How to Write the Perfect YA Heroine

| Monday, December 30, 2013

Have you been wringing your hands over your YA protagonist and wondering how to avoid a Mary-Sue situation? Are you terrified that you made her too weak, bitchy, straw feminist, "strong with scare quotes," pathetic, slutty, simpering, selfish, annoying, bratty, boring, or whiny? Have you been scouring the internet for that magical list that will tell you exactly what to do in order to ensure she's that heroine everyone's been demanding? You know, the one people will point to and say YES, THIS IS SHE, THIS IS THE PERFECT YA HEROINE?

REJOICE, FOR YOU HAVE FOUND THAT LIST. Instead of telling you everything you SHOULDN'T do, this list will tell you exactly what you SHOULD do. Follow this formula and you will have 100% universally beloved girl protagonist, every time, guaranteed!*

Photo Credit: Guillermo Insfran via Compfight cc

  1. Make her completely sure of herself and fully settled into her personal philosophy and belief system. Every choice should be solid and correct on the first try. Confusion and indecision are the marks of weakness 100% of the time. If you don't have your life completely together by age 17, you're clearly the worst.

  2. If she's pretty, she should definitely know that about herself, but not in a stuck-up way. It's perfectly reasonable to expect every teenage girl to have total body confidence without being a bitch about it. And if she's not pretty, she should still love her body. But not in an unrealistic way, because society.

  3. She should only focus on important things, like the things that each individual reader finds important. Focusing on anything else at any time is annoying.

  4. She should always be firm, positive, and upbeat. Complaining about anything or doubting herself will make her seem whiny.

  5. If she has a love interest, make sure she's only interested in that one person. Feeling confused or attracted to more than one person means she's being selfish or slutty. It's also annoying. She should maybe have sex with this person, but maybe not, because sex is realistic for teenage girls but it also makes them sluts. Your call.

  6. She should be with that person forever, especially if they have sex, because that shows strength of conviction and commitment.

  7. She should break up with that person because teenage relationships are for suckers and thinking about her partner takes up too much plot space.

  8. Actually, maybe she should just be single and proud the whole time, because romance is boring and for losers. It's also annoying.

  9. She should totally be a feminist, as long as it's the right kind of feminist. You know what I mean.

  10. She should dislike feminism because it's not necessary anymore and boys are great. Also, it's obvious that you're just an angry lady author trying to indoctrinate young women with your old dried-up hag ways, so just skip it.

  11. Make sure she's smart, but not unnaturally smart. She can be physically strong as long as it's in a girl way. She should be emotionally strong, also in a girl way, unless that means crying. No crying. Her dialogue should be clever and witty, but not sarcastic or whiny. She should be active and move the plot forward, but not in a way that could be considered selfish, bitchy, or annoying.

  12. Make sure she's a realistic teenager without being a realistic teenager because real teenagers are super annoying and don't you know adults read YA?

  13. She can be superhuman as long as she's not overpowered. That's unrealistic wish-fulfillment.

  14. If she's regular human, she should be human to the Nth power by displaying flawless characteristics, personality, and dialogue. Except not totally flawless. Throw in some flaws, too. But only good flaws. Except not good flaws, because good flaws are too easy. Try some bad flaws. Just not too bad.

  15. In order to avoid accusations of creating an "author cypher" or playing out your own wish fulfillment fantasies, she should be absolutely different from you, the author, in every conceivable way. Physical appearance, hobbies, interests, strengths, weaknesses... make sure nothing reflects you! It'll be difficult not to draw on any of your personal interests or knowledge, but I have faith.

  16. She should be nice to everyone, even jerks, because they're probably just misunderstood and she should be sympathetic to that. She should also be outspoken and clear in all of her opinions so people don't walk all over her, especially jerks.

  17. Make her smile! It ain't so bad! She has it pretty good, post-apocalyptic landscape and people trying to murder her aside! No need to act ungrateful.

  18. She should have a conflict-free relationship with her parents, dutifully following their wishes at all times, even when they're not being very understanding or respectful of her. Backtalk or defiance will make her a selfish whiny brat, especially if the parents are okay most of the time. After all, they're the adults! It's not like there's a psychological tendency for adolescents to break from their parents or anything.

  19. She should always rebel against injustice, as long as she isn't overreacting and being totally annoying.

  20. Definitely discount any racial, cultural, or religious background that may inform her actions. There's only one way to be strong or interesting!

  21. Her gender presentation and interests should reach the perfect balance between feminine and masculine because all girls can be quantified into a single "correct way to girl" as determined by what someone said somewhere that one time.

  22. If she's disabled, she should be inspirational and always think longingly about how she wishes she was like all the other kids. She should be enthusiastic and kind to anyone who's even halfway decent to her, and her disability should be portrayed in a way that makes non-disabled readers feel comfortable.

  23. If she's dealing with depression, PTSD, or other mental illnesses or trauma, she should stuff those issues down inside and carry on with a smile and a righteous fist of righteousness in the face of her trials. If the reader has no idea that she's having these problems because she's displaying zero annoying outward symptoms, you've done it right!

  24. She should be able to shift and change to match the expectations of anyone who picks up the book.

  25. Have you considered making her NOT a girl? I hear boys are just easier to relate to and male anti-heroes who murder people in twisted ways are super interesting, so maybe you could try that instead.

* Not actually guaranteed at all.

** On the off chance that it wasn't clear, this post is a joke. The entire concept of being able to write a teenage girl that someone won't criticize for being too blah-blah or not blah-blah enough is a joke, honestly.

*** Which is not an argument that all YA heroines are written flawlessly or above criticism; just an illustration of the impossible standards we often hold them to.

How to #Hashtag Like a Boss

| Thursday, December 26, 2013

I'm most likely preaching to the choir with this post, since most of the people who read this blog are pretty social media savvy. However, in my line of work, I do still see a whooooole lot of people who just do not understand hashtags. This post is for anyone who needs some help with that little # symbol.

Hashtags were originally popularized on Twitter, but they're used on a TON of social media sites. This post features general advice on how to use them, but every site is different and I encourage you to learn the culture of each, as well as its best practices. You'll find hashtags on Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, Facebook... even LinkedIn tried it for a while. However, not all hashtags are created equal. More below.

Photo Credit: Stuart Chalmers via Compfight cc


1) DON'T use super general hashtags like #sale, #book, #contest, etc.

Why? - Because they're pointless. The point of tagging something is to increase the likelihood that relevant users will discover it. First, tags like these are just too broad -- what kind of sale, book, or contest? Who is it relevant to? Second, so many people and bots are using tags like these that you'll be immediately lost in a sea of spam and irrelevant information. Third, NO ONE follows these tags because there's no point in monitoring a tag that will likely be 90% spam. Similarly, it's not very effective to use your city's name. If people want to do a local search, they'll search by location, not hashtag.

2) DON'T use a bunch of hashtags in a row.

Why? - It's irritating and spammy. It's unlikely your post applies to all the tags you're giving it, so don't. Select a few of the most relevant tags. I suggest 2-3, possibly 4 at the absolute max (for Twitter). With a site like Tumblr, five hashtags is perfectly acceptable. The exception to this rule is if you're being silly by making up your own jokey hashtags for comedic value.

3) DON'T hop onto a popular hashtag with an irrelevant post.

Why? - It's rude. Think of it like bursting into an ongoing conversation with a non-sequitur, or coming up to diners chatting on an outdoor patio and shoving a flyer in their face. A number of big brands have gotten burned doing this. An example would be Kenneth Cole, who has a habit of interjecting sales-y tweets into serious political discussion, like the Egyptian rebellion. He does it intentionally for brand attention -- so he says -- but it just makes him look like an asshole. You're not getting exposure by doing this, you're just being a jerk.

4) DON'T bother using hashtags on Facebook.

Why? - Read this article. It'll tell you exactly why. In a nutshell: Facebook is not a good medium for the hashtag. For Facebook stuff, it's best to research Facebook-specific marketing, which is very different than most other social media sites. There are other sites where hashtags are less effective -- Pinterest uses hashtags, but they don't work as well as they do on other sites.

5) DON'T talk from a pulpit.

Why? - The point of hashtags is organization and discussion. This doesn't apply to every medium -- Vine, Pinterest, and similar aren't really "discussion" sites -- but for mediums like Twitter and Tumblr, you'll want to actually participate in the discussion and respond to other people. Don't just spout off your Very Important Thoughts and then go away. Read what other people are saying, reply, favorite, discuss, participate. This is a good way to find like-minded people to follow who will often follow you back. Remember... social media is for being SOCIAL.


1) DO some research and find relevant hashtags.

