Slut-Shaming, Relationships, and Feminism in YA

Posted September 17, 2015 / Discussions, Features / 14 Comments

feminismI think this post has been brewing for a while without me even realizing it. I’ve slowly seen more and more posts out there that got me thinking, and it’s about time I share my two cents. There are three major posts I want to share first and foremost: Jamie asking if it’s the author’s job to always teach a moral or lesson in the book, Tiff interviewing Emery Lord about slut-shaming and previously discussing it re: Open Road Summer, and Emery Lord’s post about feminism and writing. All of these helped guide me to write this post today, so crediting them is more than necessary! If you couldn’t tell, all of these discussions are centered around Open Road Summer by Emery Lord and her characterization of Reagan. I’ll discuss that a bit but do have some more to say.

I’ll just say it: being a feminist can be hard.

It’s kind of exhausting? I don’t know how else to describe it or if I’m the only one who feels this way. I absolutely love and agree with everything the philosophy holds close, but it can be really hard to decide what’s right and wrong sometimes. I’m not okay with women being objectified, but I’ve made comments about how hot certain guys are. There’s a lot to be considered when developing your personal philosophy on something and honestly, there’s really SO much gray area when it comes to these kind of things. It’s nearly impossible to be a perfect feminist. There are always going to be things that make me feel like a “bad feminist” and lots of exceptions to rules, but the underlying belief has to be there. You need to support the fact that women don’t deserve to be treated poorly or deal with inequality. This can be shown in so many different ways (damn patriarchy) and committing yourself to combatting all of them can be – as I said – super exhausting. Feminism falls on somewhat of a spectrum, like most things in this world, and I think there can be some wiggle room. Certain things are never okay and some things may slide by your radar. This can be true for a lot of YA books, especially. Where do you draw the line between calling a girl a slut (without consequences) and showing what it’s really like to be a teenage girl?

My motto for YA books: keep it as real as possible.

Those who hate love triangles have their own reasons, which is fine, but my thought is: why not? Most love triangles, in contemporary fiction at least, represent real life. If you choose not to read about that kind of romance, that’s fine! It really is. But it’s also okay to not mind it. I’ve always, always said that I read to be entertained and to find things to relate to. Love triangles of sorts unfortunately have happened in my life before. If a girl cheats on her boyfriend, she doesn’t always end up a prostitute or a murderer or just a straight-up terrible person. She grows up, learns from her mistakes, and leaves that kind of behavior in the past. Just trust me on that. Something to remember when reading YA is that its fiction that represents the formative years. Some girls call each other sluts and get drunk and screw over their best friend because they’re growing up. They’re learning. They’re figuring themselves out. Clearly not all teenagers are like that, but there are plenty of books out there that portray the more innocent teenagers who don’t drink or date anyone. It seems like a disservice to all of the teenagers out there to not give them a book that portrays what it’s like to be a REAL teenager. But, on the flipside, there should be some kind of lesson to show those readers what’s right and wrong: hey, it’s not okay to call that girl a slut. It’s not okay to get drunk and puke every time. It’s not okay to leave your friend behind because of a new boyfriend. Emery Lord sums it up pretty well, in my opinion:

“Writing books for teens-especially when those books are marketed toward girls–gives me a huge sense of responsibility. My writer friends feel the same way, and it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time worrying and talking about behind-the-scenes. We ask questions like: how do we portray this? Where do we hit the line between realism/relatability and our feminism? Is it damaging to use the word slut, even if it’s coming from an obviously-heinous character? Or is it damaging to *never* use that word, because it denies girls who have been called this (and haven’t we all) the portrayal of their hurt and experience? It’s heavy stuff, and it’s our privilege to carry it, I think. But how? Is there a right way?”

Keeping it real, for me, shows girls getting called names or being bullied. I don’t think it’s a good thing at all that these things happen, obviously! I remember as a teenager, I’d read books and think about how it reminded me so much of my real life – the good and the bad. I would love a utopia kind of world where everyone gets along perfectly and doesn’t call anyone a bad name, or all women are treated with the respect they deserve. But right now? Our world isn’t like that. I don’t think it makes sense to write books where ALL people get along perfectly. It’s boring. I can’t relate to it.

