In Response to: “Racism and Intersectionality in YA Fiction”

I found this thoroughly interesting Post from The Paige Turner Blog featuring an essay on Young Adult lit and feminism written for their class…and I couldn’t help but read and write a response to it! Give it a look over if you like.

I absolutely loved this post and I wanted to do a thorough response to it, a sorta “Dear author” moment because this essay demands proper attention and response. I pick apart a lot of the arguments here and take issue with many of them, but that serves to point out the thought provoking nature of this piece. There are a lot of good points here that simply don’t satisfy me….but I love this piece regardless. I hope the author doesn’t think I’m just shit talking because I’m an asshole because I’m trying to give their arguments the time, dedication, and attention it deserves even from an opposing and critical viewpoint because that’s how we all grow and engagement on these topics matters to me and my life as a woman and a feminist. I will also add I wrote this with my hands shaking from a sugar crash.

Here’s what I wrote in response:
Wow your essay is absolutely fascinating and I’d love to pick your brain abit because as a recent grad I’m totally missing the college world…

You say “Collins thusly reinforces the detrimental effects of having a character that, on the surface level, seems to be an inspirational character, but falls short of the racial divide.” I think you make some salient points, but miss some of the goals. Here the suggestion is Katniss being read as white is the problem as is her relationship to the black characters of the book. I think the stronger argument is that in the movies “olive skin” becomes a very specific type of white manifested via Jennifer Lawrence. But addressing the book writing you are most certainly right that Katniss becomes a white savior, which is especially fascinating in the context of the backlash of so many readers being forced to realize there reading Rue as white was wrong.

A minor weakness in your argument is that you acknowledge this while still claiming it is the genre and thus the authors fault for the audience assumption of Rue’s race. YA or any genre is not so much as fault as you can say the industry around it, and your argument would have been stronger if you clarified that the industry and its standards are different than the genre and both are different from the audience, while they still inform each other. The author attempted to bring diversity into YA, but the problem isn’t YA but the assumption of whiteness as the default state of being in every story. Though Rue’s depiction is still problematic in some ways, the author did something write in casting Rue as innocent, hopeful, and pure when black skin generally means that won’t happen. In a way that’s why the audience didn’t make that connection, society and the industry simply don’t do that. Innocence is pure and purity is white, and this book said “No” and the audience didn’t catch it because of media in all forms and genres saying Black people aren’t as innocent and pure and sweet as white people.
The biggest failure of the first book and film is a lack of time characterizing people outside of Katniss, which is one part the narcissism often present in YA, but very much is a reflection of white hegemony. Rue’s life only gains meaning in relation not only to Katniss, but being a representation of Katniss’s sister Prim, which truly denies Rue’s existence. Much like how women are shoved in the metaphorical refrigerator(just look up women in refrigerators if that reference eludes you). This is the most recurrent problem I see in YA literature, where most often characters of color are simply an extension of white protagonists. Even in things like The Princess Diaries white side characters are more likely to be described as individuals than non-white characters whose primary function is to be there for diversities sake more so than to have their own life and character. Rue exists to die for Katniss to rebel. It’s a shame because it eerily mirrors the now-outdated but still impactful 1930s and 1950s film/book An Imitation of Life where the light skinned and dark skinned black women are sort of sacrificial lambs, where their significance only occurs under white protection and approval which manifests as a black woman’s ideas being credited to a white woman and that black woman serving the white woman under the guise of being friends. Its sad that things haven’t changed so much.

As a fellow writer, I’d say avoid statements like “Bella Swan, again, a white female character, who has zero redeeming qualities, is put in the middle of the conflict between the vampires and werewolves,” unless you explain why you feel she is this way. You have to prove everything you say and back it up, and this is a opinion that is written in a way that lacks academic authority. I’d recommend say “Bella, again a white female character, who is written as being passive, lacking strong characterization in her personality, having a life beholden to two men, and ultimately is just an author/reader insert is put in the middle of the conflict between the vampires and werewolves”. The book is popular for a reason so when you write a bit more authoritatively and point out specifically what you mean you can really convince people of that opinion. And this would set up a great argument too. I’d respond to the Native Americans as Werewolves point, by agreeing, but also saying that it is in a way an exotification teetering on positive stereotypying, which still has a negative impact. The werewolves are almost more “spiritual” and consider themselves the protectors of the “natural”, which is an obvious stereotype…but it is presented as almost alluring via what’s his nuts(sharkboy). Yet even his being a jealous guy is a manifestation of a “savage” emotion.

Further, while it may serve you paper you suggest having insults thrown on the basis of “dog and mongrel” is reinforcing hegemony, which inadvertently suggests acknowledging bias and the hatred bread from it is inherently problematic, whether you intended it or no. You say “These subtle messages that are being sent in YA fiction are extremely harmful to the audiences, because it shows them that this type of behavior is acceptable and goes beyond the realm of a fantasy book; that it can be repeated in real life.” But this is a great leap without context. Showing that it happens doesn’t make it acceptable, and it can be repeated in real life. Pretending it doesn’t leans towards the far more harmful “I don’t see color so how could I ever be biased” willfully ignorant mindsets that allow bigotry to truly propagate. This argument  feels contradictory.

