Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘sexism

I’m not a nice person.

I’m not a good person.

I’m not a kind person.

This isn’t to say that I don’t ever try to be any of these three things.  I do, especially the last two.

It’s more to say that, for me, surviving in this cissexist, racist, ableist, heteronormative, classist, often fucked up world of ours has involved rejecting the idea that “good” and “bad” are static states of being.  I will never be a “good person” because, to me, “good” is not something that you achieve.  It’s an ongoing process that never ends.

It is, in fact, almost impossible not to be doing bad things as well as good when you are human and therefore flawed.  Especially when you are part of a messed up system, as we all are.

This, to me, is why it’s important to call out bad behavior, or hurtful language, or even ways of framing the world that make it easier to ignore harm that is being done to others.

Not because people deserve to be shamed or judged or called out, but because we are all fish who sometimes forget that the water is there, and part of helping each other do better involves pointing out when we didn’t do as well as we could have.

Since the world is complex (and not just in bad ways), the fact that we have the same goals doesn’t mean that we will always agree.  It may not always be possible to determine who was “right” and who was wrong about the choices people make or the words they use.

But this is where my librarian training kicks in and points out that more speech is better than less.  That it’s better to let people know what it is that you think they could have done better, so that they can decide for themselves if they want to change or not, rather than never giving them that option.  It’s also important to be specific about it, so that no one is left second guessing everything they do and say.

To me, it’s a sign of trust, to tell someone when what they did or said hurt you.  That’s not a thing you tell people when you think they won’t care.  Or worse, will use it to hurt you more.

When I tell people that what they said was sexist, or racist, or otherwise hurtful, I don’t do it because I want to hurt them. I don’t do it because I think they are bad people.  I don’t do it because I think they are irredeemably sexist, while I’m a perfect feminist, a model for everyone to follow.  I’m not specific about what they did wrong simply because I want to nitpick, I promise you that I have better things to do with my time.

I do it because this is what I truly believe, and because I have faith in their ability and willingness to do good things.  And most of all because I have faith that they will respect my opinion even if they disagree with it.

So I want to ask everyone out there who is asking all us to “keep YA kind” to remember that, while criticism is hard to take, criticism is not lack of kindness.  It’s often a measure of trust.

Everyone has flaws, everyone messes up.  That includes you, that includes me.  That includes the author you admire, the friend that has always been there for you, the teacher that inspired generations.

That someone is “good people” should never be an excuse for not listening, or used to admonish others for speaking.  Because “good” is something that you make the decision to do every second of every day, not something that you acquire and then use as a shield.

I have so much more to say on so many things that has happened this past week.  And so many links to smart women who you should really listen to more than me.  Hopefully I’ll even manage to make some link lists and get those words out and onto paper – er, pixels.  But I wanted to start with that, because I think it’s the most fundamental.

If you don’t trust that I am trying to do good as well, that my anger is a sign of hurt and not hate, that the opinions I express are genuine and not merely performative, that I am in fact trying to be kind to a great number of people, even when you disagree with me, even when I say things that hurt you or your friends or make you uncomfortable, then this conversation is never going to go anywhere.

Instead, “kindness” will once again become a way to reinforce the status quo, rather than a call to be more compassionate and empathetic.

Instead both “kind” and “good” will be used to avoid examining the problems we most certainly have, a way to once again NOT have the hard and complicated and uncomfortable conversations that are long overdue.

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So you all remember the gag from Mo Willems award winning We Are In a Book, yes?

The part where Piggie and Gerald realize that they can make the person reading the book aloud say really funny words, like BANANA, yes?

inside pages for We Are In a Book

(And if you don’t, why haven’t you read these books yet, hmmmm?????)

Well, BJ Novak has written a book that takes that same gag and runs with it – with hilarious results, as you’d expect.

