Category Archives: gender

Review: Girls, Goddesses and Giants by Lari Don

Brilliant collection of folk tales, legends and myths with active heroines 

Firstly, I have to comment on this gorgeous cover! Bold and strong, showing a silhouetted girl in action with a sword and decorated with dragon and pretty flowers, it’s wonderfully attractive without playing to cloying stereotypes of femininity (for little girls). What a great job! And, as you might guess, this is absolutely the theme for the collection: bold, clever, resourceful and active girls taking charge and saving the day. It’s the perfect antidote to the many pink and princessy collections out there.

The book features twelve stories, each from a different culture and all focusing on the actions of a central girl character. The stories themselves are quite short, and nicely illustrated with occasional bold silhouettes. The print is quite large, too, so the stories are not daunting for young readers. The book is perfect for bedtime reading to or with a child, and its cover and style make it likely to appeal to boys as well as girls.

There are mythical monsters and creatures of folklore to be defeated or outwitted, challenges to be met and prejudice to be ignored. Lari Don has done a great job in sourcing and retelling these tales. The narrative style is warm and friendly, well suited to reading aloud, and with perfectly judged pace and tension for the target age group (younger readers and pre-readers).

Overall, I would absolutely recommend this. As a beautiful hardback with dustjacket, it would make a lovely gift.

The cover blurb says:

Greedy giants. Unjust emperors. Shape-shifting demons. And the heroines who deal with them.

From China and Japan, the Americas, Europe and Africa, this collection of traditional tales shows girls who win the day, whether by cleverness, courage, kindness or strength. Who needs a handsome prince?

Published 18 July 2013 by A & C Black
Find more info at the publisher’s website
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy

Words on Wednesday: Gender Representation and Children’s Picture Books

I’m lazily rerunning a post from just over a year ago, as gender representation is still something that concerns me (I’m certain it’s getting worse, and more and more convinced that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has somehow shaped its own future, but that’s a whole other topic…)

As a feminist who learned about feminism from literature, I tend to notice how books contribute to and stretch gender stereotypes. I notice it in other fields too, of course. Have you seen Shannon Hale’s brilliant post about gender balance in animation? Horrifying (to me), if only for the comments claiming it’s not significant. Media imagery and representation in the stories we hear are clearly part of our socialisation and it absolutely matters if girls only ever see girls acting as supporting roles to boys, or only ever see nurturing carried out by female characters. 

Anyway, I’m in danger of ranting here when what I really want to do is share some of the excellent titles that we’ve enjoyed with our girls. I’m focusing on the early years here, looking at picture books in particular.

For young picture book readers, Kes Gray’s Daisy is a fabulous character. She could just as easily have been a boy, and that is the point here. Unfortunately, it’s rare to find female characters acting in gender-neutral ways (possibly because we sort of mean ‘male’ when we say ‘gender-netural’, but that’s probably an argument for another day…). Imagine my delight when Kes Gray began publishing Daisy chapter books just as my youngest was about ready to start reading chapter books? We’ll be talking more about those on Sunday, in the context of funny series. [edited to add link]
Picture books that play with sterotypical and fairy tale representations are also very welcome when encouraging children to think about and beyond gender. Here are four of our favourites:

Prince Cinders by Babette Cole reverses the genders for Cinderella beautifully. Both my girls found it hilarious that this Cinders wished to be big and hairy like his brothers, rather than beautifully dressed like the more traditional version. It retains the marriage plot, so has Princess Lovelypenny as the Prince Charming character seeking a husband, although there are still some more typical representations (Princess Lovelypenny thinks Prince Cinders saved her and therefore wants to marry him). It’s a suitable story for both genders, with its anarchic humour.

Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole is a far freer reversal than Prince Cinders, being based on various fairytale tropes rather than one specific tale. Princess Smartypants does not want to get married and creates impossible tasks for her suitors so that she can retain her freedom. Children recognise this as being different from standard tales and enjoy the anarchy of this, without having any sense that it is tied up with gender as a concept.

