Girls and Consequences

On the back of a recent SF Signal Mind Meld which asked a bunch of very smart women what genre books they would recommend to teenage girls, participant Stina Leicht penned some additional thoughts about the types of books that are often seen as “suitable” for girls to be reading as opposed to the types of books she thinks they should be reading, and why. It’s a good post and Leicht has some very interesting things to say about girls and growing up and the importance of young adult fiction in their lives.

One of the points she makes evokes the familiar argument that a person’s teenage years are where they get to experiment, make mistakes and generally practice how to be an adult, so they’ll be better at being adults when the time inevitably comes, and that fiction is an excellent — and safe — space in which to learn and practice. She also mentions the fact that teenage boys are usually more inclined to indulge in high-risk behaviours than girls of the same age, and suggests that it is therefore more important for girls to have access to “dangerous” books when they are growing up.

But it was a footnote to her post that really struck  me. In questioning why boys court risks more than girls, Leicht dismisses the oft-cited hormones as the culprit and instead offers the following suggestion:

It’s because girls run head-long into consequences much, much sooner than boys do. They are barraged with the knowledge that the world is a dangerous place for them specifically at an early age. I have memories of such information filtering down to me at age eight through ten. So much so, that I went through a phase of denial. I took on male behaviors, thinking that would make me safe. (I was a tomboy.) I also went through a phase of not wanting to be female — not because I thought I was mistakenly born a girl, but because I was beginning to understand what was ahead and that the world did not like females. In fact, society at large might even hate females.

And then yesterday, I read a fantastic article about gender roles and fantasy which Kate Elliott wrote for Women in SF Month. Elliott talks about growing up as a tomboy in a rural community and how, at age twelve, her Language Arts teacher — who sounds amazing — asked the class to complete a sentence beginning, “I wish  . . .”:

I wrote: I wish I was a boy.

These days, that sentence could be interpreted in many ways. It could have been then, too, of course, but the conversation about gender in rural Oregon was a far more limited one. What she thought I don’t know. But I do know she called me aside and asked me about it privately. What did it mean to me that I said that? she asked me with concern.

What it meant to me was that it wasn’t worth being a girl.

Both these stories rang so true to me. I was a tomboy for most of my childhood. Thankfully, I have a wonderful mother who I can’t ever remember saying that I couldn’t/shouldn’t do something or like something or be something just because I was a girl. (Once or twice, when I was being particularly gross, she might have expressed an exasperated admonishment that I wasn’t being very ladylike. Huh? Who cared about being a lady!) I do remember being told such things by lots of other people, though — including some male relatives. And the consequences stuff? Although I didn’t think I ever consciously took that on board when I was a kid . . .  I reckon it did manage to seep in. And I reckon I reacted to it just the way Stina Leicht did, by rebelling against everything girlish.

These days I’m constantly unpacking my thoughts about the colour pink, and my newly rekindled love of cooking, and whether or not to keep shaving my legs, and so many other things. Trying to work out how much of what I love and/or hate comes from a genuine personal response rather than a habitual reaction to/against The Feminine. (A process which, of course, is complicated by the recognition that those anti-feminine reactions are really just as “genuine” or otherwise as anything else I feel.)

Red Roses Doc MartensAnd here’s a odd thing that just popped into my head: I wear boots. Almost exclusively. Mainly flat-but thick-soled boots like Fluevogs or Doc Martens. (I adore my rose-embroidered Docs. Just look at them. Look at them. Now wipe the drool from your chin. Don’t worry, I’m doing it too and I already own a couple of pairs!*) Occasionally I wear more, ahem, ladylike boots with modest chunky heels or height boosted by platforms. I can’t remember the last time I owned a pair of normal women’s shoes with the standard pointy heels. I’ve never owned or worn heels more than two-and-a-half inches in height (platforms excluded — it’s the gradient that kills me) and I probably never will. I feel comfortable in boots. Often, I joke with friends about not wanting to wear any type of footwear that won’t allow me to break into a sprint at a moment’s notice. Except it’s not really a joke. Not even half a joke. When I say, “I feel comfortable in boots”, I don’t just mean physical comfort. I mean, “I feel safe in boots. I can run away if I need to.”

Because, in my head, wearing spiked stiletto heels isn’t safe. Because being a girl isn’t safe. And that’s precisely the sort of unconscious internalisation I’m talking about. Now, it’s not as though I go about my days with ears pricked and eyes darting about like a gazelle en route to the watering hole, but this is a genuine psychological underpinning that has helped define my choice of footwear as much as it has influenced my decision never to accept an invitation to an otherwise all male NFL drunken victory party.

