Unpopular Opinion: Reading YA from a feminist perspective

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!

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About megtao

Student. Writer. Nerdfighter. Fights for love, justice, and awesome.
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16 Responses to Unpopular Opinion: Reading YA from a feminist perspective

  1. Bonnie says:

    I really loved that you posted about this, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I am going to start out by saying that I *love* YA, but *some* of it is like a friend who is can be a bit of a train wreck… I don’t always agree with what I’m seeing/reading.
    I like to think that I can read critically enough to notice the underlying, and sometimes blatent, sexism in YA and either roll my eyes, argue against it or shurt the book all together but I worry about the generation that it is written for. The actually teenagers who are reading and may not have the same life experience. I am 28, happily married with 2 kids and have been the YA girl in the disasterous and damaging relationship (not my marrriage of course!). As much as I love YA, I would not want my girls to read a lot of it.

    Who knows maybe in a few years we will be using some of this YA as a way to teach young girls what *not* to take and show them exactly how they *do not* deserve to be treated! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Bonnie says:

      When reposting my response (first one was lost in the ether!) I noticed that I left out the part saying that when my girls (who are 2 and 4) are old enough to read anything by themselves (not just YA) I will make sure that I am reading it along side of them or at least familiar with what they are reading so that we can talk about it. As much as I might be worried about the message they could be getting from a particular book, I also don’t agree with censoring their exposure to books and always want to be available to compare notes with so to speak just as my mom did with me! ๐Ÿ™‚

      • megtao says:

        I agree completely! I think as long as young girls are talk to view these kinds of things critically than they will be better off for it. It’s why things like media studies are so important. I don’t think people see YA literature the same way because it’s generally seen as “for fun” and the impact it can have on young people is generally ignored unless someone is talking about the themes of death, suicide, or sex.

  2. Candice says:

    So interesting that you bring this subject up. I always find it funny (not ha ha) that parents or whoever argue about women in literature. Take your classic fairy tales, for example: Parents worry that their daughters will read these and think they have to have a man to rescue them, that they’re helpless without a man, and that everyone will live happily ever after. While I get their point, I feel that shunning these stories is a bit anti-feminist. To me, and this really just TO ME, feminism isn’t all “girl power” and “women are better than men” that so many people tend to associate feminism with; it’s having the choice to be whatever we choose to be and having and developing the power to choose.

    Although I cringe at some of the newer female characters in YA lit, I think it’s good for young women/teens to be exposed to all different aspects of what women can be. We as a society are so quick to put women into neat little boxes that we forget women can be all different archetypes when it comes to literature. You mention Hermione, who is one of the better female literature characters because we see her change from bratty know-it-all to a caring and powerful young woman. She goes through all phases a typical girl might go through while still holding onto who she is and developing into who she can become. All this being said, I think it’s healthy to let girls be exposed to all variations of literary women but to help guide them, explaining how each woman fits into her world and why she is the way she is.

    • megtao says:

      Feminism is a really individual thing. To me feminism is about equality between the sexes, not women are better than men (and I think most feminist would agree). I agree that girls should be able to choose, though I also think that they should be shown all sides before choosing and too often they are only shown the damsel in distress side.

      Excellent comment; you make some really great points!

  3. Briana says:

    I think if you take into account that Hogwarts was founded sometime in the Middle Ages, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff would have been quite progressive for being highly educated and powerful women and for valuing the same characteristics in young female students. I would also argue that the book focuses on Gryffindor and Slytherin because it’s naturally assumed that following the story of brave, adventurous heroes is a little more interesting than the story of people who happen to be nice. It’s the same reason Divergent is about Dauntless and not Amity. Why Rowling didn’t make a woman the founder of Gryffindor, however, I don’t really know. You could also make the point that Ravenclaw is praised for her beauty in that little poem, rather than for her actual talent.

