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There is a picture I look at when I am feeling generally useless, or terrible, or unmotivated, or despairing, wishing that I had depth perception so I could be a truck driver or you know, any sort of mathematical ability so I could be an accountant.

I find anger very motivating - look at that!

Ms. Magazine did a piece on young adult literature and feminism in their fall edition, and they interviewed me (I felt so fancy. Mum, Ms. Magazine, check me out, are you proud?) They also interviewed smarter people than me, including the editor of the Demon's Lexicon series, Karen Wojtyla. She also edits Holly Black's books, so you can see she is clearly a fabulous editor and all mistakes I make are on me and not her.

I haven't read the piece yet (curse you Irish postal system, always losing my things) but I do remember saying at one point that I loved young adult books the best, and was proud to be writing them at this time, because it was thrilling that teenage girls, who are pretty often denigrated - seen as silly, shrieky, with girly being an insult, and so on - have created this golden age of a genre by loving literature. (Which is not to knock the guy or the grown-up readers of young adult, of course!) It makes me happy to think about people getting profoundly engaged and profoundly influenced by media.

I myself am very influenced by media. Okay, so let me admit to being gross sometimes. I think we all are, sometimes: the last time I realised I was being gross (both sexist and racist, actually) was... earlier today. But let me admit to a time I was specifically gross. At one time in my late teens/early twenties I wouldn't have thought I could be sexist. Because I was a feminist, and all! And yet I clearly remember discussing the female characters in the Harry Potter series and saying such things as 'She's too perfect - but I don't like the faults she has.' It took seeing people say the exact same things I'd said, but about girl characters in books/movies/TV shows I really loved, for me to realise 'Oh, wow. I was being pretty sexist, right about then.' And then I felt awful. But I'm really glad I got to read and watch the girls in books, movies and TV shows that I loved, just the same.

(Memo: this is not to say criticising fictional girls is bad! But one rule for me is seeing different criteria applied to guys than girls - if a guy character never gets criticised for being too perfect/who he's dating/what he's wearing, for instance, that's an indication that Younger Sarah might be doing it wrong.)

The thing about the picture that makes me angry - it doesn't make me angry just because it's sexist, which hey, it is. (Gentlemen: a world of adventure awaits! Ladies: well, you're ladies, right? That is your ONE ONLY POSSIBLE job? Leaving alone the fact that, say, schemer or match-maker might be a better description of what Emma actually does with her time.)

What this picture is really about to me is a portrayal of limitations placed on awesomeness. (I'm not making a call about the shows it portrays, just talking about the portrayal.) And the fiction I like the most is that which says 'There is no limit on awesomeness.' Because, and this seems a ridiculously obvious thing to say, having no limit on awesomeness means more awesomeness.

Like, my very, very first fantasy novel of all time was Tamora Pierce's In the Hand of the Goddess (I think my mother thought it was historical) and I didn't think much about the way the heroine being the action-heroine star of the show, who uses contraception and has sex with several dudes and it's all good. I just thought 'that is an awesome book.' Because I didn't have to trip on any limits to awesomeness put there.

Another example of limits put on awesomeness: books like What Katy Did and The Secret Garden. I love them. I love The Secret Garden so much it's kind of embarrassing. But in both of them a main character gets a seemingly-almost-magically complete healing, and that's a limit placed on awesomeness because it does tend to suggest a character cannot reach their full awesomeness without said healing. But those books were written a while ago, whereas R.J. Anderson's Knife (Spell Hunter in the US) was written quite recently. The wheelchair-using hero, Paul, is offered magical healing, and he says 'Yeah, thanks, but no, there's something else I want.'

The past is another country. We're learning to do things better here.

In Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix I learned stuff about Asian myth that I didn't know, and that was awesome. I spent a good deal of time explaining and doing imitations for a monster made out of the bits of dead people to my increasingly upset friends.

There is a lot of room for improvement in media. I was horrified to read this post on Elizabeth Scott's blog talking about the LGBTQ landscape in YA - less than ten per cent of submissions have books with gay characters? Not even protagonists, though there should be more - less than ten per cent have them even there existing at all in a whole cast of characters? Methuselah on a bicycle.

