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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.

Comments

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ias
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:32 pm (UTC)
Humm, maybe I'm too much of an historian but the ad doesn't make me angry because they used lady (well, she is a Lady, that was her role that was her job and being a Lady was an important social function in her time, possibly more socially important than the male version of being a Gentleman).

It's just a shame they couldn't have used one of the other female leads as well, say one of the women from Spooks (which I thought had done quite well in the States).
sarahtales
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:39 pm (UTC)
The fact she is the only girl and that everyone else's roles are active - and indeed supernaturaly - things, as well as offering a Buffet of Choice, that frankly sound more appealing makes me very upset.
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lizzylafosse
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:35 pm (UTC)
I cannot tell you how much I loved this! Like you, I found that ad to be appalling. I watch most of those shows, and this is how BBC wants to represent to their audience? REALLY? 'Lady' was the best they could do? The 'vampire' is from being human, and one of the other main characters, a ghost, is female--they couldn't use her?

Sorry for the mini-rant but this piece really hit home with me. Adore your writing; always fantastically done and really makes you think. Keep on doin' what you do :)
sarahtales
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:41 pm (UTC)
Thank you! Yes, Annie is my favourite character in Being Human (I think she and Mitchell the Vampire should have a great love) so I was like 'Whoa, at least one of those shows has a lady protagonist who gets to be supernatural and active too.'
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blamebrampton
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:40 pm (UTC)
That ad is ridiculous, but the commenter who says s/he looked at it and saw the cast of a heist story makes things enormously better!

Emma: Right, Mitchell, you will use your devastating good looks to distract the teller while Merlin magically opens all the locks on the safety deposit boxes and The Doctor takes the TARDIS inside the area and empties them all out.

Sherlock: Brilliant! And then when I am called in, I lead the police down the wrong path using a complex yet eminently plausible set of inferences, yes?

Emma: Er, yes. OR, I have this lovely friend you could take out for a cup of tea ...
sarahtales
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:47 pm (UTC)
Reminds me of when Karen Healey and I were designing the heist movie version of Inception we wished we'd seen - less angst, more twisty dream hijinks, Leo diCaprio and Marion Cotillard's characters as joint crimelords, Tom Hardy's character eliminated and the other three given fun subplots of their own. Ah, but one cannot live on imaginary heist stories alone. ;
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thegreatmissjj
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:44 pm (UTC)
I'm less appalled by Emma's description as "Lady" (because it was almost as much a career as a description of the female sex in the 1800s--it's better than "Maid" or "Wench", I suppose) than the fact that she's the ONLY WOMAN. Where are the other female protagonists, I ask you? Are there really no female protagonists on television these days? (I wouldn't know--the last time I watched TV was LOST, and before that, it was The X-Files.)

And look, they're all white, but to ask for a protagonist of a different race is probably too much. Sigh.
sarahtales
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:53 pm (UTC)
Her being the only girl and therefore there not being options was a chief part of the Limits of Awesomeness Imposed, yes. And that they chose the 1800s-lady as said only-choice while the majority of other characters are in modern times.

One of the protagonists in Being Human, which was advertised via the 'Vampire' is a female ghost? Which is why I was like 'Portrayal rather than taking issue with THOSE SPECIFIC SHOWS.' Though man it would've been nice to see character-of-colour Gwen as an advertisement for Merlin. Of course it would be a stretch to describe the show as about her.
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jumbled_words
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:46 pm (UTC)
My friends sometimes tease me (in a good way, they think it's awesome) because I'm incapable of writing a story without at least one (or more, I think my record is seven) queers in it. It always amazes me that there are so few books with gay people out there, but possibly it's because I hog them all.

And maybe one day one of my books will get to live in the real world (as opposed to my harddrive), and I can add a tiny little fraction of a percentage to those ten percent.

But first I must give up my addiction to parentheses and semi-colons. Seriously.
sarahtales
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:54 pm (UTC)
I was appalled by how many brackets I had liberally scattered across this post. Happens!
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firynze
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:53 pm (UTC)
Okay, I officially need to go read Knife, if for no other reason than I HATE magical healing of crippled characters, and would love to see a character turn it down.

