So it occurred to me recently that within the Class of 2k12, we have two male protagonists, found in NEVER EIGHTEEN and CHAINED. Which leaves 18 out of 20 of us writing about chicks. And those two male protagonist books are written by women. And one of our female protagonist books is written by a dude.
I’m willing to bet that the larger Apocalypsies statistics are even more skewed. Let’s face it, whatever the reason, more young adult and middle grade books seem to be hitting shelves with female protagonists rather than male.
There are a couple of possible reasons—more female writers? Certainly seems possible, again from examining the ratios of both the microcosmic Class of 2k12 (19-1) and the broader Apocadocs (something like 140-10, I believe). Larger female audience? I’d buy it—I’ve read things about middle school and high school girls reading more often than their male counterparts—but is this from a lack of material, or is the lack of material from a lack of demand? Conundrum, I say.
All good questions, and while I do care about them, I don’t in the scope of this blog post. What this makes me question, then, is message. Influence. Responsibility.
Let me, perhaps, back up a little bit. Full disclosure #1: I think about this stuff a lot as part of the non-profit work I do with teen girls. During which, we discuss confidence. Media. Body image. Self censorship. The ability (or lack thereof) to recognize themselves in the images and ideas that are constantly thrown at them and identify with them. Full disclosure #2: I started thinking about this in particular after, in the same day, being interviewed by The Goddess Project and reading a review of SCARLET that mentioned being disappointed that Scarlet didn’t get nicer by the end. Full disclosure #3: This is not a diatribe in response to a review, or even a criticism. If anything I’m grateful it started me thinking about this.
So that’s how it started. Scarlet isn’t a nice girl, and I wrote her specifically not to be. Mostly because I am (well, I generally consider myself to be) a nice girl. And I have problems with being nice. And I have days where I kind of feel like the real me is a ranty, raving, grumpy, tantrumy five year old, and I want that part of me to be loved too. To be loveable. So a big part of writing SCARLET was to try and make this bitter, angry, secretive girl who pushes people away loveable. And I think I succeeded, for most readers. I dig Scarlet.
But what is my responsibility here? Should I be crafting an agenda of how I want teen girls to see themselves—answering the questions that teens bring up in workshops with me, for example, in my written work? I’m aware of the problems girls have with looking at themselves in the mirror and accepting their present; I’m painfully aware of the problems girls have with looking at their futures and denying their value. Am I supposed to be speaking to that?
Some days I think YES. It would be fantastic—it would be teachable, and instructive, and using my passion constructively. Wouldn’t that be lovely? Some days I pat myself on the back and think I already have—Scar is tough and hardcore and makes apologies to no one for who she is and she is loved just as she is. Isn’t that what we’re getting at? But that was an after effect, and it’s still up to the reader to decide if that is a “message” or not. It certainly was never my intention.
Which leads me to the NO. It’s handy, but I don’t think stories organically have an agenda, not like that. They have an arc, a change, maybe even a theme—but I think most themes are connections that are apparent afterward, not before. I remember when I was like 16 trying to write a story to a theme I had already decided on and that went to hell in a hand basket QUICK.
But, as with most questions, maybe it’s both. Maybe writers can never be totally unaware of the message we’re sending, particularly when we seem to be directly influencing a very specific but saturated demographic. We are, for the most part, women speaking directly to the next generation, our literary daughters. My guess is that maybe our responsibility is to write the stories we care about; I think that is sort of the writer’s creed. But within that, perhaps—and maybe this is an author thing, as opposed to a writer thing (I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about the difference between those two terms, the different jobs they imply, the different feelings I have about both)—is a responsibility to begin a conversation. You can’t contain both a question and an answer within the pages of a book. There isn’t space; it isn’t natural.
So perhaps, like the random blank pages inside a book’s cover, our responsibility is just to ask a question, and give the reader enough negative space to fill with their answer.
Those comment boxes look an awful lot like negative spaces, BTW. What do you think a writer’s responsibility is? Particularly with young women in mind?
by AC Gaughen