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.



I Love the Smell of New Books in the Morning

Oh! Oh! Oh! Look what lovely, lovely things arrived in the mail today:

Bitter Greens, Poet's Cottage, To Spin a Darker Stair

That’s Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth AND Poet’s Cottage by Josephine Pennicott AND To Spin a Darker Stair edited by Tehani Wessley which contains stories by Catherynne M Valente and Faith Mudge, as well as beautiful illustrations by Kathleen Jennings.

I am soooooo tempted to take myself off to a hotel room this weekend and do nothing but read and order room service. Forget funding grants and so on for writers … I want a Reading Residency, dammit!


Bad Writing, Good Reading

Last week, Justine Larbalestier posed the following question on her blog:

What do you think of the frequently mounted defence of Twilight and some other popular YA titles that no matter what you think of the writing style or content it’s intended for teens so that’s okay. Or at least it gets teens reading?

The awesome Tansy Raynor Roberts posted a lengthy response there and even lengthier one on her own website.  You really should go and read the whole thing — it’s a passionate, personal and very thoughtful essay on the joys and merits of reading, any kind of reading.  Tansy ends by summing up:

So I guess I am in the ‘it doesn’t matter how bad the book is, just be glad they’re reading’ camp after all. I’ll go one better. I support the re-reading of bad books. Maybe after the twelfth time reading the sparkly vampire epic, they’ll be ready to move on to the Holly Black of which you speak. Maybe they won’t. But I’m pretty sure that if that’s what they want to do, we should just get the hell out of their reading light.

While I disagree vehemently with the argument mentioned by Justine — that writing for kids and teens can be allowed to be “bad” simply because it is “only” for kids and teens and they don’t know any better — I found myself nodding along and smiling in recognition while reading Tansy’s entry. She describes devouring trashy romances and big fat fantasy books during her younger years (when “time was cheap”) with an almost indiscriminate hunger. I was much the same, except my poison was anything to do with horses or ponies during my childhood and early teens, and anything that promised to draw blood once I got a bit older. Oh, and there was that year when I was about 14 and all I wanted to read was trashy Sweet Dreams romances bought for 50c each at the local second hand bookshop. Hey, I was a teenage girl.

So I’m all for letting teenagers read whatever they want. The old “it gets them reading” argument holds a hell of a lot of water with me … as long as that is what’s happening.

I’m not so sure it’s the case with Twilight.  I remember talking with a children’s librarian years ago when Harry Potter mania was at its height, perhaps four or five books into the series. She didn’t much care for the young wizard and his adventures and had many of the same reservations as myself about the books (in terms of both writing and content).  “But at least it’s getting the kids reading,” I remember saying to her. “Especially young boys. Young boys have been falling down in the reading stats; this has gotten them back between the covers again.”

But she shook her head. From her experience, and from what other librarians had been telling her, Harry Potter wasn’t getting the kids reading — it was getting them HarryPottering. They were only interested in Harry Potter. They read and re-read each book countless times while waiting for the next installment. They obsessively collected the merchandise. They watched and re-watched all the films. My young cousin was one of those kids. Loved Harry Potter. Read and re-read the books over and over.  Devoured the movies. Now, in his mid-teens, he’s not a big reader. He didn’t move on to better and different books. Because he wasn’t actually “reading” in the first place? Because he was only “HarryPottering”?

I met two girls recently, aged about 12 and 15.  Twilight-obsessed. They regaled my beloved and me for a good hour about the books and the movie (which the older one had seen but the younger one hadn’t) and the gazillion times they’d read each of the volumes.  They had t-shirts. They loved Edward. They wanted to be Bella. And they were completely and utterly uninterested in any of the other books we suggested they might like.  It was as though they told us, “we went skateboarding and it was awesome”, and we responded by saying, “you should try drinking red cherry cordial because it’s yummy.” Suggesting they read other books because they enjoyed Twilight so much seemed just as great a non sequitur to them.  Because, I realised, they are not actually reading. They are Twilighting.

Now, I know this is not a blanket truism. A lot of the kids and teens who read Harry Potter and Twilight will go on to read other things and will develop life-long love of books.  But I reckon they were probably the kind of kids who would have gone down this path anyway. As for the rest of them, if they’re not reading, does it make the question posed by Justine invalid? Or does it make it even more important? If the experience of reading Twilight — or Harry Potter or the next tome in the teen-trend canon — isn’t balanced out by a greater and more varied diet, then shouldn’t we be more worried about the quality of the books? Or maybe we should stop looking at them as books at all, and simply view them as one particular manifestation of a pop-cultural product line, along with the movies and the merch. And critique them as such.