The Problem with Young Adult Fiction

Trigger Warning: Date rape

The prominence of Young Adult fiction over the last decade or so has seen a wide range of interesting and challenging topics covered in novels marketed towards the teenage reader. But alongside this there has been a sadly popular trend of the “damsel in distress”: female characters who do just fine until they meet a handsome boy who comes riding in on his white horse and renders them useless to any kind of plot that isn’t romantic.

I will make one mention of Stephanie Meyer and it shall be brief – after all, Twilight is the most high-profile offender. Its protagonist idealises her relationship with a vampire who insists on controlling every aspect of her life. And she is okay with this. And he, being a super-vampire, goes off to save the world while she sits and hopes nobody kills her. Just like he told her to.

Unfortunately, this seems to have kicked off a trend for great female protagonists who become damsels in distress as soon as the male protagonist announces himself. I’m an avid library user and I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve put down a book, sometimes before opening the cover, because of the damsel storyline.

Two subsequent bestsellers to Twilight come in the form of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and Divergent by Veronica Roth. I read and reviewed the first Hunger Games last month on my own blog, and I like how Katniss seems more than capable of looking after herself, and how the author dealt with her relationship with Peeta. But without having read the sequels, I can’t yet decree it a resounding anti-damsel success. Better is Divergent, where Tris doesn’t bow to the will of her love interest – in fact, she seems to make a habit of doing the complete opposite.

One book I did pick up from the library was Night School by CJ Daugherty. It’s your run-of-the-mill ‘mystical boarding school with secret stuff happening’ plot. But there is one scene where the female protagonist is with the (first) oh-so-swoony love interest and he tries to date-rape her. Luckily he gets stopped by a fellow pupil, but to quote a Goodreads review:

“Bloody hell. I can’t believe I have to say this: would-be date-rapists are NOT LOVE INTERESTS. No, okay. Just no. A guy who, by his own admission, encourages a girl to keep downing alcohol, then takes her outside and engages in pushing her into a situation she’s clearly not into, and only stops when he’s interrupted, is not a love interest. Hear that? I have NO SWOONS to give. NO EFFING SWOONS.”

The redeeming feature, if it is indeed redeeming, is that the female protagonist calls the character out on it and he apologises. His behaviour is not romanticised in any way. But the demand for a love triangle – from publishers, editors, maybe even the writer herself – means that this character will inevitably be seen as a love interest for the subsequent books in the series.

(Spoiler alert: she forgives him. Way to ruin what could have actually been a decent discussion in a book about how Edward Cullen-like behaviour is NOT OKAY.)

There are books out there without boy-dependant heroines, but the more young girls are fed novels that tell them just to wait for a man to come and sweep them off their feet, the more they are told that controlling, and abusive, behaviour is okay. And that’s not a message we should be sending to young people. And so I’m still waiting for a damsel-free bestseller. I just hope I won’t have to wait very long.

Katherine Wilson

Body Negativity

Trigger warning: Eating disorders, body image, body-shaming

Let’s talk about Body Negativity.

I’ve read countless blogs about body positivity. Blogs that tackle the issue from every possible angle. I’ve read about so many people, so happy, not giving a fuck how they look. I’d love to feel that way. I’d LOVE to be able to call myself body-positive.

But I went to a single-sex girls’ school. I also had at least three times the number of maternal figures during adolescence than most people have (my mother, my father’s girlfriend, my nanny). I have a very beautiful younger sister. I’ve internalised a lot of toxic shit in my time.

I’m not trying to be body negative. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t find the kind of confidence I read about on body positivity blogs easy to practice. I don’t think many people do. I feel shamed whenever I read these blogs. I end up checking my most basic thought processes on a daily basis and feeling furious at myself.

There are two schools of thought in the body positive movement. The first is that “all bodies are beautiful”. It holds that beauty is subjective and that every single body – fat, thin, black or white, disabled or able-bodied – is beautiful to someone, and that that someone should be you.

