Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What is a Feminist Reader?

So remember the whole kerfuffle over Bitch Magazine's 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader?  If not, take a look at Chasing Ray's summary.  In short, Bitch Magazine put out a list, in the comments some people felt that several books should not be on the list because of triggering concerns, and the Bitch Magazine staff removed three books, Tender Morsel by Margo Lanagan, Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce and Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott.  Then the trouble really started.  People were furious that the books had been removed, and questioned Bitch Magazine's reasoning behind that books that were on the list and those that had been removed.  This was in January.

This evening, Simmons College held a conversation entitled, "What is a Feminist Reader?"  It was moderated by Kelly Hager, Chair of the Women's & Gender Studies and there were opening remarks from Christy Lusiak, certified domestic violence and sexual abuse counselor and Lecturer in English and Women's & Gender Studies and Amy Pattee, Associate Professor of the Graduate School of Library an Information Science.  I had Amy for a number of classes and she's excellent.  Incredibly knowledgeable about the world of YA literature and whose opinion I really respect.

Kelly started off giving some background on the kerfuffle (kerfuffle has somehow become the official title of the "incident").  Then Christy spoke a bit about feminism.  Christy felt that Bitch had some good ideas but made a series of missteps.  First off, they oversimplified what it means to be a "feminist reader."  Bitch prefaced the list with, " If you're looking to buy a book for your favorite teenage girl or just looking to cuddle up with a powerful story featuring teenage characters, look no further."  They didn't seem to think about it more deeply.  What made these book feminist books?  What is a feminist reader?  Is any book a feminist reads a feminist book?  And what does it mean when the book is pulled off the list?  Does that mean the book isn't for a feminist reader?

Christy also talked about the triggering aspect.  The books that were challenged were all books that dealt with sexual assault.  A trigger is an outside stimulus that can take a person back to a traumatic event.  If is often linked to the senses, and could be a sound, a smell, or yes, a book.  And while a book might be a trigger for one person, but it might also help someone else who's had that experience.  Instead of pulling the book off the list entirely, perhaps they could have been flagged for content.  Christy felt Bitch Magazine acted in a reactionary manner, and didn't think about things critically.

Amy talked about the issue of making book lists.  When someone makes recommendations, it suggests authority.  It suggests quality, and in a way, recommending could be a kind of censorship depending on what you choose to leave off the list.  Censors look for reasons to remove.  Amy talked about what YA literature is, and how it can be difficult to define.  Amy felt the Bitch Magazine list was a pretty crappy list, created by people who do not have a good understanding of what YA actually is.

The rest of the time was discussion.  I think where Bitch really got into trouble was not defining their criteria.  It was pretty clear looking at the list that it's a list of favorite books or books they read reviews of and thought sounded good.  It came out afterwards that they hadn't read all the books, they had relied mainly on research.  They didn't decided what their list was going to be.  A list of books that deal with women's issues?  A list of books with female characters taking matters into their own hands?  A list of books with kick-ass female protagonists?  So they didn't decide what a "feminist" book was, first of all, and then they didn't create any criteria the books needed to have to make it on to their list.

There is also the issue that we don't know who created this list.  Was it a panel of people who discussed it (probably not)?  Was it three people who thought putting together a list would be a good idea?  Was it a job giving to some intern?  We have no idea.  Because of this, when books were challenged, Bitch had no way to defend themselves.  There was nothing to back up their decisions.  They couldn't say, "Well, here's our criteria and this is how this books fits it.  We feel the positive aspects of this book outweighs the negative."

We talked about how the list was a mixture of YA and middle grade books.  How a lot of them were older.  How most of them were written by white authors and had white protagonists.  Simmons had done a survey on the top 10 from the Bitch Magazine Top 100.  The Simmons Top 10 were: Are You There God?  It's Me, Margaret, Harriet the Spy, A Wrinkle in Time, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Ella Enchanted, Speak, The House on Mango Street, The Hunger Games, Number the Stars, and The Golden Compass.  I didn't get the survey, so I didn't vote, but someone who did admitted she just voted for her favorites.  That seems pretty clear.  Again, a lot of these aren't YA, most of them are older, and I don't know how some of them are feminist at all.  Having a female protagonist does not a feminist book make.

I wish it had been longer than an hour.  An hour wasn't nearly enough time to really get into it.  Overall, I think Bitch didn't take their list seriously enough.  They slapped something together without having the authority or knowledge to do so and then ran into trouble when they couldn't defend it.  And so the gave in to challengers and things got even worse.

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