Julia Donaldson’s The Princess and the Wizard (illustrated by Lydia Monks) stays considerably closer to traditional tales, but shows a sparkly princess outwitting the evil wizard by herself and not relying on outside (male) help to save her. This one will appeal to girly girls with its gorgeous glittery pages, whilst offering a capable and competent girl as main character.

Beware of Girls by Tony Blundell is a hilarious subversion of the Red Riding Hood story, featuring a very stupid wolf (whose mixed up and muddled lines never fail to make my youngest giggle) and a very bright little girl. This is a joyful triumph over an easily-confused wolf that will be enjoyed by both genders and clearly represents this little girl as more than capable of looking out for herself.

Clearly, there are others that I could have mentioned, and many picture books in particular get around steretypical gendered assumptions by using animal characters. Which picture books do you think offer particularly positive gender messages?

Review: The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Emotionally intense dystopian focused on fertility and childbirth

Comparisons are being made to The Handmaid’s Tale (which I love) and Children of Men (which I haven’t read), largely because this is a near-future dystopia in which fertility and childbearing is the focus (as well as it winning the Arthur C Clarke, which Handmaid’s Tale also did). The difference here is in the voice, as Jessie Lamb is a 16 yr old girl sharing her story with us in the hope of being understood. She writes in an audience-conscious way (as can be inferred from the title) and her thoughts and feelings are utterly convincing as those of a 16 yr old girl under considerable pressure.

In Jessie’s world, women die if they conceive. Everyone carries the illness MDS (maternal death syndrome), which activates in pregnancy, creating a form of CJD (or mad cow disease) and ultimately killing both mother and child. Society is trying desperately to find a way to prevent humanity dying out, allowing the author to raise questions about scientific research, genetic modification, the treatment of women and how teens become involved in politics. For me, a large part of Jane Roger’s theme is about the involvement of young people in politics and how relatively easy it is for people to manipulate a cause, although I know from the Amazon reviews that some feel her portrayal of the various political camps in the novel is too one-dimensional. I would argue that this is necessary, as she features several different causes in the novel, all of whom want to make use of Jessie in some way (and would you really want that much of the novel taken up by rounding out the secondary cast?), and also that there is accuracy in this representation, as those who are fanatical make themselves one-dimensional. There is also, I feel, something of the allegory to this novel, and simplified characters are part of this tradition.

I greatly enjoyed this novel and found myself gripped to see how Jessie’s tale would end. Again, I would take issue with those who claim the novel is predictable and would suggest that it has an inevitability to it, in the same way that classical tragedy does, but this isn’t really the same thing. Any other ending wouldn’t be as satisfying, but that for me says that a different ending would be a failure. The various obstacles that Jessie faces, together with the many opportunities for her to take a different course, are what make up the plot.

Overall, I would recommend this novel, although I find categorising it very difficult (it seems to be marketed as literary fiction). Again, a debate exists about whether it is YA or not (although some irritating reviewers on Amazon are using this as a criticism of the book – it’s YA because it lacks depth/weight, they feel). For me, I would recommend it to a YA audience: the narrator is 16 and is facing issues centred on what she believes and who she is. I would also recommend it to adults (although that’s often true of the sold-as-YA novels I review…) and feel that it offers plenty to think about in an accessible package.

[deleted rant here on how wrong it is that inaccessible ‘should’ = literary…. 🙂 ]

From the back cover:

Winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2012
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011

Women are dying in their millions. Some blame scientists, some see the hand of God. As she watches her world collapsing, Jessie Lamb decides she wants to make her life count. Would you let your daughter die if it would save the human race?

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is the story of one daughter’s heroism and one father’s love.

