Discussion: Racism and Intersectionality in YA Fiction

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For those of you who follow me on Twitter, I may have filled up your feed with annoying Tweets about how I was coming towards the end of my quarter and was working on a final paper for my Feminist Theory class, and a lot of you requested to see the final product so here I am to provide it to you (and spark some discussion along the way).

To break it down for you, the assignment required me to write about any topic of my choosing as long as I related it back to feminism and a theory we had discussed in class. I chose YA fiction, as I have done for a slew of other papers throughout my college career (seriously, I think I’ve written almost four of these and it’s only my junior year). I then chose to look at YA lit through the realm of intersectionality, which is basically the ways that oppressive institutions (i.e. classism, homophobia, sexism, just to name a few) are interconnected.

So, as we all know, YA lit is a pretty expansive topic and the more research I did, the more I found that writing about what I know was going to be easiest. Duh. So I examined The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Divergent series’ from the book series, to the movie franchises, to the actresses playing the characters, to examine whether or not a series is feminist and/or racist (whether inherently or not). Obviously there are a lot of series out there that I could have examined, but these three were the simplest in terms of having common themes and being very popular, plus the fact that they all have movie franchises that coalesce with what I was discussing.

The paper itself is pretty extensive (about 13 pages) so bear with me as I post it here and bore you with theory and feminist terms. And I should also preface this with, don’t steal my work. Seriously, I worked really hard on this for far too many long nights in the Uni library. With that being said, here we go!

I’d also love to hear your thoughts so make sure to leave a comment below of what you think!

Racing Towards Intersectionality in YA Fiction

Feminist theory and Young Adult (YA) fiction, on the surface level, seem like two separate entities that would have hardly any crossover with each other. However, when examining the two on a much deeper level and exploring the different aspects of YA fiction and the factors that make up its fictional genre, especially when considering protagonists, it becomes clear that feminist theory can be used as a means of examining YA fiction in addition to the films that accompany popular YA fiction series’. By exploring the feminist theory of intersectionality and the oppressive institutions that shape the worlds and characters written in YA fiction, troubling factors are brought to light, specifically a lack of racial diversity.

Under the lens of an intersectionality theory, oppressive institutional powers such as racism and sexism can be examined. This will act as a guide for why YA fiction and movies are detrimental to young women, specifically those who may one day become feminists. While the realm of intersectionality can be broad, it becomes narrow through the lens and domain of fiction that my research focuses on.

Intersectionality itself is defined as, “not an abstract notion but a description of the way multiple oppressions are experienced” (Smith, para. 1). Women in particular are often the subject of much oppression and marginalization. To examine popular texts within a society, it may be possible to derive where these messages are coming from and what effect they can have on a young group of people. YA fiction is a particularly interesting section of literature to examine because it has recently transcended the youth group and resonates with individuals who do not fall into the spectrum of 12-18 year olds. YA fiction has changed from the era of Judy Blume’s Forever, which often functioned as a sex manual to teens. It has now moved to a wider range of previously neglected individuals and identities such as gay teens, transgender explorations, and of course, vampires and the supernatural world.

So, why is the exploration of intersectionality important if YA texts are moving to a more progressive state? Unfortunately, there is still a wide range of straight, white, male characters that are dominating the market and being consumed by the masses. Therefore, an intersectional theoretical approach to examining YA fiction is necessary. In the article, “A Feminist Research Agenda in Youth Literature,” the author, Kay Vandergrift states that literature cannot be thought about, “without an awareness of the male hierarchical society in which literature is produced and read” (23). By establishing that the white patriarchy is the dominant force behind YA fiction and dictates the types of books being published for teens, a trend becomes evident in exposing the problem of a lack of representation of minorities, especially race, within the genre.

Vandergrift also goes on to point out that in recent years, more of an effort has been placed on creating female protagonists to bridge the gap between gender inequalities in YA fiction. In doing so, publishers and authors have indirectly lent a hand in excluding, “the voices of those of different races, classes, ethnicities, and sexual orientations” (24). This is why intersectionality, and specifically in the scope of this essay, race, are so important because they include all genders, identities, and sexual orientations, going beyond that of just gender and having strong female protagonists.

