Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Roundtable: Female Sexuality in YA

After reading YA Highway's recent and compelling post on Sexuality + Girls + YA (written by Kristin Briana Otts), we decided that the topic would be perfect for a Roundtable discussion.

Here's what our teens had to say about how females and their sexuality are portrayed in YA literature...

Alison: So...are we ready to start chatting about the month's topic? 
Matt: I'm here, but I'll be popping in and out. Hi everybody! 
Katy: I'm ready... 
Matt: I read the YA Highway post, so I'm ready. 
Alison: Okay, so first I must ask if anyone read the YA Highway post?
Lennon: I did.
Alison: In other words...did you do your homework?  
Chihuahua Zero: I did. 
Lissa: I did read it
Chihuahua Zero: I'm predicting that we're going to be exploring several different aspects of the topic. 
Katy: I did
Alison: yay! Okay - so thoughts: maybe starting with "But it seems to me that the sexuality of young women in books are limited to certain tropes."
Alison: girls who are virgins in YA books? and the statement: "I feel like innocence is painted as a synonym for ignorance." Agree? Why or why not? 
Chihuahua Zero: I'm oblivious about that cliche. Can anyone cite any examples? 
Lissa: Bella from Twilight, for example, had that virgin trope 
Lennon: I semi-agree with that. I think that in some cases it is also seen as a superiority type deal. 
Katy: Sometimes the virgin is the sex-obsessed girl fixated on losing her virginity 
Lissa: One book that I think explored female sexuality well - though I wasn't a huge fan of the story and therefore only read the first book in the series - was Nightshade. I thought that Calla's sexuality was thoroughly explored in that book 
Matt: I can't think of a single YA novel I've read in which the girl was sexually active, outside of heavy petting, or being abused by someone (rape, etc) 
Lissa: I see your point about the superiority thing, in a lot of books, girls are slut-shamed AND, silmultaneously, shamed for being virgins 
Lissa: I do not understand how that works 
Chihuahua Zero: I misread the section. I thought the first paragraph referred to a situation where the teen girl says, "Sex? What's that?" 
Matt: It shouldn't work like that, Lissa, but even in our real life society, sadly, it often does.
Lennon: It shouldn't be like that though. 
Chihuahua Zero: But in general, sexuality isn't something explored on the... cleaner side of YA. And even in more mature territory, it rarely gets racy. 
Riv: (Hi, sorry I'm late. Just going to jump in and hope I'm on topic...) My biggest pet peeve is how there's no male equivalent of a "slut." Yeah, they're called players, but it's just not the same. 
Lissa: Yeah, I know Matt, that's why I try to be objective about what I'm reading in these kinds of situations. A lot of the time, people are very angry with the way females are portrayed in books and they then blame that on their authors, and while I agree that it is the author's fault for giving into the way society is instead of exploiting society's faults, I also feel like I can't really blame them - or the readers who don't see a problem - because slut-shaming or virgin-demonizing is so broadly and actively shown in the media  
Matt: Totally agree Lissa, and keep in mind, often as authors, we purposely create charaters with certain flaws in order to subvert tropes. 
Matt: Or at least in order to attempt to subvert them. 
Katy: That's a good point, Matt 
Lissa: Yeah there are, but conversely, there are also authors who become fully aware of the situation they've put their characters in and do nothing to change it 
Matt: And whether or not it works is highly subjective for each reader, based on their own life experiences 
Chihuahua Zero: By the way, TV Tropes has a index of double standards that can serve as a good jumping point for this topic. Want me to link it?
Matt: You're definitely right there, Lissa. 
Matt: Anyone else have thoughts about Lissa's point? Authors who know better, but do nothing to have their characters break stereotypes, or tropes? 
Lissa: Madonna is a good name, hah that's smart 
Chihuahua Zero: Basically, there's the concept that a girl HAS to be either a "good" girl or a "bad" girl. 
Lissa: CZ, that's why I like Courtney Summers' books. She accurately portrays human beings as a whole, I think.
Katy: Ooh, great example, Lissa 
Matt: YES! 
Katy: Her characters are layered and complex  
Matt: TiNaT was a great example of an empowered girl who knew what she wanted and took it. But wasn't a "slut."
Erica: Miranda Kenneally is another author who does that really well I feel like.
Riv: skimming through the TV tropes articles now, but can I ask a question?
Riv: I feel like no matter which way a writer tries to go on any issue, even if they pursue the middle ground as much as possible, they'll always be attacked for it in some way. In an off-topic example, if a high fantasy has no black characters, it'll be accused of white-washing while, if there are one or two, the author will be accused of trying to avoid being accused of white-washing (if that makes sense?). A character who isn't a virgin will somehow manage to get attacked either for slut-shaming, or [whatever the term is for looking down on girls who are waiting for marriage/never did it for another reason]. 