Published July 2012 by Canongate books
My grateful thanks for the review copy via Netgalley
Check out The Testament of Jessie Lamb at Amazon UK

A Sad Time for Feminism

I was going to open this post by commenting that it’s been a sad week for feminism. I started compiling a list of recent events to refer to and quickly realised that it’s pretty much impossible to slap a nice neat timeframe on all the stuff that makes me want to shout/cry/stab someone. So I’ll just sum up a few choice recent moments: the whys and wherefores of ‘legitimate’ versus ‘illegitimate’ rape; a culture of sleaze at the BBC (no wait, everywhere in the 70s and 80s); freshers’ week as instruction in knowing one’s place and, perhaps arguably less seriously, the final nail in the coffin of ‘YA lit is written for girls by girls‘.

This last question is the one I’m going to focus on for now, as I have some chance of at least appearing relatively calm and rational in my arguments (and gods forbid I should seem irrational and emotional). The idea that there are fewer books ‘for’ boys than girls is often floated, along with the related ideas that boys ‘won’t’ read a female protagonist and that ‘boys’ books may be harder to publish (as the market slice is smaller). The fabulous lady business site conducted some research into female dominance in YA, but, being unable to explore the entire market, focused on awardwinners since 2012, as these are particularly visible books which have also been recognised as high quality in some way. Their overall conclusion was that 49% of these awardwinning books had a male protagonist, and 42% were written by male authors.

It is possible (and acknowledged by the fabulous lady business team) that male-focused books (those with a male protagonist) may be more likely to be selected for awards as they are perceived as being less common. This is, of course, not the same thing as being actually less common, which is a very difficult thing to prove with the number of books that we would be talking about here. It also reminds me of teaching gender differences in language usage with sixth formers. Students are very willing to accept rather outdated stereotypes about gendered speech unquestioningly. I’m talking about ideas such as ‘women share feelings while men share facts’ and ‘women discuss problems simply to compare experience, while men assume they’re looking for solutions’. These ideas feel right to many people before looking at the evidence, perhaps in the same way that gender-based beliefs about reading and publishing appeal (boys don’t read girly genres/topics; boys need a male lead character; most kids & YA fiction is written by women). But of course, we also perpetuate these beliefs by accepting them as inherently right, and that’s pretty much the problem with most of these gender issues. The way people treat one another, the choices we make, all stem from our basic beliefs, which include beliefs about gender.

I sometimes feel that it was easier to be a young feminist in the late 80s and early 90s than it is for girls now. We seem no longer to have a culture in which the likes of the Savile case can easily exist, yet it is harder to argue for women’s rights now, and I’m sure it’s harder for girls to consider themselves feminist. They can recognise past injustices, but rarely realise for themselves how imbalanced our society and culture still is. I don’t know how many times I’ve presented evidence to classes relating to the representation of women in the media, or cultural norms and expectations revealing themselves through texts, only to be greeted with “well, yeah, but no-one means it like that, do they?” or “okay, but I don’t really read into things that much”. It’s particularly heartbreaking coming from bright young women. A great antidote to this is the everyday sexism project, which publishes women’s experiences with misogyny and gender-based abuse and harrassment. It seems we’re back in the early days of feminism’s second wave, with good old-fashioned consciousness-raising. *sigh*

Words on Wednesday: Keris Stainton and her "Female Fiction Fiddling" List

I am very excited to be hosting this guest post as part of Keris’s blogtour.  Her new novel, Emma Hearts LA is just out and I strongly recommend it.  Without further ado, here’s what Keris has to say:

A few years ago, I read a book called Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned From Judy Blume, which features an essay by Lara M Zeises called The M Word. The essay begins with Zeises, age 7, discovering that touching herself feels good, “sometimes good enough to help me fall asleep”, and how she didn’t know what she was doing until she read a Judy Blume novel, Deenie
Zeises went on to say that “relatively precious few novels even allude to girls getting their groove on by themselves” adding that one notable exception is Meg Cabot’s All-American Girl: Ready or Not

