Things in Print Thursday :: YA and baby feminists

22 Jan

So the other day we were talking about YA books that we read in our younger days, and Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series was brought up.  I personally only read the first… four, I think, maybe only three.  I know I only owned three of them.  Anyway, the point is that we were discussing how they were sort of silly books but books that we pursued for a period of time, and she said something about how they introduced her to “Feminism 101 topics.”  And that got me thinking, actually.  Not about those books specifically (though she’s going to discuss this in a moment, and other Meg Cabot novels) but about other YA books and Feminism 101.

So I used to get Girls’ Life magazine.  I got it back when it was still always called Girls’ Life and not sometimes GL.  In true form for my youth, it was probably a magazine for 13-15 year olds primarily and I started getting it when I was approximately 11, which meant that I started reading the YA books that it mentioned which were probably for 13-15 year olds when I was approximately 11.  I don’t remember if they had an excerpt from this book or just mentioned it, but somehow this magazine alerted me to a book called Love and Other Four-Letter Words by Carolyn Mackler.  It was pretty standard YA fare: teenage girl with average looks (brown hair) and average insecurities (stretch marks) experiences her parents’ divorce and moves with her mom to New York City from upstate New York.  She has general angst, makes a quirky friend, gets a crush on a quirky boy, plays the guitar, goes hiking, and other pretty standard activities.

But I’m the person who rereads everything.  So I probably read this book about fifteen times from first getting it, just because it was there.  And to this day one particular scene stands out: the girl, her crush, and two slightly older (twentysomething) adults, I think it was the crush’s cousin or brother or something and his girlfriend, were sitting in… a diner, maybe… or hiking, I forget.  And they got into a conversation about feminism.  The twentysomething man hemmed and hawed about it, I think, and I think it was the twentysomething woman who said “feminism is just believing that women should have the same rights as men” or something like that.  The absolute most basic definition of feminism.  The protagonist and her crush agree that yes they too are feminists, it’s so basic.  I don’t remember how the hemmer-hawer reacted, but it was presented as a very basic fact that those who don’t agree with it look generally just dumb.

And I think that’s honestly why for me, feminism has always been an obvious conclusion.  At a very early impressionable age, it was shown to me as that.  Obviously there are a lot of nuances to feminism, but that’s what it comes down to, really.  It’s not superiority, it’s equality.  And yet I’m still seeing people having that stupid debate that these fictional characters had in a fictional diner what, thirteen years ago in a fictional story.  Hell, I’ve had that debate with people.  Sure, I wish that when I had the debate it was resolved as quickly as it was in the book, but the fact remains.  It’s never been hard for me to justify my belief in feminism and I think especially when I was a baby feminist who didn’t really know too much, it was because of this dumb YA book.

So.  Now that I have that out of the way, time for my drift partner’s discussion of Meg Cabot.

I’m not exactly proud of this, now, but I own every single Princess Diaries book, including the silly novellas, and most of Cabot’s post-Diaries work too (and what I don’t own, I’ve likely at least read). And while, even in middle school when I started reading them, I was a bit embarrassed about it – I grew up more tomboy than anything, although for a while I did like the color pink a lot, before The Incredibles came out and I decided I wanted to wear all-black like my favorite character Violet – I don’t really regret it, because those books were surprisingly influential. Mia starts out the series as neurotic (honestly, she should probably have gotten some kind of therapy or psychological diagnosis, because she spends at least one book obsessing over whether or not she has any of the diseases they’re learning about in health class, but that’s neither here nor there), aimless, and kind of a pushover, and by the last book she’s a published author and has graduated high school, as well as having a mature adult relationship with Michael Moscovitz (who she has learned in the last few books is just an imperfect guy who she still loves anyway) and having made up with her sometimes borderline abusive best friend Lilly, as well as striking up a new friendship with her old nemesis Lana Weinberger.

Despite not having that much in common with Mia, aside from also being a writer, I related to her in a way, and it was inspiring to me to see her personal development in ways such as learning to be more assertive and discovering her passion (writing). Also, it gave me a chance to sympathize with “girlier” girls that I wasn’t quite sure how to interact with, and reminded me that they can be smart and funny and just as real as me. Also, upon a nostalgia reread, I notice that Cabot included references to a transgender woman in the first few books, as well as a blink-and-you-miss-it femslash pairing. These were not people I ever got to hear about, coming from an evangelical Christian background, and I believe these were my first positive exposure to them. There were also about a million references to Mia’s mother’s refusal to change her maiden name, which at the time I thought was cool and still do, and Lilly would occasionally spout some feminist theory that probably went over my head at the time but was good for me to be exposed to anyway.

Additionally, while I didn’t like the All-American Girl series as much as the Princess Diaries series, three things about them stuck with me. The first is that, in the first book, our hero Sam mentions overhearing her big sister Lucy discuss masturbating with the bathtub faucet. I remember being really embarrassed but also curious about that, because at that point (I think I was 16-17) I didn’t know that was a thing girls could do. I’m sure it spurred dozens of other girls to test it out (not me, since I was hilariously undersexed and also afraid of getting struck by lightning by a displeased God or something if I even thought about sex), and I am all for sexual education that helps girls enjoy sex. The other two things are actually in the sequel, Ready or Not, whose plot is mostly about whether or not Sam and David are ready to have sex. First of all, the idea of a girl who actually wanted to have sex was pretty revolutionary, since I’d been taught that “good girls don’t” before marriage (and if someone did say yes, she was probably a whore). But Sam was a likeable, decent person…who also wanted to have sex. That was probably the first time I actually started to question anything about my upbringing. Finally, there’s a scene near the end, after Sam has accidentally announced on national television that she and her boyfriend David have had sex (which undermines the president, David’s father’s, Return to Family campaign, which in retrospect is a horrifying policy that intended to limit access to abortion and birth control). Resident mean girl Kris comes up at lunch and starts calling Sam a slut, and telling her to get out because “sluts aren’t wanted here,” and while Sam attempts to get the rest of the cafeteria to stand up to Kris, they keep silent – until Sam’s sister Lucy stands up in Sam’s defense. She points out that not only has Kris been seen in somewhat questionable situations herself, but that if Kris is going to call her sister a slut, then she’d better call Lucy one too. It’s sort of like the scene in the end of Sydney White (to borrow another embarrassing reference from something aimed at teenagers) except everyone starts standing up and proclaiming themselves to be sluts. Which was, first of all, kind of inspiring, considering the general trashiness of the book, and for another, introduced me to the concept of reclaiming pejoratives like “slut.” Also about the absurdity of the word in general, since there is no clear definition of what “slut” actually means, aside from a woman whose behavior you don’t like.

Girl-centric YA that’s not part of the action or fantasy genres tends to get lumped into the “ew girl book” category, if it’s lucky, and the “shitty chick lit” category if it’s not. (The single exception seems to be John Green, and that is a discussion for another day.) Cabot’s books, and pretty much anything with a central romantic subplot, generally get tossed in the latter. But I think it’s important to examine their underlying importance as well as their surface frothiness. Are a lot of them silly and shallow? Yes, but many others include along with that apparent silliness the opportunity to teach feminist concepts to girls who may not be open to learning about them from another source. It is, after all, the thing that so many parents worry about – that their children will pick up on some subtext in fiction that disagrees with the parents’ worldview and “influence” the child away from that worldview. This sort of subtext – or text, in some cases – can be useful, though. After all, I’m quite sure Cabot didn’t intend to make all of her readers into feminists just because she included a reference to masturbation, but here I am.

–your fangirl heroines.

ew people

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