So when is it showing what’s real and when is it problematic?

Is it really necessary for an author to spell out the consequences of slut-shaming, or can the reader imply their own message/moral from the book or character? Is it the author’s job or responsibility to call attention to the issue and explicitly explain why it’s bad? Jamie talks about that a lot here and it makes a lot of sense. In some cases, the author decides to give the main character some intense growth and the reader walks away thinking, “wow, I won’t ever slut-shame again.” Sometimes that message CAN be a bit too in-your-face for some readers. The character gets some major consequences to her actions and the reader can tell. On the flipside, like in ORS, Reagan “gets away with” a lot of those toxic thoughts and actions towards other girls. However, the reader can see her hypocrisy. They can tell that she’s judging other girls for how they dress… while she pulls down her shirt to get attention. Tiff offers a lot of insight about this in her post.

Jamie’s reflection about Open Road Summer definitely mirrors my own. She says:

“I found it to be SUPER realistic of what I was like. I acted a lot like Reagan — saying things about other girls/being judgy/tearing them down was my defense mechanism. It was a HORRIBLE defense mechanism but through the years as I grew up I realized how awful it was. How toxic it was. How tearing other girls down and shaming their choices to make myself feel better did actually NOT make me feel better or make me any less insecure. But it took me years to learn that and see that. I don’t LIKE seeing slut-shaming in books. It’s hard. I feel ashamed that this was how I acted. It’s sad how much it happens. It makes me want to be like, “LADIES LET’S DO BETTER.” I don’t LIKE  or condone to it but it hasn’t ever really bothered me personally as a reader in the context of the story because I think it FEELS realistic to me.”16081202

The part that I focus on here is how long it takes us to realize that behavior is not okay. Can a character like Reagan really learn her lesson in the span of one book, that takes place in a few months? She has a lot of things to work through, in my opinion, before that could completely happen. I don’t expect Emery Lord to write a full 180 degrees of character development in one book. She says:

[About Reagan] “I want to hug her and tell her to stop treating other girls like the enemy because she’s perpetuating the problem. Hell, I don’t want to portray that girls have been nasty to her in the first place. She’s seventeen and she’s hardened, with few role models for healthy relationships. I felt that this was an honest way to portray the unfortunate reality of shaming, the damage that it does, and how tragically cyclical it is. It felt so dishonest to hide from that- something that absolutely played a part in my girl friends’ teen lives. Do I secretly think that a slightly-older, healed-heart Reagan will have a better attitude toward people and especially women? Heck yeah. But recovering from that hurt in the few weeks’ span of the book? That wasn’t my truth.”

Exactly. Girl-hate was FIERCE for me up until the end of college. Honestly, it’s something I STILL struggle with. I always bragged about being the girl who didn’t like girls and had all guy friends. It’s still mostly true (about the guy friends), but there are some amazing girls in my life who still love me even when I’m a hermit. It took me a looooong LONG time to realize that hating other girls didn’t make me cool. It makes me feel like shit when I think about all of the sandwich jokes I made in high school and the millions of times I said “I hate girls.” My guy friends are still shocked to this day when I say, “oh yeah she’s nice, I like her!” because they know me as the girl-hater. It sucks. But it’s MY truth. I’ve moved on from that negative place and I’ve learned, but reading books with characters who were like me is really refreshing. And I personally have hope that Reagan learned the same way I did. This is the main reason why love triangles and slut-shaming (in certain contexts) don’t bother me as much. I’ve lived through both and I’m not a bad person today.