Why? - People create hashtags to organize and follow specific topics and conversations. The most effective hashtags are usually unique, so browse people you know, organizations you follow, and do some Googling to find hashtags that apply to the things you post. You can often find weekly or monthly chats to get involved in this way.

2) DO pay attention to which hashtags see healthy activity.

Why? - There are a lot of specific hashtags out there, but not all of them are very active. You want to find tags that see a good amount of use, but not so much that you'll just get lost in the shuffle. Experiment.

3) DO watch for timely and trending hashtags.

Why? - Some hashtags are temporary and see a brief burst of use, typically during breaking news or planned events. Your trending hashtags are usually tailored to your location, interests, and the people you follow, so check them out and see if there are any conversations you'd like to participate in. When you go to a conference or event, check ahead of time to see if there's an official hashtag to use. This is a great way to make some new connections. Just remember to stay on topic.

4) DO create your own unique tags.

Why? - If you're becoming an "influencer" in your sphere and want to host your own discussion, create your own tag. You can visit this site to check whether your tag is already being used, and get some tips on building your own tag. You can do this for events, discussions, online seminars, community, jokes, spur-of-the-moment fun, whatever. Get creative. The best hashtags are short, specific, and easy to remember.

5) DO learn about the different mediums.

Why? - Hashtags function generally the same way on different sites, but each unique property has its own culture. Hashtags that work well on Twitter may not work as well on Tumblr or Instagram. The mediums are different -- discussion vs microblogging vs photography. Familiarize yourself with the most effective ways to use each.

A few more specific tips: Test the waters to see which tags have the biggest positive impact and response rate for you. Make friends and pull them into the discussion when possible, which livens things up and gets your name in front of more people (though that shouldn't be the end goal... just a bonus). In general, TALK to people and FOLLOW users who interest you. Use sites like TweetChat to follow conversations with more ease. Aim for creative over sales-y. Remember Tumblr only tracks the first five tags on ORIGINAL posts, not reblogs, although it still uses reblog tags to organize posts within your blog and to flag things for Tumblr Savior. Find the balance between tagging people to get them involved and annoying them with too much pestering. Find site-unique tags like #CatsOfInstagram and #LNV (Late Night Vine).

Most importantly, the best way to learn how to use hashtags is to start doing it and have fun. The biggest rule is to use common sense and do what you can to avoid being an annoying jerk, which is pretty easy to manage with minimal effort. With enough practice and trail & error, you'll figure it out.

YA is for Girls!: Gendered Marketing in YA Literature

| Monday, December 23, 2013

Not too long ago, there was a post circulating on Tumblr (surprise!) that was rehashing the argument that YA is heavily marketed toward the female population and how that's harmful to boys and male authors, blah blah blah, we've all heard it before. The argument keeps coming up, despite the fact that it's been repeatedly dismantled.

Every time this argument resurfaces, it almost always references the talking point that YA books just look too damn girly. Girls in dresses, cursive fonts, pastels and pinks, etc. Although this isn't entirely true (recent cover trends vary widely), this time I started thinking about things from a marketing perspective. The reality is that there is a whole lot of feminization on the covers of YA novels. It's something I wanted to explore.

Around this same time, I came across two very interesting articles about how video games became a male-gendered product (long, but SO worth the read) and a breakdown of how gender-targeted marketing happens and why marketers have long avoided marketing certain products to girls and women despite their obvious interest. Here's some bonus reading on a recent interview with Paul Dini in which he discussed the cancellation of superhero cartoons because too many girls were watching the shows. Yes, really.

These articles got me thinking about how this applies to YA books. Although I think this gendered marketing in YA is less of an issue at present (cover trends have come a long way since the Twilight Boom), the perception of YA being largely "for girls" has not gone away. Also, while I do think cover trends have evolved significantly, I don't want to discount that there most definitely is a certain kind of femininity being sold on YA covers.

First, I'd like to discuss two points brought up in the marketing article linked above:

  1. Once a demographic is selected, marketers use established tropes to "put down" people perceived as outside the market -- in the case of the article, men are given the spotlight while women are pushed into background/subservient positions. See also: this product is for "cool" people, not nerds.
  2. Once a male-gendered market has been established, if marketers decide to target a female market, they do so by relying on stereotypical gendered tropes -- taking the "boy" product and slapping pink packaging on it.

Tying into both the gendered marketing of video games AND this feminization of a "male" product, here's a video on the Ms. Male Character trope. That entire series is fantastic, by the way.

Okay, fine: how does this all tie into the YA section? Well. Let's take everything we just learned from all of the aforementioned articles and apply it to YA.

Many people cite Harry Potter as the formative series that kicked off the YA boom as we know it today. I do think that many children grew up (and grew with) the characters of Harry Potter, leaving many teens and young adults ready to find the next series. A middle grade series written about a young man, originally targeted toward young men, that became a huge runaway success across age and gender lines. Then -- and here's the important part -- came Twilight. The book saw a similar level of runaway success, but found its market primarily in girls and women.

This, in my opinion, is where the split happened. Teen fiction, which was a thriving but quiet section of the bookstore, suddenly turned into Girl Books. YA fiction became synonymous with Twilight and dozens of other paranormal romances. When The Hunger Games began to gain traction, it was often reduced to the "romance" between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, despite that romance actually taking up fairly little of the series. Much in the same way Romance and Women's Fiction get kicked into their own sections, YA became the section you sneered at if you were too cool, too clever, or too sophisticated for something so girlish and pedestrian.

But this is a post about marketing, and marketing took this perception and ran with it. Much in the same way Nintendo held a small summit and determined boys were just more interested in video games, the YA book market showed that women and girls were the ones buying the most books. The covers began to morph into the stereotypical YA cover we think of today, with a pretty white waif in a dress looking passively into the distance. If a book had even a whiff of romance about it, the cover gave the impression of sexiness, relationships, and drama. Even one of the most well-known and beloved YA fantasy series featuring a female protagonist -- a series that is known for being multi-faceted and full of adventure -- received a rebranding that made it look like any ol' book with a love triangle.

What effect did this packaging have? The effect of reestablishing YA books as feminized. Using familiar, well-worn gender tropes to say "these books are targeted to girls." Very specific types of girls, too -- girls who are thin, white, cisgender, and heterosexual. It's selling the most widely accepted version of what femininity is supposed to look like according to dominant societal pressure, and it's doing it by using the very same basic tactics we see in the little girls' toy aisle. Pink, pastel, princess, passive, safe. A feminized version of the stuff you'd find in the boy's section. Or, in the case of a bookstore, the SFF section.

I like to think that this tactic is changing -- recent cover trends shows as much. There's more experimentation, more variety, different approaches. The current market is still far behind for all its postulating about diversity, but it's working on it. Even so, the perception after only a few short years is that YA books are still feminized, still for girls, still nothing a teenage boy would ever be caught dead reading.

So, let's talk about the boys. We saw in the linked articles above that there's often a concentrated effort on the part of marketers to exclude people from participating in the products. So, could it be argued that boys were intentionally excluded from the YA book market, at least initially?

Yes and no.

It is true that many book marketers made a specific choice to package books to appeal to a female market. No argument from me there. By making this choice, they understood they were excluding most of the male market. However, we need to understand the much larger social context that goes behind this decision.

All of the statistics show a reading decline in adolescent men. This isn't because of girly YA books -- this is because they aren't picking up books, period. As a marketer, while I don't agree with it on an intellectual level, on a capitalist level, I understand why it would make sense to market YA novels to girls and women. They are the purchasers. But does this have the same implication as targeting video games or comic book movies to men and boys?

No, it doesn't. Here's where the social context comes in. Male-gendered marketing seeks to devalue women and raise up men in a way that makes the product desirable in the context of patriarchy, which says men are superior to women. It takes an entire product -- video games -- and makes them "for men" by applying patriarchal tropes, such as the product making you stronger, cooler, or more sexually desirable to women. It largely eliminates women in positions of power or equality from the packaging. It says this product was made for men and is used by men, and women who use it are outliers or fakers. If they decide to throw women a bone, they'll release a pink version. All of this despite that fact that statistics show almost half of gamers are women.

In the case of YA book marketing, it's still in line with patriarchy. It's selling a very narrow, very intentional ideal of femininity. The feminized covers still portray girls in passive positions, and if a boy is shown on the cover, he's typically shown in a position of equality or even superiority. Notice this example, where the boy on the cover is in a matching position to his female counterpart and is displaying a more aggressive stance, as opposed to the poster for Mallrats, which is an intentional mimicry/mockery of comic books where the women are literally passive and clinging to their men. YA marketing is dedicated to a single section of the bookstore, as opposed to marketing that says, flat-out, "books are for women." The product doesn't seek to raise girls above boys, and it still plays on feminized tropes -- girls prefer pink, cursive, and pretty dresses.