Also, wow. I suddenly feel really proud of my authors, because every single book I've dealt with thus far has a non-heteronormative character somewhere, even as a background throwaway (in Erekos, two of the major characters are in a non-heteronormative situation, while in the other books, LGBTQ is just there as a fact of life, something normal, oh, he's gay? Whatever - which i LOVE). They also tend to have people of colour appearing as a Normal Fact of Life at the very least. Again, proud of my authors for, you know, writing what life IS, instead of some whitewashed heteronormative version thereof.

Hurrah for Diversity in YA! Hurrah for not limiting awesomeness!
sarahtales
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:57 pm (UTC)
I hate it too: I hate it so much that in my books I had it both turned down and once done, reversed just to further stress 'None of that.' I highly recommend Knife.
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eyelid
Jan. 25th, 2011 04:03 pm (UTC)
Gentlemen: a world of adventure awaits! Ladies: well, you're ladies, right? That is your job? Leaving alone the fact that, say, schemer or match-maker might be a better description of what Emma actually does with her time.

Emma doesn't really do much with her time except mess stuff up.

I think the problem is less what they titled Emma and more that Emma is apparently the limit of their female characters. If you're a guy you can be a wizard or a doctor! If you're a girl you can be... an 18th century "lady".
sarahtales
Jan. 25th, 2011 04:06 pm (UTC)
You are addressing entirely the wrong person here, since I am a big Emma fan.

But yes, the reason that picture makes me angry is because it limits awesomeness in so many ways, as stated by both of us!
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bloodbelieve
Jan. 25th, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC)
Why couldn't they use Annie for the Being Human ad and have 'ghost'? She's easily as much of a main character as Mitchell imo.

Re: the magical-healing thing, that's part of why I loved How To Train Your Dragon so much! Not sure if you've seen it, but the ending was wonderful.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 25th, 2011 04:44 pm (UTC)
Yay I was just thinking about the ending to this film today. It's amazing, also there will be a sequel so we can see how the hero's life continues. Hurray.
ashkitty
Jan. 25th, 2011 04:14 pm (UTC)
My friend writes YA LGBT books (she's not on LJ anymore, but writes under Hayden Thorne), and they are BRILLIANT. She's one of the few writers who make me curl up in a ball being sad that I will never be able to manage that level of spetacular beauty in anything I write; they're REALLY REALLY GOOD. But they're published by a small press and don't get publicity and she finds it all but impossible to get any YA reviewers to touch them. I don't know what there is to be done about that, besides keep pushing and prodding until the markets shift around to make some room. I think LGBT teenagers really need some books that have characters like them and aren't Making A Big Point, but it's hard to bloody sell the things. :(
sarahtales
Jan. 25th, 2011 06:32 pm (UTC)
I hear you, I've been trying to sell a lesbian short story for uh, four years at this point, with two anthologies accepting it and folding up with a small sad sound. That said, I do recommend Ash for its Not Making A Big Point.
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liz_w
Jan. 25th, 2011 04:33 pm (UTC)
I have to argue with you about The Secret Garden... the character didn't undergo "a seemingly-almost-magically complete healing". The point was that Colin was NEVER SICK, but had spent his whole life being told that he was, so was a frail hypochondriac. The only "cure" he received was eating properly, getting fresh air, and learning to use those muscles that he never had. Nothing magical about it. The "magic" referenced by Burnett (she also uses it in A Little Princess) is the children's imaginations.
erinlin
Jan. 25th, 2011 06:54 pm (UTC)
Yeah, compared to Clara from "Heidi", I have no problems with "The Secret Garden."
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Emma 'Cuneball' Cuneo
Jan. 25th, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC)
Okay first off, Emma (whom I'm named after) is way more than just a woman. That is completely sexist.

Secondly, I LOVE TAMORA PIERCE!!!!!!! I have an entire Tamora Pierce shelf :)
She has an anthology coming out next month and I'm so excited!!!!!
girlofavalon
Jan. 25th, 2011 05:13 pm (UTC)
Hmm... I will admit I always find it interesting that, when discussing female characters portrayals in modern fiction, nobody seems to bring up Star Wars. Personally, I think SW has some of the best women ever, even if they are few and have a secondary role.
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imagined_away
Jan. 25th, 2011 06:02 pm (UTC)
Did Hermione stay home with the kids? She worked for the Ministry for at least a while after Hogwarts making laws about the treatment of non-human creatures. I just don't remember it ever being said that she stayed home with the kids. And even if she did I'd assume (though this is clearly speculation) that she'd go back to work when Rose and Hugo are both at Hogwarts.

