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Why it matters, redux

I am a big fan of Justine Larbalestier’s blog, and have often linked to her thoughtful posts. But her piece yesterday on Teenagers and Reading  gave me pause.

The essay is worth reading.  I agree with almost everything she says --- until the end.  She points out that what makes a book good or bad is frequently a question of fashion and taste, and there is real pleasure in reading "bad" books. But then she adds:

I’ve seen a lot of concern about girls in particular reading books where the female characters have little agency and spend the whole book mooning about some bloke. This could describe pretty much every Hollywood film of the last few decades. I mean, if they actually have any female characters in them at all. So, sure, limited depictions of women worry me. However, YA is much much much much more diverse than Hollywood. There are gazillions of bestselling YA books with complex female characters, who have female friends, and concerns beyond their love life.

Also I read heaps of appalling sexist crap growing up and it was, if anything, a spur to my feminist politics. Thank you, crappy books of my youth.

Hm.

The thing is that books do influence how people think. Oh sure, as her piece points out, one book isn't going to harm someone. In fact, many, many books won't either. And I have full confidence that the overwhelming majority of people know the difference between a story and real life (kids included). Just 'cause someone likes to read about sexy vampires doesn't mean the person is going to go off and start sucking people's blood.

But books are part of the ongoing conversation we have in our society about how things work, how they should work, how they shouldn't work, and life in general. Fiction as much as nonfiction.

As Justine herself pointed out not so long ago, how we represent people in fiction tells us a lot about what society thinks of them. And the audience hears this, loud and clear --- whether it's children of color being told that white kids are prettier and have more interesting lives, or girls that boys are smarter and girls gotta be sexy to get one.

So by all means, let a kid read books with female characters who have little agency and who spend the whole book mooning about some boy. But when someone points it out and yells sexism, applaud. And when the reader responds to the criticism by rolling her (or his) eyes and saying, "Well, I know that," applaud even louder. Because it means that the conversation is continuing, and the reader is hearing more than one side.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Mar. 31st, 2010 10:04 pm (UTC)
You know, I don't think you are disagreeing with me. I'm not saying that the existence of lots of sexist crap isn't pernicious. I'm saying that reading it and realising it's sexist crap is a good thing. And that there are readers who have that response to those kinds of books and it changes the way they see the world.

I was also saying that compared to Hollywood, YA is doing a stellar job on representation and I didn't mean it as faint praise.

I was not saying that we shouldn't pick apart books with repellent messages. We should. As you pointed out: I do. Just that I'm not convinced that preventing kids/teens/adults/whoever from reading a book is ever a good idea. No matter what the reason, no matter how well-intended the censorship. And trying to control what a teen reads is censorship.

I would never ever advocate not talking about books.

Justine Larbalestier
acebauer
Apr. 1st, 2010 12:48 am (UTC)
Thank you, Justine, for the clarification. I admit that I did read your post as something of a slap-down of people who have been picking on books like Twilight. I entirely agree with you that censorship only backfires. It seems to me that the best way to deal with offensive speech is to (1) point out how it's offensive, and (2) provide really good and fun alternatives to it.

I, too, grew up reading and loving Enid Blyton. But I didn't figure out how sexist (among other things) her books were until someone pointed it out to me. I think that's because I still recall my time with the books fondly, which makes it harder for me to concede their faults. And that's why I'm glad people do keep speaking up about the books' problems.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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