    I admit I haven’t thought much about feminism in YA literature, but I do see cattiness as being one problem. It’s one reason I dislike most contemporary YA books and stick mostly to fantasy. I think a lot of them teach readers that high school is a place full of mean people and if you want to succeed you need to be a more horrible person than they are. And I guess somewhere there are probably messages about how you need to be beautiful and have the latest clothes and whatnot. Which could be perceived as sexit.

    Interesting post.

    • megtao says:

      I agree that they would have been progressive (though it’s sad, isn’t it that that would be progressive?). You could also make the point that Ravenclaw is praised for her beauty in that little poem, rather than for her actual talent. haha that was the point I was trying to make ๐Ÿ˜„ so I’m glad you caught that even if it wasn’t explicitly stated.

      I agree! In the 18th C it was believed that women couldn’t be friends, only rivals. Even mothers and daughters were viewed as rivals to one another for a man’s affections. I feel like that still goes on in a lot of YA fiction where female friendships are often pushed aside for a romance.

  4. Krysta says:

    I found your post really interesting. However, when I think of how Harry Potter came into being, I am not sure I can agree with you fully. J. K. Rowling stated that Harry “strolled into her head” one day. She therefore started with the concept of an orphaned boy wizard and naturally went from there.

    Dumbledore, I believe, is male in part because the series is about Harry’s search for a father figure. He never really searches for a mother figure because Lily has become a martyr and therefore close to him in imagination. (Mrs. Weasley, however, works as a mother figure, anyway.) In contrast, James remains an elusive figure in the background. Harry hears about how much he looks like James and it pleases him, but he really doesn’t know how to emulate his father in any other way. He needs a male role model as much as young women need strong females to whom they look up–as your post pointed out. We therefore have Sirius, Lupin, Mr. Weasley, and Dumbledore.

    Voldemort, I believe, is male because he works as a double of Harry. They have parallel childhoods and the series constantly plays on the idea that Harry could follow Voldemort’s path if he so chose. The resemblance becomes more clear if the two are both male.

    Finally, even though the Founders’ descriptions could be seen as sexist, the Houses themselves are not divided by gender. Hermione, a girl, is in the House known for bravery, while Cedric, a male, is in the House noted for feminine kindness. I see the profiling as a natural result of the times in which the Founders lived. Describing a woman as “bold” at that time would probably not have been seen as a compliment. I think it is a testament to Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff’s energy, resourcefulness, and ambition that they co-founded a school with males at that time. The focus on Gryffindor and Slytherin in the stories is merely a result of Harry’s and Voldemort’s association with their Houses–and Slytherin doesn’t have a very good name, anyway, so I can’t see it as an insult to women that a female didn’t found the “shrewd” and “cunning” House. ;b

    On the whole, however, I agree that YA often has a problem portraying women as strong or independent, and I’m glad that you highlight this issue. Very interesting post!

    • megtao says:

      You definitely make some interesting points, though there’s a couple things that I don’t necessarily agree with.

      1. I wonder why it’s necessary for the strongest characters have to be male, even if Harry is looking for a father figure. Does a father figure mean “most powerful”? And is he really only searching for a father figure? He marries a woman who looks eerily similar to his mother after all. Just because Harry needs a strong male role model, doesn’t mean strong female role models shouldn’t also be included in the stories and it doesn’t mean they can’t be equal to the male role models.

      2. I’m not sure if we can comment on how women would have been treated in the wizarding world in the past. I can understand why in our world/the muggle world sexism exists, but witches have just as much power as wizards (or at least we are given no biological reason why they shouldn’t be), so why would the same sexist gender roles apply to them? Why would it be bad for a witch to be called bold?

      Thanks for your great comment! I’m glad you were interested enough by the material to generate such a in-depth response.

