Friday, February 21, 2014

Casual Sexism and Homophobia Has No Place in Books

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I put down a book because I was turned off by the content.  The writing was good, if a bit purple for my taste, and the plot had potential, even though it was a bit derivative.  No, what put me off was how it treated women and one specific anti-gay remark uttered by the narrator.

Now, I'm not on the front lines of these sorts of things.  I get that when you're writing about adolescents, especially adolescent boys, that shit comes out.  They call each other fags, pussy, wuss. They challenge each other's masculinity.  And I'm willing to give books leeway to explore those issues honestly.  The best example I can think of is Andrew Smith's The Marbury Lens.  In the complex relationship between Jack and Con, Conner often uses gay slurs as a way to mask his confused feelings toward Jack.  We don't condone Conner's language, but we understand that it doesn't come from a hateful place.  Smith offers an even better examination of the complex nature of relationships between two boys when love and friendship and sex blur the lines in Grasshopper Jungle.  But that's not the kind of casual homophobia and sexism I'm referring to.

I'm referring to stories (science fiction and dystopian especially), where women continue to be portrayed as the weaker, less competent sex; where masculinity is revered; where men who don't exemplify that masculine ideal are denigrated; and where gay slurs are considered acceptable.

The Hunger Games, in my opinion, is the best example of a dystopian/sci-fi story that got it totally right.  Girls and boys thrown into the ring are treated equally.  Traits that other books might consider "feminine" (Rue's ability to hide, Katniss' skill with a bow) are valued as highly (if not moreso) than traditionally masculine qualities of strength and swordplay.  Furthermore, "feminine" and "masculine" traits are switched up.  Peeta's greatest skill is his ability to decorate cakes, which translates into camouflage, and Katniss' greatest strength is her boldness, a trait that would usually be held by the lead male.

The equality continues in the arena where the children massacre each other regardless of sex.  They treat each other as equal threats, and kill without bias.  There is violence galore in the series, but the threat of sexual violence is never used against the female contestants.  In fact, only one person suffers any form of sexual violence, and it's a male who is blackmailed and prostituted by the Capitol.  If you've read the books, you know who I mean.  If not, I don't want to spoil it.

Collins manages to weave strength into the character of Katniss without robbing her of her softness.  She can deliberately and cunningly drop a nest of fatal tracker jackers on her foes, and still care for and mourn Rue, who reminds her of her younger sister.  Collins offered us a horrible future in The Hunger Games, but one that was equally horrible for both sexes.

And that's why I find it so deplorable when dystopian/sci-fi books, which try to capitalize on the success of The Hunger Games so thoroughly miss the point.  They paint a far-flung future where women are still treated and described as delicate flowers only suited to easy work, and men are the beasts who fight and work hard and lead revolutions.  Where the concepts of masculinity and femininity are still treated as completely antithetical to each other. Why in the world are we still leaning on these tired old notions of how men and women are supposed to act?  YA is supposed to be forward-looking, and books that speculate about the future should be even more forward-looking.  Insulting a character by insinuating that they're gay because they act more feminine than is considered "normal" is ludicrous in a book that's supposed to be looking toward the future.

Sexism, sexual violence, and homophobia that's used casually and without consequence has zero place in modern books.  Obviously there's a line, and that line is going to be different for different people.  For me, it's one of those instances of "I'll know it when I see it."  But as far as I'm concerned, if a book emulating The Hunger Games is going to lean on such tired, antiquated, and silly conventions, I'd rather save my money and just re-read The Hunger Games.

1 comment:

  1. Based on the title of this post alone, I was going to disagree. I use casual sexism and homophobia (and other bigotry) to characterize characters as assholes in my writing all the time. But then I read on and I realized that was not your point.

    In other words, I definitely agree. Especially considering the nature of a book that is very much like The Hunger Games, where Society would have obviously evolved, at least socially, if not politically.


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