It's been hard to read the news lately, especially concerning women. The horrific rape and death of the student in India has left all of us wondering what we can do. I just got back from breakfast with a good friend, and we both could only really talk about how bad things are. It's hard to see solutions when you hear about things that are so brutal and heartbreaking.
I think a lot of the people who say that there is no need for modern feminism were silenced by what happened in India. But the truth is, and maybe not to the same extent, but it happens here, too. Jessica Valenti wrote a good piece in the Nation on America's rape culture, and it shows that there are so many reasons why feminism is still necessary, whether across the world in India or right here in the U.S.
All of this got me thinking about the role of feminism in YA lit. These books are being read by young girls (and boys) when they are at their most impressionable. And while we think a lot about how much mature content can be included in this evolving genre (I struggled, myself, with whether to include swearing in my book--I chose to include when I thought it was necessary, as that is how teenagers talk), I think we don't focus enough on how these characters and their entire outlook affect kids at one of their most developmentally crucial stages of life.
An obvious example is Bella Swan in the Twilight series. Much has been written about Bella as a dangerous role model for young girls. I won't add too much here. Except for the idea that we should be encouraging young girls to literally trade their souls, their humanity, and their entire family and community to be with their first love is scary (oh, and I never understood the appeal of stalker-like Edward). Worse, though, is the sheer number of knockoffs that Twilight has inspired. And I'm not talking about just vampire books--there are tons of stories and series created around young girls who make literally every decision for love.
I've read several dystopians that all had the same plot--Girl is in oppressive world, Girl has Cool Best Friend who hates the oppressive world, Girl clings to the ideals of that oppression, ignoring/falling out with her friend until Boy arrives to explain to her how oppressive it is, then she understands, then they fight evil together and ride off into the sunset (usually leaving Cool Best Friend behind). This plot device bothers me because A) it's pretty predictable and boring, but B) why do these characters need romance to have their awakening? Can't they reach that decision on their own? Or with the help of their kick-ass friend? It feels very 1950s, like they can only vote the way their husband does. What if the girl doesn't have a boy falling all over her (I didn't in high school)--will she just go on thinking her oppressive society is really cool?
Of course, there are the obvious heros. Katniss Everdeen. Hermione Granger. They are smart, self-assured, strong, powerful, magical, interested in boys but not solely motivated by them. They are delightful, and I wish I'd been as cool as them when I was that age (hell, I wish I were as cool as them now). But they are also fantasy characters. Sure, without the bows and the wands they'd still be awesome, but most of us weren't like that in high school. So the question is--how do we create feminist role models in contemporary young adult lit? In realistic young adult? We could make them act and move independently of the dream boys (or the dream girls), but is that realistic? I, for one, thought about my crushes a lot in high school. Plus, love is fun to read about (and write about).
I think the biggest thing we can do is to have them fight their own battles. It doesn't matter if it's for the state of the world or for the state of a friendship. I think that's the biggest difference between Bella and Katniss--Bella joins Edward to fight his battle, Katniss fights her own. On a smaller scale, in realistic YA, it means having them argue with their parents, question their teachers, realize that popularity doesn't always lead to happiness (Cracked up to Be is a great example of this), or that having a great boyfriend doesn't define your whole life (Mia's decision in If I Stay). They can mess up, they can do stupid things, they can cry over love and hurt their friends say things to their mothers that they will most definitely regret later (that's being a teenager). They don't have to be perfect feminist role models, but at the end of the day, we should at least be writing characters who live for themselves and not for someone else. At least that's my thought on the matter. I'd love to hear how other writers feel.
Oh, and on a lighter note, there's this, from Buzzfeed (Bella Swan vs. Hermione Granger). It's also the photo above.