Sunday 24 August 2014

Does YA Challenge or Reinforce Gender Stereotypes?

You may have remembered a few months ago, I begged for responses to a long thing about gender and stereotypes and then a few weeks later I begged for responses to a shorter one. HUGE THANKS TO ALL OF YOU FOR GIVING ME RECS OF WHAT TO READ AND THINK ABOUT AND/OR DATA TO QUOTE HERE! 
This was for a level two project, also known as a higher project qualification or HPQ. We got to choose anything to research and come up with a 2000 word essay on it. It was finished in February 2014, and came back with an A* :)
 Anyway, I chose to write about YA and how heavily gender stereotypes feature in it. A googledoc of this essay can be found here; the essay is uncut here, but there you can find the whole bibliography, and results of the shorter surveys. What do you think? Does YA challenge or reinforce gendered stereotypes, or is it changing? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Does Young Adult Fiction challenge or reinforce gender stereotypes?

Gender stereotypes invade every aspect of life. From the moment a child is born and pronounced a boy or a girl, they will have the trappings of gender thrust upon them.  However, by the time they are teenagers, they will have started questioning these, and many other things about the world around them.   Literature written for teenagers, also known as Young Adult literature (YA), addresses many issues such as grief, bullying, drugs, suicide and rape. However, in my years reading a wide range of books on the market, I have not found many books that prominently challenge gender stereotypes, unless it is one of the few with a main character on the transgender spectrum. I have also often thought about the more general representation of gender throughout YA-the characteristics, traits and ideas attached to characters of different genders. In my time as a book blogger, I have also grown to know the methods of marketing YA literature, and I am going to analyse these, and if and how gender plays a part in these.  Gender stereotypes are rife throughout all forms of media, not just young adult literature. But as teens question and explore life, and are influenced by the media they consume, the books they read challenging or reinforcing gender stereotypes will help form their ideas that will stick with them throughout their lives.

My Research     
The majority of my research involved reading and rereading many books on the YA market. As the selection is much too large for me to read in its entirety, I selected major books and book series in the YA category, and books with protagonists that challenge gender stereotypes. I have also drawn on books I have read previously and have stood out to me as reinforcing or challenging gender stereotypes. To gain an idea of other peoples’ opinions on gender in YA, and the gender distribution of those involved with it, I conducted an online survey, read blogs and articles by readers and authors, and directly asked authors, both in person and over the internet.

Do major YA books feature characters that conform to gender stereotypes?
Stereotypes placed on women in everyday life include being emotional, passive, flirtatious, and dependant. Examples of passive and dependent women in YA include Bella (Meyer, S., 2005) and Nora (Fitzpatrick, 2009). Girls challenging this view a major feature in YA, as seen with Katniss (Collins, 2008) Celaena (Maas, 2012) and Tris (Roth 2011). However, as these girls are, in-universe, challenging the norm of women being submissive and obedient, it could also be said that these books reinforce the idea of most girls being weak.  Even in these worlds, reinforcing the passive, romantic female adds value to their character; in The Hunger Games, Katniss’s worth increases when she has a boy-kissing Peeta earns her gifts to survive in the arena, and when presenting her as victor, she is made to look “like a girl. A young one. Fourteen at the most. Innocent. harmless” (Collins, 2009, p431), compared to the independent, fierce fighter she was in the arena.  Katniss’ conformity to traditional feminine stereotypes is further reinforced when her story ends not with the end of the revolution, but her marriage to Peeta and her raising children (Collins 2010).  Another common idea attached to female characters in YA literature is the idea that they need to have a romantic relationship with a boy, or possibly two, being in the centre of a love triangle. Not only is this heteronormative, it reinforces the idea that a woman must be dependent on someone, often a man, an idea that feminists have spent years trying to combat. 
Boys also fit into one of a few major stereotypes. There are ones such as Four (Roth, 2011), Jace (Clare, 2008), and Gale (Collins, 2009), heroic and adventurous, who are providers, and independent when they are not tied in to romantic relationships. There’s the dark brooding immortal supernatural creature such as Edward (Meyer, S., 2005) and Patch (Fitzpatrick, 2009), who conform the idea that men do not share their emotions very well. There are also emotional and non-aggressive boys such as Peeta (Collins, 2008), who also challenges stereotypes by being skilled at “feminine”, creative activities such as painting and cake decorating, and Simon (Clare, 2007), Charlie (Chbosky 1999), Dash (Cohn and Levithan, 2011), and all of John Green’s protagonists. These have become so common in young adult literature that they are becoming a stereotype in themselves. However, as these boys do not conform to traditional views of men, they can be said to challenge stereotypes.
Some stereotypes grow in popularity due to high sales of a book that features it. Twilight (Meyer, 2005) is responsible for the popularity of vampires, paranormal romance and, unemotional boys with ordinary but special girls, selling one million copies  in two and a half years in the UK (Alexander, 2009), and the series selling over 100 million copies worldwide (Sellers, 2010). Strong girls fighting against a dystopian system have exploded in the wake of The Hunger Games, which has sold over 65million copies across the trilogy (Scholastic, n.d.) in the US alone.   Books with such a large audience will majorly reinforce any gendered stereotypes, as examined above, contained within them.