For example, Katniss Everdeen, the central character of The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins is described as having, “Olive skin, ‘straight black hair,’ which she pulls into a braid, and grey eyes…it’s pretty safe to say that Katniss is not necessarily Anglo-Saxon” (Jezebel, para. 5). Katniss is the main character of the trilogy and continues to stand as a feminist icon eight years since the first book in the series was published. She stands as a testament of being one step closer to having more mainstream and popular YA books becoming more integrated with racial minority main characters. However, that does not dissuade the fact that due to this ambiguity, her race is left up to interpretation and can be seen as white, something that Hollywood chose to portray Katniss as in the film series of the same title.

If audiences are to assume that Katniss is white, she exhibits a “white savior” complex in the series brought about by the hegemonic stereotypes reinforced through other white characters within the novel. Minority characters that are specifically stated to be African American “are marginalized; able to exercise agency against the corruption of the Capitol, but only via [Katniss]” (Kirby, 466). Again, a feminist character is presented to the masses, but the author reinforces hegemonic tendencies without the scope of intersectionality. Collins thusly reinforces the detrimental effects of having a character that, on the surface level, seems to be an inspirational character, but falls short of the racial divide.

Feminism and intersectionality can be mixed together to provide a framework of a theory. Both are important, but in the case of YA fiction, cannot be used interchangeably because they have different connotations that examine vastly singular schools of thought that overlap, but do not intersect. Not only that, but the essence of a strong female character, disregarding her other features momentarily, is almost never exactly defined. What makes a female “strong”? Strong female protagonists are usually labeled as such without distinct features provided to the audience, whereas their male counterparts are simply “male protagonists.”

This parallels the racial problem as well. Most characters in YA novels are automatically assumed to be part of the dominant class; white and straight. If they are not white and straight, they are immediately labeled as otherwise, and are called upon to “‘rise above the typical female stereotypes,’” while still satisfying a need for mainstream and cookie cutter characters that can be easily related to and consumed within a novel or series (Rubinstein-Avila, 366).

For example, going back to The Hunger Games series, audiences were seemingly shocked when Rue, a young black girl from one of Katniss’ fellow districts in the books, was cast as a black girl (the actress portraying her being Amandla Stenberg, a fourteen year old at the time). She is clearly written in the canon material as having, “dark brown skin and eyes,” (Collins, 45) but audiences were still infuriated and outraged that a black actress was portraying the black character. Even with clear indications from the original material that a supporting character is not of Caucasian descent, characters are still assumed to be of the hegemonic majority, despite being proved otherwise with concrete textual evidence.

Another harmful factor that can lead to misrepresentation of characters within YA fiction has to do with how a book is marketed and presented based on its cover and title. In the early 2000’s much emphasis was placed on creating covers that were focused on, “more representational covers – no people, just images – to achieve cross-gender, multicultural appeal” (Yampbell, 357). However, this trend began to change in the mid-2000’s when an abundance of covers with pretty, pale, white girls in ball gowns (i.e. Images 1, 2, 3) were displayed on covers across a multitude of bookstores.

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This is also around the time when novels such as the Twilight series, by Stephenie Meyer, were coming into the spotlight and focused on the beauty that came with being a vampire, which meant having pure white skin. In comparison to the white skin of the vampires, the werewolves, who are portrayed as Native American’s, are put in a position of implying animalistic tendencies of Native American’s in general. This unintentionally puts them in a position of appearing to be the villains. Bella Swan, again, a white female character, who has zero redeeming qualities, is put in the middle of the conflict between the vampires and werewolves.

Eventually, Bella does become a vampire and finds herself redeemed from her beautiful and perfect skin. The idea of enforcing this very specific type of skin tone plays into the idea that those who are reading the material, typically young adults, but in the case of Twilight, often married women, can position themselves into the characters shoes and yearn to identify with the character. As summed up in the article “That Teenage Feeling”: “Importantly, envelopment and submission to these fantasy scenarios is facilitated and perhaps even contingent upon a specific engagement of the text: that of ‘girl’ reading” (Petersen, 59). However, just because this is a fantastical world in the paranormal romance genre, does not mean that different rules apply when it comes to intersectionality and race. If anything, the ideals of bringing forth a fantasy world full of multicultural diversity is even more pronounced since the possibilities are virtually endless when creating a world that has no boundaries.

