Books About Girls: a Clarification

I just saw another post lamenting the silly – but unfortunately common – idea that boys can’t be expected to read books about girls, even though girls commonly read books about boys. (In fact, we’re often required to, for school.) I’ve written about this before. So has the excellent Shannon Hale.

It strikes me that part of the issue may be that people have different notions of what “books about girls” or “girl-centric books” are. When we say “it’s a problem that boys aren’t expected to read books about girls,” I think we usually mean “books with female protagonists.” At other times, though, “books about girls” may be used to mean “books about the experience of being a girl” or “books designed to appeal to girls” (which usually means they are about romance and/or close female friendships, possibly with a side of fashion and gossip).

This affects the conversation a lot! After all, this:

eight books on a pink background, titles listed later in this post

. . . may turn off a lot of boys. It turns off a lot of girls, too. Others love it. Some boys love these books, too, or would if they felt they were allowed to. The boys and girls who do want to read these books should be able to enjoy them without judgement, but I wouldn’t argue for pushing people to read them any more than I would argue for pushing them to read sports books or mysteries. It’s nice to at least try it out, to broaden your horizons, but if you don’t like it, that’s fine.

On the other hand, if you subscribe to a broader idea of “books about girls” that encompasses all books with female protagonists, then you get something more like this:

twenty-five books, titles listed later in this post

These books range from horror to humor, from fantasy to romance. There are mysteries. There is action. There are comics. The settings are different. The tones are different. The protagonists are very different people, with one thing in common: they are female. If that’s enough for a reader to say, “ew, girl book, I won’t read that” – or for a parent to say “my son won’t read that” or a teacher to say “the boys in my class won’t read that” – then society, we have a problem.

In case anyone’s curious, I’ll list the books here. All are books I’ve read and enjoyed. I went with mostly YA (with one or two MG) both because that’s my own reading preference and because kids and teens who are reading these books so often fall victim to this weird genderization of reading preferences.

Graphic One:

1. Love and Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch
2. Vanished by E.E. Cooper
3. Ali’s Pretty Little Lies by Sara Shepard
4. Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen
5. The Selection by Kiera Cass
6. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan
7. My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick
8. Bittersweet by Sarah Ockler

Graphic Two (repeats some books from Graphic One):

1. Love and Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch
2. George by Alex Gino
3. Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee
4. Smile by Raina Telgemeier
5. Ten by Gretchen McNeil
6. This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp
7. Sweet by Emmy Laybourne
8. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan
9. Endangered by Lamar Giles
10. Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
11. Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
12. My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick
13. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
14. Ms. Marvel, vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson
15. They All Fall Down by Roxanne St. Claire
16. Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen
17. In Real Life by Cory Doctorow
18. Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill
19. Cat Girl’s Day Off by Kimberly Pauley
20. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
21. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
22. Adaptation by Malinda Lo
23. Huntress by Malinda Lo (ha, I didn’t even realize I had put in two Malinda Lo books – and right next to each other!)
24. The Selection by Kiera Cass
25. Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman

Being Reasonable

I just read this very interesting blog post about female warriors and how to realistically write a fantasy world in which they are common. Its approach, which I find useful and thought-provoking, is to examine why so many cultures through history don’t have lots of female warriors. To summarize:

(1) The reason is NOT because of physical strength. I’ve always detested this ridiculous claim. Sure, the average woman is less strong than the average man, but there are plenty of women who are stronger than plenty of men. And that’s even assuming that all areas of battle rely on brute strength, which is simply not the case.

(2) A much more logical reason why the situation developed: for much of our species’ history, any given group of humans grew in power and security proportionally to the size of the group. A larger band could send more people to war – and then, unlike now, pure numbers were likely to make the crucial difference in a battle. So sending women into dangerous situations made less sense because women were far more necessary in maintaining and increasing population. As the blog’s author points out, if half of a group’s women are killed, then the next generation born will be half the size of the last one. (We’re assuming that the women killed include half of the ones who would otherwise be reproducing. Of course, in many bands of early humans, this would basically be all of the women of reproductive age.) If, on the other hand, half the men are killed in battle, the next generation could go a long way toward repopulating the group.

So women were excluded from battle for reasons which, while once practical if a community wanted to survive, are now totally vestigial. Still, the population issue may be relevant in many fantasy worlds, so the author addresses some ways in which writers might design worlds that need not bow to these reasons and exclude women from combat.