But one of the most popular YA series in the world right now (The Hunger Games) centres on an action heroine. I saw a whole crowd of (mostly teenage girl) readers let out a spontaneous cheer at the mention of the gay couple in Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments books. There are books like Malinda Lo's Ash with a lesbian romance front and centre, and also teens can watch a video of someone saying 'hey, I'm okay, I'm awesome, I have this great partner, I wrote a book!' And that matters. (And since I have mentioned both Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo, I wish to link to their Diversity in YA, because I think it's an excellent thing that I am really proud to be part of.)

So, I've got to believe it's getting better, it's getting better all the time. And I look at Awesomeness-Limiting portrayals of media and I think 'that's not all there is, there is going to be more and more awesomeness until the awesomeness-limiting is eliminated.' And creating (to the best of one's ability, which I do, though I've been deliberately not mentioning my own stuff in this post) and appreciating awesomeness?

That's really important. So I think about that, and I feel better.

In fact, I feel awesome.


( 139 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jan. 26th, 2011 03:53 am (UTC)
While the uneven gender numbers are an issue (perhaps even reflective of a bias in programming i.e. lack of headlining roles for women in high profile projects? I don't watch that much BBC so I really can't say), to me the "Lady" part doesn't seem an issue at all.

I thought the titles were ironic/subversive. Sherlock call himself the "World's Only Consulting Detective" and is really, really unique. Merlin defies the wise old wizard stereotype by being young, hot, gangly and kind of goofy at times, and the Doctor is no doctor at all. While I haven't seen Emma or Being Human, as an Austen heroine, she is likely not exactly stereotypical "Lady" either.

Jan. 26th, 2011 09:33 pm (UTC)
All very valid points, but I think the problem here has more to do with it being an advertisement, hence mainly aimed at people who aren't familiar with the shows/movies/whatever. And for those people it basically says "Lots of cool dudes! They do all sorts of things! ...Oh, and this girl."

There's not anything wrong with labeling Emma as a Lady, since that is what she was, but given this particular poster, it could have been done better.
Jan. 27th, 2011 05:00 am (UTC)
That is a valid point. But it's an ad for dvds, which are usually bought by fans who want to rewatch series. On the other hand since this is a holiday ad, the dvds are probably meant to be gifts for others. Hm, in which case the words serve would serve as prompts so that people who want an easy gift can go "Oh, a wizard, __ likes wizards."

On a totally unrelated side topic, why are the men all brunettes?
Jan. 26th, 2011 06:49 am (UTC)
I'm really hard on characters, all of them. I tend to give girl characters more of a pass because they're girls and I want more of them. Then I decide I don't want to just say, "yes, but it's okay because it's a girl!" because . . . that sounds kind of sexist too? But then I go too far in the opposite direction.

I've been thinking about this a lot due having recently read The Hunger Games, and thinking about The Demon's Lexicon.

Anyway, Sarah, for what it's worth, I think you're awesome :o)
Jan. 26th, 2011 09:05 am (UTC)
Somewhat belated, somewhat tangenital response on my blog: http://thezoe-trope.blogspot.com/2011/01/wake-up-and-smell-real-world-diversity.html
Jan. 26th, 2011 12:33 pm (UTC)
It's a great post, and I totally agree?
Jan. 26th, 2011 12:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks. Your post was one of the ones that really made me want to write something, so I thanks for that, too.
Jan. 26th, 2011 12:49 pm (UTC)
I was kind of worried that you thought I was saying 'Everything is so great now because some people are writing perfect books' but I wasn't, and I think every word of your post is right. (Also, I am totally united with you in love for Jem in Clockwork Angel.)
Jan. 26th, 2011 12:53 pm (UTC)
Oh, no! Sorry. It's just that I've been reading some amazing posts that tackle the topic in various ways lately and so I wanted to let those inspiring writers (of which you are one) know that they...you know, inspired me.
Jan. 26th, 2011 12:58 pm (UTC)
Well *beams* and thank you! Very glad to have helped inspire such a good post, and I retweeted it.
Jan. 26th, 2011 01:05 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I kind of took my courage in both hands to write it because what do I, the whitebread girl, know about any of these Big Important Subjects? But having been bolshie all over my blog I thought I might as well be even bolshier and come here and share :)