When Stephenie Meyer places Native American’s into a box where each one can be summed up as having “skin like russet-colored silk in the firelight,” (Eclipse, 242) and “long arms and legs, long fingers, long black braids, and long faces with long noses” (Midnight Sun, 612-613), and that one of the Native American characters lashed out, literally, on his wife, she is perpetuating a long standing tradition of white imperialism in which every Native American looks alike and has a tendency of spousal or domestic abuse. Meyer also employs the white characters (i.e. the vampires) to trade insults with the characters of color (i.e. the werewolves) in which “the vamps lob insults like dog and mongrel” (Peterson, para. 28). Again, Meyer is aiding in perpetuating a stereotype that Native American’s are beneath the Caucasian hegemony. These subtle messages that are being sent in YA fiction are extremely harmful to the audiences, because it shows them that this type of behavior is acceptable and goes beyond the realm of a fantasy book; that it can be repeated in real life.

Twilight is a classic example of how old ideas of hierarchy shine through in the 21st century, especially in the United States, which has a long history of oppression of not only Native people, but races of any color other than white. As a modern society, we should be moving towards going beyond acceptance, and full integration of marginalized and oppressed people into leading roles, without looking upon them in disdain. YA fiction attempts to do this, but white structural oppressions seem to shine through in the more popular and well-known fictional series’.

Kristen Stewart was cast as Bella Swan in the movie franchise, and has identified herself as a feminist on multiple occasions. What does this ultimately say about the character she chooses to play, who is not feminist under any definition or variance of the word? Should actresses like Kristen Stewart take more of a stand on wanting to portray characters that have more feminist attributes (which is something she has been leaning towards in recent years, such as her role as Cole in the film Camp X-Ray)? Or does attempting to portray a non-feminist character to the best of her acting ability show that she has a wide range of talents? No matter the case, clearly there is still a disassociation between characters that are not feminist and the audiences who look up to these characters that define themselves as feminists. This also expands to the actresses cast as the characters too.

Where does this leave feminists? Second wave feminism “drew in women of color and developing nations, seeking sisterhood and solidarity, claiming ‘Women’s struggle is class struggle’” (Rampton, para. 9). If second wave feminism brought in women of color, rather than excluding them, and was a movement that was based primarily in the 60’s to about the 80’s, then why does YA fiction of today not also parallel this movement?

YA fiction, a generally new topic (and an ever-expanding one) in the literary world, falls short of being inclusive. Despite this, YA fiction is still enforcing age-old tendencies that place feminists and women of color in oppressed situations and storylines. Putting aside race momentarily, another popular series that features a “strong female character” is the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth.

Divergent’s main white character, Tris, is placed in a faction separate from her family and friends, which first signifies that there are overarching powers forcing her to be complicit in this society. Her main enemy throughout the series, a cold, calculating, white woman by the name of Jeanine, is seen as the oppressor, but is only viewed as such because of the patriarchy of the society. It’s problematic that Jeanine is the villain because it pits women against each other, while men stand by and watch them fight. Even Tris’ love interest, Four, “constantly humiliates her, supposedly for her protection” (Ferrell, para. 12). However, Four does ask for explicit consent during their sex scene, something not typically seen in YA novels. If there is a sex scene, it is implied after marriage and is considered consensual without being explicitly stated (as seen in the final Twilight book, Breaking Dawn).

Divergents themselves can be seen as feminist icons though, in that they are “framed as a threat to society, they are attacked by what counts for media in their world, and they must constantly guard against those who wish to exploit and destroy ‘their kind’” (Wilson, para. 6). However, are they really feminists if they are not inclusionary of all types of races and individuals from all backgrounds? Divergents in the series also have a tendency to be very suspicious of others and regard themselves highly (albeit with a mixture of fear). Therefore, on the surface level they may appear to be feminists, if that definition of feminism excludes looking at intersectionality and ideas of harmony among all races.