Feminist Issues and Slut-Shaming in YA & NA

There’s always the question of where do we draw the line? If a main character is slut-shaming without punishment, is it a dealbreaker for you? As far as feminism goes, do you suspend your beliefs sometimes for a really good story? I’ve pulled a few examples below to explain what I mean, depending on the situation.

the heartbreakersI read The Heartbreakers by Ali Novak and had to DNF after 100 pages or so. I feel like I somewhat overreacted though and would consider reading a bit more of this. Regardless, the biggest thing that bugged me was the characters inconsistent feminism. In my review, I talked specifically about what annoyed me:

“The main character seemed to have a sort of “selective” feminism. She called her brother out for using her in a bet as a piece of meat, but she didn’t say anything when the boy she likes is sexist about girls and their favorite movies. She proved him wrong by telling him her favorites aren’t The Notebook and Titanic, but she wasn’t at all insulted that he assumed that. It just seemed weird that she’d yell at her brother for something like that but let the boy she (insta)likes do it without a problem.”

I know the book wasn’t purposely trying to make the character a feminist (or not a feminist), it just bugged me that she had no consistency between the two situations. You can’t let the guy you like get away with murder while criticizing your brother for the same thing. Be consistent at least. If one of the above situations happened and the other didn’t, I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Again, I think I was too nitpicky with this book but it’s worth mentioning.Bow_2A Court of Thorns anacotard Roses by Sarah J. Maas did overall have some insanely fantastic reviews, mine included. I absolutely adored this book… so much that I let some things slide that I usually would have zero tolerance for. The main love interest is a bit forceful with Feyre one night and tells her that he can’t control himself. In general, this is abusive behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated. Don’t claim you have no control as an excuse for potential rape. The situation is a bit different in this book because of the magic involved, but I wonder how necessary that part of it actually is? Tamlin was incredibly possessive, which in the end makes sense based on some ~things~ you learn. Regardless, I think I let my overarching feelings about abuse, control, and possessiveness slip away during this book. I talked with Cristina by email after we both finished ACOTAR (primarily to flail) and kind of figured out what it was that made us feel somewhat okay with the controlling relationship. Usually his control had something to do with protecting people, including Feyre, from magic he couldn’t control. Cristina said she doesn’t think he has an “inherently controlling personality” but mostly comes from his position on the court. I agree… but there were some times that the feminist part of me cringed while reading.Bow_299 datsI think this was THE book to discuss slut-shaming so far this year. 99 Days by Katie Cotugno was definitely a polarizing read, to say the least. It was hard for a lot of people to root for a main character who is seemingly hurting everyone around her and being selfish. From my review:

“As awful as it feels to say this, I could relate to Molly. I feel like life can be so messy at times and it’s nice when books can explore all of the messed up parts; it makes me feel something different for once… I truly could relate to all of the different emotions that Molly felt and her utter confusion about what was right for her… I’ve been in so many odd romantic entanglements in my life; it was nice to read a story of someone who doesn’t have perfect feelings about one person, but mixed feelings on a couple of people. I hate admitting that about myself, but I’ve been there before.”

While I think that part of the story is interesting to explore, that’s another topic for another day. Molly faced a ton of bullying after she cheated on her long-time boyfriend with his brother. Sure, it wasn’t the best decision, but why did she get called out when the other guy in question didn’t? It was so frustrating to see! It happens in real life ALL the time. I think this book did such a great job of capturing the hypocrisy of everyone when someone gets involved in a situation like this. The guy gets off easy: barely any criticism for what he did. He’s not a slut or a bad person, but she is. Molly looked like the slut and Gabe had no real punishment. I would have LOVED to see him be equally ostracized, but unfortunately that’s not the world we live in today. This book reflected the reality of the situation. It sucks, but it happens. (Please read Estelle’s review for a bit more insight that I 100% agree with.)Bow_2Beautiful Disaster by JamieBeautiful Disaster (Beautiful, #1) McGuire was a book I read long before I was a feminist. I actually really enjoyed it as I was reading because I had no idea what the fuck was right and wrong in relationships. I thought it was nice how deeply Travis cared for Abby, but I’ve come to see how horribly controlling and unhealthy their relationship is. I cannot bring myself to read the rest of the series because seriously?! He’s always angry, has a bad temper, gets drunk a lot, and is ridiculously possessive. He reminds me a bit too much of Christian Grey (in hindsight). I don’t think that this is a healthy or realistic relationship AT ALL and I hate to think that high schoolers (or even college-aged people, since that’s where this takes place) think this is happy, healthy relationship. People shouldn’t want to be with someone like Travis. At all. This is one of those books that I really wish didn’t exist for that particular audience. It doesn’t teach the lesson of STAY AWAY from hot-headed bad boys; it shows that they can change and you should just put up with the possessiveness. I’d recommend this review for some evidence, but there are plenty of reviews out there that scare me. No one should want to be with a Travis or a Christian, but they do. Books like these should be a warning to girls and show why that type of guy is NOT a good idea. Instead, it’s seen as passion and love.

