and can’t make himself the sole focus of her life means that the relationship fills him with constant doubt (doubt which is all created by Jonathan’s worries and his father’s pressure, not by her awesomeness). Jonathan has been interested in Soledad for four years while her love for him is new minted, which is the first indication of romantic inequality that arises. His issues with his self-worth always result in more violent, or fearful outbursts than Soledad’s. His crazy home life makes him insecure and Soledad must constantly reassure him. He also resents her journal writing because he feels it keeps her from expressing her thoughts to him, but Soledad has to all but shake honesty out of him. As the pressure on Jonathan and on his relationship with Soledad increase his rigid control fractures and his insecurities do the young couple great harm.

While on tour with the corps Soledad meets Taz, a talented Spanish football player touring with his team. They strike up a teasing friendship with him, but they begin to connect on a deeper level as they talk about their homesickness and Carmen. Jonathan becomes jealous, but initially he and Soledad dismiss this as normal romantic jealousy that they can get past. As Soledad continues to meet Taz and their connection grows Jonathan must be continually reassured and it's clear that his jealousy is escalating. He’s territorial, appearing at her elbow whenever Taz is around.

All your sirens should be screaming 'Danger! Romantic core unstable!' right now. )


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