P.S. I may name my firstborn child Jem.
Jan. 26th, 2011 04:15 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for the Diversity in YA link! It makes me incredibly happy that such a thing exists. I'll definitely be tuning in for updates. The website mentions that you'll be joining the tour in Boston, is that right? If so, I'm sure you'll let us know when details have been finalized. :) Having loved and admired your work for a good while now, I'd love to finally meet you!
Jan. 26th, 2011 09:12 pm (UTC)
I will let you know - I only know what's on the net right now. :) - and it would be lovely to meet you too!
Jan. 26th, 2011 09:50 pm (UTC)
That poster is squicky. Do not like. Probably not intentionally sexist, but all the same. Ew. Unintentional sexism/racism/discrimination of any kind tends to bother me more than if it were outright, for some reason. Because here you are thinking you're a good person and fair to everyone, and then that. Mind you, everyone does it from time to time, but I think we owe it to ourselves and everyone around us to pay attention to whether we're doing it. That's the only way we'll ever beat discrimination completely, in my opinion.

On a brighter note, I totally agree about the healing handicap thing. Sure, there are handicapped people that would want a magic cure, but it would be beyond presumptuous to say all do. And to send a message that getting rid of the handicap suddenly validates the person just makes me ill. And actually I like to point at The Demon's Covenant and go "LOOK AT THIS, THIS IS WHAT BOOKS SHOULD DO!" I absolutely loved Alan's take on being cured. It was incredibly realistic; of course Nick would care more than Alan would. So thank you for that. And for Jamie. I would tell you everything I love about how you've written him, but I fear the comment thing would cut me off. Suffice it to say he's amazing. <33
Jan. 27th, 2011 05:08 am (UTC)
I get the entire un-intentional sexism thing. My super feminist friend (I'm feminist too, but she is REALLY feminist) said something really sexist towards guys to a guy's face and I told her "You shouldn't say that to a nice guy!" and she responded, "But it's true!" and I said, "Even if it is true (I thought I should choose my battles) you shouldn't say that type of thing. Especially to a guy's face!"

I always feel that the characters without awesome limits are those with the best flaws. It's like they're awesome for fighting their flaws and then when they conquer them they've just popped any type of awesome-top they might have had.

I really love YA because I feel the characters tend to be more interesting than the characters in adult literature. I feel the YA makes the same demands of the reader that adult fiction has while have a more tumultuous plot.

Not that all YA fiction is like that or all Adult Fiction isn't but I'm speaking generalities.

My best friends favorite book is Ash (Okay. SECOND favorite. Right after Pride and Prejudice) and I'm always on the hunt for awesome GLBTQ books because I feel they give me a new perspective on things like love and affection.

Jan. 27th, 2011 02:45 pm (UTC)
less than ten per cent of submissions have books with gay characters?

I'm not surprised. During a big chunk of high school, I insulated myself with the likes of David Levithan, Alex Sanchez, Maureen Johnson, and Brent Hartinger, doing my best to read almost nothing but the books with gay characters.

...and then I exhausted my library's supply, and there were no more. (Although David Levithan released a new book in 2006, with not just a gay protagonist but also a gay U.S. President. This was akin to a HIT OF CRACK if you were me.) And I was very sad. And I re-read Boy Meets Boy about six trillion times, because it is my mental picture of How the World Should Be.

Reading that the numbers really are that low makes me feel a lot better about the fact that when I write, I virtually never write about straight characters. Everyone generally ends up queer in some way. (I used to think this was a problem; that I was being unfair in some way.) So if I ever manage to finish AND publish something, I will be very excited AND I will be helping to even the field. Cool. :)

I think this stuff is also part of the reason I started writing slash. There are just not goddamn enough People Like Me in the media I consume, so I change that. :p I love that there is SO MUCH delicious media for me to play with. I love that media isn't as static as it might wish it were.

I also love YA really a lot and I will always defend it and always read it. ♥
Jan. 27th, 2011 07:40 pm (UTC)
Mmh, I used to be one of those people who criticise fictional girls for reasons they would never criticise fictional boys for. It is mostly due to you, to reading your blog posts, to reading blog posts by other awesome people and a lot of reflection on why I was actually criticising the girls that this changed. And I'm really glad it did because, looking back, I see the utter narrow-mindedness of it and it makes me sad that was me just a few years back.