      • Jessica says:

        This is a fascinating discussion and I just thought I’d put in my two cents:

        I agree with Krysta, in that JKR made the choices necessary as a writer to build the fantasy world in HP to be believable. If she’d made some of the choices that you suggest, such as a female Dumbledore or a female Voldemort, the stories wouldn’t resonate with readers quite so much as they do because they wouldn’t feel as real. The fact is, that in our own world, the gender roles that you point out were the norm. History tells us – men were the presidents, men had the money, men had the power. I’ve always seen Voldemort as the Hitler of the magical world. So as JKR created a fantasy world which mirrors our own, as seeped in history, tradition, stereotypes and prejudices as it is, she needed to fill those roles with men to make it believable to the reader in order to support the grand argument of her story. As sad as it is, it’s the truth.

        There are only so many changes to reality an author can make before they lose their reader. Rowling chose to make those changes with the system of magic she put in place, but needed to keep the rest of the world consistent with our own to remain cogent. The assertion that JKR’s choices regarding male and female characters in HP were unconsciously made would be to underestimate the genius of Rowling. She knew EXACTLY how and why she was making those choices, and I think that she put women in as many powerful roles as she could to still make the story believable, a reflection of our own world.

        But let’s take a look at Hunger Games. This is a dystopian, futuristic world in which Katniss fits in perfectly. Kudos to Suzanne Collins for choosing a female protag to fill the role of hero in that story. And it’s believable because the story takes place in the future.

        Thanks so much for your post- very thought provoking!

      • megtao says:

        I agree that in order to reflect reality Rowling had to include sexism. However, as much as I do believe Rowling is a genius, I do not believe those choices were on purpose. I don’t think she put male in leaderships roles thinking: “I would love to put a woman in this role, but if I did then it wouldn’t reflect reality and even though it’s sexist I need to do so in order for my readers to relate to this world.”

        Also, in a way she was creating a completely different society: the magical society. The magical society has no reason for men to be seen as more powerful than women; magic is equal in both sexes. So why in the magical world did she have to have male figures as the more powerful group? Why couldn’t there have been a female minister of magic? Or Headmaster of Hogwarts. Or a Girl-Who-Lived?

        It’s because sexism has become inherent in our minds. It’s automatic. It makes sense for men to be in those roles of power, and as long as we continue to believe that this will never change.

  5. Lauren H. says:

    I stumbled upon your blog through Small’s Newbie Blues and this post right here is gonna make me follow you.
    We need more people pointing this stuff out even though it’s the unpopular opinion. I hate when other women look at me like I’m crazy for pointing out how something is sexist.
    What you pointed out about the Hogwarts houses is so insightful! I love Harry Potter too, but that was a great example of how society molds our subconscious and affects a writer’s work.
    There was a really great documentary recently that talked about women in the media called Miss Representation. You should definitely check it out! Here’s a link to their website: http://www.missrepresentation.org/
    Thanks for a great post, and I’m looking forward to following you! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Lauren @ Hughes Reviews

    • megtao says:

      I think I watched that documentary in one of my Women Studies classes! If it’s the one I think it is, I really enjoyed it. Thanks so much for checking out my blog, and I hope to hear more from you ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Samantha says:

    This is a fantastic post Meg, and it’s an issue that we should all be aware of. I know it’s something that I don’t always take into consideration while I’m reading.

    When I think about the books that I read as a teenager there are some female protaganists that really stand out to me, because they were the strong women (in various different ways) that appealed to me as a reader. In particular, all the girls in the Tomorrow series by John Marsden. Ellie (the MC) is strong and resourceful and smart and independent, but she’s also not perfect. Even the secondary female characters Corrie and Robyn are brilliant and real. (Seriously, you NEED to read these books Meg. :D)

  7. I see your point about the overtly patriachal construction of Rowling’s world but to stereotype or assume that the values of intelligence or kindness are somehow lesser than courage and ambition is perhaps to conform to those very ideas and values you protest against? Does not kindness take courage? Can one be intelligent without ambition? In my opinion, by giving these values to women, while on face value seem potentially derogatory, actually emphasise a womans own strenghts rather than diminshing them or placing them below the strenghts of men.

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