The context is much bigger than "boys can't read YA books because they'll get beat up for reading girl books." It must take into account that boys are picked on for reading almost ANYTHING, let alone something with a "girly" cover. Of course, we mustn't forget that girls are also picked on and slandered for liking anything too "girly," from makeup to Twilight. This is a giant cocktail of systemic patriarchy that dictates that reading is a passive activity, and passive activities are feminine, and femininity is a bad thing, especially for a boy. It is still a very serious problem that boys (or their parents) seem unable to read from a female perspective because it's just "too hard" to view the world through a lens that isn't their own.

This post isn't intended to crap on marketers. I'm a marketer, so I understand how the game is played. Relying on existing tropes gives you the bottom line you need to keep your job. It sucks, but it's the facts. Nonetheless, it is absolutely vital to keep the criticism of those tropes alive, and to buck them when you can.

This also isn't commentary on the content of YA novels; it's commentary on their packaging. I'm not advocating a complete packaging change or removal of girls from the covers of books with female protagonists. Girls deserve to see themselves on the covers of books, and boys shouldn't fear ridicule for reading a book with a girl on the cover. It's an issue that won't be solved in a day, but one to work toward.

So, in conclusion, the question remains: the chicken or the egg? Is YA literature feminized because of its packaging, or does the packaging reflect its perceived femininity? I think it's probably a combination. What do you think?

Damsels in Distress: Legend of Korra & Tomb Raider

| Friday, November 15, 2013

I've got ~feelings~ about Legend of Korra again, friends. I've shared my initial excitement about the series, then my disappointment after the completion of the first book/season.The new book/season has unfortunately not done much to improve my opinion so far. Many other watchers are having a similar reaction. I've seen numerous posts floating around Tumblr calling out the continued need to push Korra's male (always male) mentors front-and-center so they can fight over the path she should take while she sulks and uses her bending to throw shit around.

I've also seen a post floating around that breaks down ATLA episodes and LOK episodes by writer, which illustrates how ATLA episodes were written by a wide variety of writers while all of the first season's LOK episodes are written by Bryan and Mike, the show's creators, alone. This may help explain why the writing for this series has been fairly one-note. I can't find that post despite my formidable Googling skills, so please post in comments if you have it saved!


Anyway. It's pretty evident that one of the show's major failings, in my opinion, is heavily utilizing the male characters to the detriment of the female characters. It's KORRA'S FREAKING SHOW, yet she regularly plays second fiddle to the male characters -- Mako, Bolin, her father, her uncle, Tenzin. Mako and Bolin are given shiny new jobs (remember when they were struggling to get by and it was kind of an important plot point?), Mako's given another shot at rekindling the Asami-Mako-Korra triangle (REALLY? REALLY???), Tenzin's having sibling rivalry, Unalaq and Tonraq are bickering about who's the rightful king of Pride Rock, etc.

MOVING ON. In one of the more recent episodes, it actually looked like we were getting somewhere. Sort of. Korra, who's had notoriously little character growth, has to go on a spirit quest to discover the origin of the Avatar, which was pretty cool if we put aside the fact that OF COURSE everybody in that storyline was male, too. Well, there's Raava, but she doesn't exactly count since she's an amorphous spirit-being representing Light. Especially given that she sacrifices herself to be fused with the Avatar while her male counterpart lives on, albeit trapped.

So, Korra goes on her quest, discovers what's at stake, and goes back to Tenzin for more spirit training. But -- SURPRISE TWIST! -- he's not that good at it. His daughter Jinora, on the other hand, has a natural connection with the spirits. Like this Tumblr user right here, I was also excited to FINALLY see a subversion of the male mentor trope! At last, Korra has a female guide in her training. I'm forever bitter Katara doesn't play more of a role in Korra's life, to be honest, but this was something! EXCITED!

... that lasted about six seconds.

Because naturally, as soon as the girls cross over into the spirit realm, Jinora skips off and they're almost immediately separated. Korra's left alone, lost and scared without the bending she relies on, and becomes a small child. And then! PLOT TWIST!

Oh hi, Iroh.

Don't get me wrong, I was ecstatic to see him, because IROH! IROH AND TEA OTP 4EVA! But the point stands. Korra's older male spirit trainer was replaced with a young female spirit trainer who was immediately replaced with... another older male spirit trainer. The hell, right?

And this is exactly the problem. Female characters are shuffled to the background so that the creators' male favorites can take the limelight. I love Iroh! The fandom loves Iroh! But that's kind of the problem. What was the purpose of bringing Iroh back, really, other than fanfare? True, Iroh has always played the part of the good-natured uncle and spiritual teacher, but he wasn't needed here.

It's not inconsequential that Korra was very literally transformed into a child for this storyline. I understand what they were trying to do here. Her childlike appearance and attitude represented her helplessness and immaturity when it comes to matters of spirit. Nonetheless, it also served to remove her agency and allow yet another older male character to come in and tell her the right way to live her life and do her job. It seems innocuous, because Iroh is lovable and kind, but it reinforces the pattern that was already wearing very thin.

Korra can't learn and grow on her own. She must be guided and shaped and moved like a chess piece by the men in her life. The women -- Katara, Lin, Korra's mother -- play minimal roles and have few spoken lines. Kya doesn't even really count here because she has no relationship with Korra.

Contrast to ATLA, where Aang learned from a variety of people throughout his journey, including women, love interests, and former enemies. He went on some personal journeys to discover things for himself without ending up stripped of agency. He needed the help and support from his friends, but in the end, he was a force unto himself and much of his wisdom came from within.

The same cannot be said for Korra.

Now let's talk about Jinora again, shall we? Because this character who was supposed to be Korra's spiritual guide, who could have had an incredible role to play, was turned into a Damsel In Distress. When Jinora loses Korra, she displays some agency -- she takes control of her situation, enlists the help of a spirit friend, and seeks out the knowledge she needs. Unfortunately, she's promptly captured and rendered inert by the enemy so she can be used to force Korra's hand. Because apparently an ancient spirit who already has a low opinion of humans doesn't know a freaking slimy charlatan when he sees one. I don't even know.

This is a storyline that has the potential for subversion and interesting outcomes. A woman saving her friend instead of a man saving the pretty lady he wants to bang? It has merit. Unfortunately, the way it was handled and the very obvious pattern apparent in the storyline doesn't give me much hope for a good outcome.

But let's talk about this some more, shall we? Let's talk about ladies saving ladies in a twist on the classic Damsel In Distress trope.

Let's talk about Tomb Raider (spoilers!).

So, Tomb Raider is a game that also heavily employed the Damsel In Distress trope by kidnapping Lara's friend Sam and using her as a game motivator. Literal classic usage, but the context is entirely different. Lara and Sam have a deep friendship and history together. Sam is an actual character with a background and a personality. The method of her capture is fairly contrived (she's the descendent of an ancient Japanese queen and they need her to complete a ritual!), but at least I felt like I was saving a real person instead of the doll I get to kiss at the end. At least the women actually spend time together in the game, instead of having Sam absent throughout.

Unlike LOK, Tomb Raider maintains its focus on the female characters' storylines. While LOK constantly spoon-feeds us plots that are supposed to force us to like the male heroes, often to the detriment of the female heroes, Tomb Raider took a very different approach. Historically, video games love their straight white men, and Tomb Raider had its fair share. Three, to be exact. The father figure, the potential love interest, and the slimy turncoat. It also featured three POC characters (two women, one man), and Lara herself, who is a white woman.

But here's where things got interesting.

Instead of sacrificing other character storylines so that we could hear all about the wonderful white men and their intricate backstories, instead of killing off the "extras" so that Lara could have her daddy figure and her white knight, instead of making the "bad guy" sassy and lovable... the game killed them. All of them.


And this, for me, is the real difference in the stories. Instead of saying "Here, look at this guy, isn't he just the best? Don't you love him? Isn't he just so important?", the spotlight remains on the minority characters. They are given full stories, full lives, and full agency. Lara remains the focus of her own story, and she's given real growth. This was her origin story. She starts as a bookish student, someone with no survival skills. The opening scene involves her own capture and escape, complete with minor freakout and "oh my god, I can't do this!" And she becomes a WARRIOR.

When you compare that to a character who is constantly written as a stubborn ass with stereotypical masculine strength and a short temper, who doesn't change unless she's forced to by having her power and agency literally stripped from her while someone (a man) teaches her a lesson, the differences become very stark indeed.

This isn't to say Tomb Raider isn't without its problems. Lara is, after all, a skinny rich white girl. Sam is an Asian woman who is taken captive and has to be saved. Other characters could have received more attention. It's not a perfect example, but it's at least a clear one.