Because being a girl isn’t safe.

This is a subject I want to come back to, but I need to think about it some more. Because it’s definitely worth thinking about.

* It was even a minor struggle to talk about my beloved boots like that because, as we all know, talking about shoes is the height of girlishness. See? The unpacking never ends.



Women on Book Covers: Counterpoint

Because it’s not enough to criticise when Wrong Things Are Wrong; we also need to offer kudos when they are indeed due. As for example, this excellent cover for Ann Aguirre’s new novel, Endgame:


What a magnificent pose. An action-oriented female character who immediately presents as being strong, confident, physically capable and physically aware. An unquestionably female character who, yes, possesses both butt and breasts, but is not concerned with making them the centre of your attention. Because she is, after all, much more than the sum of her parts. A female character who snares you with a sharp, intelligent gaze and challenges you to read her story. Or not, because she actually has more important things going on in her world than caring about whether or not you are watching her.

I could go on about how much I love this cover, and why, but come on … just look at it!

I will point out that I’ve never read any of the Sirantha Jax novels but, hot damn, I really, really want to get my hands on them now. Which, you know, is exactly what a good book cover is meant to inspire in a reader. Well done, that illustrator there!


False Equivalence: An Amusing Illustration by Jim C. Hines

Back in January, when I wasn’t blogging, one of my perpetually open tabs was this post by Jim C. Hines in which he attempted to reproduce the ways in which females are often posed on genre book covers. His conclusion was that:

My sense is that most of these covers are supposed to convey strong, sexy heroines, but these are not poses that suggest strength. You can’t fight from these stances. I could barely even walk.

Bouncing off a recent article about that pose — Tits AND Ass, Let Me Shown You Them — and how there really is is no male equivalent, Jim has now reproduced some book cover poses where (it was suggested, mainly in the comments) males are sexually objectified. His conclusions this time around?

  1. Men on book covers are indeed posed shirtless in ways that show off their musculature. However…
  2. Male poses do not generally emphasize sexuality at the expense of all other considerations.
  3. Male poses do emphasize the character’s power and strength in a way many (most?) female cover poses don’t.
  4. When posed with a woman, the man will usually be in the dominant, more powerful posture.
  5. Male poses do not generally require a visit to the chiropractor afterward

Posing Like A Man

He also suggests checking out this post by LJ user genrereviews wherein she recreates side by side comparisons of male and female poses, with detailed and enlightening commentary.

These are both fantastic resources and ones I want to shove in the face of point out to everyone who’s ever said to me, “Stop bitching about how women are represented in covers/movies/comics/art/advertising because men are also sexually objectified, dontcha know? It’s just the culture! We’re all obsessed with sex!” If you’re one of those people, you need to have a good look at what Jim Hines and genreviews have done and take special note of what they say about how recreating those poses made them feel.

You might also want to brush up on the definition of false equivalence, most effectively explained here in the Shortpacked webcomic by David Willis. Just don’t read the comments. Or do. Just don’t blame me for your blood pressure. Or the resulting head-shaped indentation in your wall.


Bad Feminist: An Unexpected Case Study

Over the past few months of my blog hiatus, I did a lot of thinking about feminism and gender issues, with particular attention paid to writing, authors and the publishing industry. After all, there has been a lot to provoke such thoughts over the past year: the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge, the announcement of the Stella Prize, the now infamous comments by V.S. Naipaul, published statistics about gender imbalance in book reviewing, and much, much more. I collected links and left a prodigious amount of tabs open in my browser, planning to write a series of posts about this sort of stuff — once I actually did start posting again, of course. Then a couple of weeks ago, I deleted them all. I didn’t have time for it, I admonished myself. It was part of the Catching Up that was actually stopping me from getting back into blogging — which was something that I really did miss.

srsly stfu

Because … oh, just look at it all. All of the research, all of the compiling of supporting evidence and illustrative links, all of the careful balancing acts and fine-tooth-combery which would be required to ensure what I wrote would be taken as a serious and informed contribution to cultural debate, rather than viewed as the subjective and unsubstantiated rants of yet another jealous, whining girl-scribbler who should srsly stfu because men have it hard too … ugh. It was exhausting just to contemplate. And besides, what good would it really do? Who was I to say anything anyway? Srsly, Kirstyn. Just STFU. You have more pressing things to do.