Ginny went on to be a professional Quidditch player and then, after getting pregnant because let's be honest playing a game that dangerous while being pregnant is a bad idea, she wrote the Quidditch article for the Daily Prophet. Maybe I misread the interview but I was at least under the impression that she wrote for the Prophet and raised kids at the same time.

And Hannah Abbott grows up to run The Leaky Cauldron which seems like she's doing pretty good for herself.

I mean, I agree with you, a lot of women in the HP universe are housewives (which is completely fine especially if that's what they want to be) but I feel like we see a lot of women who have awesome jobs and are awesome and at least a few of those women also have families.
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imagined_away
Jan. 25th, 2011 05:54 pm (UTC)
I love this post.

One of my favorite things about Jamie in your books is that he's gay but that's not just what his character is. He's fine with being gay, and while coming out stories are obviously important is nice to read about a character who just happens to be gay.
Which actually reminds me of something I've been wondering since I read the second book. Is Gerald bi? His reaction to Sin in TDC made me think he might be and I'm just curious. (I think I maybe be the only person to lament just how true the Bi People Don't Exist trope seems to be)

And also, though this is really rather unrelated, I just finished the Hunger Games and holy crap did I love that series. Realistic portrayal of youth reaction to a shit-ton of trauma? Sign me up.

Basically I love how YA fiction if getting more and more diverse. And on days when I'm trying to explain to my dorm mate why "feminism" does not mean hating men, and yelling at myself about slut-shamming, it's nice to know that I can curl up with some of my favorite books where it doesn't matter what people are, just what they do.
sarahtales
Jan. 25th, 2011 06:55 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you like the post, and even gladder you like Jamie!

I think Gerald is actually pretty messed-up and it's complicated sexually: he's had a touch-deprived childhood, an adolescence that was all about training to be evil among people whose affection he couldn't trust, and now when barely out of his teens has to be the leader, planner, mover and shaker of evil and all the evil plots thereof. I think he's pretty much going to flirt with anyone to get an advantage, and through nobody knowing what/who he likes he both gains an advantage and may not be quite aware himself. I don't think he had any real interest in Sin at all, though to be fair she wasn't interested in him either. ;)

In short, I agree with you completely about there needing to be more bisexuals in fiction, but I fear having Gerald be explicitly bi would be furthering the Evil Bisexual trope in romance novels, and also imagine Gerald's sexuality as a complex thing that just doesn't come up that much in the novels, as people are focused on stopping Gerald's evil plots rather than wanting him to talk out his hang-ups.
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dwammedout
Jan. 25th, 2011 06:22 pm (UTC)
The thing that strikes me instantly about the picture is; why not have TWO adverts? Either one with just ladies and one with just men or mixing up a man and a lady from each show? So Vampire/Ghost: Doctor/Time-traveller*: Magician/Servant: Detective/Landlady(?)***: Lady/Male Character from Emma which I have not read/watched ( I need to get onto that).

*Because Time-traveller sounds more awesome that 'Companion,' and the Doctor's companion's don't just follow him around keeping him company, they travel with him to keep him in line.

**I ... have just realised that Sherlock doesn't really work terribly well as an example of main characters being awesome ladies, however much I may love Mrs Hudson.


On the topic of picking faults with female characters, I don't think it's always to do with hating the female character because she is female. There are generally two reasons that I will dislike a female character; either I don't find them convincing as women (oh too many books! Mainly - but not always - written by men) or because I feel as though the author thinks they're wonderful and expects me to adore them just as much as all the good characters do (the bad ones dislike her, which shows they are bad) even though I would never choose to be friends with them if I met them in real life.

So I only read those books once, whereas books with characters I love I will hang out with over and over again.
sarahtales
Jan. 25th, 2011 06:35 pm (UTC)
Well, but aren't 'unconvincing' and 'author thinks they're wonderful' just as likely to be the case with male characters? Especially the second one, I feel like I read way more boys who the author thinks is wonderful. ;) Same criteria for boys and girls is my battle cry!
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