Chihuahua Zero: It's something that happens with all stories with a good-sized audience. The question is to what degree.
Katy: That's true... There will always be haters. I think the best an author can do is be true to his or her characters and his or her story. 
Lennon: I completely agree. Personally, I blame hipsters. 
Riv: So how are we supposed to keep our writing, for lack of a better word, impartial? 
Lennon: You can't 
Riv: @Lennon Don't knock the hipsters.  
Lissa: Haha, so easy to blame the hipsters 
Chihuahua Zero: I agree with Lennon. There will always be a little bias. Like how people will always analyze a story, no matter its meaning or lack of. Fortunately, the sole purpose of a story isn't to be moral. 
Matt: The hipsters are to blame for many things 
Lennon: Maybe calling them hipsters isn't the best thing in the world. But people who always find something wrong with everything and want to be individuals so badly, they have to knonk something that is popular.
Lissa: That's more like a cynic then, right Lennon? But I don't think being cynical is always a bad thing
Erica: That is such a great point Riv. 
Lissa: I think the best way is to think about it realistically and stay as true as possible to the story you're trying to tell. If your story is a contemporary, if it's set in the US or Canada, realistically there is somebody of every ethnic background, religion, sexual orientation, etc in that area, and thus authors should try to stay true to that. If that makes sense  
Chihuahua Zero: Yet, there's something liberating knowing that someone will always criticize a story. That means a story doesn't have to be perfect. 
Lennon: I am very cynical myself, but what I mean is there is always going to be people who find something wrong with your writing.
Katy: So, what are some YA stories that do teen sexuality (particularly female) well, in your opinion? 
Chihuahua Zero: Not sure... 
Lissa: Melina Marchetta does sexuality well. The Piper's Son did female and male sexuality well, IMHO, as did....actually, all her books do. 
Lissa: If you couldn't tell, I am a hugeinormous fan of hers haha
Katy: I agree, Lissa. I think Gayle Forman excels at realistic relationships/sexuality also. 
Matt: I'm not sure I have an example of one that does it well. TiNaT had a great female character who was comfortable with her sexuality, but she wasn't really fully sexually active - without getting too graphic
Lennon: I haven't read anything that hasn't portrayed sexuality as a dirty thing that shouldn't be discussed 
Chihuahua Zero: Looking for Alaska does sexuality... in an interesting way. Especially with that one scene. 
Lissa: Yeah, I was thinking that book too. I don't think Alaska is slut-shamed or Madonna-ized 
Lissa: I actually think that book does a great job of discussing this topic, good point  
Katy: Yeah, but Alaska mostly hangs out with boys who idolize her 
Chihuahua Zero: And then that idolization gets torn apart in the latter part of the book. 
Katy: Good point. 
Chihuahua Zero: John Green says so himself that Miles/Pudge idealizing Alaska as a "maniac pixie girl" hurt him in the end. 
Matt: Once again, I'm in the dark having not read John Green. Sigh. To my credit, I do have Alaska on my Kindle. Just need to read it. 
Chihuahua Zero: I only read two books by him, so don't worry. 
Lennon: I haven't read any John Green either 
Katy: You guys should definitely read at least one of his. I find the way he portrays teenagers to be very refreshing and smart.
Erica: Miranda Kenneally does it really well. Also Courtney Allison Moulton's Angelfire series portrays relationships really realistically.
Chihuahua Zero: By the way, I'm considering buying one of Marina and the Diamond's albums. From what I heard from her, she explores how girl sexuality is seen in an ironic way. 
Chihuahua Zero: For example, listen to the contrast between the verses and the bridge of "How to Be a Heartbreaker". 
Lennon: I love Marina. She's great but she is kind of controversial 
Chihuahua Zero: Should I get her first album or the second one? 
Lennon: It depends on what you want. 
Chihuahua Zero: I know that the second one (Electra Heart) is more persona based.  
Lennon: I personally love her second album, but that's just my preference.
Chihuahua Zero: Lana Del Rey is another interesting artist when it comes to sexuality. I have no idea what's her position about it, since her stance is different depending on the song.
Chihuahua Zero: But I guess "This Is What Makes Us Girls" is relevant.
Matt: Actually, I thought of an example! Rouge, by Leigh T. Moore portrays sexuality realistically. But the MC is 18, I think, and it's historical, so I'm not sure I'd call it YA. Maybe NA.
Chihuahua Zero: Oh! Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver well explores how losing one's virginity is a big deal and the fear and anxiety around it.
Alison: I LOVE that book!
Rebecca: I read Before I Fall last year and loved it.