I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it looks to be a very funny and well done book.  Full of nothing but text that is sure to make primary graders giggle, the book has no pictures (that’s actually it’s name, too, The Book With No Pictures) but it does have colored and very graphic text to give the audience something to look at when it’s read aloud, and to help newer and pre-readers make that connection between the funny words and the text on the page.

inside pages for The Book With No Pictures

All well and good.  Looks like an awesome book to have around, and somewhat useful in helping newer readers conceptualize text and therefore transition from easy readers to chapter books and novels.

The problem is the way I keep seeing it framed in social media.

Rather than placing the book in the proper juvenile literature context – in terms of other books that do similar things, or in terms of how kids actually learn to read, it’s presented as making the argument that pictures are a distraction rather than one of many useful tools employed in children’s literature.  The implication is that pictures in books are too juvenile even for little kids, once they learn to read.  Which is as wrong as saying that reading aloud to kids isn’t needed once kids learn to read.  The truth is, both pictures and reading aloud are helpful in developing reading skills, especially in newer readers.  As are books with no or fewer pictures, and kids practicing reading themselves.

There’s also, of course, the undercurrent of the idea that this man has come along to show all us women (as women make up the majority of primary teachers, early learning experts, and children’s librarians) how to do it right for once.

The Book With No Pictures sounds like a wonderful book, and one I can’t wait to read aloud to my kids at the library.

It is not, however, without precedent.  And it is not the radical break from traditional children’s literature that the people commenting about the awful state of education today seem to think it is.  And it’s not going to stop me from reading books with pictures as well as words, reading books with picture but no words, telling felt stories, or trying to get my hands on some early learning kamishibai stories from Japan.

Here is the breakdown of the massive list I posted on Monday:

I read a total of 207 books last year.

bar graph of types of books read in 2013

Nearly a third (68) were young adult books, and another third were board books and picture books (25 and 45, respectively).  Middle grade novels (28) and adult novels and stories (35) each made up another sixth of what I read last year.  I also read a handful of easy readers and non-fiction books (4 each).

80%  (169) of the books I read last year were written by women, but only 14% (29) were written by writers of color.

genderrace

I’m not terribly concerned that only 20% of the books I read were written by men; there are plenty of people with much more influence than I do that seem to read and talk about only male writers, so it can’t possibly hurt for me to read and talk up female writers.  In fact, it’s clearly still needed. Also, I’m probably still balancing out what I read when I was younger.

That 14% does concern me though, especially considering what I do.  My reading and talking about that low a percentage of authors of color doesn’t just impact my circle of friends and what they read, it means that when I do reader’s advisory, when I create book lists and displays, and when I order books for the library, the vast majority of the books that come to mind will be by white writers.  Even if I try to do searches and peruse recommended lists in order to make these all more balanced, the titles I find that way are not going to take emotional priority or stay in my head the way that the books I’ve actually read will. Which means that I’m not doing my job and that I’m failing the children I’m supposed to serve.

So my goal for this year is to double that percentage, for at least one third of the books I read this year to be by a writer of color.

I hope to eventually increase that number to an even larger percentage, to better match the demographics among children in the US.  But I also know that only 10% of the children’s books published in the United States are written by an author of color, and I don’t know at what point (if ever) that reality will begin to make such goals difficult.  And for this year (because of my time and budget) I wanted to start with a goal that I know is easily doable.

cover image for My Little Pony: Pony Tales Volume 1My Little Pony: Pony Tales Volume 1 by Thomas Zahler, Ryan K. Lindsay, Katie Cook, Barbara Randall Kesel, Ted Anderson

The vast majority of the stories collected in this volume are simply underwhelming;  full of cliches, at times hard to follow, and surprisingly lacking in creativity for a fantasy series – even one based on a popular television show.  Sadly, this is hardly unusual. So all of this might be forgivable if it weren’t for the insulting stereotypes that several of the comics employ. Or the extent to which the book doesn’t seem to be clear on whether it’s main target audience consists of children or adults. 

When I read books for children, I expect them to present ideas in ways that make sense to children. For example, if a comic whose main audience is made up of eight year old girls includes a party in one of its stories, I expect it to focus on the kinds of things that 8 year olds usually associate with parties: cake, balloons, streamers, games.  What I don’t expect is for it to instead decide that the party will be depicted more like a college frat party.  Complete with card games instead of kid’s games, togas, lampshades on heads, a drunk Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy looking nervous while being talked up by two male ponies.

