Once upon a time there was a girl who would read books, watch movies, television shows, and commercials, and listen to the radio and people speak and would think to herself: “Wow, that is actually sexist.” But when she would share her thoughts or explain to someone how their comment was sexist she was suddenly labelled a bitch, over-sensitive, a spoil-sport, and a feminist. While she couldn’t quite figure out why that last one was a bad thing, eventually she gave up sharing her opinion because it was tiring and upsetting to be constantly called a bitch.
Welcome to the wonderful world of viewing things critically.
Reading YA from a feminist perspective can be really frustrating because chances are you are not going to find an unsexist book out there. Our society is sexist, and so when an author who has been raised in that environment writes accurately about the world they live in, some of that sexism is going to sneak in too. And yeah, it sucks that sexism still exists, but ignoring it will not make it go away.
That’s why reading YA from a feminist perspective is so important. We need to stop simply absorbing the messages that we’re bombarded with and start looking at them critically. It is especially important to do so in the YA and middle-grade genre because these are the books that the next generation is reading. These are the principles that they are going to grow up believing in. Don’t think that a book has that much power? Have you heard the term “Harry Potter generation?” Obviously, not every book/book series is going to have as great an affect as HP, but if every book is sending the same message then you can bet that it is going to affect the way people think. It’s not like we’re born with our thoughts: they come from the environment we’re raised in, our individual experiences, and the messages we are given through the media.
Let’s look closer at Harry Potter because that’s a story most of us will know.
Quick! Think of the most powerful characters in the series.
For me, I tend to think of Dumbledore, Voldemort, Harry Potter, Snape, McGonagall, Bellatrix, and Hermione. Let’s drop Snape to make the genders more even.
Overall, I think these six characters set themselves up for comparison fairly easily. Dumbledore and McGonagall are both professors at Hogwarts, Voldemort and Bellatrix two of the strongest baddies, and Harry and Hermione are two thirds of the Golden Trio. In each of these pairings, which character would you say is the strongest? Except for (possibly) Harry/Hermione, the boys have it, despite the fact that magic really has no reason to take gender into account, unlike something like wrestling which involves physical strength where, on average, men tend to perform better than women.
Then there are the Founders. Jo’s given us two men and two women, making things equal, right? Except that the majority of the book focusses on Gryffindor (male leader) with some Slytherin thrown in (male leader). Plus, the characteristics the Founders had? The boys get to be courageous and ambitious. The girls? Smart and kind. Let’s look even closer. Here’s an excerpt from the Sorting Hat song in Goblet of Fire:
“Bold Gryffindor, from wild moor,
Fair Ravenclaw, from glen,
Sweet Hufflepuff, from valley broad,
Shrewd Slytherin, from fen.”
Right. Fair and sweet. Colour me surprised.
Now, I want to make one thing clear here: I absolutely love Harry Potter. Reading Harry Potter from a feminist perspective doesn’t make me love it any less and I still respect JKR as an author and a person. But just because you enjoy something doesn’t mean you should be blind to its faults. Just because society is sexist doesn’t mean you should just shrug your shoulders and decide that’s how it’s always been and that’s how it always shall be.
I’m not asking that you nitpick. I ask that you become aware of what you’re reading and the messages that you’re taking in. I ask that instead of accepting what you’re told as the gospel truth you think “why?” And I ask that the next time someone says “you throw like a girl” you punch them in the face to show how much you hit like one too.
Agree? Disagree? Have no opinion at all? I’d love to hear your thoughts!