All of this pains me, because I want so desperately to love Legend of Korra. I want it to be everything I know it can be. I want to see fantastic stories based in a non-western world with powerful women of color. I WANT IT. I'm just becoming ever-more convinced that I'm not going to get it. And that sucks.

These are my thoughts! What are yours?

10 Ways Pop Culture is Like Real Art

| Wednesday, November 6, 2013

If you guys have been hanging around me for long enough, you'll know by now that I have a not-insignificant amount of disdain for people who equate intelligence with academia. It's classist as hell.

You'll also know that I love love love talking about pop culture and popular media. Whether I'm doing a big ol' feminist critique or I'm just enjoying it, I love pop culture. I think it says fascinating things about us and reveals a dark side many of us don't like to dwell on. I also think it's very much artistic.

Now, granted, I'm not arguing everything that comes out of pop culture is high art, and I'll be the first to drop someone to the mat when they do something pedestrian and jerky while hiding behind the claim "I AM AN ARTIST AND ART MEANS FREEDOM TO DO MY SHITTY ACT WITHOUT CONSEQUENCE" the second the critics come out. Just because I'm arguing it's art doesn't mean I'm arguing it's all good art. The fact that it's art doesn't mean it's free to do what it pleases without criticism.

But I am saying it's art. In fact, I'm going to give you ten reasons why I think pop culture is like "real art."

Bubblegum Pop Culture
Photo Credit: Helga Weber via Compfight cc

1) It can reach a wide audience. It is "popular" culture, after all. It's known for appealing to the masses. You'll find it anywhere, much as many great artists of our age can be found on dorm room walls in any university today.

2) It can reach a niche audience. It may seem oxymoronic to say pop culture can be niche, but this is where cult followings come in. We all know a hipster or six who knew about a band well before they were booked for all the summer music festivals. The exclusivity makes people feel special, whether it's an obsession with The Postal Service or a dedication to medieval Germanic poetry, and you'll see the same reaction when it begins to gain traction with the masses. I DID IT BEFORE IT WAS COOL! YOU'RE NOT A TRUE SCHOLAR FAN!

3) People can relate to it. Not every piece of art is created to be relateable -- in fact, some art is specifically created to be difficult to access. That's cool. But art is such a human thing. We create it because we must, because there's something in us that drives us to make something beautiful, enjoyable, entertaining, or all of the above. When we look at art, we often want to see ourselves.

4) It can be studied. If you think you can't take an entire class on analyzing Top 40 radio hits, you'd be wrong. Pop culture is social. It's story. It can be pulled apart and reviewed through a hundred different lenses to reveal its strengths and shortcomings. If the designation of "real art" is that it can be reviewed in an academic setting, than popular media easily fits the bill. I mean, Overthinking It, guys.

5) It's a marker of the culture and period we currently live in. Some people get stuck in this rut where art has to be old, or proven, or approved by years of study. This is the reason so much of our "real art" is westernized and white and male and fits in a very particular box. Culture and society matter. Much as Age of Enlightenment-era art reflects the changes occurring at the time, our present multimedia exploits, our television, our film and music... they all represent the technological and ideological shift happening in our culture. And it's amazing.

6) It can be enjoyed or appreciated regardless of education or class status. There are two kinds of art lovers: those who argue that great art is great because anyone can sense its greatness even if they don't understand its every nuance, and those who argue that great art is great because they went to school to learn about it for a really long time and know more about it than you ever will and you don't like it because you're uneducated. I tend to lean toward the former. One is a recognition that art can be appreciated by all, while the other is the insistence that art is class-based and only the upper crust can appreciate the good stuff.

7) It exposes us to ways of thinking we never considered before. Art changes us. It reveals insight into ideas and lives we haven't been exposed to before. Reading fiction can literally increase our capacity for empathy. This doesn't just apply to classic literature or Renaissance art. This is why representation matters, and why people who are underrepresented in media fight so hard to be seen. On some level, we all understand that seeing ourselves in our art and entertainment means that our lives are important, and other people can come to understand that.

8) It makes us feel. Have you ever looked upon a great work of art, seen a well-acted play, or listened to a piece of music and felt overcome with emotion? Art makes us feel things we can't explain. It makes us angry, and joyous, and full of despair. One only needs look at fandoms, or see people reduced to tears while they tell an actor that their character saved their life, to know that pop culture moves people.

9) We're often told it's not good simply because it wasn't done by a white man first. One of the earliest science fiction novels was written by a woman named Mary Shelley. Some of our most beloved music -- jazz, blues, reggae, hip-hop, rock 'n roll -- was born of Black men and women. What is thought to be the world's first modern novel was written by a Japanese woman. But so often, especially today, we're told that these things don't matter. Worse, we're told something is trashy/valueless until it is properly "elevated" by someone white, or someone male. How often do we witness timeless homestyle cooking from a non-white country "transformed" into haute cuisine by a white chef? Pop culture is the same. Rap is "ghetto" and othered until a white rapper sings something about being okay with queer people. Romance novels are useless pulp until some man does it and makes it a "human story." Again and again, art is stripped of value until an approved member of society "reinvents" it.

10) It IS real art. Stop being a butt. Nothing more to say on this one, really.

The next time you find yourself getting ready to go on a rant about how stupid the general public is because they don't read ~REAL~ books or appreciate ~GOOD~ music or understand ~QUALITY~ culture, be a pal and don't.

***Super special note because this argument always comes up*** Once again, this does not mean pop culture is immune to criticism. There's some damaging and poorly-done shit floating around out there. This applies to pop culture AS A CONCEPT, not as a blanket "all pop culture is good!" argument.

Write a #hallowfic and win a book!

| Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Write a spooky microfiction story and win a book!

Yes, I'm still trying to make fetch happen. This is a little for-fun pet project I’ve been trying to get to happen for like three Octobers now. Here’s the deal: if you’re on Twitter, you should write lots of creepy and funny and freaky and silly Halloween-esque stories and tag them #hallowfic. On November 1st, I will pick my favorite and buy that person A BOOK! Preferably a YA or spooky (or both) book, but I’ll buy whatever book you’re craving.

Some rules:

1) Jerkbag stories will not even be considered. These include any stories/tweets in which you are being a jerk, which include anything oppressive, rapey, or just generally shitty. And yes, I get to be the judge of that. IT’S MY CONTEST I DO WHAT I WANT.

2) As long as you’re not breaking rule one and the story is reasonably Halloween/”scary story” themed, anything goes. Be super funny or scary as hell. Whatever you like.

3) I’d like to keep this to Twitter, but I *will* also be checking the #hallowfic tag on Tumblr if you don’t have Twitter. The only rule here is that you have to stick to the MICROfiction part of this game. You get 140 characters. That’s it!

4) I’d prefer to buy you an ebook since it’s easier all around for purchase and delivery, but if you really want a physical book, I’ll be happy to oblige.

I think that about covers it. Spread this far and wide! Have fun!

Ruby Sparks: Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Misogyny, and Abuse

| Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I finally got around to watching Ruby Sparks this weekend. It's been on my "to watch" list for a long time because I love exploration of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, and this film was supposed to be an excellent deconstruction of the idea. The bulk of the plot felt like a very accurate picture of why MPDGs are problematic, with the climax building to an emotional and frightening fever pitch. Sadly, I felt really let down by the denouement, which I want to explore in more detail. Overall, however, the film does what it sets out to do: literally create a young woman, make her real, and portray the fallout of her creator's realization that she's a person, not a fantasy.

Note: I'm going to be critiquing this film in detail, including major plot points, the film's climax, and its ending. If you haven't seen it yet and would like to watch unspoiled, I'd recommend doing so before reading this post.

Elevator Pitch of the film from IMDB: A novelist struggling with writer's block finds romance in a most unusual way: by creating a female character he thinks will love him, then willing her into existence.

We're immediately introduced to Calvin Weir-Fields, our film's protagonist. He's a reclusive novelist who wrote what could potentially be the next Great American Classic when he was a teenager. Fast-forward to a decade later, where Calvin is still suffering from writer's block while trying to write his sophomore novel. He doesn't enjoy social gatherings, owns a male dog that "pees like a girl" (film's choice of words, not mine), laments about his ex-girlfriend (a "heartless slut" who left him weeks after his father died), and is seeing a therapist about his writer's block and social anxiety. He expresses his frustration with Scotty (his dog), who is frightened of people. His therapist gives him an assignment -- write one page about a person who loves Scotty just as he is.

Calvin dreams of a girl. She's friendly, witty, straightforward, and an artist with no formal training. She meets Calvin and Scotty in a park, drops some adorably charming truth bombs on Calvin, then says she likes Scotty "just the way he is."