Deenie was published in 1973. Ready or Not was published in 2006. I was astonished that female masturbation was still considered such a taboo subject, more than 30 years later. And so I decided I had to mention it in my first novel, Della Says: OMG! 
It did actually fit the plot: Della’s diary is stolen and someone starts circulating the most embarrassing bits and, as a teenager, I couldn’t have imagined anything more embarrassing than people knowing I masturbated. Which is precisely why it needs to be addressed in more YA fiction. (A friend told me about a recent YA novel in which the main character complains that her aunt comes into her bedroom without knocking and says, “What if she caught me smoking? Or undressing? Or, like, masturbating or something? Not that I really do that, ever – but it’s the principle of the thing.” Fine, that particular character may not masturbate – though I’d be very surprised – but if I’d read that as a teen, I would have been mortified.)
And so I am collecting a “female fiction fiddling” list. If you know of any other books that should be on here, I’d be delighted to hear about them. 
NB: May contain spoilers, so proceed with caution!  

Deenie by Judy Blume (pub. 1973)

Deenie touches her “special place” when she has trouble falling asleep and asks a teacher, in an anonymous note, “Do normal people touch their bodies before they go to sleep and is it all right to do that?” The teacher explains that, yes, masturbation is “normal and harmless”.

All-American Girl: Ready or Not by Meg Cabot (pub. 2006) 

Sam’s sister tells her she practices making love by herself. In the bath. 
“Look, it’s easy. Get in the bathtub. Turn the water on. Scoot down to the end of the tub, until your you-know-what is under the running water. Then pretend the water is the guy, and let it–” 
This leads to an extended discussion of why girls should do it (“Come on, Sam. You can’t expect a guy to know what to do to make you have an orgasm. You have to do it yourself. At least until you can teach him how.”) which is both feminist and very funny. 

Pop! by Aury Wallington (pub. 2006)

I think I must have loaned my copy of Pop! to someone, but I’m pretty sure that, like Sam above, Marit treats herself to a romantic moment with her bath tap. (Is it just me or does that sound incredibly uncomfortable?) 

Leader of the Pack by Kate Cann (pub. 2008)

Leader of the Pack is a perfect example of how we’re much more open about/comfortable with/used to the idea of male masturbation (it’s never even usually referred to as “male masturbation”, is it? There’s “masturbation” and “female masturbation”). Gem is alone in bed…
“She started moving her hands on her thighs, rocking herself. She thought… If you feel this turned on right now at the start, how’s it gonna be when… Her hands moved higher. She was thinking of the amazing kiss they’d had…” 
The next paragraph begins “Over in his bedroom, Jack had been masturbating too, highly pleasurably.” If it hadn’t been for that, I might have actually missed that that’s what Gem was doing. 

Della Says: OMG! by Keris Stainton (i.e. me) (pub. 2010) 

A page of Della’s diary is scanned in and sent to her on Facebook. It reads: “But since he’s not interested in me and nothing’s ever going to happen between us, I’ll have to make do with the next best thing: touching myself and pretending it’s him.” 
Della’s embarrassed, but her more experienced friend Maddy tells her she needn’t be, that it’s perfectly natural and everyone does it. 

Forget You by Jennifer Echols (pub. 2010) 

Zoey is in the bath, trying to work out whether or not she had sex the previous night. ‘Testing for tenderness gave way to making myself feel better. It helped with my headache.’ This is another one where I could quite easily have missed what she was doing. 

Adorkable by Sarra Manning (pub. 2012) 

After Jeane and Michael have had sex for the first time, Jeane tells him not to worry about the fact that she didn’t orgasm. 
‘”I was close and then I wasn’t. It happens. It’s not, like, an exact science. Like, sometimes when I’m doing it to myself, my timing goes all wrong.”
“It does?” I managed to spit out, because my mind had just gone into a tailspin at Jeane’s casual reference to the fact that she masturbated. I mean, I know that some girls do, but generally they don’t talk about it.’

Thank you so much Keris. It’s amazing to think that there are so few references that it’s even possible to compile a list. Any more recommendations, anyone?