While I truly do like this essay there is a certain judgmental nature to it, and I don’t mean that as an insult, but the bottom line of this essay is feminists don’t write YA, read YA, and if you’re a feminist you should stand opposed to it. The nature of literature of any kind is far more complex than that, and I sense the author know that, but is sacrificing it for the sake of this paper. The core belief of feminism is female choice and rights…and to be judged fairly, but it seems unfair to say Kristen Stewart or any actress playing Bella could never be a feminist. I don’t know it feels like if I said Leo DiCaprio must be a racist for playing Colonel Candy in Django Unchained. It feels like the suggestion is every feminist must not read/like/or  recommend Twilight and other YA series, which is a problematic argument and ultimately unfeminist in itself by dictating  the choices of other women and feminists. Ultimately this essay begins to fall apart because it falls into the trap of promoting restricting stories which many anti-feminists and racists take as what progressives want. You suggest that having two women fight each other is anti-feminist, which is suggesting that every woman should sit around and sing peace to the world. That seems reductionist and ultimately consigns women to limited roles in text. Ultimately this essay does a lot, but it  drops to ball with broad sweeping statements in order to prove its point which hurts its own arguments. I say this because As a bisexual woman of color I find myself repeatedly saying “No that’s not the problem because that puts women in as much of a box as anything else” and I don’t say it because your wrong…but because you say X is inherently wrong. The Allegiant series is wrong for having two women fight against each other, is your assertion, but saying that is problematic too. The question is how these things are done and handled.

Much like the problem of Rue being there to bolster Katniss, the problem is a lack of characterization, motive, and principle. Men fight men all the time and it isn’t a problem because men are often depicted as just being people with motives, passion, and ambition. They are complex characters not obligated to stand together or alone, and that’s how all characters should be. The solution is saying this troupe or plot is inherently anti-feminist. That’s reductionist and can be anti-feminist in itself. The solution is saying “This is why this doesn’t work. This is what makes these ideas bad”. That’s what I want to see more of and that’s what I wish this essay like so many others did more of (hence why I stopped reading The Mary-Sue unfortunately).

In short this essay and its arguments would be more convincing with specifics about why these things are problematic instead of saying they’re wholesale problematic. By just saying this white girl saves this black girl, that YA is the problem without separating the industry from the author from the audience, by just saying women fighting each other as men watch is the problem you make broad sweeping statements that limit stories and are honestly a wee bit offensive to other feminists, and quite frankly miss a lot of what is wrong about these issues. It is not that they exist. I’m a black woman the white hierarchy exists and I live it. Acknowledge it. That doesn’t mean the author is endorsing racism or anything by recognizing it. It fact I welcome it because that is my lived experience, and so long as it is done in a thoughtful way it is usually fine. The problem with YA is ignorance, and a fascination with white cis-gender femaleness so when authors do try to do more they make exotic Native American beasts, they make a black girl a symbol not a character, and we all lose. When you refuse to acknowledge people as characters, as feminists, and feminism as complex, as how women/other marginalized people relate to characters as complex you ultimately cripple a good portion of your argument by doing the progressive version of what you critique. And to be honest a lot of this paper reminds me of talking to white people who just don’t get the difference between showing black people all as the same stereotypes and acknowledging that there are black people who live in the ghetto. If this was acknowledged as a core issue this essay would have soared.

BUT the fact that you were willing to tread in these waters at all, and dig into many of the problems of the YA industry, genre, and audience demonstrates a thoughtful intelligence that makes me excited to read more. The wonderful thing about the internet is being able to engage with so many wonderful thinkers and people.

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0 thoughts on “In Response to: “Racism and Intersectionality in YA Fiction”

  1. Interesting read! I, the writer of the original essay, appreciate you taking the time to read my original work, and only have a few discrepancies with your post.
    First off, the entire essay was written in just under 72 hours. It was hell doing research and writing it all in that short amount of time (something I obviously don’t recommend because it leads to a badly written essay that could’ve gone through more edits/critiques before I turned it in for a grade).
    Secondly, I disagree with your point about my essay having a bottom line that feminists don’t write/read YA. The entire essay’s basis (as it was the topic assigned) was to use feminist theory, focusing on specific sections/topics from our class syllabus and then applying it to an overall topic of our choice. My critiques of YA laid more with the audiences perception of the books themselves, rather than the authors/writers.
    My bottom line, for anything regarding feminism and YA, is that feminists can read books that are inherently NOT feminist, so long as they recognize the problematic tropes/attitudes that are written into the characters presented to them.
    Yes, I’m a white feminist. But I’m not a White Feminist. Intersectionality and discussions of the hegemonic, white, colonialist patriarchy are just a few of the issues that have fueled my passion (and anger) in trying to help other white women understand that feminism is not only for them, and that not all feminists are undergoing the same issues. And, as I stated before, this as written in my third year, under an extreme time crunch. Had I more time (like I do with my thesis that I’m currently writing) it would’ve been WAY more fleshed out and wouldn’t have, broad and sweeping statements that you noted above. My apologies if any of them offended you, that was not my intention whatsoever. I’m a feminist and I’m still learning.

    Like

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