Eureka! Calvin's block is broken. He churns out page after page about this girl. He names her Ruby Sparks. It's a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl construction. She's sexual, wise (in a cute way, not a threatening way), uninhibited, dresses in bright colors, and is immersed in living life. Most importantly of all, she loves Calvin. We're not sure why, exactly. She just does. Wholly and unabashedly.

In another classic "I have no idea how to write women" move, Calvin gives her a backstory of dropping out of high school after sleeping with her art teacher (or maybe Spanish teacher... he hasn't decided yet). This is supposed to make her worldly and sexual, when in reality it's very predatory behavior on the part of the men. But the fetishization of the teen Lolita is nothing new. Ruby is now a 26-year-old free spirit who only dates alcoholics and old men and assholes... until she meets Calvin.

Eventually Calvin reaches a point where he's willing to share his partially-completed manuscript with his brother, Harry. In an all-too-familiar-for-any-writer scene, he sits with bated breath, waiting for Harry to finish and give his thoughts. And Harry says something that cuts to the core of the MPDG issue: "Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing aren't real." and "You haven't written a person. You've written a girl."

Calvin naturally brushes this off and proceeds to continue shaping Ruby. And then, one day, he wakes up to find Ruby has manifested in his kitchen in nothing but her underwear and one of his shirts. After a brief episode where Calvin is convinced he's had a mental break and is hallucinating, he discovers that Ruby is, in fact, real. Other people can see her and interact with her. His creation has come to life, and she's his girlfriend.

Next come several scenes that could easily be from any film featuring a MPDG. They take shots at a zombie movie, dance wildly in a club, eat incredible food... all of the things reclusive Calvin would never do on his own. Ruby is bringing him out of his shell and showing him the world... except not really. Calvin doesn't truly change, and Ruby never leaves his side. He keeps her at home, where she cooks and has sex with him. She has no life outside of him, especially since he insists she doesn't have to work because he'll "provide" for her.

Eventually Calvin calls Harry, who meets Ruby and immediately proposes an experiment: now that Ruby's here, can Calvin still shape her? After returning to the manuscript and typing that Ruby speaks French, she immediately begins chatting away fluently. This naturally leads the men to think of all the possibilities. Change anything you don't like instantly! Give her bigger tits! Make her give blowjobs all the time! (To which Calvin responds, "Ruby LOVES giving blowjobs," implying that he wrote her that way, which is a pretty clear wish-fulfillment fantasy).

In the end, Calvin says he's never going to write another word about her. Ruby is exactly what he wants, and he is such a supposedly noble and good man that he wouldn't dream of trying to change her now that she's real.

You can probably guess that it's around here that the film takes a turn, and there's a very clear reason why: Ruby begins developing agency. She starts having wants and needs of her own, and Calvin doesn't like it at all.

It starts small: Ruby wants to meet Calvin's mother. After spending more time with other people in Calvin's life, there's a sort of break in her. The honeymoon period of their relationship has ended, and all of her oh-so-adorable quirks begin to annoy Calvin. Ruby becomes sullen and withdrawn because she has no support system or relationships outside of Calvin. When you make yourself the sun of someone's entire world and then you devalue them, things begin to collapse.

Ruby tells Calvin she's lonely. "You don't have any friends," she says.
"I have you," he says. "I don't need anyone else."
"That's a lot of pressure," she says.

It's here that we really see the imbalance and abuse inherent in their relationship. It's insidious, because Calvin is painted as someone who isn't violent; someone who just wanted to be happy. He's a "nice guy." As our hero, he deserves adoration and happiness. When Ruby tells him she needs space, that she wants to take art classes and spend one night a week at her apartment, he agrees. But even as he says okay, the audience knows that it's not okay. He doesn't want her to have anyone else. He wants her in his kitchen, in his bed, painting her quirky paintings and being emotionally and sexually available at his behest. It's a pretty classic abuser MO -- sever or prevent outside relationships.

Ruby grows distant. When she decides to stay out for a drink with some friends instead of coming home to Calvin, he reaches a breaking point, pulls out the manuscript he said he'd never write again, and adds a single line: "Ruby was miserable without Calvin."

This action leads to the film's rush to its inevitable climax. In one swipe, Ruby's agency is revoked and she's reduced to a clingy mess who is literally incapable of functioning without Calvin. If he leaves her for even a moment, she becomes so emotionally distraught that she's essentially paralyzed. In answer, Calvin writes that she's full of effervescent joy, which fills her with a kind of childlike mania. When he tries to balance it by writing that she feels whatever she feels, happy or sad, she sinks back into depression, not knowing what to do with herself outside the context of Calvin.

After talking her into attending a party, Calvin leaves her listless and alone while he mingles. He runs into his ex-girlfriend, the "heartless slut," who talks with him and gives more insight into the fact that this is not the first woman Calvin has applied his unrealistic standards to. "The only person you were ever in a relationship with was you," she says.

Meanwhile, Ruby meets an older writer friend of Calvin's and, much as she's been written to do, feels attracted to the attention he pays her. When the man asks her what she does, she says "nothing" in all honesty. When Calvin finds her stripped to her underwear and about to go skinny dipping with this man, his reaction is chilling.

The couple speed home, Calvin driving angrily and recklessly. Once they're home, he yells at Ruby, telling her that 1) she's not supposed to fuck other men, and 2) she's not supposed to let other men think about fucking her. When she accurately points out that he's saying she's responsible for how other people think of her, he rails that when she acts a certain way, she's inviting it. "When you act like a slut..." It's very familiar victim-blaming behavior; especially disturbing given the fact that Calvin wrote her this way -- uninhibited, sexual, attracted to older men. She cries, clearly upset, and says, "You don't get to decide what I do."

And Calvin, with cold, vindictive anger, says, "Wanna bet?"

From here, we're propelled into a climax that felt very much like a horror film to me, personally. Calvin sits at his typewriter, ignoring Ruby as she enters the room with an overnight bag and says she's staying somewhere else for the night. He types away, then glares at her. She rolls her eyes and tries to leave... only to bounce against thin air in the doorway. She's confused and asks what's happening. Calvin doesn't respond. She tries again, and again hits an invisible wall.

As she grows more and more upset, Calvin finally drops the bomb: she's his creation, and he can make her do anything he wants. She denies this, angry that he's writing about her, saying it's private. In answer, he makes her speak French again, then snap her fingers, then sing and striptease. She becomes panicked, but he doesn't stop.

In what was perhaps the most frightening scene in the film for me, he literally dehumanizes her by forcing her onto all fours to act like a dog, barking. She backs against the wall, snarling and growling at him. The scene continues to crescendo, with her rolling across the wall repeating, "I love you, I'll never leave you," and then leaping into the air and screaming, "You're a genius, you're a genius" until her voice begins to break while Calvin beats his fists against his desk, reveling in his power. At last, he releases her and she collapses to the floor.

To me, this was a stark portrait of abuse and misogyny. What misogynist hasn't wished he could force a woman to do whatever he wants without consequence? That he could debase her and knock her down when she displeased him? Who felt he was owed affection, adoration, sex? Who grows angry and possessive when his "property" displays interests and relationships that don't revolve around him? The images of Ruby being physically unable to leave, unable to control her own body, are darkly reminiscent of abuse on every level.

This was ultimately a portrayal of one man's complete refusal to allow his partner to have true agency. His partners are not allowed to truly be angry, or sad, or unhappy. It happened with his previous girlfriend, who was a "heartless slut" for leaving him after five years of feeling alone and barely put up with, and it happened with Ruby, who he literally created to be a puppet for his wants. He didn't want a relationship. He wanted assisted masturbation with a side of ego-stroking.

And it was after this intense and disturbing climax, which I felt was excellently done, that I thought the film lost its way.

After Ruby is released from Calvin's clutches, she runs and locks herself in their bedroom, sobbing. Calvin has a sudden change of heart and writes that once Ruby leaves their home, she will be "free." He places the manuscript outside the door for her to read, then falls asleep downstairs. When he comes back, he finds that she has packed her things and fled, unsurprisingly. Instead of facing what he's done wrong or accepting this, he curls on the ground in tears, sobbing that she's "left" him, and it's clear that he never intended to free her at all. He expected her to be released from all the horrible things he'd done... and then turn right around and come back.

Worse yet, the film sets the audience up to feel this way, as well. His brother supports him, telling him that he can tell the story of his "broken heart." He finally writes his second novel, titled The Girlfriend, where he tells the story of his "great love." The book goes to print, and he's shown reading from it in front of an absurdly packed bookstore crowd, who are clearly hanging on his every word. He smiles softly, nodding and feeling the bittersweet cocktail of success and heartbreak.