It holds that the best way to make someone feel less insecure about how they look is to compliment them, and build their confidence. It’s quite an old concept, beauty in the eye of the beholder and all, but as easy as it is to understand, philosophically speaking, it’s difficult to embrace. We have grown up seeing one kind of body type represented in the media. It’s a hard message to deprogram. And we’re not idiots, because we know that most people don’t live in this slender world we’ve created for ourselves. A lot of us are ugly, in that the majority of people who see us will think we are.

It feels terrible, as a feminist, to say this, but we do ourselves no favours by pretending that’s not how the world sees us. In doing so, we deny a patriarchy that places the young, the white, the thin (often referred to as “fit”, though we all know the two do not necessarily go hand in hand) and the able-bodied head and shoulders above the rest of us. As Louise McCuddon says:

“There’s something very unhealthy about the narrative of ‘women are our harshest critics.’ I’m not mine. And it’s insulting to be told, however kindly, that the problem is in my own head. You can’t tell a person who simply is being told that they’re ugly in the eyes of heaps and heaps of people – whether its TV shows, comedians, their classmates, ‘lads’ and their nonsense banter – that they’re just, bless them, incapable of interpreting other people’s actions .”

McCuddon’s quote brings us to the other school of body positivity – the “what you look like doesn’t matter” school. This contends that, when you get down to it, it doesn’t matter if you love your body or not. There are fifty thousand other things about you – your intelligence, your compassion, your bravery, your integrity, or whatever else you have going for you – and really, the best thing you can do is to stop worrying about how you look. It tells us that we need to stop talking about our bodies all the time, that instead of talking to little girls about how they look we should talk to them about how they think, and that we should cut out “fat talk” altogether. We should stop greeting each other with “wow, have you lost weight?” because the compliment itself is transient, whereas the message that “the first thing I have noticed about you is your appearance” stays much longer.

But, again, maintaining this level of confidence is difficult when the vast majority of the world isn’t behind you. I’ve been trying, but unless I completely avoid people, at some point someone is going to talk to me about my appearance – from a compliment from a till assistant in the supermarket or a stranger on an escalator, to a long conversation with a work colleague about how fat she feels. As a woman, it is impossible to avoid this, and if you’ve stopped bothering to see yourself as “beautiful”, these moments can start to hit you even harder.

We do ourselves no favours by talking about this as if it is a straightforward decision each of us can make. The world is not body positive. If you are a woman, you exist in a society that literally hates your physical presence. It doesn’t matter what you look like, you’re not right. The women in the media who we are told are beautiful have been photoshopped and airbrushed into impossible forms. If you need more convincing of this fact, I learned last week that 98% of women develop cellulite, about the same percentage that develop breasts. Yet when did you last see a woman with cellulite in the media, except in the celebrity shame columns in women’s magazines? This is a natural reaction between fat cells and oestrogen, and yet for some reason, as a society we’ve decided it’s disgusting. That having both oestrogen and fat cells in the body – without which the vast majority of people would not survive – makes us ugly, that the result shouldn’t exist. That 98% of women need to be “cured.”

So we can talk about how ludicrous and arbitrary it all is, but we cannot overlook how serious it is, how difficult it makes women’s lives. Women engage in habitual body monitoring, we think about the position of our legs, our hair, the light, who is looking at us and who is not looking at us. That is a massive amount of wasted cognitive function. Around 3.5% of women suffer from Anorexia or Bulimia, and 18-20% of anorexics die within 20 years of developing the condition. Last week the Vagenda retweeted a large number of pictures of men’s “thigh gaps”. The men found it funny, they’d never thought about this aspect of their bodies before. I expect the vast majority of women think about the size of their thighs on a daily basis. The tag “thigh gap” on tumblr brings up a message that says “If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, self harm issues, or suicidal thoughts, please visit our Counseling & Prevention Resources page for a list of services that may be able to help.” To most men, a “thigh gap” is just a natural feature of their body with no reflection on their worth as a human. Meanwhile, some women think it is worth more than their life.

Self-love is not easy. It requires constant affirmation and can crumble any second. So I understand why we don’t want to talk about body-negativity. But we have to. Because we can only stop ourselves internalising the thousands of messages and negative feelings we experience every day if we acknowledge and critically examine them, rather than burying them out of sight.

