Monday, April 11, 2011

The F Word in YA


I bet this wasn’t the word you thought I’d be writing about. But it makes just as many people uncomfortable as the other f-word. There’s been a lot of talk about it in the blogosphere. Go ahead and google it…you’ll find a wealth of information and conflicting thoughts.

I have my own shaky relationship with feminism. Because this is me:

The girlier the dress the better!
Note the matching apron and oven mitt!

 I like dressing up, I wear make-up, I have a not-so-alternate persona nicknamed “Suzy Homemaker.” Yet I was raised by a single mom who embraces feminism, and I proudly make my own decisions, support myself financially, and claim every right available to men as mine own, too. To me, feminism is the ability to make decisions and have all options open to you. Want to become a Congresswoman? Go for it! Want to work with orphans in Kenya? Go for it! Want to stay at home with your three children? Go for it! Want to do all three? More power to you! I know some don’t share my viewpoint and it’s one that I have worked hard to figure out. In my Women’s Studies 101 class during college I felt isolated and bullied when classmates were making fun of women who wear short skirts when I was, indeed, wearing a miniskirt. Perhaps I wasn’t ‘feminist’ enough to fit in with those students, and there’s nothing wrong with having differing views. My point in describing my complicated feelings towards feminism is because, well, there isn’t an easy answer and all the debates online naturally stem from the complicatedness of the issue. No matter how you define ‘feminism’, though, I absolutely think it’s important for young readers (girls and boys) to read books with strong heroines. Twilight might be an entertaining read, but there’s no way I want myself/my sister/my friend/my future daughter turning out as helpless and boy-dependent as Bella*. Pick up a book with a strong girl instead! My own list of my favorite feminist books or feminism characters is definitely up for debate and I hope you’ll leave comments with your thoughts.

* But to just prove how subjective lists like this are, Ms. magazine argued that Bella could be a feminist character because she does have sexual agency…and that’s true and important. While on a whole I still don’t believe that Bella is a strong female or great role model, that one point nicely illustrates how nothing is black or white.

Recommended Books with Feminism Themes:

Alanna in the Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce: One of the earliest examples of feminist YA literature, Alanna is smart and a great fighter. Although she hides her gender at first in order to pursue a career at a knight, she later embraces both her feminine side and combat skills and is honored when she does. She also doesn’t give in to societal pressures by marrying Prince Jonathan but ends up with George, because of their shared love and independence a relationship with him provides.

Katsa in Graceling by Kristin Cashore: The same blurb for Alanna kind of belongs here: Katsa is clever, stands up to her demanding uncle/king, has amazing fighting skills and enters into a relationship on her own terms rather than society’s.

Nancy Drew in her eponyms series by Caroline Keene: Book-smart and street-smart Nancy solved mysteries better than the trained police force. And while she had a loyal boyfriend, he and his pals were sidekicks in the story, often showing up after Nancy had done all the dirty work.

Katniss in the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins: There is no doubt about it: Katniss is one powerful chick. Standing up first for her family and then for the people of District 12, she is a character to look up to despite her sometimes morally questionable judgments. But in a situation like she’s in there aren’t any easy answers and she is more than capable of using her brain and fighting skills to do the right thing.

Professor McGonnagall in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling: Although it can easily be argued that Hermione is a great feminist character (smart and keeps up with the boys), Prof. McGonnagall gives young readers an adult role model. As one of the few female professors at Hogwarts, she is in control and more than holds her own against Dumbledore and Snape. She’s not the flashiest of characters, but solid and admirable in her quiet (yet commanding!) way.

Jo in Little Women: Not your typical modest and prim girl from the 19th century, Jo is a outspoken, passionate tomboy who ignores social conventions by becoming a writer and involved with an older man rather than her childhood (and seemingly destined) friend. She is a great example of ‘the independent woman’.

Lyra in The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman: Nothing is left untouched in this novel; politics, religion, class and race issues are all touched upon and explored deftly through Lyra who is clever and rebellious even when facing older and more powerful enemies.

I find it interesting that the majority of the books I listed are fantasy. Does this mean that outside of our modern society’s conventions writers are able to create stronger, more independent characters…or is it just a reflection of my own reading habits? Definitely something to ponder…

What other book or characters do you think are feminist? One website I saw recommended Meg Murray from A Wrinkle in Time but I don’t remember the book well enough to suggest her/it myself. And another website suggests The Book Thief which I’m only 100 or so pages into…so I’m sure there are plenty of other characters and books I’m forgetting/haven’t read…yet!


  1. awesome list of heroines :D great post :)

  2. I came here from Operation Awesome! This is a fantastic list. I would add Matilda by Roald Dahl - that was one of my favorites growing up!

    Also, the people in your class were total jerks. It's really sad that there are women who think it's acceptable to put down housewives/girly-girls/etc. Feminism is absolutely about being whatever kind of woman you want to be - at least, that's what I learned from my stay-at-home mom!

  3. I agree with you completely. I'm a total girl: I love makeup and clothes and cooking. Still, at the end of the day I do my job just as well as a man. And I expect the same opportunities as men get. I'm not a fan of the strict definition of feminism as rejecting everything that's typically associated with women. There's nothing wrong with being kick-butt ... and looking good while you do it. ;)

  4. Thanks all for the positive feedback!

  5. Feminism isn't one-size-fits-all -- at least, it shouldn't be. Unfortunately, not everyone sees that and it can often feel like some sort of contest. The result is that great women who really are feminists find themselves reluctant to identity as such (my sister, for example, had an experience similar to yours and, because of it, does not consider herself a feminist).

    As for books, I'd say THE PAPER BAG PRINCESS by Robert Munsch (it's a picture book), DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth, THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS by Cassandra Clare (thinking specifically of Isabelle), and THE BLUE GIRL by Charles de Lint.

  6. @Kathleen: Great suggestions! How could I forget DIVERGENT?!

  7. I've been meaning to reply to this for a while, but I'm sorry you had such a bad experience in your Women's Studies class. That WASN'T very feminist of them.

    Feminism's a hard thing to pin down, because every time you see one option endorsed by feminists, the opposite will also be true. Some feminists think that wearing a mini-skirt is "giving in" to the male gaze. Just as many feminists will applaud you for a mini-skirt, saying you're owning your sexuality. Another section of feminists will say you have to figure out your own reasons for wearing dresses and miniskirts, and people have to respect them. (I'm in this last group.) Do you you love your legs? Is it hot outside? Do you want to attract male attention? Whatever! Dress and presentation are complicated topics, and they should be points of discussion, not derision. (I hope your professor was savvy enough to have a conversation about why your classmates were judging superficial things rather than focusing on issues.) More important should the opinions of the person wearing the clothes.

    For me, feminism is not about presentation or judging presentation. Wearing a certain article of clothing does not make you more or less of a feminist. Liking traditionally feminine things do not make you less of a feminist. I feel feminism should be about inclusion rather than exclusion. It shouldn't be a club. It should be a ideological movement. "Opportunity" (without infringement) is definitely the best word to describe feminism (in my opinion), and not just opportunities for women! A patriarchal society is just as hard on men. They don't have certain opportunities available to them due to traditional stigma, and they can be feminists too. In my version of feminism, society needs to change for the betterment of all genders/sexes involved.

  8. @Amy: Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I completely agree with you!

  9. It's hard for some of us who are older and who were told we could NOT do some things because we were girls to deal with younger women who have always been allowed to wear pants everywhere. I was a stay-at-home mother for nine years and gave myself a hard time about it. The women in your class should have been more understanding, but were probably frustrated. Hop over to Linda Gerber's site to see that things are STILL not equal!