And then, while he's walking Scotty, he runs into a young woman. It's Ruby, but she has no memory of him. She's reading his book (of course) and asks if they've met before. Calvin says, "I don't think so." He joins her on her blanket, where they both smile. We fade to black, assuming that they will rekindle their relationship and Calvin will get another chance at his "great love." Ruby came back, after all.

This, to me, was the film's biggest failing. It painted this portrait of how wrong it is to expect someone to be a concept instead of a person, to treat a human being as your property, to strip someone of their agency and force them to do things against their will. Calvin acted as an abuser, arguably even a rapist. In the end, however, Calvin has a tiny moment of the barest shred of human decency in releasing Ruby, and he is rewarded for that above and beyond imagining.

His pain and suffering is framed as more important than Ruby's. He abused and literally dehumanized her, but his heart is just so broken! He controlled every aspect of her personhood and forced her to be emotionally tied to him when she didn't want to be, but he was just so sad when she left. She had to deal with the pain and betrayal and fallout of being created to be someone's sex toy, but he's the one who writes a "brilliant" book and profits from her story. Best of all, she gets to return to her abuser without even being equipped with the memories of her abuse.

I just don't believe for a moment that a man with a clear history of control, emotional manipulation, referring to women who displease him as "sluts," and various other large and small instances of misogyny is going to be different now. Abusers do not just have some teensy spark of clarity and change their ways. Ruby is about to be trapped in the same relationship she was able to escape.

It would have been nice if upon Ruby's escape, the viewpoint changed. If we were able to see that she's now in control of her own story, and her agency has been restored in full. It would have been cathartic to see her walk away and never return. To have the opportunity to become the full person she was never allowed to be under Calvin's wing. I wanted some acknowledgement that Calvin's behavior was abusive, not loving. But alas, it was not meant to be.

Ultimately, this was a film that was worth watching if you're interested in seeing exactly why the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is so flawed. I would have preferred it if the focus didn't remain on the typical tortured-but-bland male protagonist and went further outside the box to make it the MPDG's story, but the exploration of the tropes does make interesting food for thought. It may be triggering for those sensitive to depictions of abusive relationships.

If you made it all the way to the end of this essay, I commend and thank you! Have you seen Ruby Sparks? What did you think?

The Unlikeables: Unlikeability in Male vs Female Characters

| Wednesday, September 18, 2013

When you're perusing online YA book reviews, as many of us are wont to do, you'll often notice a whole lot of contradictions in the way people view girl protagonists. A whole lot of people have written about how girl characters just can't win, no matter what they do.

It certainly seems that regardless of personality, characteristics, strengths, weaknesses, actions, inaction, or otherwise, there are always a few things you can expect to find within any batch of reviews. First and foremost, accusations of being a Mary Sue. It doesn't really matter if the character is too perfect for words or completely imperfect in every way, someone will accuse her of being a Mary Sue. It's like the Godwin's Law of YA. The Mary Sue Law, perhaps?

Other accusations one can expect to find for practically any female protagonist? Weak, boring, bratty, bitchy, limp noodle, pathetic, obsessed, selfish, wishy-washy... the list goes on, but you get the gist. The common theme is that there is always something wrong with her. She's never good enough.

And that's the MAIN CHARACTER. The "good" girl. The one we're supposed to root for. It's not even TOUCHING on lady villains.

Lady villains, man. Not even pure villains... any woman who detracts from a man's story. You've hardly ever seen a group so loathed. Especially when they're getting in the way of the shippers. Woe be the woman who steps between a non-canon m/m slash ship. And if they're cruel, calculating, clever murderesses? HOO BOY. Never mind that mean, nasty, angry asshole boy/men characters are often lauded as *sassy* and *wounded* and *sexyyyyyyyy.*

Why is it, exactly, that unlikeability in men is revered (they're sometimes called ANTI-HEROES, for crap's sake) while unlikeability in women is met with derision? People are ECSTATIC when a "bad" lady character bites it. They LAMENT when an equally awful dude gets the axe. And writers often indulge this preference, subconsciously or not.

I witnessed a recent example of this in the Teen Wolf fandom at the close of the last season. Major spoilers for all three seasons ahead! You've been warned!

omg so sassy!

If you're unfamiliar with the show, let's do a quick rundown of the season's antagonists.

1.) Peter (man) - Alpha werewolf; sire of the protagonist for purposes of building his own strength; murderer of previous alpha, who happened to be his niece/fan favorite's sister. Dies via fire/throat slashed, then is resurrected in perfect health and allowed to rejoin the "good guys." Continues to manipulate everyone for his own gain.

2.) Kate (woman) - Female MC's aunt. Hunter. Manipulative murderess who seduced a fan favorite and then murdered his entire family via arson because all werewolves = bad. Dies via slashed throat, stays dead.

3.) Gerard (man) - Female MC's grandfather. Hunter. Manipulates another character/supernatural being to commit several murders in order to ultimately manipulate the werewolves into biting him so he can survive his terminal cancer. Betrays his family, tortures and murders characters in cold blood, is generally horrible. Suffers a supernatural sickness... which he survives, in addition to the aforementioned TERMINAL CANCER. Remains alive, albeit under constant care.

4.) Victoria (woman) - Female MC's mother. Hunter and "decision maker" for her clan/family. Tries to kill male MC out of misplaced desire to "protect" her daughter + bias against werewolves. Is bitten and dies via assisted suicide rather than turn. Remains dead, occasionally appears in visions/flashbacks.

5.) Deucalion (man) - Alpha werewolf. Blinded by Gerard after failed peace negotiations (Gerard's fault), becomes vengeful. Murders his entire pack for power, inspires others to do the same. Is not above murder to further his own ends. Makes multiple attempts on the lives of our heroes and manipulates them for his own gain. Is defeated, but not before having his sight magically restored by the female villain. Is allowed not only to live, but is released to his own devices to "think about who he used to be."

6.) Jennifer (woman) - Druid gone bad. Was brutally assaulted, disfigured, and nearly killed by someone she considered a friend. Becomes vengeful. Proceeded to murder innocents in an attempt to seek revenge. Makes attempts on the lives of our heroes and their loved ones. Dies by having her throat slashed... twice. Remains dead.

Weird pattern arising here, right? I'm not even getting to other minor "bad" characters, where again a woman of color was killed and remains dead (Kali), but two of the white male "bad guys" appeared dead but then came back (Aiden and Ethan). I do want to note that the character Ethan is also gay, so I'm less bothered by this... although a show lauded as so LGBT-friendly still killed off a lesbian earlier in the season.

Hm. Hmmmmmm.

It's like... male villains tend to live while EVERY. SINGLE. FEMALE. VILLAIN. DIES. Even the male villains that DID die are somehow given a second shot through resurrection or MAGICAL HEALING.

This is not a mistake. It's not a single skewed example. There have literally been SIX "primary" antagonists, split evenly between the genders, and every single "evil" woman died while every single "evil" man lived.

The reaction in the fandom is even more troubling. If you even begin to scratch the surface, you'll find fans REJOICING at the deaths of these female characters. They deserved it! They were so awful! Bitch got what was coming to her!


Meanwhile, the male characters (particularly Peter and Deucalion) are completely excused of any wrongdoing because they are so *sassy* and *sexy*. Give a dude villain some sarcastic one-liners, tragic backstory, or a few deadpan eye rolls and he becomes a fan favorite no matter what he does.

I doubt I have to even tell you my theory for why this happens, but I'll do it anyway: women, in general, are socially confined to a very strict set of behaviors and expectations. If they put a toe out of line, they become stigmatized (brat, bitch, selfish, slut). If they DON'T put a toe out of line, people still find a way to stigmatize them (boring, stupid, pathetic, weak). Women are considered Strong Female Characters if their "strength" is suitably masculine -- physically strong, fighter, acts like a bro, all without sacrificing her (heterosexual) sexuality and attractiveness (to men). If their strength is derived from emotional intelligence, compassion, or vulnerability, then they are not "strong." See: recent criticism of Mako from Pacific Rim for not being "feminist enough" because she... cries and respects her father figure and isn't perfect at her new job immediately. Despite the fact the she is THE key player in SAVING THE WORLD. Even Buffy freakin' Summers is referred to as "whiny" when she's being all... ugh... emotional.

That's a complicated mess right there. Even mainstream (white cislady) feminism demands perfection and lack of emotion from their heroines.

On the flip side, naturally, men are excused for asshole behavior because 1) we are simply taught that men are more valuable in general, and 2) behavior that would be considered "bitchy" or "psycho" or "slutty" in a woman is applauded in men. He's clever! He doesn't put up with anyone's shit! He's assertive! Even manipulative bastards are considered "charming" instead of horrible. He knows just what to say to get everyone to do what he wants! What a charmer!