I appreciate the author’s approach because I think it is vital to be able to distinguish reason from justification. My mom used to tell me that there is a difference between a reason and an excuse: an excuse excuses a behavior, making it okay, while a reason explains why it happened but doesn’t, in itself, justify anything. Things usually happen for one or more reasons, but often have no excuse. Most people would agree that it’s important to understand the reasons that a bad thing happens – that way, you may be able to prevent it, or at least know when it is likely to happen again.

I feel the same way about basically anything that a writer does that makes her fantasy world different from the real world. The fantasy world, and the writing, will likely benefit if the writer is aware of what has to be different in her setup so that this new world order will make sense. For this reason, I’m especially interested in work-arounds that allow fantasy worlds to be free of sexism, homophobia, etc. without becoming unrealistic utopias. Because I don’t want a world free of problems – that would be boring to read about – but frankly, I am sick to death of girls having to dress up as boys if they want to fight. As a fan of equality, I’d like to read more stories that have that as a basic premise, but as a fan of logic, I’d like for the equality to make sense.

Of course, figuring all this out is also an exciting opportunity to add depth and uniqueness to your worldbuilding! For example, if you want to write a fantasy world without homophobia (ooh me me, I do, I do!), you have to work backwards from some of the reasons (not excuses!) for homophobia’s existence in our world, and figure out how each reason doesn’t exist or doesn’t cause problems in your world. For example, one issue you might encounter is confusion about how inheritance works for gay couples, especially those who stand to pass on titles and power as well as possessions. How will this be addressed in your fantasy world? If a country’s queen marries the girl of her dreams, who will be the next queen or king of that country? Is there a strong adoption system? If so, how is a child chosen for such an important family? Does the child need to be a blood relation? Or maybe the rule of this country isn’t inherited at all – maybe the queen came to power through combat, or was elected, or was chosen in some kind of magical selection ceremony.

Conversely, I wish many authors would look at the ways in which their worlds are similar to ours (or to their own experiences), and see whether it really makes sense for the reasons behind a certain quality of our own world to also exist in the fantasy world. Perhaps different reasons exist that cause the same effect. Or maybe the author just hasn’t thought about it. I think this is the likely explanation for the many fantasy worlds in which the great majority of people are pale-skinned, often with light eyes and hair. Do they all live in worlds that are perpetually cloudy, causing them to evolve in a way that allows maximum absorption of vitamin D? Did they all evolve in one or a few such areas, then spread over the rest of the fantasy world in a conquering wave, desperate to escape the fantasy equivalent of Siberia? Is magic somehow involved in their coloration? Or is it just that the author primarily knows, interacts with, and reads about white people, and most of the characters s/he comes up with tend to be white?

Have you dealt with manipulating causation to achieve your ends logically when writing fantasy? What are some things you’ve changed in order to make a particular quality of your world make sense?

Oh, Internets

So today, while reading Zoë Marriott’s blog, I realized two things:

  1. Zoë Marriott does not look the way I have always pictured her, which is, I suddenly realize, like Zoë from Firefly. Now it makes sense! I was like, “Why did I just assume she looked like that?” But obviously it is a mystical Zoë connection.
  2. Zoë Marriott has made a Pinterest board of images that inspire her in the planning of a story she has in mind, and this is THE BEST IDEA EVER. I only recently joined Pinterest, or else I like to think this might have occurred to me already, but: BRILLIANCE.

My only concern about this latter point (I can’t say I feel concerns about the former point – Zoë Marriott is allowed to look like or not look like any science fiction character she pleases) is the dubious legality of posting many images on Pinterest. Legality and ethics, actually – even if people couldn’t make a legal case over it, I do think the creator of an image should be able to choose how that image is used. My impression is that a vast number of the images appearing on Pinterest appear there without permission and do not properly credit their creators. I would hate to contribute to that. On the other hand, I feel it would be very difficult to create such an inspiration board entirely out of images that are explicitly pinnable as per their creators.

Anyone have thoughts about this? Good places to find images that can be legally and ethically stuck on one’s Pinterest board? Thoughts on the questions of legality and ethics involved? I figure that if I were to make such a board just for myself, and not share it with anyone, I’d feel a lot less squirmy about including whatever images I wanted. But if I were to, say, link to it on my blog, I’d want to be absolutely sure that every image on it could legitimately be there. Opinions?

On a different note, it seems like everyone’s linking to this (AS THEY SHOULD BE), but if you haven’t seen the article “We Have Always Fought”, check it out. Funny, readable, hard-hitting, and true.

Not Everyone Screws it Up

Recently, there’s been stuff said about the treatment of women in DC comics. Stuff that seems to have some real truth behind it, and for that reason is quite depressing.