 What it all boils down to

I feel like this post got long and rambly after a while, but circling back to the original point… When is a book showing the reality of being a teenager, and when is it letting characters get away with poor behavior? Do teens need the realism of bullies and slut-shaming and girl-hate, or do they need to be shown exactly why it’s not okay? When is it abuse that teaches the lesson (“don’t let guys control you and treat you like a possession”) and when does it glamorize abuse as passion? How can feminism be successfully included in YA books without screaming the message in your face?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, really. In my opinion, I like reading about messy, complex characters that make mistakes, like Molly and Reagan. Their situations were my reality as a teenager. As a current twenty-something, I can read these books and say “damn, look how far I’ve come.” I do wonder, though, what real teens think as they read. Do they see the issues with those heroines and what they’re doing? Do they learn the lesson without consequences being directly spelled out for them? I don’t know. I will always read YA as long as it stays truthful to the teenage experience and can make me look back and reflect on those years for me.

Feedback and Opinions from Friends…

Read the comments for some thoughtful responses as well!

Because I personally WAS a teenager who made terrible, now cringeworthy decisions, I can SEE that those kinds of teens CAN turn into well-rounded, normal, good people. I know that I did. However, it’s completely different reading YA from an adult’s perspective. These books are aimed at teens, and that should be considered while reading. It’s different when I read a book about a flawed character like I once was, because I’m looking back on that time and thinking “well, it’ll get better for her because it got better for me.” It’s different when you’re a teen LIVING that experience and don’t have the “hindsight” that I do while reading.

 

What do you think? Are you feminist that has the same issues as me? Do you think authors need to explicitly tell what’s good or bad, or do you prefer the real, flawed characters who still could grow after the book?

 

14 responses to “Slut-Shaming, Relationships, and Feminism in YA

  1. Well, this is indeed a complex topic, and those questions are so very difficult to answer, especially since I’m not a teen anymore. I have to agree that I also like my characters to be messy and true. Teenagers are like that. We go through a lot of messes before we can become the people we are, and we need books to reflect that reality as well. I think teens need to feel that their current experiences are part of the growing process, and that they are not alone in it, the good and bad. But I also feel that books need to help them discern between the good and the bad. Life is too short to learn all the lessons by yourself. It does not have to be an explicit in your face message. Teens are confused, but they’re not stupid. I have confidence that if a book is well written, even if the message isn’t straightforward, they will be able to draw their own conclusions. The important thing is that books don’t condone bad behaviour in a way that seems normal or even a desirable thing, like your example with Travis or Grey. For me, just the fact that a book makes you feel a certain attitude or action is not right, even if there seems to be no consequences for the character, is a win, because there is an underlying lesson hidden within its pages. After all, books are meant to be thought provoking and allow the reader to adapt them to their own reality, so even when books are very clear about their moral, people won’t receive the message the same way.

