There is a picture I look at when I am feeling generally useless, or terrible, or unmotivated, or despairing, wishing that I had depth perception so I could be a truck driver or you know, any sort of mathematical ability so I could be an accountant.
Ms. Magazine did a piece on young adult literature and feminism in their fall edition, and they interviewed me (I felt so fancy. Mum, Ms. Magazine, check me out, are you proud?) They also interviewed smarter people than me, including the editor of the Demon’s Lexicon series, Karen Wojtyla. She also edits Holly Black’s books, so you can see she is clearly a fabulous editor and all mistakes I make are on me and not her.
I haven’t read the piece yet (curse you Irish postal system, always losing my things) but I do remember saying at one point that I loved young adult books the best, and was proud to be writing them at this time, because it was thrilling that teenage girls, who are pretty often denigrated – seen as silly, shrieky, with girly being an insult, and so on – have created this golden age of a genre by loving literature. (Which is not to knock the guy or the grown-up readers of young adult, of course!) It makes me happy to think about people getting profoundly engaged and profoundly influenced by media.
I myself am very influenced by media. Okay, so let me admit to being gross sometimes. I think we all are, sometimes: the last time I realised I was being gross (both sexist and racist, actually) was… earlier today. But let me admit to a time I was specifically gross. At one time in my late teens/early twenties I wouldn’t have thought I could be sexist. Because I was a feminist, and all! And yet I clearly remember discussing the female characters in the Harry Potter series and saying such things as ‘She’s too perfect – but I don’t like the faults she has.’ It took seeing people say the exact same things I’d said, but about girl characters in books/movies/TV shows I really loved, for me to realise ‘Oh, wow. I was being pretty sexist, right about then.’ And then I felt awful. But I’m really glad I got to read and watch the girls in books, movies and TV shows that I loved, just the same.
(Memo: this is not to say criticising fictional girls is bad! But one rule for me is seeing different criteria applied to guys than girls – if a guy character never gets criticised for being too perfect/who he’s dating/what he’s wearing, for instance, that’s an indication that Younger Sarah might be doing it wrong.)
The thing about the picture that makes me angry – it doesn’t make me angry just because it’s sexist, which hey, it is. (Gentlemen: a world of adventure awaits! Ladies: well, you’re ladies, right? That is your ONE ONLY POSSIBLE job? Leaving alone the fact that, say, schemer or match-maker might be a better description of what Emma actually does with her time.)
What this picture is really about to me is a portrayal of limitations placed on awesomeness. (I’m not making a call about the shows it portrays, just talking about the portrayal.) And the fiction I like the most is that which says ‘There is no limit on awesomeness.’ Because, and this seems a ridiculously obvious thing to say, having no limit on awesomeness means more awesomeness.
Like, my very, very first fantasy novel of all time was Tamora Pierce’s In the Hand of the Goddess (I think my mother thought it was historical) and I didn’t think much about the way the heroine being the action-heroine star of the show, who uses contraception and has sex with several dudes and it’s all good. I just thought ‘that is an awesome book.’ Because I didn’t have to trip on any limits to awesomeness put there.
Another example of limits put on awesomeness: books like What Katy Did and The Secret Garden. I love them. I love The Secret Garden so much it’s kind of embarrassing. But in both of them a main character gets a seemingly-almost-magically complete healing, and that’s a limit placed on awesomeness because it does tend to suggest a character cannot reach their full awesomeness without said healing. But those books were written a while ago, whereas R.J. Anderson’s Knife (Spell Hunter in the US) was written quite recently. The wheelchair-using hero, Paul, is offered magical healing, and he says ‘Yeah, thanks, but no, there’s something else I want.’
The past is another country. We’re learning to do things better here.
In Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix I learned stuff about Asian myth that I didn’t know, and that was awesome. I spent a good deal of time explaining and doing imitations for a monster made out of the bits of dead people to my increasingly upset friends.
There is a lot of room for improvement in media. I was horrified to read this post on Elizabeth Scott’s blog talking about the LGBTQ landscape in YA – less than ten per cent of submissions have books with gay characters? Not even protagonists, though there should be more – less than ten per cent have them even there existing at all in a whole cast of characters? Methuselah on a bicycle.
But one of the most popular YA series in the world right now (The Hunger Games) centres on an action heroine. I saw a whole crowd of (mostly teenage girl) readers let out a spontaneous cheer at the mention of the gay couple in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments books. There are books like Malinda Lo’s Ash with a lesbian romance front and centre, and also teens can watch a video of someone saying ‘hey, I’m okay, I’m awesome, I have this great partner, I wrote a book!’ And that matters. (And since I have mentioned both Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo, I wish to link to their Diversity in YA, because I think it’s an excellent thing that I am really proud to be part of.)
So, I’ve got to believe it’s getting better, it’s getting better all the time. And I look at Awesomeness-Limiting portrayals of media and I think ‘that’s not all there is, there is going to be more and more awesomeness until the awesomeness-limiting is eliminated.’ And creating (to the best of one’s ability, which I do, though I’ve been deliberately not mentioning my own stuff in this post) and appreciating awesomeness?
That’s really important. So I think about that, and I feel better.
In fact, I feel awesome.