For example, female characters whose creators call them “liberated” but who are shown acting – and perhaps more obviously, posing – in ways that seem much more about the straight male readers’ gaze than about what the character would want, as if they were porn stars rather than superheroines. (I suppose gay and bi women could be gazing this gaze, too, but I’d hope that most of them would feel more dismay at the women of superherodom being turned into pretty props. But then, I’d kind of hope everyone would feel more dismay about that.) Female characters who used to have substance being “rebooted” into sexy scenery. Superheroines whose roles in the new comics can be described in words like these, from a seven-year-old girl who was a fan of this character in a previous series and is now seeing the reboot:“Well she is on the beach in her bikini. But . . . she’s not relaxing or swimming. She’s just posing a lot. . . . she’s not fighting anyone. And not talking to anyone really. She’s just almost naked and posing.” And so on.

But! I am here today to talk about Darcy Lewis.

This is not because we apparently share a surname. (I didn’t realize this until I went on IMDB. It’s cool, though, isn’t it?)

Darcy Lewis is a supporting character in the recent Thor movie. A minor character, really. But she’s funny, and she’s a woman of action – hard to argue otherwise about the person who tases the god of thunder. And, importantly, she’s a female character whose role in the story is not defined by her gender. She’s not female because our heteronormative culture dictates that she has to be, as with Thor’s love interest, or because she physically has to be, as with Thor’s mom (although read some Nordic myths, and you’ll see some really interesting parentage going on). Nor is her sex, her sexuality, or her sexiness an Issue. Don’t get me wrong, Sif’s cool, but she kind of screams “token girl” – an impression reinforced by her back-and-forth with Thor to the effect that she had to prove that “a maid” could be as good a warrior as the others in Asgard.

Darcy, though, is not someone’s romantic interest, someone’s mom, or the leather-clad Team Chick who’s Just as Bad as the Boys. She’s not even blatant eye candy – she’s cute, but not flashy or fanservicey. Darcy is female because sometimes people are female. About half the population, in fact.

If this seems like a lot of picky stuff to apply to female characters, think about how many of the male characters in the movie meet these criteria – basically, the criteria that they could have been either sex without it making a real difference. True, Thor is limited by the fact that it’s working with characters from existing canon – canons, actually, as there’s the comic canon and the original mythology. Still, most of the male characters are just people, while most of the female characters fall into roles that must be female, such as “mother” and “the one girl warrior” – as if the only reason you would make a character female is that you have to. Darcy’s “cool character who happens to be female” status is so unusual that it actually stood out enough for me to write this whole blog post, for crying out loud.

Naturally, there’s room in movies for characters who are basically someone’s mom (though it’s a little sad to compare the movie’s portrayal of Odin, with his lines, action, and importance, to that of Thor’s Mom, She Who Doesn’t Get a Name in the Movie). But there’s only room for those characters when there are also strong female characters – and I think Jane’s actually a pretty good one in Thor, though it’s hard to argue she’s not basically a romantic interest when you look at whose name is in the title – and female characters, like Darcy, whose femaleness is not the point, as I would venture to say is the case for most actual women.

I have no intention of knocking Thor. I love Thor. I’ve seen it three times and I own the DVD. But, no lie, part of the reason I love it is because of Darcy. I know Thor is Marvel, and I’ve always been a DC loyalist – indoctrination by my dad plus a very early crush on Batman. (Oh come on, like you didn’t have one.) But maybe this is a movie the DC peeps should take a good hard look at next time they’re creating – or rebooting – female superheroes.

Me, Having Opinions!

. . . and werewolves! If only.

I’ve been thinking, again, about women in fiction. Probably most or all of you are familiar with the Bechdel Test, but if you’re not, it’s a test for movies that can also be applied to books. To pass the Bechdel Test, a work must:

  1. include at least two female characters (sometimes taken to mean “with names/lines” – generally does not count “that maid in the background of the shot”)
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something other than a man.

The last bit is especially interesting to me because a story can fail it for at least two distinct reasons:

  1. The female characters are interested only in their relationships to men, what men think, what men think of them, etc.
  2. The only characters in the story doing something worth talking about are male ones.

(Me + HTML lists 4eva!)

So they can fail differently based in part on whether the female characters’ sole topic of conversation is men as a group or specific male characters. (I say “in part” because they can be talking about a specific male character and still fail the first way if all they have to say is, “Do you think he liiikes meee?”)

I’m thinking about this partly because I’m amazed at how many stories don’t pass, or barely pass, the first part of the Bechdel Test. They’ll have a male protagonist who has a female love interest, maybe a mom, and possibly either a sister or a female friend. I’m going to use movies to demonstrate this, mostly because it’s so easy to look at the ratios of women and men via the IMDB lists of top-billing actors. (I’m also going to use the term “gender” to mean a character’s sex. Just so you know.) For some reason, the two movies that immediately pop into my mind are Sherlock Holmes and Kung Foo Panda.