Over and over again, we see male villains (or so-called "anti-heros") lie, cheat, steal, murder, torture, rape, use, belittle, crush, and manipulate. They can do it for power, for revenge, for lust, for pride, or for giggles. Doesn't matter. In the end, they are still awesome and sassy and fun to watch.

Women who do any of the above -- even women who don't -- deserve to die and stay dead because no one wants to hear their stupid mouth. See: the fandom's reactions to Walter White (super awesome badass anti-hero!!!!) and Skyler White (bitch! bitch! weak bitch! KILL HER OFF!) from Breaking Bad.

This goes even deeper. In literature, it's considered significant, deep, and well-drawn to create an unlikeable protagonist... as long as it's a man. Lolita, anyone? Very few would confess to actually liking Humbert Humbert because the dude is intentionally a creep and literal pedophile, but they respect the construction of the character and the creation of the work. You don't hear about woman characters who receive the same level of respect. Any woman who gets in the way of a man's story is horrible and needs to die, any woman who doesn't fit Western society's idea of womanhood is horrible and needs to die, any woman who stands up against a villainous (but so charming!!!) man should probably die, too.

I'm not saying anything that hasn't been said before, but I always think it's worth reminding people to really sit down and explore their "preferences" for male characters over female characters. Why do you just ADORE this tortured, angry man, but you can't stand this tortured, angry woman? Why can you forgive this guy for being a literal rapist and murderer because he's got awesome style, but this woman who dared to use someone for her own gain deserves to die a million deaths?

Do you have thoughts to share, readers? I love thoughts!

Disability in Kidlit: An Interview With Corinne Duyvis

| Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Photo by Maija Haavisto
I have a special treat today, dudes :)

Everyone, please welcome Corinne Duyvis to the blog. Corinne is one of the co-founders of Disability in Kidlit. Her debut YA novel, OTHERBOUND, will be released in 2014. Hi, Corinne!

We're here to discuss Disability in Kidlit, which is a fantastic project in the vein of Diversity in YA. Both blogs highlight communities that lack appropriate representation in the YA and Kidlit spheres, and feature content and books created by the community members themselves.

Corinne, would you share your motivation for helping co-create this project?

Hi Steph! So glad to be here.

I had honestly never thought about starting a project like this; the closest I came was planning an Autism Awareness Month project for April, which would’ve featured similar kinds of content from fellow autistic people. That project never came to fruition, partially because of deadlines, partially because, before I could reach out to potential contributors, Kody Keplinger contacted me about creating a disability-themed Tumblr together.

We’d previously discussed disability issues, both in terms of how disability is often portrayed (when it’s portrayed at all!), and in terms of real-life interactions. I jumped on the idea, and we set some guidelines and discussed the format it would take. I’m really happy with how Disability in Kidlit has turned out; more and more people are interested in the conversation around diversity that’s been happening in kidlit these past few years, and I think it’s great to have a place to focus on disability in specific.

What do you hope people will take away from what you and your co-bloggers are doing?

Well, our goals are twofold. One, we hope for Disability in Kidlit to be a place where anyone involved in MG/YA fiction can learn about disability. This includes reading about problematic tropes and well-written portrayals, as well as reading about our contributors’ real-life experiences, to show how different these experiences often are from what’s portrayed in fiction. This will help readers learn to look more critically at media portrayals, help writers to write disabled characters with respect and accuracy, and help editors to be more critical about the disabled characters in the novels they’re working with. And hopefully, the site will help all these groups realize there’s a dire need for more well-written disabled characters!

(Back in June, the lovely Day Al-Mohamed wrote an excellent introductory post for us which perfectly explains that need, as well.)

Two, we’d love to be a central hub for these kinds of discussions. We hope to maintain lasting connections with our contributors so that they’ll think of us if they ever want to write about a disability-related topic that’s been on their minds, or share their thoughts on a disabled character—or read other people’s thoughts! I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a novel featuring a minority character and was unsure what to think of their portrayal, and wished I could find a review or discussion by people from that same minority group.

You're featuring discussions about disability in kidlit from a wide variety of disabled authors and bloggers, which is fantastic. Could you speak as to why you feel it's important to hear discussions about disability from the mouths of the communities themselves?

There’s a saying in the disability community: Nothing About Us Without Us.

This is because very often abled people will speak on the behalf of disabled people. This happens across the board—in politics, in activism, in regular daily interactions. People make decisions about us without our involvement. Even when it’s well-intentioned, it’s extremely misguided. After a long history of being excluded, our voices and independence taken away, having policies and therapy forced on us ‘for our own good,’ and—in terms of media—seeing countless painfully bad portrayals of disability lauded as honest and insightful and inspirational

Well, people in the disabled community don’t agree on everything, but we’re sure as hell tired of that happening! The best way to learn about anything is to learn it straight from the people who actually experience it on a day-to-day basis: the medical aspects, the social aspects, the psychological aspects, and the regular daily-life considerations all people with disabilities must keep in mind, whether it’s taking medication on time, calling ahead to see if a restaurant is accessible, putting on prostheses, or carefully monitoring our exhaustion levels.

The more you listen to actual disabled people, the better range of perspectives you’ll get, as well. For some, disability is a painful and tragic experience. For others, it’s an inconvenience, or barely even a blip on the radar. Many people are proud of their disability or love certain aspects of it, whether it’s Deaf culture, a snazzy wheelchair, or the hyperfocus of ADD. The thing is, it should be up to us to decide how we feel about our disabilities, and us alone.

You yourself are autistic. It seems that autism, in the media and in the "real world," is often significantly mysticized or misrepresented. What's your personal biggest concern about the way we often see disability portrayed in the media?

Oh, don’t get me started about autism tropes! I’ll be here all day, foaming at the mouth. ;)

Specific tropes have specific kinds of consequences, of course. Inspiration porn results in people gaping at disabled people out on the street and calling them an inspiration for simply doing groceries or taking the bus. The disabled sibling trope results in people sympathizing with family members above all else, and considering disabled people a burden. The magical disabled person trope results in disabled characters being used as props, and never a complex, three-dimensional main character for the reader to empathize with—and we all know how important that is.

I could go on, but it all comes down to the same thing: disability tropes are present in practically all forms of media, whether it’s children’s literature, SF television series, or your local news, and flawed media portrayals of any kind have real-life consequences. They shape people’s opinions to a monumental degree, which is reflected in everything from politics to casual interactions at the grocery store.

What can media creators do to create a more balanced and nuanced portrayal of disabled characters?

Research, for one! We featured a great discussion post about that topic.

Basically, it’s often painfully apparent when someone’s idea of disability is shaped only by other media, and not by reading about disability from the perspective of actual disabled people, let alone by talking to them. People assume they have an idea of what a disability entails from watching this TV show or reading that book, and that’s their starting point: from there, they imagine what it must be like to lose a leg or not to be able to hear…

And that’s the problem: writers imagine.

But when it comes to disability—or any marginalized group—people exist who know what it’s like. You don’t have to imagine. In fact, you shouldn’t, because it will be instantly obvious to those who know the first thing about the topic you’re discussing.

That’s not to say that the experiences and opinions of disabled people don’t differ, because they do. There is no One True Way of writing about disability. Still, there are a lot of common experiences, and any writer worth their salt must learn about those common experiences. Learn about the tropes, too, and exactly why those tropes are harmful.

Basically, there’s a whole de-programming process involved, where you have to un-learn what you think you know.

Only then can you kickstart your imagination. Write fully-formed, three-dimensional characters, whose disability plays a part in their lives but doesn’t define them as people.

Do you have any book recommendations from authors that you feel portrayed disability especially well? Suggestions for movies and televisions shows are also welcome.

I don’t, actually! I don’t want to fall into the same trap I described a few questions up and end up speaking on someone else’s behalf: my only personal experience is with autism and ADD, and I’ve been so short on reading time lately that I haven’t had a chance to read a lot of the books that I’ve been wanting to. (These books include HARMONIC FEEDBACK by Tara Kelly, ROGUE by Lyn Miller-Lachmann, and COLIN FISCHER by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz. I can’t vouch for these—yet—but I’ve heard great things! All the authors have AD(H)D or autism themselves, which makes me extra eager to read these novels.)

Though I’ve done research on several other kinds of disability than my own, I don’t feel qualified to yay or nay those portrayals when there are people in a much better position to do so. Disability in Kidlit has featured a number of positive reviews, though, including reviews of Francisco X. Stork’s MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD and Jo Walton’s AMONG OTHERS, and we’ve also got a recommended reading list available. This list is very limited as it was purely compiled from suggestions from our contributors, but it’s a good starting point.

