I’ve been thinking about this tweet a lot the last couple of weeks.
After AO Scott wrote about the death of the patriarchy and the death of adulthood, peppered with some disdain for YA, it’s hard not to see that the act of writing about and caring about girls is anything less than survival writing.
It’s a radical act.
Scott and fellow “adulthood is dead” author Chris Beha believe that our media and culture aren’t encouraging people to behave in certain, pre-defined ways that signify adulthood. That people — “people” meaning anyone who isn’t a middle age, straight white male — keep seeking out entertainment and experiences that keep them in some state of arrested development. YA books, of course, are a medium undermining the patriarchy and delaying maturity.
Last week, news came out that two female librarians were being sued to the tune of over $1 million dollars for character defamation for speaking out about a male colleague who, over the course of many years of his career, caused discomfort among many females in the field. The lawsuit claims the women “have caused him to be regarded with feelings of hatred, contempt, ridicule, fear, dislike, approbrium or disesteem. The defendants’ statements are clearly defamatory and impossible to justify.”
Rabey and de jesus, the two female defendants in the case, spoke up where other women in the field have not. This act of speaking up is radical. They spoke up on behalf of other women who couldn’t find their voices to do that. Murphy’s lawsuit, as much as it claims to be about defamation of character, isn’t that.
It’s about power and putting fear into not just Rabey and de jesus, but it’s an act of creating enough fear that other women won’t speak out against him or others. It’s about keeping them quiet.
At the same time this lawsuit unfolds, YouTube personality Sam Pepper released a video featuring him pinching girls’ butts without their permission. After mass uproar within the community, the video came down, but in its wake, more women spoke up. Laci Green detailed Pepper’s creepy behavior, and as this things go, she received a series of messages from Pepper meant to put her right back in her place.
One reason that YA books bear the brunt of cultural criticism and become a popular whipping boy in mainstream media by people who couldn’t be bothered to read beyond the few books on the New York Times List or those books that became box office hits is that it’s a field that’s seen as a women’s field. Like librarianship, writing for teenagers is something that women do, something that the luxury of time and love of fantasy worlds — whether real fantasy or imagined fantasy is up for debate — afford them.
YA stories, at least the ones critics are familiar with, don’t leave room for boys and boyhood. They don’t wrestle with the big questions of life. They aren’t handbooks to adulthood or compasses for morality. They’re frivolous works so many adults gobble up by the armload because adults can no longer grapple with the Big Important Questions Of Life as found in tomes of literary excellence.
To bear witness to other adults enjoying the act of reading and finding stories that satiate them is to bear witness to the dumbing down of culture.
An email came through on a small, private listserv I’m a part of a couple of weeks ago from a librarian tasked with running a book club as an elective in her middle school. The students, 8th graders, are all girls, and the first title they picked was Speak. The librarian was told from above she needed to pick something less controversial, and when her students discussed other options, they picked Before I Fall. She knew that wasn’t going to fly with administration, either, so she came to the listserv asking what could be done.
It’s interesting that the books these 8th grade girls want to read in this private (and Catholic) school involve two huge issues: sexual assault and bullying. These are topics these girls are seeking out to talk about and because of administrative push back from the top, they’re not able to do so in a safe space, in the presence of a professional who knows how to handle conversations like this.
This is no fault of the librarian. It’s the fault of adults who are failing to have these conversations with teens. When our educational system is founded on teaching the classics and heralding the value of those Tomes of Literary Importance, readers who want more — who deserve more — have to go elsewhere.
Meanwhile, some readers are “so sick” of rape books in YA and it’s a topic that’s already been done.
What can we make of readers who are desperately seeking out these books in a culture that doesn’t want to talk about them or, worse, is “so sick” of talking about them and seeing them? What can we make of readers — girls — who are constantly reminded that their interests are either controversial or silly?
This isn’t the fault of educators; it’s a weakness in the system of belief that the road to successful adulthood is through the voice and experiences of the straight white male. It’s the fault of a society that values and encourages a certain prescribed path and any deviation from it is, in fact, a failure of the individual, rather than a failure of such a singular, privileged perspective.
Bucking that norm is an act of survival. Choosing to write and to talk out against those in power is an act of radicalism.
The reason we need another rape book, the reason we need to talk about books like Speak or Before I Fall or Pointe any other number of books tackling tough issues through the perspective of teen girls is because that’s where teen girls find their voices. That’s where they’re able to see both the mirrors of who they are, as well as the windows into the worlds of those who look like them and those who don’t look like them.
Earlier this month, nude photos of many well-known Hollywood women were stolen and put onto the internet for public consumption. This was no leak; this was theft. The purpose of this theft was to prove power — the power that our world has over women, the reminder that no matter how successful, how admired, how talented you are, there’s always a way the world can bring you down. That if you’re a woman, you’re part of a man’s world, no matter how much of a stake you put into the ground, no matter how much you make your own.
And this week, just months after a vile, repugnant rant against successful women in the book world, Ed Champion harassed another female author, threatening to release the name of the person who had nude photos of her. And he did, before his Twitter account was suspended.
There’s no dead patriarchy in these acts. If anything were true about either Scott or Beha’s essays to be pulled in here, perhaps it’s about what adulthood looks like. Does adulthood mean reminding women that their bodies are always up for consumption? That they’re afforded no privacy?
Is it that when a man has power and is invited to speak on the library conference circuit, he’s free from being called out for behavior that’s left colleagues uncomfortable?
Is it that men are allowed to grab girls’ bodies without their permission for laughs and video hits, then follow up just criticism for that behavior with threats?
Girls shouldn’t fear for their lives when they’re just living them. Girls who are impassioned about their worlds, who want nothing more than to engage with their world, learn about that world, build empathy for this place and the people around them, who use their knowledge and their passion to give voice to their beliefs shouldn’t worry about their bodies — or their lives — being at stake for doing so.
And yet, because we’re asking for and raising our voices without waiting for permission to do so, it happens.
The reason there’s fear that “adulthood is dying” isn’t that the patriarchy is dead. Far from. It’s that voices are being discovered through media like YA fiction, sharpened and raised. Girls are finding good things are out there for them, but getting to those good things requires claws. That being unlikable isn’t a character flaw or a death sentence, but instead, a state of being, a way of pushing through, of building confidence.
Speaking up, advocating for, listening to, and writing about girls is an act of radicalism. It’s about building an adulthood recognizing that the world is layered and colored with millions of shades of gray and accepting that with better nourishment — including rape stories, bullying stories, sweet or sultry romances, magical tales — the better our world reflects us, rather than us trying to reflect a singular, reductive, and fabricated idea of the world.
Let’s encourage those fears expressed by Beha and Scott are things we get to see happen. Writing about girls and believing women is everything that they’re afraid of.
When I speak about girls, I hope it’s clear that I also speak in defense of all along the gender spectrum who are marginalized.
Further reading: Anne Ursu talks about the power of empathy, about how Beha and Scott fail to understand that that’s the driving purpose behind literature, including — and especially — YA fiction. Sarah McCarry digs into whose pleasure is really at stake when it comes to the “death of the patriarchy” and YA fiction. Spend some time, too, with Robin Wasserman talking about “Girl Trouble.”