Monday, November 10, 2014

Sorry Stereotypes in YA Fiction

Hi all! This is a column I wrote last month for my school's newspaper. I hope it makes you think!

A beautiful teenage girl is looking off into the distance.  She might be floating in water or wearing a ballgown. Her eyes are bright and her cheekbones prominent.  Remind you of anything?  Maybe just about every Young Adult book cover ever?  Wait.  Let me amend that.  The cover of every YA book written by a woman.  
When I was in elementary school, checking out every sci-fi book in the library, I used to ask the librarian about “the creepy girls on the covers.”  I couldn’t understand why there had to be basically the same image on every book.  Lately I’ve been thinking again about the role gender plays in books and their covers.  Books written by women, or with female main characters, tend to be deemed “girl books” or “chick lit.”  Books written by men, with male main characters, are less likely to be so easily labeled, but if they’re violent or especially adventuresome, these too become “boy books.”  

Are there really such things as books that can only be enjoyed by one gender?  Of course not.  Anyone can read a “boy book” or “girl book” and love it, regardless of whether they’re the gender of the main character.  Most books don’t have much in them that’s inherently geared towards one type of person.  Why would they?  Author want their ideas to be accessible to all readers.  So where does this sense of books specifically for certain genders come from?  The covers.  Especially in the science fiction or supernatural genres, YA book covers rarely seem to break out of the mold of gender stereotyping and tired cover design that publishers often slap on books.  Covers of books with female authors inevitably feature the aforementioned ethereal girl and a cute, feminine font.  Books authored by a man tend to escape stereotypical covers and receive a more simplistic design, often involving a nature scene or some kind of slicing, dramatic lettering.  An experiment proposed by author Maureen Johnson on her Twitter involved “coverflipping” popular teen books–imagining that the book’s author was the opposite gender or genderqueer, and changing the covers accordingly.  As expected, the now-female authors covers are more “girly” and less intelligent, while covers of male authored books become more simplified and graphic.  The thing is, book covers don’t always mirror the theme of a book (although maybe they should).  Gendered book covers don’t mean much about the actual plot– just a reflection of the insulting way publishers view teenage demographics and a sorry example of stereotypes that are still perpetuated today.  
*Check out a few coverflipping examples, above, or google "coverflip challenge" to find out more.*
Covers are the main way that we get an impression of a book, whether we’re buying it or just checking it out of the library.  And oftentimes book covers decide for the prospective reader whether they can read the book–whether their gender is “supposed to” or not.  But we know male and female authors to be capable of writing books that are beloved by all genders–it’s happened before (TFIOS, anyone?)–so why aren’t book covers more inclusive to all readers?  We deserve books that don’t exclude certain people from enjoying them.  Gender varies from person to person, but books should be for everyone.  

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Trying New Things--Plays

I've posted before about the importance of trying new things when reading.  Everyone has their comfort zone, that reading niche that they feel safe in, but branching out is a key way to escape a reading rut.  How can you knock something if you haven't tried it?  I'm guilty here as well.  I love realistic fiction, and often I don't want to give other genres a try.  But when I read some science fiction, there was stuff there that I really liked, and I can now add a few good ol' sci-fi reads to my favorites list.  Lately I've been reading a few plays that I want to talk about.  A whole different form of writing to be enjoyed!  The chances for exciting dialogue (which, of course, is a huge part of almost all plays) are many.  Here are a few recent plays that I've read and love:
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard.  This play is hilarious, subversive and very, very clever.  It focuses on the exploits of two minor characters found in Shakespeare's Hamlet.  Although I didn't always understand what was happening--the play's genre is, after all, absurdist--I could laugh at the improbably weird events and appreciate the well-written dialogue.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde:  Another comedy, this one in typical Wilde form as a trivial satire of marriage and Victorian society.  Hilarity ensues when two friends, both leading an alternate life under the name of Ernest, have their lies catch up to them as they discover that the women they love only like them because of their attraction to their names.  The comic exchanges between characters in this play were laugh out loud funny.  Plays, even older ones (this one was first performed in 1895), can be still be completely modern and comical if they're written well (and Earnest definitely is).
Our Town by Thornton Wilder:  I read this play to prepare for my position on the production staff of my school's performance of it, and it is incredibly well written.  More of a tragedy, the play is told in three parts:  Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and Death and Dying.  It focuses on the events of George and Emily as they grow up and fall in love in the small New Hampshire town of Grover's Corners.  Our Town is cruel--called "metatheatrical", it constantly reminds you that you're watching/reading a play, often just as you become invested in part of the storyline.  But despite the heartbreak, it's an incredibly detailed and intelligent work with seriously lovable characters.  I can't wait to see it performed!
A note:  I haven't seen any of these plays performed, so I'm interested to hear the thoughts of those who have.  How does seeing a play on a stage compare to simply reading it?  Tell me in the comments below!