But, lo and behold, over the past week, my briefly pristine browser has once again become a petri dish for open tabs. Tabs which demand more than simply a quick tweet with accompanying snappy or snarky comment. And I started getting that strange, tight, swirly thing happening in my guts again. That self-defeating inner to-and-fro which goes a little something like this:

Interesting! I should blog about that. I have something to contribute!

Hmm, I should gather more information first. What I have to say might not stand up under scrutiny. 

No, screw that. It’s my opinion. I’m allowed to have an opinion. And I’m willing to stand corrected and engage in robust debate!

Hmm, am I willing to stand corrected by Teh Interwebs? Engage in robust debate with Teh Comments of Doom?

Okay, so I need to find several specific examples to illustrate the points I want to make. Plus, I should find some counter examples to show that I’m not making blanket statements and that I acknowledge that the issue is complicated. I might need footnotes and a bibliography. And I really need to think about the tone and wording because I want to be perfectly clear and don’t want to inadvertently step on undeserving toes.  In the meantime, I’ll just leave that tab open so I don’t forget that I want to come back to it. And these couple of tabs next to it as well, because they kind of relate, but actually really deserve some thoughtful commentary one their own. Which would require more gathering of substantiating evidence.

Hmm. That’s gonna end up being a really long post.

I should break it into smaller posts. A series!  A series on a theme!


Which is generally when my good intentions slink away to sulk and what I’ve thought of as my guilty conscience sits her smug self  down to gloat over all those open, unremarked upon tabs. Whatevah, guilty conscience, I’m busy enough as it is and there are heaps of people already talking about this stuff. It doesn’t have to be my fight.

Then yesterday I read this blog post by Cat Valente in which she bounces off the recent Christopher Priest/Clarke Award brouhaha to discuss how men and women commentators are treated oh so very differently when they express their opinions online:

… it’s more than lolz, he’s got balls of brass, I could never get away with those blognanigans. I couldn’t, of course, even if I wanted to. But neither could almost any other woman writer or blogger I can think of. Go after popular SF writers and a respected award? She’d have gotten death threats, rape threats, comments telling her everything from shut up and make [unnamed internet male] a sandwich to wishing she’d be raped to death because that would shut her right up.

shut your whore mouthOffering several links by way of example, she talks at length about the types of double standards, misogyny and false equivalences that were the subject of so very many of the tabs and links I’d been hoarding. Her post echoes much of my own thoughts on these same subjects, including how a female writer might have been treated had she voiced the opinion that Christopher Priest did. “The fact is, to be a woman online is to eventually be threatened with rape and death,” Cat notes bluntly. “On a long enough timeline, the chances of this not occurring drop to zero.” This is, of course, nowhere near the first time I’ve come across such sentiments. Some of the links I jettisoned a couple of weeks ago included food blogger Shawna James Ahern discussing the hateful comments she receives (via  John Scalzi talking about the types of comments he doesn’t get), Seanan McGuire detailing the vile unsolicited emails sent her way when Amazon made the paperback edition of her latest novel available before the kindle version, Helen Lewis and Laurie Penny reporting in the New Statesmen and the Independent respectively — and attracting the precise flavour of commentary with which their articles were concerned. But towards the end of her post, Cat Valente says something that struck me harder than it should have:

That’s the line I walk, and most female authors and commentators walk. On one side of it is a silence which we can’t afford and on the other are the blowback and threats, which come quietly and secretly through email or boldly and baldly in comments.

Walking a line. That’s exactly how I feel. That’s what the strange, tight, swirly thing in my guts is called. It’s not being overwhelmed by the amount of time and effort it would take to write an intelligent, considered and substantiated post on any particular subject. (Because I haven’t done that before.) It’s fear, plain and embarrassingly simple. And it’s really difficult for me to acknowledge, let alone admit, which is possibly why it’s taken this long to work up to it.