How are characters challenging gender stereotypes presented?
For a category of literature with such a wide appeal, the amount of characters challenging the stereotypes in their everyday life is surprisingly small. Within the small, slowly growing, selection of queer fiction, trans* and intersex representation is negligible, with only two books featuring trans or intersex main characters published by mainstream publishers being published in 2013 (Lo, 2013a), and 7 (4% of 167 books featuring queer characters) featuring trans characters in a decade by “the big six” and three other major US publishers (Lo, 2013b).  Agender and nonbinary-gender characters are practically non-existent, unless mentioned in passing. The erasure of characters who, with their gender expression, challenge cisgender norms, aids in the reinforcement of the gender binary and attached stereotypes. 
Cisgender characters challenging their gender stereotypes have often been girls attempting to pass as boys, for example Deryn from Leviathan (Westerfeld, 2009), Polly from Monstrous Regiment (Pratchett, 2003) and Jacky from Bloody Jack (Meyer, L., 2002) to gain freedom, owing to the repression of women in their respective worlds .  Rare are characters challenging gender stereotypes in contemporary settings, although over the past few years, the selection has been slowly growing;  for example Jesse from The S Word (Pitcher, 2013)  and Eleanor and Park (Rowell, Eleanor and Park, 2012)who challenge gender stereotypes by the way they dress,  and Ben, who takes up knitting, a conventionally feminine hobby, and ends up enjoying it, becoming the “only male knitter to have ever attended” the English Knitting Championship (Easton, 2014, p227 ). These help to challenge perceptions, both in-universe characters’ and readers’.  What also helps challenge stereotypes is characters being supportive of these characters, for example Megan Hooper (Easton, 2014) and Angie (Pitcher, 2013). However, as the characters challenging stereotypes for them to support are few and far between, their effectiveness at challenging stereotypes is   limited
Do covers reinforce gender stereotypes?
The marketing of a book is based mainly around a cover. Books aimed at boys often feature darker colours used in a more aggressive way, explosions, weaponry and technology, reinforcing the stereotype of boys being violent, active and dominant.  Covers on books targeted at girls often feature a girl in a long flowing, especially in paranormal romance, even if the dress is not relevant to the plot at all, for example Gena Showalter’s Alice in Zombieland (2012), possibly because the stereotypical girl has through her life, in the words of Stacey Whitman, been “romanticizing…the fairy tale, including all the pretty things to wear.” (Wan, 2013).  All these tactics used by publishers’ art departments reinforce gender stereotypes to do with the perceived audience of the book, and have the added effect of unnecessarily gendering genres and stories. The colour pink will also mark a book as girly, regardless of the content. An example of this is What’s Up with Jody Barton (Long, 2012), which features a bright pink cover, off-putting to boys, despite the fact that the main character is a teenage boy. Over time, book covers that are more gender neutral than others have emerged. Examples include the US first editions of The Hunger Games series, the Divergent series, and certain editions of John Green’s novels, particularly Penguin’s 2012 editions. Features of these covers include block colours, symbols, a lack of cover models, whose gender will assumedly influence the gender of readers, and no suggestion of romance.
Gender stereotypes in book covers may also be influenced by the author. In May 2013, prolific author Maureen Johnson (2013a) tweeted “I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, “Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. – signed, A Guy”, then challenged her 77000 followers to take any novel, imagine that the author was a different gender to what they are, and redesign the cover accordingly (2013b). This activity was performed on books from all genres, but you can see stark cover design differences by author gender. Books with female authors were given symbols in place of people, and books with male authors were given people in place of symbols. The altered cover designs reinforce the lack of emotion often associated with men, and the gentility often associated with women. Johnson (2010) also suggests that “female stories are consistently undervalued, labelled “commercial,” “light,” “fluffy,” and “breezy,” even if they are about the very same topics that a man might write about”.  While books will be marketed on merits such as content and tone as well as the author’s gender, this labelling of women’s work and the Coverflip exercise shows that gender stereotyping is still, to some extent, present in the publishers’ marketing departments.

