Yesterday I attended the Feminist YA talk at Readings Hawthorn store here in Melbourne. The speakers Lili Wilkinson and Rebecca Lim were so passionate and engaging to listen to. Each author offered some unique perspectives into the complex issue of feminism in children’s literature and young adult and made me so glad I’d attended the panel.
Hosted by Kelly Gardiner, the panel started by talking a little about what they see as feminism in YA lit, what elements make up the successful stories and what tropes cause other stories to fail. The panel broke down some common female stereotypes like the ‘strong female character’, the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ and the very common ‘female sidekick’. Talking about these tropes brought about conversations of these labels in other media, especially in film, like the Smurfette Principle or ‘Fridging Women’ to bring about a male character’s journey.
The Bechdel Test was used as an example of one way the audience could gauge if a text was in fact accurately representing women. The test is based on the number of female characters in a film, and what kind of interaction they have. It was surprising how many films didn’t pass the test, including a great number of movies I love like The Lord of The Rings Movies and the last Harry Potter Movie. It shocked me that I’d never even considered how many movies only have women conversing about men, or not speaking to each other at all.
A number of other authors moving this conversation forward were named, like Fiona Wood, Ellie Marney, Simone Howell and Gabrielle Williams just to name a few. I can easily say that my To Be Read pile is now full of powerful stories with complex and interesting female characters. I won’t be looking for anything new for a while, and I’m so happy about it. My dream is to have a never-ending pile of amazing books to read and these recommendations will keep me reading for a long time to come.
Another big topic of conversation was about getting boys to read stories about girls, or stories that have these complex, interesting female character stories. How does someone convince boys its okay to read what’s traditionally seen as ‘girls’ books? How do you get them to pick up a book that has a girl in a ball gown on the cover? It’s a hot topic of conversation and one that didn’t have a clear answer. A consensus drawn from the discussion in the audience and the panel was that it’s the adults responsibility to present readers (boys and girls) with different types of books, ones that open up new areas of conversation and deal with topics that person might not have come across before. It’s all about letting readers into the world of someone else so they can relate to them or at least identify with their struggles.
The big idea I took away from this session was it’s not about bashing to tearing down texts that aren’t bringing a feminist point of view. Instead it’s about being conscious as a reader or consumer. When you encounter a book or a movie you just need to take note of the female relationships, do they fall into common stereotypes? Are women adding to the story in a meaningful way or are they just serving as a device to move the plot along? Are the women full and complex characters? Do they have flaws beyond being adorably clumsy? And if they don’t it doesn’t always mean the story is terrible and you should never think of it again. It just means you need to be aware that its problematic and you can like problematic things.
Thanks Readings Hawthorn for putting on this panel, and thanks to the authors for such an interesting two hours.