I liked both of these, but okay, the top billing actors of Sherlock Holmes are three women and twelve men. Of the women, two are love interests and one is the housekeeper. Yes, I realize that Irene Adler is cool and capable – though not too capable to be rescued multiple times by Holmes and outwitted by him in the end, of course! – but she still basically fills the role of romantic interest. I don’t think any two of these women even appear in the same scene, let alone speak to each other. I know this is a period piece, kiiinda, but come on.

The ratio of Kung Fu Panda is two women to thirteen men. Yeah. And this one doesn’t have the excuse of being any kind of period piece, because it establishes that its setting is one in which female characters can become kung fu masters without anyone batting an eye. Of course, the master of the kung fu masters is male. As is the old mentor. And the villain. And the hero. Naturally.

The interesting thing about this latter movie is that – with no romance or gender-related elements in the movie – you could say that the sexes of the characters doesn’t matter. Or shouldn’t matter, anyway. I’d agree. But when eighty-seven percent of the characters are one gender, that story hasn’t been written as if gender didn’t matter. You think the writer was flipping a coin for the characters’ genders? I somehow doubt it.

Well, gawsh, there must be movies that skew more toward women in casting. Let’s try looking up, oh, Pride and Prejudice, BBC version.

Twenty-four women, seventeen men. (That’s still just top billing. It’s a longer list.)

Hunh. Well, women in the majority, but nothing like eighty-seven percent. Um . . . Charlie’s Angels?

Four women, eleven men.

I should note, in case anyone wonders, that I have not been picking and choosing movies based on what fits my argument here. These are all of the movies I checked on.

I think a lot of this has less to do with explicit, active sexism (“a woman can’t be a credible villain!”) than to do with mental defaults. I read somewhere the excellent point that, in our culture, a smiley face – two dots and a curve, like 🙂 – is assumed to be male unless you put eyelashes on it. Similarly, I think when someone says, “the protagonist” or “the villain,” a lot of people assume they’re hearing about a male character.

A bit of this probably has to do with male writers, and is simply a result of projecting. A few months ago, my mom was reading aloud from a newspaper article about a murder in the area, while I and a male friend listened. When she finished, she glanced over it and remarked that the article had never given the victim’s gender, saying only, “a student.” My friend and I realized at the same time that, while I’d assumed a female victim, he’d assumed a male one.

On the other hand, someone could really stand to check this stuff. I feel like books and movies focused largely on female characters tend to still contain a lot of male ones. How many can you think of that would fail a male version of the Bechdel Test?

*Tries to remember the Pride and Prejudice guys talking about things other than women*

Okay, maybe one. But not a lot. And outside of romance plots, hardly any, whereas tons of genres tend toward skewing in the opposite direction.

This occurred to me in part because I’ve been making a conscious effort to have balance in my current novel. (Which, as I haven’t mentioned it yet, is tentatively titled Looking Like Lani.) With every character whose gender isn’t important to the plot, I ask myself, “What if this character were female?” The result is a lot more female characters than many of my stories have. It’s far from devoid of male characters – indeed, I suspect it has a more realistic sex ratio than a lot of fantasy stories do, at least within the realms of their named/speaking characters – but it’s an interesting thing to consider because I realize that, to some extent, I was defaulting to male.

Period-esque fantasy can do this to you. Whether it’s, “who’s driving the carriage?” or, “who’s ruling the country?” we’re swamped with examples, historical and fictional, in which the answer is, “a man.” Indeed, I think that it can be easier to catch yourself doing this with the highest positions, and some fantasies throw in a queen by way of addressing this. These authors probably go to bed feeling very feminist, never mind that the entire female population of their fantasy world seems to be Her Majesty, the hero’s romantic interest, and a few tavern wenches. The hero and his friends, the mayor of town, the innkeeper, the folks in the stables and herding the sheep and serving in the army and strumming the lyre and casting the spells and, of course, being in charge of things at every level below Her Majesty – that’s often a big boys’ club.

(Lots of positions still available for women in the fields of: being the hero’s romantic interest, healing, having babies, wenching at taverns, being kidnapped, being rescued, and dying. The ideal applicant will have skills in several of these areas.)

Hopefully I don’t sound too bitter about this, because I don’t really feel that way. On an individual level, I feel like this is easy to fix once you’re aware of it, and I’m enjoying working on it in my current novel.