In terms of TV, I’ve heard good things from autistic people about PARENTHOOD (although there’s an episode that supports Autism Speaks, which is a terrible, harmful charity) and from D/deaf people about SWITCHED AT BIRTH.

(For those interested, Disability in Kidlit maintains a Goodreads account where we hope to keep an updated list of which MG/YA novels prominently feature disabled characters. This list is purely for reference purposes; we can’t vouch for these books.)

Would you mind linking us to a few highlights from the Disability in Kidlit blog?

I would freaking love to!

My own favorite posts include all our discussion posts, in which we posed a topic to our contributors and asked for their thoughts; such a great way to get a variety of perspectives!

In terms of reviews, I loved Sara Polsky’s post on Lois Lowry’s GATHERING BLUE; I’m also shamelessly fond of my own reviews about the autistic characters in Jennifer Castle’s YOU LOOK DIFFERENT IN REAL LIFE and Michael Grant’s GONE series.

In terms of regular posts… oh, this’ll be a long list. I loved both Maggie Desmond-O’Brien’s post about mental illness and medication and s.e. smith’s post about the Crazy Creative trope, as well as Kalen O’Donnell’s post about the odd ways people perceive ADHD, Cristina Hartmann’s post about misassumptions about D/deaf/HoH people, and, finally, Kayla Whaley’s post about the disabled sibling trope.

Do you have any parting thoughts for us?

In fact, I have three.

One: Although Disability in Kidlit originally started as a month-long project, we’ve since decided to keep it running on a semi-permanent basis. Posts will go live every Friday. We have some great ones lined up already! Keep an eye on our Wordpress feed or our Tumblr and Twitter accounts, and don’t hesitate to share your thoughts on any of our posts. We love to hear from readers!

Two: We’re still actively looking for contributors! If you identify as disabled, please take a look at the site and consider contributing if you dig what you’re seeing. You can find information about the kind of posts we want on our submissions page. We welcome people with all sorts of disabilities and backgrounds, though we’re particularly looking for contributions by disabled men and by people who belong to another marginalized group in addition to their disability—such as disabled people of color.

Three: Steph Sinkhorn rules. *blows kiss*

Aw, thank you kindly!

For those who are interested in keeping up with new content on Disability in Kidlit, I encourage you to subscribe or follow their Wordpress, Tumblr or Twitter (linked in the previous question). They should be starting up new posts this month. Thanks again to Corinne for her time and wonderful responses!

You Should Never Be Embarrassed (or Shamed) for Reading Books

| Friday, August 30, 2013

I recently saw this Book Riot post on the ten books people are "most embarrassed" to admit they've read. At the end, the editor asked if there were "any surprises here."

Very sadly, I could honestly say no, there were no surprises. It was of no surprise to me that eight of these top ten "most embarrassing" reads were written by and about girls and women (assuming "romance novels" refers to the bulk of its readers and writers, which I'm sure it does). I remain unsurprised that readers are embarrassed to admit that they read, or even enjoy, "girl books."

Why am I not surprised? Because this is the same attitude we see displayed all too often. When men write a shitty book, it's just a shitty book. Oh well, on to the next one. It's not often viewed as an *embarrassment*.

I have my doubts about why Dan Brown made this list, and they're primarily rooted in the sheer popularity of that particular novel, as well as the controversy surrounding it, part of which ended up being plagiarism accusations and criticism of un-cited research. Notice people said they were embarrassed to read The Da Vinci Code, specifically, rather than Dan Brown's Robert Langdon series as a whole. However, 50 Shades/Twilight/Sookie Stackhouse/The Hunger Games/romance novels are lumped together. One could make that argument for the popularity of the other books on this list as well (they were mega-popular), but there's still a notable lack of other popular books written by men (like Patterson, perhaps, or maybe Sparks).

Oh no, I read a commercial bestseller. I must be flogged.

Before I really get going, I want to be clear that I'm not chastising Book Riot for publishing this, but rather being critical of the attitudes it illustrates.

There are a few things I'd like to explore here.

1.) Reading a "bad" book is embarrassing and you should be ashamed. I'm putting "bad" in scare quotes because it's subjective, but also because there's some intellectual/academic literary shame going on here. Pleasure reads aren't supposed to be ENJOYED, they're supposed to be sneered at. If you do read them and actually kind of like them, they're "guilty pleasures" instead of just "books you like." If you LIKE them, it means that you don't know what "good" literature is, which means you're a dumb dummy. LOGIC!

2.) Romance is stupid and you should feel stupid for reading it. It's not a coincidence that most of this list involves romance or erotica in some form. This is because we're told, and continue to be told, that love/relationship/sex books written by/for women are frivolous, silly, shameful little things. Sex and relationships written by men? Well, they understand the human condition. Women just like to feel *tingly* and swoon over their fake boyfriends. There's no value there! None at all!

3.) Books for young people are childish and simple and adults should be ashamed for reading them. Oh my gooooosh, Twilight wins by a huge landslide! No way! People think Twilight sucks? I HAD NO IDEA! But there's The Hunger Games, too, which is a little weird. But not that weird because it was written about a teenage girl and there's some kissing and everyone knows that's worthless. Also, V.C. Andrews! Like, ew!

4.) But seriously, let's talk about how this list is like 85% women. I'm not arguing that women don't write shitty books. Sure they do, as do their male counterparts. What I'm pointing out is that people are so much more likely to be EMBARRASSED for reading a bestselling book by a lady than one by a man. If you wasted your time reading a "bad" book by a woman, you should FEEL BAD ABOUT IT. You could have read a shitty male-authored book instead, you fool!

5.) Why are these books embarrassing, anyway? Is it because woman-centric romance and sex is shameful? Because books by women are useless wastes of time? Because they're not academically impressive enough? Because other people curl their lip at it for being drivel? Help me out here. I mean, I'd like to believe that participants are embarrassed by the blatant misogyny/racism/classism/etc. present in some of these books, but I doubt it. It's easier to be embarrassed because IT JUST SUX!!!!!

6.) Maybe we think people should be ashamed of succumbing to hype. Just throwing this out there. This list is mostly comprised of modern bestsellers, yeah? And people sure do hate to think they might be one of the masses. Because other people are sheep, right? YOU ARE A WOLF, NOT A SHEEP! But you still bought the book to see what it was all about, and now other people who managed to avoid it are giving you shit for being one of the "sheep." So you feel ashamed.

7.) Or maybe people feel embarrassed because other people think they should. Fancy that.

8.) Basically the only person I think might deserve to be on this list is Ayn Rand, because UGH. However, I don't think people should be *embarrassed* because they read the book. Never be embarrassed because you READ A BOOK! I read Anthem and I'm not embarrassed about it. I didn't like it and didn't understand why people were into her, but it wasn't EMBARRASSING. If you bought into her gross philosophy, though? Yeah, you can be embarrassed about that.

There's another linked list there featuring the 25 Most Hated Books, and there's a definite upswing in books written by men. Twilight and 50 Shades still take two of the top three spots, though. People apparently hate Twilight infinitely more than books featuring epic levels of racism and misogyny. Not that Twilight was a bastion of intersectional equality by any means, but still. Think about that for a while.

Another interesting correlation on that list, for me, is that the most hated books seem split between classics, mostly written by men, and a handful of modern releases... mostly written by women. Hm. To me, the classics seem obviously skewed because these are all the books we're forced to read in school, and of course those books skew toward the old white dudes. The modern picks, though... there's Dan Brown again for Da Vinci Code, and apparently Yann Martel got some heat as well, but otherwise the modern selections are bestselling ladies, two of whom are right at the tippy-top of the hate pile. Hmmm.

I just want to make it clear that I am not arguing that women who write problematic or poorly-crafted novels shouldn't receive criticism. They should. But instances like this continue to illustrate that lady writers see a hugely disproportionate level of embarrassment and hate directed at their work, and it's not just linked to sales numbers. Twilight received 315 embarrassed votes, while Da Vinci Code received 34 -- nearly ten times fewer. Why aren't 315 people "embarrassed" to have read The Da Vinci Code, though it sold 80 million copies as a single title (200 million total for the Robert Langdon series, btw), as opposed to Twilight's 116 million copies as a four-book series (plus a novella)? It's food for thought.

TL;DR -- Don't ever be embarrassed because you read a book. You certainly don't have to like every book you read, but they shouldn't cause you shame. Especially not because some snobby butthead is trying to make you feel that way. Also, maybe think about why you can read another crappy crime novel and not bat an eye, but when you read a romance novel, you feel all embarrassed about it.

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