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YA Authors’ Responsibility To Readers, by Sarah Alderson

The worst thing a writer can do is not say anything.

I have that quotation on a post it note stuck above my desk. Yet I wonder whether it’s actually accurate. It seems to me that one of the worst things a writer can do is to say something that acts in disservice of their gender.

Recently I’ve become more and more aware of the number of books being published, particularly in the YA realm, and by women too, which to my mind are damaging to girls. Books which do more to push back gender equality than any offensive statements by Kanye West ever could.

I’m talking about books that portray controlling, obsessive, even psychotic boys as hot and desirable because they have a six-pack, cheekbones you could slice salami on, and they kiss really well. Books that portray a healthy relationship as one in which the boy beats the crap out of any guy who so much as looks sideways at ‘their’ girl. Books in which men stalk girls, act out violently, manipulate and otherwise emotionally abuse the girl because ‘they love her’. Yeah, I’m not sure in what world that qualifies as love. And always the girl forgives said boy because she needs him, he’s her soul mate, she can’t live without him…and don’t forget…he’s hot!

Please. Is this what we want to teach teenage girls? Is this what we want for the next generation of women? For them to grow up looking for this in their ideal partner?

The thing that gets me most though is that these books are written by women.

(Referring back to the Kanye West comment he made on Twitter, what riled me most was not the comment itself, but the fact that his girlfriend Kim Kardashian backed him up, telling her millions of Twitter followers that it was OK to call a woman a bitch. Again…in what world is that OK?).

Let’s stop betraying our gender. We can’t ever expect men to grant us respect and equal rights if we can’t even respect ourselves.

As an author and as a woman I believe that I have a responsibility and a duty to my readers to portray both healthy male and female role models and healthy relationships. Girls who are in control of their stories, who are smart, resilient and know when a guy is being a total jerk. Girls who’d never let a guy control them or tell them what to do. Girls who kick ass and can look after themselves (admittedly, having that hot, intelligent and loving boy as a sidekick). My girls are heroines in the true sense of the word.

I don’t want to paint completely idealised romances either. My characters have flaws – they’re people after all. But mainly I want girls to read my books and feel stronger, feel prouder to be a girl, to come away feeling that it’s OK to not have a boyfriend, it’s OK to feel desire and want sex, but it’s also OK to wait – in fact it’s often a good idea to wait. I want girls to know that the right guy (and there will be one) is not the guy who likes to beat the crap out of people or tell you what to wear, what to eat and how to dress. But the guy who supports you, is kind, is loving and puts you not on a pedestal, but an equal footing.

Teenage readers are influenced by our words, by our stories. Make them count.


Sarah Alderson bio page

FatedHunting LilaLosing LilaThe Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots (Young Royals Books (Hardcover))A Golden WebThe Hunger Games (Hunger Games Trilogy)Delirium

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Katharina #

    Sarah, you’re an author after my own heart! I’m a teacher librarian in an all girls high school and it’s a worry to see texts with messages that romanticise what are essentially unhealthy and disfunctional relationships. The ‘Hot, broody male protag who treats insecure, weak female like dirt, but in truth really cares for her’ story premise has got me tearing my hair out. And don’t get me started on books that talk about ‘The One’. The sad thing is that many of these novels are surrounded by enough hype to make them popular with teen girl readers. It makes me sad for the average teenage guy, the one without the cheekbones that can slice salami. What hope does he have?

    September 10, 2012
  2. Alison #

    Sarah, I agree with you. We need to write strong, confident female characters who see all the macho crap as unacceptable. I won’t get started on the likes of Edward Cullen and his quasi-sociopathic ways. Why is it okay–romantic even–to be treated like dog dirt? It makes me cringe. How about a girl with the chutzpah to stick it to the jerk?

    I have one thing I’d like to tack on to your wish list: how about female characters who don’t tear down other girls? The whole Queen Bee character is so hackneyed. Popular culture has validated catty, vile behaviour as a means of attaining and holding power. Sure, girl rivalry can add tension and drive to a story, but glorifying the mean girl is detrimental to young women.

    In my work as a school counsellor, I see the consequences of young teens playing the role of Princess B*****-Face, and it’s not pretty. Once the die is cast, it’s hard to shake the label or learn healthier ways of interacting. The cycle tends to be self-perpetuating: Push someone down to gain status. Keep them down to sustain your role. Lie, manipulate, hate…until someone pushes you down and so on. Nasty stuff.

    It’s tough enough in this world without women pitting themselves against one another. Girl characters can compete, for sure, but let them have each other’s back at the end.

    September 10, 2012
  3. Sarah #

    Hi Alison,
    Thanks for your comment. I wholeheartedly agree. I should have added that to the post. Let’s hope things start to change…and publishers take note too because they have as much a responsibility if not more!

    September 10, 2012
  4. I so agree – and following on from Katharina , it also does boys a disservice. How can decent lads see themselves in that scenario? ( And they do read this stuff BTW)

    September 11, 2012
  5. Sarah, this is AMAZING. AND AMEN.
    It’s why I get so excited when I see girls with a back bone in fiction. Or girls with a genuine healthy friendship with another person in their live–girl or guy. AMAZING post, and I agree with Katharina and KM–it does boys a diservice. It does everyone a disservice. I grew up with Buffy Summers as my rolemodel and the girl I wanted to be. I’m not saying she always had the healthiest relationships, but girls should have rolemodels like that, and like Evie–strong, ballsy and brave. Independent. YES YES YES. AMAZING

    September 11, 2012
  6. Dess #

    I agree with you whole heartedly. I know 50 Shades of Grey is not a teen novel but it is displaying traits very similar to what you described and it was the first book that came to mind when I read this article. Women and girls should not think that it’s okay to be bullied and oppressed into a submissive state. The character Christian Gray is psychotic and it’s a bestseller! Writers are glorifying the misogynistic, self-loathing, controlling and abusive men with the only redeeming qualities; his ridiculous good looks. Women who defend books like this (50 shades of Grey) are, however unwittingly, participating in some of the most blatant misogyny I’ve ever witnessed, giving the impression that some women enjoy being debased, abused, and controlled (outside of a consensual dom/sub relationship). It’s a book about a girl who has absolutely no sense of self, who sacrifices any pretense of individuality in order to hold onto a man who doesn’t even show her the faintest glimmer of respect. I fear for any impressionable young women who read this and think that this is how an ideal relationship should operate.

    Sorry got a little carried away there…

    September 13, 2012

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