Because here’s the thing. In the offline world, I consider myself a  smart, confident, capable woman. A proud feminist. A good feminist. And I’ve worked to get there. I constantly push past my innate introversion and insecurities to make sure I actually engage with people at social gatherings, at conferences, at conventions. I voice my opinions and listen to the opinions of others. I volunteer to be on discussion panels and committees, and I’ve helped run conventions. Hell, I’ve convened a huge — and hugely successful — convention. I have my own small business that I built from scratch. I don’t shy away from controversial discussions. I don’t retreat into the background when Men Are Speaking. I don’t mind expressing disagreement or opposition to what someone has said and I will point out — as diplomatically as the situation requires — if they’re possibly making a dick of themselves. Most of the time, I know how to pick my battles. I’ve verbally defended myself (and occasionally my female friends) in awkward or quasi-threatening situations. More than once, I’ve gotten myself out of an actually threatening physical situation. I get scared — a lot — but I get through it and I try not to let fear put too many barriers around my life and my ambitions. Particularly not that special icky kind of fear that tries to tell me I can’t possibly do something simply because I am female. Fuck that shit, for reals.

sewn shutAnd yet. And yet. Here I am, putting aside and ultimately putting off writing blog posts about Feminist-Issues-Oh-My because … what? I’m scared? Surely not. Me? Really? Really. That put me into a mental tailspin yesterday. Why on earth should I be scared of saying something on my blog that I would be quite happy to say to someone in person? Why? Because it’s not the same. Not by a long shot. In person, the vast majority of us are actually quite civilised. We can have a discussion, even a heated argument, but that’s where it’s generally gonna end — with an exchange of words and both parties going their separate ways at worst believing the other to be an irredeemable moron. It’s not going to end with complete strangers bailing me up en masse and yelling at me for hours about how fucking stupid I am for saying what I said, not to mention how I’m so fat and ugly that no one will listen to me anyway, and making such a noise that passers by come over to yell at me some more and tell me how I have no idea what I’m talking about and I wouldn’t know what real inequality was and maybe I should go live in Afghanistan if I care so much about women’s rights, and how I’m just a frigid bitch and should just get myself laid, or better yet someone should teach me a lesson and rape me. Rape me to death.

(And if you think I’m exaggerating, just go read the comments to some of those articles I mentioned above.)

Because, you know, if all that did happen in the offline world, if I saw it happening to women all the time … I don’t think I’d be game to open my mouth in public nearly as often as I do. I would walk in the silence that Cat Valente talks about, just as I seem to be walking in the silence online. And that realisation scares me more than anything else.

The realisation that, online, I’m a Bad Feminist.

Lately, I find myself intimidated by gendered power structures that, offline, would scarcely faze me, and I allow myself to remain intimidated. I don’t speak about things that bother me, things that I object to, things that I believe should be discussed. I tiptoe around the edges of controversial issues, leaving occasional comments in the safer space of other people’s blogs, or sending brief and ephemeral missives into the twittersphere. Because I don’t need to contribute, not really.  Because, despite the fact that I am a woman and a writer, this doesn’t have to be my fight. Because if I am quiet and polite and accommodating, then I can simply go about my business without risk of bruising or breakage. Subconsciously I’ve managed to internalise a very real chilling effect, all the while believing otherwise.

It’s sobering to step back now and realise that, online, I don’t recognise myself. Or rather, I all too clearly recognise the girl I used to be. A lonely, insecure girl who knew all too well what it was like to be bullied, to have no friends, to be the target of gender-specific mockery, to be always on the outer. A girl who just want to be liked. By everyone. A girl who knew how to keep her mouth shut unless she was making jokes. A girl who, quite honestly, I thought I’d left behind many years ago. The fact that this blog has been one huge swathe of silence for more than half a year, despite my obsessive collecting and collating of Links Relevant To My Interests, speaks volumes to that bit of self-deception. And it’s sickening to think that it really took so little to stitch me back into her skin: I haven’t experienced such brutal online abuse personally; it has been enough to witness it happen to others. To witness and to not speak about it. Because my opinion wouldn’t make a difference; I could let others speak for me. I didn’t pick any battles — because, really, it didn’t have to be my fight.

Bad, Bad Feminist.

All that needs to change. I don’t precisely know how — seems there’s a lot of toxic crap to expel from my overly complacent mind yet again — but pressing the Publish button on this post feels like a good place to start. Because everyone needs to call themselves on their own bullshit from time to time.

And because, yes,  it is my fight.

I am a feminist

Not so much walking, as talking . . .

So I read this article about the “SlutWalk” phenomenon today in the Sydney Morning Herald. I wasn’t going to blog about the whole SlutWalk thing, because my thoughts are complicated and the issue deserves some fairly nuanced treatment and I really don’t have a day to spare writing a complicated, nuanced blog post right now. Besides, there are other people already doing a good job of it and I’m sure you all know how to google.

