What’s Up With That? by A. M. Jenkins

An open question regarding sexism and misogyny in the children’s and YA publishing industry.

First, some background: A little over ten years ago, I wrote a YA ms that had alternating POVs—one male, one female. The girl was vain, manipulative, and selfish—all layers in a veneer of desperate self-protection driven by a bone-deep fear that she was inherently unworthy and unlovable (rooted in a traumatic loss that took place in her childhood).

What happened to this ms? As it made the rounds the girl character was consistently deemed unlikable. Around this time I realized that I was trying to avoid “going there” so I rewrote the book forcing myself to do my job and stay in the extremely painful-to-write male’s voice, mind, and heart. The girl character did not change at all; her actions, motivations, and words were exactly the same. The only difference was that now readers got the character through a male POV; in other words, they were one step away from experiencing the girl rawly and directly.

The book (Damage) quickly sold and got a positive reception.

A couple of years later, I wrote and sold a YA book with a single male POV. The POV character was vain, profane, bullying, selfish, and actively cruel—all layers in a veneer of desperate self-protection driven by a bone-deep fear that he was inherently unworthy and laughable (rooted in an undiagnosed learning disorder).

The book (Out of Order) was quickly published and was generally praised for its accurate depiction of a real teen guy.

And all of this—plus repeated, repeated experiences reading:

a)  pre-publication YA ms whose authors are told by editors/agents to change realistically flawed female characters so that they present as “likable” or “everygirl”
b)  reviews of published YAs calling realistically flawed female characters “unlikable” or “unpleasant”

has given me the very strong sense that publishing prefers its girls to be generically palatable and/or shallowly token-spunky. As a writer friend has pointed out, girls are allowed to wield swords so long as they aren’t negative or angry about it. My own observations tell me that a boy character can curse, lie, cheat, bully, steal, and kill, and still be deemed likable and someone to root for. But a girl who has a prissy streak? A judgmental bent? Not so much.

There are exceptions, of course. But I believe I have seen—and am seeing even more, as the larger publishing industry discovers that YA can be a huge moneymaker–a clear knee-jerk prejudice against realistically 3-D girl characters. And here’s what’s odd: the majority of people who work in the children’s/YA end of the publishing industry are women.

What do you think is up with that?

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “What’s Up With That? by A. M. Jenkins

  1. Kathy Quimby

    Amanda, this is An Important Question. No. Make that: A Most Important Question. It’s so important that I hope we can have a conversation about it during residency sometime.

    I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with a residual tendency to idealize women–to see women as supportive and empathetic and all of those positive attributes, as ways of making up for women having been seen as weak and fragile. Idealization means that women are still not seen as having the same combination of strengths and flaws as every other human being in the history of ever.

    It’s certainly something we need to get over. The bigger question is–how?

  2. Elizabeth Kuelbs

    Amanda, that is a troubling observation. And a fascinating question. I like Kathy’s theory. I also wonder if this phenomenon might be connected in part to teen girl desire for perfection and adoration, and the addiction for “likes” social media can engender.

    As a mom of teen girls, I worry about the way brilliant/athletic/artistic girls objectify themselves on Instagram, etc, hoping for the likes and the gorgeouses, and the you’re-perfects. What will happen when girls with hundreds of online bikini pictures start interviewing for jobs?!

    Perhaps publishers think the “like” addicted “everygirl” wants the generically palatable, token-spunky heroine.

    This would be a rich topic for a res discussion.

  3. Shannon Morgan

    Maybe the women who lead publishing are trying to put forward the best face of young women and girls. I think it’s important to note that most schoolteachers and librarians are women, too, and if publishing thinks that those ladies won’t recommend a book to a student (or buy it for the library) because the flawed girl MC would be a poor role model, they’re going to stick to publishing common-denominator Everygirls.

    As you said, there are exceptions to the Everygirl and brilliant ones, and those writers and publishers should be proud to have put those honest characters in the world where millions of flawed Actualgirls can read about them.

  4. Amanda, how much do I love your sharp eyes, your take no prisoner style and your ability to hone in on and articulate what is true? I will say that as a society we have mixed feelings about girls (we dislike women, but feel some ease about that.) Literary fiction is full of the vain and the selfish female mc. (See Tessa Hadley, Anita Brookner, A.S. Byatt) But we apparently do not trust young readers. I can’t wait to see you again!

  5. I loved DAMAGE, and have recommended it to countless students (all male), but knowing the story behind the ms, I want the original. Who knows how much more reach THAT story would have had?

    I applaud all of your convictions on writing the truth of life as a female. I teach teens, write for teens and have daughters of my own. There is much that needs to be covered in order to challenge both male and female perspective. Double standards abound, and I seem them worsening.

    Collectively, if editors see enough reality and not commodity from us, they’ll have to change their tune. Or possibly that’s wishful thinking. Either way, we have to write as a mirror to society, not only a portrait we’d like to see.

  6. So much to think about with this, Amanda. Have you read Olive Kittredge, which won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago? Ha, I like imagining what she was like as a teen.

  7. Girls are expected to be a certain way probably. Perhaps they think the reader won’t/can’t identify with the MC female if she’s shown negatively. I think boys get more leeway.

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