Review: How Beautiful the Ordinary

This collection of YA LGBT short stories made a great read for Portrait of a Woman’s LGBT YA week. Do go over and take a look. There are several reviews on her blog, or linked from it, and also a great post on queer characters in YA by the fabulous author of Hollow Pike, James Dawson.

Editor: Michael Cart
Title: How Beautiful the Ordinary: Twelve Stories of Identity
Genre: varied
Series: no
Publisher: HarperTeen
Published: 2009
Source: purchased on my kindle
Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

Goodreads description:
A girl thought to be a boy steals her sister’s skirt, while a boy thought to be a girl refuses to wear a cornflower blue dress. One boy’s love of a soldier leads to the death of a stranger. The present takes a bittersweet journey into the past when a man revisits the summer school where he had “an accidental romance.” And a forgotten mother writes a poignant letter to the teenage daughter she hasn’t seen for fourteen years.

Poised between the past and the future are the stories of now. In nontraditional narratives, short stories, and brief graphics, tales of anticipation and regret, eagerness and confusion present distinctively modern views of love, sexuality, and gender identification. Together, they reflect the vibrant possibilities available for young people learning to love others—and themselves—in today’s multifaceted and quickly changing world

My verdict: Highly varied in theme, form and content. All worth a read.
I enjoyed the variety within this collection, unified nonetheless by the theme of gendered and sexual identity. The anthology includes stories of love, loss and betrayal, as well as specifically LGBT experience. Few are traditional short stories; there are two comic book stories, one novella and several use unusual voice or experiment with narration in some way. The stories are a mixture of realism and fantasy, and cover different time periods as well as a wide range of LGBT experience: male/male and female/female love and desire and the less often represented trans experience – both female-to-male and male-to-female.

I particularly enjoyed Francesca Lia Block’s “My Virtual World”. An updated epistolary story, this is mostly told in the form of emails and presents a blossoming friendship between two emotionally raw teens. Another favourite for me was Margo Lanagan’s retelling of The Highwayman, “A Dark Red Love Knot”, with its themes of jealousy and betrayal. I hadn’t read any Lanagan before, but I have now moved her up my wishlist :). I also enjoyed the gentle narration and effective metaphor of Jennifer Finney Boylan’s “The Missing Person”. My final top choice is Julie Ann Peters’ “First Time”, which is a touching tale of a lesbian couple’s first sexual encounter. This story rendered slightly incorrectly on the kindle (I think) as I didn’t realise how it worked to start with and had to go back and read over once I’d sussed out that there were two narrators telling the same story from their independent perspectives. The paragraphs alternated on screen, but there was no visual indication to cue the change. Possibly the print version uses a different font or some other indication? Anyway, I realised pretty quickly and was then able to enjoy the tenderness of the tale.

There were no stories I actively disliked (fairly unusually for a mixed anthology like this), and the variety of material is a strong point in favour of this collection. If there is something you don’t like, you can guarantee there’ll be something else that you will. Most are pretty short, with the exception of Gregory Maguire’s “The Silk Road Runs Through Tupperneck, N.H.” which takes up about a third of the entire book and is therefore quite a different reading experience, having more room to develop characters and take its time. Both this story (the last in the collection) and the first – David Levithan’s “A Word From the Nearly Distant Past” – feature narrative voices who are considerably older than the teen target audience and speak from a more experienced and informed perspective. Both still focus on teen experience, however, keeping the overall YA appeal. Any teen, LGBTQ or not, will find something that feels familiar here, in terms of the uneasy course of young love or the uncertain nature of adolescent identity.

Thrilling Thursday: Review of The Bomber by Liza Marklund

Author: Liza Marklund

Title: The Bomber
Genre: Thriller
Series: Annika Bengtzon (1st written but 4th in series chronology)
Publisher: Transworld
Published: 24 Nov 2011
Source: review copy kindly provided by Transworld as part of their Book Group
Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Crime reporter Annika Bengtzon is woken by a phonecall in the early hours of a wintry December morning. An explosion has ripped apart the Olympic Stadium. And a victim has been blown to pieces.