 And yet, this is not fan art, but an actual excerpt from the comic:

inside pages from My Little Pony: Pony Tales Volume 1

It’s one thing to include jokes for adults on the sly. Or to make a work that’s enjoyable to a wide range of ages. Or to otherwise acknowledge that adults can be fans of works that are intended for kids.  It’s quite another for a comic that claims to be targeting children to completely forget who their audience is.

And it’s a completely different level of wrong for a tie-in comic for a show whose main audience consists of young girls to decide that adult men specifically need to be catered to instead of those young girls.  And for it to be done in such a way that allusions are made to young women being targeted for unwanted attention – or worse – by their male peers.

And yet this is indeed what happened – in a book marketed to children.

Children, mind you, that are too young to have the power to speak up and tell the writer or publisher if this bothers them. Children that are so young that articulating their opinions and feelings, especially about unfamiliar topics, is still quite difficult in a way that adults often forget or fail to understand.

This goes beyond merely annoying or insulting. It’s both disturbing and creepy.

IDW published this, if anyone wishes to make their feelings known to the people responsible.  I read this comic via Netgalley and so will be forwarding this review to them as requested.

cover image for The Big Bad Wolf Goes on VacationThe Big Bad Wolf Goes on Vacation by Delphine Perret

Some kids are afraid of monsters hiding in their closet. Not Louis.  He doesn’t worry that something might be in his closet, he already knows that the Big Bad Wolf lives there.  This causes all sorts of problems, of course. Including the Big Bad Wolf insisting that he be taken along when he overhears that Louis is going on a trip with his grandfather.

Silly, unique, and sarcastic, this is one of the rare picture books that works better for older children rather than little ones. New readers may need help with the words, but can easily follow the pictures and will feel accomplishment in the use of chapters.  Older readers will find the comic like structure challenging but fun. Perret’s minimal sketches allow for personality and variation, but are uncluttered enough to keep their repetition from becoming chaotic or confusing.

cover image for I Need My Own CountryI Need My Own Country by Rick Walton, illustrated by Wes Hargis

Little brothers can be such a pain sometimes.  That’s when you need to take charge, and make a country of your own.  One he can’t join.

Hargis’s illustrations are well done, but the actual story is one of those that seems more for adults than for kids, who likely won’t be quite as entertained by this book as their parents will be.

cover image for A Good Night WalkA Good Night Walk by by Elisha Cooper

Evening slowly turns to night, as readers take a walk trough a friendly neighborhood.

Part of what makes Cooper’s books work so well is the way the illustrations giver personality to the text as the words explain the mechanics of farming, a day at the beach, or how ice cream is made.  While the illustrations here are wonderful, and the text is soothing, the two don’t work together in quite the way they often do in Cooper’s other books – they repeat rather than adding different information.

cover image for Quick as a CricketQuick as a Cricket by by Audrey Wood, illustrated by Don Wood

Are you as quick as a cricket? As happy as a lark? Or perhaps you are as strong as an ox.  Or maybe, like our narrator, you’re all of these things, depending on your mood.

With simple similes and rich illustrations, Don and Audrey Wood introduce young readers to a world rich in nature and imagination, as well as the idea that they can be more than just one thing.  This book is a classic for a reason; the sentences are lyrical and the pictures creative, while the message is both simple and profound.

cover image for Tumble BumbleTumble Bumble by Felicia Bond

A tiny bug takes a walk, but he’s not alone for long. Soon a while parade of critters joins him as they tumble bumble through the neighborhood – and into someone’s house!

Felica Bond is a whiz with subtle shades of color and engaging characters, as anyone who as seen her artwork for the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie series knows.  It turns out that she’s really great at rhymes and humor as well, making this book a classic story for little ones.

cover image for Sam's SandwichSam’s Sandwich by David Pelham

When Samantha asks her brother to make her a sandwich, Sam agrees – and decides to make her one with all the fixings.