    Valeria @ A Touch of Book Madness recently posted: Catching Up With The Madness: Divergent by Veronica Roth
  2. I LOVE this post. And I 1000% agree with you. Feminism (and any other sort of activism/awareness) is a sliding scale, not because we don’t want to be committed, but because life is made up of so many experiences and nuances and you don’t have to shout about every single tiny injustice in order to ~truly~ be a feminist. I’m glad you brought up ACOTAR, because I admit that I was more lenient with it than I would have been if it was a contemporary. Personally, I feel like I give more wiggle room to fantasy novels because they’re a larger suspension of disbelief, and the relationship dynamics are much more varied (Tamlin’s not even human, for instance) and in that situation I can recognize a the distinction between what’s written to be magic/fantasy driven, rather than something (like 50 Shades of Grey) which is too indicative of promoting an unhealthy relationship style that too often manifests in real life…if that makes sense, haha.

    Overall though, I think it’s a super important message you have here in this post that Feminism is a sliding scale, and you’re not unworthy of being a feminist or participating in feminism just because some things bother you more or less than others. I think that’s a sentiment that’s held all too often in the social justice internet scene these days- you’re all in or the enemy. We need to read and write with variety and diversity, because portraying ONLY the “acceptable” things isn’t going to do anyone any favors.

    • Thank you 😀 I completely agree. I think it’s so hard to be perfect when it comes to stuff like that, but exposing the YA audience to some of the ideas and giving the right messages is really helpful.

  3. This post is AMAZING. Seriously, so, so true. I think that just as there are different types of people in every other way imaginable, girls and women are all so different! Feminism can never be a “one size fits all” situation; it’s simply not feasible or necessary. I loved 99 Days, because it was so damn honest. No, that was not even almost my high school experience, I basically assumed I was a troll under a bridge and never even had a book LOOK at me (haha, true story!), but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t SOMEONE’s experience. And like you said, people make mistakes. All. The. Time. Who among us hasn’t!? I dare say we’ve all done something in the past DAY that wasn’t becoming. That’s life. You live and you learn by your choices. That’s what Molly did in 99 Days, and that is what like, 99% of young people do.

    One thing I DO think that authors should steer away from (in general, but especially in YA) is the romanization of the abusive boyfriend. That is NOT okay. I am not saying never to portray abuse. It happens, and it needs to be brought up! I am all for that, as long as it’s done responsibly. But glorifying these jerks? Nope. So much nope. The whole “Christian Grey” phenomenon makes me cringe for women as a whole. There’s no positive takeaway from books like that at all.

    This is just such a fabulous post, I really think EVERYONE needs to read this, and decide how they feel on a lot of these issues!

    • Thank you so much for your comment! <3 I completely agree. Romanticizing the abuse is neverrrr a good idea, but showing abuse as a reality is a different story, especially if it helps someone going through the same thing.

  4. What a great post! This is my first visit to your blog, but I love that you’re willing to admit when you relate to characters even when they’re doing less-than-perfect things. I know that I’ve related to characters in the same way. And like you said, sometimes I cringe, but I remind myself that teenagers DO make mistakes, and at least I learned and grew as a person since then and now see why it was so cringe-worthy. I think many people expect too much from teens in books. I really don’t even remember though whether I was able to see the issues in books, how judgmental I was, etc. when I was a teen. I feel like back then my reading was more for pure entertainment, but I’m sure it still had an effect on me, and I like to think I turned out pretty well lol. I don’t think every book has to go out of the way to show consequences just to teach a lesson though. I think the key is whether or not the negative things are romanticized. If something is portrayed real and accurate and gritty, the consequences just kind of show through naturally.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment! I completely agree. It doesn’t have to be an in-your-face message about negative consequences, but it should at least allude to that naturally. Teens aren’t perfect, so I don’t think teens would really enjoy reading about utterly perfect teens that they can’t relate to. That’s my thought at least!