Are reading and writing gendered activities?
Genres are heavily gendered. Romance is seen as a feminine genre, due to the idea that women are emotional. Contemporary is also seen as a feminine genre, with the exception of John Green novels, as many contemporary books heavily feature romance, even though they also deal with harder issues. Thrillers, action and science fiction are seen as male genres, due to the stereotype of men being intellectual, active, and technical, which can lead to women using initials when publishing in these genres, which reinforces these stereotypes.  Dystopia is a gender neutral genre; however many dystopian novels with female authors have a stronger romantic subplot, while dystopian novels written by male, or initialled, authors emphasise the control and destruction of the regime.
Women are often said to dominate the YA market. At first glance in a teen section of a bookstore, you would think so, and in my survey, 75.3% of the writers were female, but when it comes to bestsellers, it’s the men who win. In 47 weeks, two women topped the New York Times YA list for five weeks total (Jensen, 2013a), and at no point, women have had more than 4 books in the top 10.  This seems strange considering that 75% of the authors on a selection of “Best of” lists in 2013 were female (Jensen, 2013b). The reason why more male-authored books have higher sales figures despite critics believing female-authored books are better are unknown; but it could be partially due to the idea that women are less likely to produce quality product.
The use of gender concealment reinforces gender stereotypes. Louisa May Alcott, Marian Evans and the Bronte sisters all used pennames to conceal their gender, (Anderson, 2011) in a time when women had strict restrictions on control over their rights, property, and money. The author who is often credited with kick-starting YA as a genre, Joanne Rowling, used initials J.K. to avoid a negative impact on marketing to male readers.   Women who take on initials in modern YA include J.R. Johansson, S.J Kincaid, D. J McCune, and S. D. Crockett. They may use initials because they are all writing from male perspectives, and may not be taken as seriously as a woman, or because their books are not heavily romantic, as would be expected from a woman, and these two facts would impact the sales of the book based on the preconceptions about the book based n the gender of the author. Men taking on initials was common in classical literature, for example J.R.R Tolkien, T.H. White and J.M. Barrie, however I can only find two modern male authors using initials- M.T. Andersen, who wrote Feed, a science fiction novel, and T.S. Easton, who wrote Boys Don’t Knit. Easton, who uses pseudonyms, also wrote My Year in Agony and  My Summer on the Shelf, two books about a girl who becomes the school’s anonymous Agony Aunt, under Lara Fox, a female pseudonym, (Easton, n.d.), and Haven, a thriller, under his full male name, which reinforces the gendering of genres. 
A Canadian survey (Katz & Sokal, 2003) found that 24% grade 2 boys found reading feminine.  A recent survey conducted by the National Literacy Trust found that  56.8% girls like reading “quite a lot” or “very much”, compared to 43.9% of boys (Clark 2013), and a survey carried out by the Canadian Council of Learning  (2009) found  girls outperform boys by 23 points in reading tests. That reading is feminine activity is reflected in the fact that, of the 149 people I sampled,  84.6% of the readers were female,  84.7% of the  book bloggers, people publishing book reviews to the internet,  were female, and 80% of the workers in publishing were female  (see appendix).
There are many possible explanations for this. One is the fact that reading is not seen as a “masculine” activity-it does not require physical exertion, is not technically challenging, and often invokes emotion. Another reason may be that “as the majority of the teen publishing industry is female, boys see reading as a female activity, and are put off by it”, as suggested by Darren Hartwell (personal communication, 31 January 2014). I believe that a major factor is the androcentricism in society, combined with marketing. Jacqueline Wilson, writer of books for children that cover topics that affect many children, such as abuse, divorce, grief and mental illness, said that she had been told in the past that the books had to be pink because “it would sell “twice” as many copies among girls even if it put boys off.”  (Bingham, 2013) This attitude is effective at upholding the stereotype of pink for girls, blue for boys.  In the same interview, Wilson  then “I do think that with books a boy is going to have to feel really quite confident if he is going to be seen in front of his mates with a book that is bright pink because it is immediately code for this being 'girlie'.”  Bluemle (2012) says “We steer kids—no, we steer boys—away from stories they might respond to from a very early age.” Wilson and Bluemle are referring to the stigma that society places on boys who do “girly” things, even while accepting girls who do “boyish” things. Due to the majority of  books  being believed to have “girly” covers, as 88.5% respondents believed most books have covers aimed at girls, covers not only unnecessarily gender a book, they also gender reading as a whole.

 Does YA challenge or reinforce gender stereotypes?
The aim of every author is to tell a good story, with an intriguing plot and fully developed characters. Many authors don’t go out of their way to include or avoid stereotypes. However, being ways of quickly conveying information about a character or situation, it is inevitable that stereotypes will appear in any form of fiction. The aim of this report was to examine whether or not gender stereotypes are reinforced by young adult literature as a whole. The extent of this research is limited by the fact that I am unable to analyse every book on the YA market, and that people have different ideas of stereotypes relating to genders; however, I believe my research has given me a good overview of the market. My findings  have led me to believe that gendered stereotypes have grown in popularity due to high sales of books  featuring these idea, and waves of similar books riding on their success perpetuates them, as seen in the dystopian and paranormal romance genres, which are full of romantically dependent girls and protective boys.   Gender stereotypes are also reinforced by the marketing of a book, which is influenced by both the content and the author’s gender, and is expressed in a book’s cover and words used to promote it. As the selection of YA increases week by week, characters that challenge gender stereotypes are slowly gaining visibility, and as attitudes towards queer people change and we see more and more, gay characters, in time, maybe we will have a full range of characters, both trans* and cisgender, challenging stereotypes .  However, as the market stands, I believe that YA fiction as a whole does reinforce gender stereotypes.