Now, I enjoy seeing flaws in girl characters too, and I enjoy awesome girl characters as well because, hey, awesomeness should not be limited to male characters. Just as it should not be limited to men in real life. (And a lady should not be limited to being "the lady" either.) Thanks for teaching me that, and thanks for writing awesome girls, Sarah.
Jan. 29th, 2011 12:30 am (UTC)
Loved this post. So many people seem not to know that being a feminist isn't something that you just are, it requires round the clock evaluations of stuff like media representation. I almost died the other day when I heard a classmate describe women as a minority. I can understand them thinking that because women are often treated like a minority, but women are around fifty percent of the population, so they should be represented pretty equally in the media, but that rarely happens. Sigh.
Jan. 29th, 2011 03:04 am (UTC)
When Characters Become Caricatures and Not Characters
To be honest, while everyone has favourite and not as appreciated characters, the only time any sort of character bothers me is when their gender, sexual orientation, or physical ability becomes important to the story. (Possible exceptions being the example you gave about the character that refused being "fixed" and healed. Haven't read the book, however, so I can't comment on if it commits my cardinal sin.) No one ever writes a book with a male charater that continually draws attention to the fact that he's male, but LOTS of people write books that draw attention to the other three I mentioned, and as long as a book/movie/writer has to do that, *shrugs*, it's a flawed character because they aren't a person they're a gender, an orientation, or a physical ability.

And now that I've written that, it comes off a little harsher and more opinionated that I mean it to, but the point is the general message and hopefully not the fact that I sound like a bit of a jerk delivering it. (Also, sorry for any spelling errors. I'm terrible at it, and spellcheck is broken right now.)
Jan. 31st, 2011 01:34 am (UTC)
Gah! Love you!!!
Hi Sarah!
I stumbled across The Demon's Lexicon series over at Holly Black's page just before Christmas, and as I love urban fantasy I said i'd give it a Gary. Well whooee, am I SOOOO pleased I did! I absolutely adored Lexicon! Nothing about it felt cliched or done before, something I find a lot of YA novels fall victim to. It was a real breath of fresh air! Then naturally I HAD to buy Covenant straight away and was completely frazzled with how amazing it was, I would spend the days jittery, just waiting for nightime which is 'Sarah's reading time' so I could read some more (my name's Sarah too, just so you're not confused, or creeped out lol!)
Anyway, I dunno how you did it but with Covenant you blew away the whole '2nd book curse'! It's even better than Lexicon and through Mae's eyes I loved everyone even more! (If that were even possible.) Mae is FABULOUS!!! I love her and Nick! I'm dying to see more of them in Surrender! Please! I swoon for angsty romance, lol!
I love how in touch with herself she is! Yes, she's in love with Nick but he's not the be all and end all! And even her coming to terms with her feelings was so well done! No way could she ever be labelled as 'Lady' like in that BBC page (facepalm with regards to that, by the way!) I'd label Mae as 'badass' definetly! She's no 'damsel in distress' or 'woe is me' character or 'my whole life revolves around my boyfriend' girl she's practical and balanced, there's no B.S. with Mae and I love that about her!
Anyway, I've gotta reel myself in here! Just wanted to say how much I love your series, i've told about 12 million people about it, and give a big whoot for being home-grown, lol! Will you be coming to Cork for the release of Surrender, I'd love to go!?
Ps. As for the BBC page, If they'd labelled her 'Boobies' I don't think it'd looked so lame! Seriously, she's like the token girl who they can't find any outstanding features for so, whilst pulling at straws, they manage 'Lady'. 'Boobies' actually would have had more of a function!

Feb. 2nd, 2011 06:49 pm (UTC)
In the Hand of the Goddess: I read it at eight years old and nearly every year after that until I was eighteen and that book and that series actually changed my life in a very profound way. I still totally hate Jonathan, though. GO TEAM GEORGE!
Feb. 20th, 2011 03:30 pm (UTC)
What's funny is I was just reading something on Shannon Hale's blog about strong female characters- or the sometime lack thereof. I said it there and I'll repeat it now- I can never understand why girls can't be strong AND wear dresses at the same time. I'm wearing a dress right now. Does that make me weak and shallow?

I'm also addicted to The Vampire Diaries- the TV series, not the books. But half the reason I love it so freakin' much is because Elena doesn't wait around to be rescued. She kicks butt. And she's happy to do it in a pink jumper. And I can agree to your comments on What Katy Did and The Secret Garden too. What's much more interesting is watching characters overcome whatever illness/defect they have and live in spite of it, which as you say, is awesome. (Though I guess the two of them were written in a different era).

So basically. Diversity ftw.
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