  5. Ok, so it took me way longer than just one day to get to this – sorry, Lauren!

    First of all, I’m so glad you talked a bit about the whole idea of a character “learning her lesson” with regards to slut-shaming. That never rings true to me in a book and any didacticism tends to just put me in a bad mood – especially with slut-shaming and girl meanness, which is so pervasive in North American society and until very recently, not recognized as a form of bullying. Even now that it is seen as bullying, it’s hard for me to believe that there are any repercussions for people who perpetrate slut shaming – because it happens in places where authorities aren’t always present – often in girls’ bathrooms, or in cafeteria conversations. It’s not something that can really be policed. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be, but I am saying that it’s difficult to imagine the repercussions of someone like Reagan THINKING bad things about a girl and getting her comeuppance. It’s just not realistic. That’s why I was really frustrated when people told me that they saw Reagan’s behavior in ORS as slut-shaming and that she didn’t learn anything from it. She did, and it manifests in a vicious cycle of self-shaming that she’s only beginning to get herself out of in the book. To me, that’s more realistic and more feminist than didacticism.

    With regards to your initial statement…yes, it’s hard to be a feminist in this day and age, and not feel like you’re sometimes a bit of a killjoy. And it’s also hard to see writing that you like, but recognize as not “okay” in your own spectrum of feminism. ACOTAR is a very good example of this – and one that I struggled with, because I liked a lot of the book and I thought the suspense at the end was unbelievably gripping…but I couldn’t get over some of those parts, both with Tamlin’s violence, and Rhysand’s drugging of Feyre. I just couldn’t get behind it, that’s why I ended up writing this post.

    I think the key here is for whoever is reading to RECOGNIZE what’s not okay and what is okay in their own spectrum of feminism. Me recognizing the sexual assault issues in ACOTAR means that I can accept certain parts of the book without being okay with all of them. Recognition means that I don’t condone what’s going on, and I’m sure as hell not going to turn around and perpetrate that violence myself, but I’m okay with it in the story. Similarly, I read a lot of romance, some of which can be rough or dark, and I can accept it as long as I recognize that I personally don’t condone it (even if the book does).

    That said, I do have really iffy feelings on YA books condoning anything that I consider to be sexual abuse – and when I say condoning, I mean, the book explicitly not addressing the fact that there is an abusive situation involved. What concerns me is that, as you mentioned in your discussion of Beautiful Disaster, the audience in question is only seeing a reform story, not one that addresses the actual abuse issues. I’m not saying every book has to work them out, but for that kind of character to be romanticized? That’s a really difficult one for me. Like I said, recognition is important. The problem is that when teens get introduced to an idea that is pervasive (the Bad Boy trope), the recognition simply can’t be there yet because they haven’t experienced enough to know to recognize a character that is being romanticized for story purposes only. And that’s how you get a lot of teens who end up in bad relationships.

    It’s a difficult dilemma, and one I don’t envy that writers have to deal with.

    One final point (I’ve gone on long enough!), and that is that I didn’t find The Heartbreakers to have as sticky a point with feminism as you did – in fact, I quite enjoyed that book. I’m actually more okay with selective feminism that’s wishy-washy in YA – because that feels kind of real to me. When you’re a teen, you’re still trying to figure out what you’re okay with and you might not realize that there’s a gender issue at all. To me, the gender issues are important, but not as important as those that deal with tropes or ideas that are actually condoning harmful physical or mental behavior towards another person. In the musical Avenue Q, there’s this song called “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and it’s funny, but very true. Similarly, I think because of the society we live in, everyone’s a little bit sexist, and it’s not good or right and it is damaging, but I think we need to assess the risk of damage factor before we get into policing everything. I know that sounds a bit wishy-washy as well, but it’s both exhausting and not very fun to criticize everything. That’s why my line is the “damaging physically or mentally” thing – because otherwise, I feel like I’d lose every bit of love for literature that I have…and that wouldn’t be a good thing.

    Ok. I’m done now. I hope this all made sense. =p

    Tiff @ Mostly YA Lit recently posted: : Juniors by Kaui Hart Hemmings
    • Yes! Thank you so much for your comment. I really appreciate your thoughts.

      I know what you mean about The Heartbreakers. I think there were a variety of factors that led me to put the book down, that being one of them, but you’re right. I was not a feminist (really in any way whatsoever) when I was in high school. It’s better in some ways to have “wishy-washy” feminists in high school than have them be like I was.

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