To complicate things further in the real world, Shailene Woodley, the actress who portrays the character Tris in the movie franchise, has stated that she is not a feminist, “on account that raising women to power and taking it from men disturbs a balance” (Ferrell, para. 10). While this is clearly the wrong definition of feminism, having a non-feminist portray a seemingly feminist character can be problematic to young viewers and readers of the series. It blends together old ideas of the patriarchy being supreme with a character that goes against systematic oppression. In contrast to the casting of Rue in The Hunger Games film franchise, Shailene Woodley as Tris was a prime example of bad casting in an industry that is known for being male dominated. This further sends mixed signals to young readers, especially girls, who are looking to celebrities as icons for shaping their beliefs about the society they live in.

It is often said in feminist studies that the “personal is political” and this is especially true in terms of race and the marginalization of certain cultures. In alignment with this, especially in the case of the Divergent series casting, I would argue that the fictional is political. Again, readers are exposed to worlds where anything can be possible, but instead are confined to patriarchal values and systems of oppression, which can be damaging, not to mention, confusing, for impressionable adolescents.

Taking the three examples of The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Divergent, we can begin to see how despite the contextual and plot differences within these novels, they have overlapping ideals pushed towards audiences about feminism and intersectionality, or the lack thereof. The patriarchal institutions that are in place within these stories; the Capitol in The Hunger Games, Edward controlling Bella in Twilight, and the mysterious institutions in place in Divergent, all stand as tangible forces that are controlling these young women. On top of that, all three characters are white (Katniss is being based off the movies, though her race in the books can be argued either way) and do not offer a representation of strong women across cultures and from different backgrounds, similar to the real world.

These series are therefore reinforcing ideals that the white hegemonic males are the one’s who are behind the controls of almost every aspect of young girls’ lives. How can young women expect to find leaders in the fictional worlds they are diving into without having any sort of diversity? All of these books are written by white women, showing that even outside of these worlds, books written by women of color are not promoted as extensively as books written by white women. In recent years, there has been a push for more recognition of characters and authors that are of different races, in order to show that the standard white, straight, character is not the norm any longer.

Even within classroom settings, there is often an unintentional push towards white authors and teaching “white literature.” For example, a survey was conducted of the types of Young Adult literature taught in university courses and found that, “The concept of multicultural literature was seen as valued, but respondents agreed that it is ‘undervalued and overlooked’” (Hayn, 48). If multicultural and intersectional literature and/or fiction is not being taught at University levels, where it may be too late to integrate such ideals anyway, then how can it be expected to be provided to children or youths outside of a classroom setting?

If the publishing industries were to advocate more searches for works and authors that have written more diverse novels, they would ultimately contribute to an influx of stories and plots that more children and young adults could enjoy. As mentioned previously, in recent years there has been more of a push for intersectional works and, “The robust YA market continues to offer a wide range of books for all kinds of readers” (Crowe, 148). Furthermore, once there has been a mass publication of these different stories, the standard of having less white characters that will dominate the market and then make it “up to parents, librarians, and English teachers to know books and steer young readers to the literature – YA or classic – for which they are best suited” (Crowe, 149).

As a reader myself, who is a straight, white, feminist female, I attempted to examine some of my favorite novels and determine if they fell into the category of intersectionality or racial diversity. Unfortunately, I found that most of the books I have read in recent years do not fall under such categories, and I also could not name more than five off the top of my head that featured a main character of a different race. With the feminist knowledge and expertise I now possess from three years of education at a university, I would have assumed that I would be a much more savvy shopper and consumer of fictional material. The books I remember reading were more non-fictional stories, assigned in my high school classes, and not picked up for my own enjoyment, in which the person of color went through a struggle. Again, I find the fault being placed on the publishing industry and their lack of promotion or creation of works that would even garner a large category of YA fictional books.