The design of this book is rather clever and cute, and if it was just a story about a sandwich with creepy crawly things in it, I would love it.  The characters are both incredibly annoying though, as are the gender stereotypes they perpetuate for no reason.

When I packed my bags and set off for college, I expected that I would have to get used to new routines and ways of doing things.  What I didn’t plan on was having to relearn old habits when I came back home for the holidays.  It felt odd not having my friends close at hand and my stomach was often angry with me for no longer eating dinner promptly at 5:30.

Not every change was quite so loud and insistent as my disrupted internal clock.  It turned out that I’d also picked up new ways of saying things without even realizing it – until others brought it to my attention.  My mom would get a funny look on her face, as I, her second youngest child, stood there in a Disney t-shirt and referred to my classmates as “women” instead of “girls.”  Amused, she asked me one day while I was home for Christmas why I did that.  I can’t remember her exact wording, but the implied question was clearly whether or not my snobby, feminist leaning, all women’s college actively discouraged us from certain kinds of language.

The truth is that it didn’t – not in the sense of lecturing or trying to correct us.  Instead, they modeled how they wanted us to treat ourselves and each other.  Our handbooks, our professors, the welcoming talks we attended, everything that came from the college and was given to us called us women.  Sometimes young women, but always women.

So when she asked me that, I didn’t have a ready answer for her.  I’m not sure that I’d completely realized that this was not a normal thing to happen in college (did co-ed colleges refer to their students as boys and girls???? ) but I thought about it and told her that we did it not because we were all that sure of our adulthood, but because it was important that we treat each other respectfully.  It was one thing to refer to one’s close friends as girls, it was quite another to talk about a classmate’s research project and refer to her as a child while doing so. If we wanted to go out in the world and be treated with respect after graduation, we needed to get used to it now, so that we would more readily recognize when people weren’t treating us right later.

If I were to have that conversation now, I would add that the point was also get us used to believing in ourselves.  That by referring to us as adults, our college was indicating that not only did they trust we were capable of rigorous academic work and mature behavior, but that they expected it of us.

I can’t help but think of that conversation when certain kinds idiocy stumble into my corner of the internets.

What does it mean when an organization whose job it is to represent women in a professional capacity publishes, in the organization’s monthly newsletter, an article that uses language like “lady writers” and “lady editors”?  How exactly do they think that’s furthering the professional interests of their members?

Most of all, do they think their members will not notice?  Do they think it’s female members own editors, writers, agents, and publishers use that kind of language while doing business with them?  Is that how they think women in the organization think of themselves?

Is that how we think of ourselves?

I doubt it.  Or, rather, I doubt we mean to – but that’s the power of language. It not only gives us a tool to share our thoughts, it shapes them too.

The language that’s used in places like SFWA’s Bulletin is important not only for symbolic reasons, but also because insulting language encourages people to dismiss the people being derided.  It tells certain people that it’s ok to act disrespectfully and it conditions others to being marginalized.  It’s one thing for that kind of talk to happen on some random blog or even reddit, it’s quite another for it to occur (apparently frequently of late) in a professional publication.

The SFWA does a great many wonderful things for it’s members.  But so long as insults of this sort are included within it’s newsletter, all that work is going to be constantly undermined.  And I don’t just mean that all the negative focus on such asinine behavior will cast a cloud over the good work many people do.  Fighting for fair contracts and the like is only going to do it’s female members a limited amount of good if the organization itself speaks to women in such a way as to undermine their belief in their professional worth.  A single insult is hardly going to break all the amazing female writers I admire, but a persistent lack of respect is hardly going to help them either.  And isn’t that the goal of SFWA – to help it’s writers?  All of them?

The problem with phrases like “lady writers” and all the other, even worse, things that have been published in SFWA’s Bulletin of late isn’t merely that they are outdated and sexist.  It’s that they waste members dues by undermining the fundamental purpose of the organization.

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