But I read the article because someone tweeted it and then — stupidly — I started to read the comments. Here’s a selection of some the more offensive examples of what is clearly a major theme among the commenters:

“My dear old mother used to say: “They that lack respect for themselves and throw themsleves away, get treaded upon”. Smart lady my old mother.” (posted by: The Beak)

“But it is funny, isn’t it, how for the most part men don’t feel the irresistible urge to frolic around in public in skimpy clothing.” (posted by: Lee McSwain)

“Fine, dress like a slut. It’s a liberal democracy. But don’t expect to be taken seriously like women who don’t dress like sluts.” (posted by: Jason Decliner)

“Sure express yourself, but take care for how some men are wired, and may express themselves, if provoked. Give their nature as much respect as you give your own.” (posted by: AuDasign1)

“What is also ironically not acknowledged is that those who do dress provocatively are also often into power, the projection of sexual power. Unfortunately those who live by the sword sometimes die by the sword. So many of these comments take me back to Wimminism 101. What a nostalgia trip!” (posted by: adamjc)

I’m still not intending to write a lengthy post about the whole SlutWalk thing. (Seriously, I do not have the time.) But here’s the thought that always pops in my brain whenever I read tired old comments like those above: surely men should feel insulted almost as much as women.

I mean, seriously, guys. I don’t have a penis, I’ve never had a penis, and I don’t expect to acquire a penis anytime soon. But if I did have a penis and was essentially being told that — because of said penis — all it took to provoke me into committing a sexual assault against another person was a pair of tight pants or a short skirt or six inch heels or — gasp! — a flash of cleavage, that in fact I wouldn’t be able to control myself in the face of such titillation, I’d be feeling pretty fucking pissed off right now.

And what I really can’t understand is why it is so often men who make such comments. Not exclusively, sure, there are always women  eager to tout the “just can’t help themselves” line as well, but it comes with such casual regularity from men as to baffle the mind. Or, at least, my mind. When I come across a derogatory generalisation regarding my gender, it makes me furious. (You might have noticed.) And this generalisation is surely one of the vilest.

You are a man. You cannot control yourself. You are a slave to your base desires. You are not to be trusted. You are not safe. That thing in your pants? It’s a loaded weapon utterly beyond your ability to command. You are not a man — you are a threat to be avoided, appeased and guarded against.

It’s just awful. And it certainly doesn’t describe any of the men I’ve known and loved in my life. (It doesn’t even describe any of the men I’ve known and loathed.) Yet I’ve heard some of the men I’ve loved spout similar, if sometimes diluted, sentiments to those found in the comments section of the SMH article and this I do not understand. You are tarring your own gender. You do not get a Get Out of Jail Free card. You do not get to be the self-proclaimed golden exception to the vile rule. Think better. Expect better. Demand better.

Yes, this a feminist issue. But, like so many other feminist issues, it’s not just about women.

And that’s my vague non-post about whole SlutWalk thing.

SlutWalk Shoes

The Periodic Table of Storytelling and Cultural Gender Bias

Periodic Table of Storytelling by CcomputerSherpa

Here’s a very cool thing indeed. Over on DeviantArt, someone going by the name of ComputerSherpa has put together a Periodic Table of Storytelling. I’ve included a small image in this post, but you really need to click on the link and see the chart in its full splendour. The table is based on the TV Tropes Wiki which bills itself as a catalogue of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction. From the website:

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means “stereotyped and trite.” In other words, dull and uninteresting. We are not looking for dull and uninteresting entries. We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them.

ComputerSherpa has used the info from TV Tropes and fashioned a spiffy, colour-coded summary of the most popular tropes — which do, in my opinion, include a lot of dull and uninteresting clichés — over which you could quite easily spend hours, especially if start drilling down through the TV Tropes site. Hours. You have been warned.

This is one of my favourite bits:

Periodic Table of Storytelling by CcomputerSherpa

Possibly because I read this post about clichéd gender stereotypes in fiction by Ann Leckie over the weekend and in the discussion that followed, one commentator (eljaydaly) actually pointed out how sadly commonplace it is to see so-called ensemble casts with only one female character:

Her character is, you know, “the woman.” Because males get to have various flavors of character: the nerd, the jock, the genius, the bad boy, the opportunist. But females only get to have one flavor: “the woman!”