Riv: I wanted to read Before I Fall a few years ago, when my sister had it, but I was young and naive and she didn't let me. >​< 
Erica: I enjoyed Before I Fall, but I wasn't blown away by it.
Katy: I loved BEFORE I FALL. I'm a fan of the DELIRIUM series as well.
Katy: I thought another good "losing one's virginity" book was MY LIFE NEXT DOOR by Huntley Fitzpatrick
Rebecca: Yes! My Life Next Door was very well done. 
Alison: Also, I must get on my Kody Keplinger fan wagon - the tropes talked about in the post - you won't see them in her book. In fact, SHUT OUT explores how girls view sexuality, I thought, brilliantly
Rebecca: Kody Keplinger explores sexuality well. 
Riv: @Alison The DUFF was quite good. I dont' remember it that well, but it was pretty shweet 
Lennon: The DUFF was amazing, but I thought it was more self-esteem based than sexuality based. 
Riv: I just forgot the author, but isn't there a book called Losing It coming out around now? Has anyone read it?
Erica: Cara McCormick wrote that one right? 
Rebecca: I've heard of Losing It but haven't read it. 20:49
Alison: Okay, so we have books that explore sexuality well and thoughts on the virgin trope. What about the overly promiscuous character? 
Chihuahua Zero: Hmm... 
Katy: I'm reading STEALING PARKER right now and while she's not actually sleeping with anyone, she's getting majorly shamed by other girls for being a "slut." 
Matt: In Empty, by KM Walton, the MC is raped, but the boy tells everyone she raped him, and all the other characters believe him, the idiots.
Katy: Really, Matt? Yikes.
Chihuahua Zero: @Matt: That sounds scary.
Riv: Matt, that reminds me of You Against Me by Jenny Dunham(?) which I just finished. About the sister of a rapist who wants to believe her good guy brother didn't do it, and the brother of the victim, who's trying to wrap his head around it and comfort his sibling (and bash the dude's brains in)
Matt: I haven't read it Riv, but it sounds interesting.
Lennon: Okay, prepare yourselves for a rant from me. 
Lennon: I am so sick of YA Fiction portraying any girl who explores her sexuality or, gasp, has sex before marriage as a worthless slut who has no morals. Sexuality is not something that is so dirty that someone should be shamed for expressing and exploring it. 
Katy: Lennon, I do not think you are alone in your belief. I bet most of us are with you! 
Alison: Agreed with you Lennon - I think that may be partly societal impact 
Chihuahua Zero: @Lennon: I'm trying to think of any particular examples, as opposed to passive examples where the topic simply isn't explored. In my experience, explicit sexuality is not the default. 
Matt: Lennon - do you find the slut shaming comes in the form of authorial voice too much for you? Or does it mostly come from other characters? I ask, because I'm fine with it coming from characters (because sad as that is, it's realism), but I can't take it from a preachy author.
Chihuahua Zero: I'm sort of out of my element on this topic, since I haven't read a lot of more gritty/edgy YA.
Alison: I like the YA book that has the "perceived" overly promiscuous character, and makes me LOVE her 
Riv: Because Tina Fey is the most amazing woman ever, and is much more eloquent than me: "you all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores." 
Matt: Well said, Tina.
Alison: omg - LOVE, Riv! 
Riv: If I'm not mistaken, 13 Reasons Why touches on this, right? 
Chihuahua Zero: Oh yeah, 13 Reasons Why! How could I forget about that? And in a different way, The List. 
Katy: I love that quote too, Riv. And yes, I think that was a big part of the main character's (Hannah?) issues. 
Lennon: I loved The List! 
Lennon: What I'm noticing is that sexuality is being directly related to self-esteem in YA fiction. 
Riv: Lennon, what do you mean? 
Lennon: Well, The List and The DUFF both explore sexuality and self worth. Both of which seemingly dependent on looks. 
Riv: Yeah, I thought that's what you meant by sexuality. Looks. What do you think the difference is?
Riv: (that sounded stupid. I meant "how do you define the two") 
Matt: Lennon, don't you think self esteem and female sexuality are heavily linked in real life to? I mean as a society, how much air-brushing do we have to force on our daughters before they can feel pretty (sorry - angry dad here)? 
Lennon: Yeah, they are certainly linked, but that doesn't mean they should be. And Sexuality can mean several different things, it can mean gender identity, sexual orientation, and how one feels about sexual acts.
Lennon: Self Worth is completely dependent on the person and how they react to the media and other people telling them what they are worth. 
Riv: As women, our self-worth is based on our "number" (besides for being disgusting, ratings are *so* 2007). We're told that we are objects, without real brains. It's like we're reverting back to the middle ages, except minus the respect.

Seriously... How smart are our teens?

Tell Us: What do YOU think about the way females and sexuality are portrayed in young adult literature? Do you think the entertainment industry (movies, TV, books, etc) perpetuates certain female stereotypes? 


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