Reference list
Alexander, J., 2009. Twilight: Book breaks sales records, The Telegraph, [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 February 2014]
Anderson, D., 2011. Nom de Plume-YA Lit and Marketing. Faith and Feminism. [blog] 31 May 2011. Available at: [Accessed 17 February 2014]
Bingham, J., 2013. Dame Jacqueline Wilson challenges publishers to halt the pink tide, The Telegraph, [online]. Available at  [Accessed 11 February 2014]
Bluemle, E., 2012. He Won’t Read Books About Girls. Publishers Weekly Shelftalker.  [blog] 5 April 2012. Available at:  [Accessed 3 February 2014]. 
Canadian Council of Learning, 2009. Why Boys Don’t Like to Read.  [online] Available at [Accessed 18 February 2014]
Chbosky, S., 1999. The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  New York: Simon and Schuster
Clare, C. 2008. City of Bones. London: Simon Pulse
Clarke, C., 2013. Children and Young People’s Reading in 2012. [online]. Available at: ) [Accessed 8 February 2014]
Cohn R, and Levithan, D., 2011. Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares.  Richmond: Mira Ink. 
Collins, S., 2009. The Hunger Games. 2nd Edition.  London: Scholastic.      
Collins, S., 2010. Mockingjay.  2nd Edition. London: Scholastic. 
Easton, T.S., 2014. Boys Don’t Knit. London: Hot Key Books. 
Easton, T. S, n.d. YA Books. [online]  Available at:!books/cee5 [Accessed 14 February 2014]. 
Fitzpatrick, B., 2009. Hush Hush. London: Simon and Schuster
Jensen, K. 2013a. On Cover Flipping.  Stacked Books, [blog] 9 May 2013. Available at: [Accessed 2 February  2014]. 
Jensen, K. 2013b. "Best of 2013 YA" List Breakdown, Part 1.  Stacked Books, [blog] 10 December 2013. Available at:  [Accessed 20  February 2014]. 
Johnson, M., 2010. Sell The Girls. Maureen Johnson, [blog] 22 September 2010. Available at: [Accessed 10 February 2014]
Johnson, M. (@maureenjohnson), 2013a, “I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, "Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. - signed, A Guy", [Twitter], 6 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed 2 February 2014]
Johnson, M., 2013b. Let’s Do the Coverflip. Maureen Johnson, [blog] 6 May 2013. Available at [Accessed 2 February 2014]
Katz, H., and Sokal, L., 2003. Masculine literacy: One size does not fit all. Reading Manitoba, 24(1), 4-8.
Lo, M., 2013a.   LGBT Young Adult Books Published in 2013. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 21 January 2014]. 
Lo, M., 2013b.   LGBT Young Adult Books 2003-13: A Decade of Slow But Steady Change [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 January 2014]. 
Long, H., 2012. What’s Up with Jody Barton? London: Macmillan
Maas, S. J., 2012. Throne of Glass.  London: Bloomsbury
Meyer, L., 2010. Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy.  Boston: HMH For Young Readers
Meyer, S., 2005. Twilight. UK Edition. London: Atom. 
Pitcher C., 2013. The S-Word.  New York: Gallery Books
Pratchett, T., 2003. Monstrous Regiment.  London: Corgi              
Roth, V., 2012. Divergent.  New York: Katherine Tegan Books. 
Rowell, R. 2012. Eleanor & Park. London: Orion Books
Scholastic, n.d. The Hunger Games|Scholastic Media Room. [online]  Available at: [Accessed 4 January 2014]. 
Sellers, J., 2010. New Stephanie Meyer Novella Arriving in June. [online]. Available at; [Accessed 4 February 2014]
Showalter, G., 2012. Alice in Zombieland.  New York: Harlequin Teen. 
Sokal, L. et al, 2005. Boys will be “Boys”: Variability in Boys’ Experiences of Literacy. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 15 February 2014]. 
Wan, M., 2013. An Insider’s Take on Cover Story. Forever Young Adult. [blog] 23 August 2013. Available at: [Accessed 11 February 2014]. 
Westerfeld, S. 2010. Leviathan. London: Simon and Schuster Children’s Books

1 comment:

Thanks for taking time to read this!
Comments are much loved.
Nina xxx

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