Hattie Grunewald

E pluribus unum: The forgotten function of cultural appropriation

We’ve been talking about cultural appropriation a lot recently and, while it pains me that we’ve allowed MTV to set the level of public debate on the matter, I’m still glad that it’s a conversation we’re having on front-pages at all.

Miley Cyrus’ performance at the MTV Video Music Awards has been branded “sordid” by body-shaming hacks that you don’t care about, but has also led to some genuinely constructive debate. Sparking discussions about issues as diverse as the manufacturing of “blackness” by white pop stars, and the uncomfortable equation of sexualisation with maturation in coverage on female celebrities, Cyrus has inadvertently provided a mainstream platform for hundreds of feminist and anti-racist writers.

Broad interest in social justice is always nice to see, but I’ve become increasingly concerned by the oversimplification of these complex issues as they enter the mainstream. The concept of cultural appropriation suffers particularly when truncated, as legitimate concerns about the fetishisation of minority cultures eventually come to resemble isolationist arguments for cultural segregation.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t many, entirely valid criticisms of Miley Cyrus’ cultural appropriation. She uses black bodies as accessories in a clueless attempt to celebrate her own, and even dresses them up as animals, but to ignore the context of socially normalised racism that led to that performance and flatly argue that “white people twerking is racist” entirely misses the point.

In trying to protect “black culture”, white-knight critics often end up making sweeping and pejorative statements like: “twerking is a dance move typically associated with lower-income African-American women”. Both racist and classist, this comment correctly identifies that much of the United States was introduced to twerking through hip-hop culture, but then uncritically assumes that hip-hop must represent all lower-income African-American women. This conflation of culture with race and class would never be applied to, for example, middle-class white people and indie rock music, but is frequently and lazily applied to minorities. Through this process, those that intend to protect minorities in fact work to ghettoise and further isolate them.

As well as making Eurocentric assumptions about the intersection of race and culture, a black and white understanding of cultural appropriation ignores many positive examples of the practice. The most obvious example is when an oppressed group appropriates the cultures of its oppressor. Mods are a great historical example of this. A UK subculture from the 1960s, Mods were working class youths who appropriated and parodied the highly tailored clothing of their Tory oppressors.

Another great example is the rise of the Keffiyeh in Japanese and European fashion. A scarf typically worn by Arab men and some Kurds, globally it’s become synonymous not with cultural exploitation, but with Palestinian solidarity.

Notting Hill Carnival, an irrefutable sign of black people’s cultural permanence in Britain, is yet another potent example of the positive potential of cultural integration. Unfortunately, many stringent opponents of cultural appropriation ignore the sense of unity that cultural crosspollination often produces and only focus upon the most garish and exploitative examples.

In a world where Sexy Native American Halloween costumes exist, we’d be idiots not to wonder where along the line appropriation becomes exploitation, but for us to scrawl divisive coloured lines between cultural groups is at best naïve and at worst, inadvertently oppressive.

Oliver Balaam

So what the hell is a Feminist Society?

So, you’ve heard of the UEA Feminism Society and you’re a bit confused. What does a Feminism Society even do? What’s the point? Is it just a bunch of women getting together to moan about men? Are you wondering if we’re going to hate you if you can’t reel off a complete history of feminism?

Who Needs Feminism 2 Basically, feminism societies act as informal spaces for feminists (and those who maybe aren’t sure if they’re feminists but really want to find out more) to meet and talk about feminism. They can often act as a space to vent – universities tend to be a hotbed for laddish banter and it can be incredibly frustrating to be surrounded by people that just don’t think the way you do. Just like with any university society or club, it exists as a place for you to meet people with similar interests. That’s what is so great about the society system that exists at university; you go into it knowing that you have at least one thing in common with everyone else in the room, and when you’re just settling into university that can be incredibly comforting. For me, joining the Feminism Society in my second semester of first year was a great way to meet people who don’t laugh at rape jokes. Getting drunk with feminists is probably in my top ten favourite activities.Read More »