And there it is, smack bang middle of the Periodic Table. One of the things I love about this chart — aside from the fact that someone obviously put a lot of time and love into it — is the way it unintentionally highlights the implicit gender imbalance present in popular culture storytelling. In particular, take a close look at the elements pertaining to character: Heroes, Character Modifiers, Archetypes, and Villains. Now consider how each of the elements is gendered. Some are explicitly gendered — “knight in shining armour” as opposed to “plucky girl” — while others could be seen as more gender neutral, especially if you decide to allow for traditionally masculine words like “hero”, “bastard” and “master” to be applied equally to both men and women.

Of course, the problem is that even the supposedly “neutral” character roles are not equally occupied by men and women when it comes to actual cultural artifacts like moves, televisions shows, comics and books. How many females can you name who have occupied the role of gunslinger, tragic hero, adventurer archaeologist, captain, ace, chessmaster, corrupt corporate executive, magnificent bastard, brute, amoral attorney, mad scientist, fool, lovable rogue, and so on? By contrast, you could probably fill a page with male characters without even having to think.

Now, I’m not saying that ComputerSherpa or even the TV Trope site is in any way responsible for the gender bias present in their work.  Far from it. But their work does deal with common tropes and clichés — essentially, the most popular representation of plot, setting and character to be found in our collective cultural artifacts — which makes for a rather significant snapshot of the way gender is presented in pop culture. And it’s not exactly what you would call a balanced picture.

So, as much as I genuinely love this Periodic Table of Storytelling, it also makes me somewhat sad and more than a little frustrated. Which, coincidentally enough, is too often the way I find myself feeling about pop culture these days. Hopefully, sometime in the none-too-distant future, we’ll be able to add a lot more elements to the table. A lot more flavours, shall we say. Until then, here’s another periodic table for you to enjoy. A bit old now — in internet years anyway — but still very much relevant:



Tender Morsels not for Feminists?

Tender Morsels

A couple of days ago, Bitch Media published their recommended list of 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader which — at the time — included Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. I’ve long admired Margo’s short fiction and was very impressed by Tender Morsels, her first novel, in which she retells the “Snow White, Rose Red” fairy tale cycle in a way that is distinctly Lanaganesque. So it was great to see it get a mention on a reading list aimed at people “looking to buy a book for your favorite teenage girl or just looking to cuddle up with a powerful story featuring teenage characters”. (The question of why you wouldn’t also consider buying these books for your favourite teenage boy, is one best left aside for now.)

This morning I discovered that Tender Morsels has been removed from the list, following concerns raised in the comments section of the original announcement, along with two other books. Here’s Bitch Media’s explanation of their decision:

A couple of us at the office read and re-read Sisters Red, Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl this weekend. We’ve decided to remove these books from the list — Sisters Red because of the victim-blaming scene that was discussed earlier in this post, Tender Morsels because of the way that the book validates (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance, and Living Dead Girl because of its triggering nature. We still feel that these books have merit and would not hesitate to recommend them in certain instances, but we don’t feel comfortable keeping them on this particular list.

I have read neither Sisters Red nor Living Dead Girl so I won’t comment on those, except to say that while triggering issues are certainly valid reasons not to choose to read a book — and Tender Morsels would certainly face that problem as well — surely this is not grounds to remove an otherwise commendable book from a recommended reading list? Wouldn’t a notation beside the titles which might contain potential triggers be a more appropriate and inclusive approach? Sexual violence is a central issue in feminist discourse and ignoring works that depict such violence, rather than simply flagging them to allow for individual reader choice, does no one any favours in my opinion.

Which brings us to the reasons behind Tender Morsels being dropped. [Significant plot spoilers to follow; you have been warned.] The day after the original list was posted, the following comment was left by a reader:

You are actually recommending Tender Morsels? What is wrong with you people? I didn’t think Bitch was the kind of place that supported rape as vengeance. That book is absolute crap on every possible level and you should be ashamed for putting it on the same list as Speak.

The scene being referred to here is the gang-rapes (via use of vengeful magic) of five men who had themselves earlier raped and abused the novel’s protagonist, Liga. The magic is inadvertently wielded by her daughter, Urdda, who was herself conceived in the original assault. In a lengthier subsequent comment, the same reader went on to condemn the “moral ambiguity” of the novel and its failure to mention “guilt or accountability” or even acknowledge that “this was a bad thing that happened”:

There’s no mention of the men period; once that scene ends the victims disappear completely from the story. And of course there’s the complete 180 in presentation between the mother’s solemn first-person accounts of her own attack and the rape-homunculi’s joyful descriptions of their violence.