As a young feminist woman who aims to have a career in the publishing industry, I would hope to contribute to the influx of titles that allow for marginalized groups. Ultimately, I would like to go beyond simply having multicultural characters that are depicted in supporting roles or having white characters in international settings. This would move away from using exotic backgrounds to enhance a story without actually looking at the people who are from such a setting. Additionally, this would also negate the practice of a characters ethnicity being used “only for descriptive purposes rather than functioning to depict insights about the culture or cultural practices” (Koss, 566). An ethnicity, whether in the fictional world or reality, should not be used as a means for highlighting the hegemony to a status where they are seen as inherently “better” because of their differences. Differentiations in race and culture should be celebrated and expand beyond acceptance towards a realm of not having to point out variances or nuances because they have become so normalized.

As stated from the start, intersectionality can take on a variety of stances and have differentiations depending on what lens it is being looked through. In terms of feminist theory and YA fiction, intersectionality is examined as a way of going beyond the fictional world to seeing parallels to the marginalization of people of color in our own world.

The intersectional theory applied here though, has allowed for examining YA fiction beyond what is a good or bad story. The consumers of YA fiction, largely young teens to adults, are one of the most impressionable groups of people in this society. If they are shaping their ideals and trying to strive for a more accepting and open future, this can be achieved through the idea that I have proposed that the “fictional is political.”

YA fiction is not a blip on the literary world’s radar. With its growing marketability and consumption by a wide range of individuals from extensive backgrounds, YA fiction has secured its place in the literary world and beyond. Through readership, YA fiction will open the realm for examining more than just intersectional theory in a way that is accessible and understandable to all audiences, even those who do not discern themselves as feminists.

Ultimately, YA fiction needs to develop further within itself by promoting the oppressed who have not had similar opportunities as their white counterparts. This will crush the hegemonic and historical tendencies that have permeated across novels and series in YA fiction.

 

Works Cited

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008. Print.

Crowe, Chris. “Young Adult Literature: The Problem with YA Literature.” The English Journal 90.3 (2001): 146. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

Ferrell, Ty. “”Divergent” Touches on Feminism and Class Divides.” The Weather Vane. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.

Hayn, Judith A., and Jeffrey S. Kaplan. Teaching Young Adult Literature Today: Insights, Considerations, and Perspectives for the Classroom Teacher. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012. Print.

Kirby, Philip. “The Girl on Fire: The Hunger Games , Feminist Geopolitics and the Contemporary Female Action Hero.” Geopolitics 20.2 (2015): 460-78. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

Koss, Melanie D., and William H. Teale. “What’s Happening in YA Literature? Trends in Books for Adolescents.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 52.7 (2009): 563-72. Web.

Meyer, Stephenie. Eclipse. New York: Little, Brown, 2007. Print.

Petersen, Anne Helen. “That Teenage Feeling.” Feminist Media Studies 12.1 (2012): 51-67. Web.

Peterson, Latoya. “Running With the Wolves – A Racialicious Reading of the Twilight Saga.” Racialicious the Intersection of Race and Pop Culture. 2009. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.

Rampton, Martha. “Four Waves of Feminism.” Four Waves of Feminism. 25 Oct. 2015. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.

Rubinstein‐Avila, Eliane. “Examining Representations of Young Adult Female Protagonists through Critical Race Feminism.” Changing English 14.3 (2007): 363-74. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

Smith, Sharon. “Black Feminism and Intersectionality.” Black Feminism and Intersectionality. International Socialist Review. Web. 03 Mar. 2016.

Stewart, Dodai. “Racist Hunger Games Fans Are Very Disappointed.” Jezebel. 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.

Vandergrift, Kay. “A Feminist Research Agenda in Youth Literature.” Wilson Library Bulletin (1993): 23. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

Wilson, Natalie. “Are Divergents Feminists in Disguise?” Ms Magazine Blog. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.

