Last week, I tweeted about something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.
I pulled those tweets together and posted them over on tumblr while it was fresh on my mind. The conversation itself came out of reading yet another series of reviews of various YA books where a critique of the story was that the main character/s — female — was/were “unlikable.” I won’t go into a discussion of likability because I’ve talked about that before and because a couple of posts I’ve got coming later this month will be tackling this head on. But what I will say is that likability is not only a complex topic — what does it mean, exactly, and how can you point to a character as being definitively likable or not? — but that it’s not a lens through which you can fairly critique a story. It’s a preference you have as a reader.
Just as you’d prefer reading a YA novel to, say, an adult western, whether you enjoy a story with a likable character or not is also a preference. A critique of the character’s likability is worthwhile when it can be laid against the plot, against the character’s arc, or against any of the other means of the story progressing from point A to point B. Likability matters through the context of the story’s success.
But to the bigger point.
After reading through the reblogs of my tumblr post, many of the reasons I initially tweeted about why valuable it’d be if we talked more about girls and girls reading were reconfirmed. Notes stated by suggesting we talk about girls and girl reading habits, I’m saying that there’s no need to talk about boys or boy reading. That it’s being entitled to suggest as much. That because boys are often behind in reading or find reading for fun an activity they choose to partake in less frequently than girls, we should be focused entirely on them because the girls will just do it anyway.
That’s actually the point, but it misses the point.
Laurel Snyder wrote an excellent post a couple of weeks ago: boys will be boys and girls will accommodate. She talks a lot about the problems of labeling books “boy books” and other books “girl books” and how from the age we begin teaching and encouraging reading, we pay special attention to make sure we get books that boys will like and in doing so, we expect girls to read them too. We don’t look for books that will have special interest for girls because the assumption is girls are readers and thus will just read anything (of course, there’s a bigger issue at play here, but take it at that level).
I’m an advocate of getting boys to read. I’m an advocate of making sure that books with special appeal to boys — those books with action, adventure, twists, turns, depths, non-fiction titles — get in the hands of boys. I’ve talked at length here before about how there is research showing boys read less frequently than girls and that boys do tend to lag behind in terms of their reading skills in school. I think what people like Michael Sullivan are doing in educating librarians and teachers about how to best reach boys is excellent and insightful and the kind of professional development that’s not only necessary, but it’s expansive. This is work that you build upon, rather than pay attention to during a professional development day and move on from.
But it’s also expansive because it’s the kind of work that should make you think about the other side of the equation.
What about the girls?
Girls are better readers. Girls are going to read whatever you give them. Girls have so much more catering to their interests than boys do, especially in YA. These are all statements rampant throughout the reading world, but they’re not substantiated in the same way the statements about boys and boy reading are. Just look at a lineup of panel sessions at major book- education- and library- related professional development opportunities: there are sessions for reaching boys, but there are rarely, if ever, sessions for reaching girls.
Part of why this is a passionate area for me is because I see reviews that call out likability as a factor for dinging a book. It’s always a girl who is unlikable, rarely if ever a boy — and if it is a boy, it’s generally qualified. He’s unlikable but he’s also mentally ill. He’s unlikable but he’s also got a tough home life. He’s unlikable but he’s just a bad boy.
Girls, on the other hand, are unlikable. They have girl problems. They have girl drama (drama, always drama). They are girls in crisis, rather than girls living through the challenges they have to confront in order to be their best selves. In so many of the books that tackle these challenges, girl is a qualifier.
I wonder if we talked more about girls and how they’re represented in books, if we’d use the qualifier less.
I wonder if we talked more about girls and how they’re represented in books, if we’d allow girls to see that their problems are real, legitimate issues and that having them and working through them is not simply part of being a girl, but part of being a person.
Girls are as complex as boys, but so often, we let girls be placed into one of two categories, based entirely on our preferences: likable or unlikable. These aren’t critiques of story nor are they critiques of character. They are preferences. There’s nothing wrong with preferring a likable or unlikable character, but there is something wrong when that becomes the means through which we critique a story and thus the way that we then present those stories to readers — especially to girl readers who may identify as unlikable or as likable vis a vis those books.
When we critique books and discuss books through that un/likable dynamic, we deny complexity to not just the girls on the page, but we deny girls reading those books complexity, too. We make a judgment on the actions both in the fictional world and in the real world.
I want girls to read books and know that the decisions those characters make are dependent entirely upon the characters and the opportunities presented to them in the story. I want girls to know that the decisions they have to make are dependent entirely upon themselves and the opportunities presented to them in their lives and worlds. That being likable and being nice aren’t the reasons to be making choices, but rather, that being likable and being nice are choices that they get to make as they work through what it is they need to work through.
We don’t tell girls enough that their lives are theirs and the decisions they get to make are theirs to make. We expect them to accommodate in every situation — if they’re not accommodating boys, they’re doing worse by accommodating other girls. Or rather, they’re accommodating our preconceived notion of what a boy is and what a girl is. They’re accommodating ideals impossible to accommodate, ideals that deny everyone, regardless of gender and the idea of gender in and of itself, complexity.
We don’t tell girls that they can want things and they can not only want things, but they can go after them. That their lives are theirs to shape into the fashion they want to. That their pain and ache and being denied opportunities or chances matters and is something they should care about. That those are things they’re allowed to experience and have and do something with. We don’t encourage them enough to follow up, follow through, ask questions, to be hard or unrelenting.
I wonder if we talked more about girls and how they’re represented in books, if we’d see more memory in regards to the women who helped shape literature itself. More specifically, would we see more of the contributions of women in the YA world? Would more ladies who laid the tracks down to make YA what it is today be see as foundational? As important? As creators of a category of fiction that’s become not just popular, but really damn good?
It was a woman who is credited for creating YA as a category. It’s women who continue to shape YA and continue to present stories of complex, challenging girls — those who fall all along the range of likable and unlikable — and it’s women who continue to challenge what YA is all together. Who continue to write to and for girls who have never seen themselves in the pages but who would not only benefit from it, but who would better see that they are allowed to be who it is they are. That they are so much greater than likable or unlikable. That making mistakes, falling down, and getting hurt are part of the process of becoming.
By wanting more for girls, by hoping that we can talk about girls and the representation of girls more, that’s not a call to take away from boys. It’s not a statement that boys don’t matter. It’s certainly not entitlement.
Rather, it’s a call to continue a conversation and take it deeper. To look at what’s out there and how we can make the reading world — and thus the greater world — a place where “girl” isn’t an adjective or an adverb, but a noun full-stop.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).