True, it’s a difficult and complicated scene. Tender Morsels is a difficult and complicated book. For the most part, you don’t “enjoy” reading it. Not the way you enjoy eating ice cream, or listening to your favourite music, or even riding a roller coaster. It’s not a safe book, but it is a rewarding book. Intelligent and thought-provoking and full of depth. It’s also a book about women and girls, about the social narratives that have defined and continue to define their lives, and about the power that is denied to them, wielded over them, claimed by them. In my opinion, it’s exactly the kind of book that should be on a feminist reading list. Because good literature is not safe. It questions default ideologies and paradigms, undermines the status quo, and makes you think about issues you might otherwise never have considered. Kind of like feminism itself, hey?

Also problematic is the fact that Tender Morsels made the list in the first place via “a recommendation to us from a few feminists” according to Bitch Media. And yet, it seems that it took only one public complaint from a reader to have it removed. This despite the fact that a second reader responded promptly with an interpretation in defense of the book, and that the original complaint came from someone who quite obviously disliked the book as a whole — describing it as “absolute crap on every possible level” — and not simply because of the rape scene at the end, the authorial politics of which they clearly understood:

Personally I don’t think the author is a supporter of eye-for-an-eye justice so much as a shoddy writer who can’t be bothered to keep track of a single measly theme. From the muddled plot to the bland tone, this is a really lousy book, but the absolute moral ambiguity has to be the worst.

Yes, everyone gets to have an opinion and hold a personal preference. But when compiling a recommended reading list of critically important books, surely the opinion of one reader who happens to dislike a particular novel should be outweighed by the views of multiple other people whose opinions Bitch Media must trust to recommend titles to them in the first place? Here’s a thought to keep in mind: this a list of books recommended for your consideration; it’s not compulsory to read and/or like everything on the list.

Bitch Media’s statement that Tender Morsels “validates characters who use rape as vengeance” by “failing to critique or discuss” the act seems to be missing the whole point of reader/text interaction. The scene in question is a little under four pages in length. The assaults committed against the five men are neither graphically nor explicitly described in physical terms, but much is made of the glee the rapists have in carrying out their vengeance by proxy — and it is most definitely vengeance they are about, rather than sexual satisfaction. They make jokes and congratulate each other on the suffering and humiliation they cause. This is “rape=power” writ large and unambiguously. And a strange thing happens when you read it.

While the base temptation is certainly there at the beginning to view the forthcoming events with a kind of schadenfreude, a morbid expectation that these men will be getting no more than what they deserve, and possibly less, this rapidly dissipates as the scene unfolds. Because the casual, unthinking delight with which the rapists commit their acts really is indecent. By the end, you are left feeling a little sullied for having read it — and somewhat complicit for having, however briefly, accepted the invitation to anticipate a measure of satisfaction in what was about to occur. There is certainly no victory to be had in this kind of vengeance and therefore, I would argue, absolutely no validation of it within the text. Liga, on whose behalf vengeance was enacted, finds no happy ending in its aftermath. There is no need for Lanagan to sit you down and provide an explicit critique of the preceding events — I’m not even sure how such a discussion could have been presented within the pages of Tender Morsels as a novel.

Perhaps the pages of a novel aren’t really the place for it. Discussions involving rape and the politics of sexual power, and whether vengeance can ever really equate to justice, are best teased out in other forums — including the comments section on a recommended reading list. But this does not mean that the complex and difficult books that inspire such discussions should be excluded from such lists in the first place, simply on the grounds that they offer no explicit and clearly flagged  internal critique of the subject matter they present. Let’s give some credit to readers, please.

We don’t all need our hands held, even when walking deep in the Black Forest.

ETA: It’s extremely heartening to see the comments that have flooded in over at the Bitch Media site since this became a lively conversation over on Twitter this morning (#bitchplease #speakloudly). Lots of very interesting, very intelligent and extremely cogent debate about books and feminism. It’s great. It’s thought-provoking. It’s taking up too much of my time today! But I do hope it’s seen for what it is by Bitch Media and other potential “tastemakers” — the issue is not that a particular book was or wasn’t included on a Recommended Reading List, but that a book was removed from such a list because it wasn’t deemed to reflect the “right” kind of feminism. It would be a great shame if potentially controversial books were omitted from such lists in the future for fear of provoking similar reactions.