Yampbell, Cat. “Judging a Book by Its Cover: Publishing Trends in Young Adult Literature.” The Lion and the Unicorn 29.3 (2005): 348-72. The John Hopkins Press University Press. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

 

 

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15 thoughts on “Discussion: Racism and Intersectionality in YA Fiction

  1. Pingback: Friday Finds: Week 76 and 77 | Avid Reader

  2. Honestly, I wish book bloggers would have more critical discussions. It’s nice to talk about the implications these text have in the real world. Anyway, I feel like The Hunger Games would have drove the point home if the cast a woman of color.

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    • I could not agree more! I think we forget that there are a lot of marginalized groups out there who are consistently not being recognized (even in the fictional world) and that’s pretty sad. And I would argue that The Hunger Games would have been just as successful with an actress of color considering how awful the last movies have been.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent, excellent essay. Thank you for sharing this.

    I personally don’t read much YA Lit anymore because it’s generally not as diverse as adult fiction. There are exceptions of course and I will read such books. But my focus as a reader is to read a majoriry of books written by people of color. I figured that white authors already get so much support and promotion that my deliberate purchasing of diverse books won’t even affect them.

    I want to comment on Katniss’ ethnicity. I generally don’t like when authors leave a character’s ethnicity vague or unclear because then most people will assume the character is white. I feel that the character’s ethnicity should not be open to interpretation. If a white writer wants to have a white lead, that’s fine. But if he/she leaves the ethnicity vague to give the illusion of diversity, then I feel that is problematic and misguided. White people already have fair and wide representation of themselves in all media, where as people of color don’t. So if white authors want to help diversity YA lit and write characters of color as leads, they have to do so explicitly or not even bother. Perhaps to avoid criticism, they can simply add more people of characters with important roles in the story, as opposed to side characters.
    I certainly don’t expect white authors to be the champions of diversity in YA lit, but they can be important allies. The real work is up to us, the readers and authors of color who must continue to write and make our presence known.

    Like

    • I love, love, love your comment! I think that keeping characters races ambiguous is just as harmful as having all white characters because it leads to situations such as this where there just becomes arguments about what the characters race is. Not to mention we assume they’d be white because that’s what has been instilled over time due to NOT have a vast representation of races.

      Speaking as a person with a hell of a lot of white privilege, I think it’s SO important to be an ally and stand up for underrepresented individuals. So yes, I agree with you on all points. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I award thee an A+. But seriously, fantastic paper Paige.

    As a POC feminist, I agree with what you have said. It’s funny, because growing up I always imagined myself white. The prevalence of whiteness in media really seeps into your consciousness – and unconscious – in a way that is so subtle but harmful. I felt a great deal of dissonance in my identity when I was young. I believed I was capable and intelligent, but did not feel beautiful because, well, I was not white and beauty is whiteness when you’re growing up in a Western country where you have 0% representation (except Mulan, but).

    While that may be history for me, I am concerned and anxious about what other young girls might feel if I experienced it.

    Also, I love what you said about the personal and fictional being political. That is so, so true. I mean, books and what an author imagines can be so telling, right? If they’re writing fictional worlds that have all-white characters, then it speaks something – whether race is an important ‘point’ in the book is irrelevant. Having all-white characters, in minute ways, perpetuate white supremacy – whether it be representation, standards of beauty, male white patriarchy, etc.

    Blargh I could go on and on forever but just. Wonderful post, wonderful essay. GO YOU GIRL.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I LOVE this! I am a high school teacher and have been looking for more ways to approach the topics of racism, sexism, and intersectionality with my students. Tensions are high right now all over the world and people are becoming more divided than ever. I’m hoping that by encouraging more educated dialogue on these topics that we can see people start to address these problems and come together.

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  6. This is awesome! We as book bloggers should really post more critical analysis of books, etc. – because whilst that can be hard, man, it’s always so interesting to read about! It really reinforces to me, how important reading is! Thanks so much for posting your paper up here – it was a pleasure to read! 😀
    Geraldine @ Corralling Books

    Like

    • Thanks for taking the time to read it! It’s a bit lengthy and covers some broad stuff, but I agree, it’s important to have these discussions. We must always be critical readers because I think the fictional world reflects back on the real one. Or maybe I’m being too over analytical.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Sunday Post ~ Egghead – Girl of 1000 Wonders

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