As Annika delves into the details of the bombing and the background of the victim, there is a second explosion.

When her police source reveals they are hot on the heels of the bomber, Annika is guaranteed an exclusive with her name on it. But it soon becomes clear that she has uncovered too much, as she finds herself the target of a deranged serial killer…

My verdict: tense Nordic thriller offering lots of insight into Bengtzon’s world as a female journalist. Strongly recommended to those who enjoy police procedurals and fancy something a little different.
This was a great read for the festive period, as it takes place during the week leading up to Christmas and reveals Annika’s struggles to get Christmas ‘right’ as a working Mum, as well as the pressures she faces at work and the very real danger she courts as leader of the crime section of the newspaper. There is plenty of atmospheric detail in this novel and Marklund makes it very easy to lose yourself in the world she captures on the page. Marklund was a journalist herself and it is plain that details such as procedures, legal concerns and office behaviour all come from an experienced voice.

There is also a great deal of domestic and personal detail in the story, which I found mostly constructive in establishing character, but I have seen reviews criticising the inclusion of (for example) each cup of coffee drunk. I found it overall an immersive experience and, for me, it helped in ratcheting up the tension, although this is on the whole a drawn-out rather than top-speed pacey kind of thriller.

The narrative is third person past, mostly from Annika’s perspective, but there are occasional sections from others’ points of view. There are also some short journal-type sections dotted throughout the novel which seem to be some kind of justification of the bomber’s motivation and values, offering a very different view of the world.

Annika is a complex character, who seems to be struggling with balancing her demanding career with her family ties. I feel that this aspect of her is particularly well-drawn from a feminist viewpoint without implying that she should have to choose between work and family. She is shown suffering from sexism at work, and worrying about her ability to be a good wife and mother, but she is a realistic creation and does behave as an individual under stress. Again, I know there have been some reviewers who have struggled to accept her as a likeable narrator, but my personal opinion is that her environment is presented clearly enough for us to see her as a product of it. In other words, she may be sometimes moody, but I would suggest she has a right to, under the circumstances.

Overall, I would recommend this as a crime thriller from a slightly different angle, using a reporter as the main character rather than a police detective or private investigator.

Words on Wednesday: Gender Differences in Language?

It’s an oh-so familiar argument to linguists, just as gender differences in other spheres are regularly debated too. It’s a great topic in the classroom: how is men’s speech different to women’s speech? Students always have ideas about this and so many of the claims ‘feel’ true on some level: men swear more often and more violently, men problem solve while women sympathise, men compete while women co-operate etc etc etc.

The trouble is, every claim can be debunked with quantitative evidence. According to Deborah Cameron’s fantastic The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak different languages?, that sense of familiarity is due to our ‘confirmation bias’ – we recognise and notice things which confirm what we already believe. Society tells us men and women are essentially different and behave differently, so that’s what we notice.

I must say that, when faced with the same transcribed conversation, it amazes me that students will be able to find ‘proof’ of completely opposing ideas. Those who are stuck in the ‘men are aggressive and women are lovely’ mode will find examples of male interruption and females agreeing with others and generally smoothing things over. Those who think men and women have different (but equally valid) styles of conversation will find evidence of males’ preference for factual communication and females’ tendency to share feelings. Only those who have understood and accepted Cameron’s arguments are likely to find evidence that contradicts any of the 70s and 80s studies showing clear gender differences.

So, with people happy to see confirmation of what they already believe, outdated ideas about gender are merrily being published. This piece in the Times Higher, dealing specifically with the recently-published work of John Locke, does a lovely job of discussing the evolution model used in some of this stuff. It’s scary really, how tempting these arguments about our ‘natural’ or ‘primal’ or ‘instinctual’ gender-regulated behaviour can be.

This is easily one of my favourite bits of English Language teaching, as there’s lots of scope for students to discuss and explore real data. Plus, I get to discuss a bit of feminist theory and get into gender-as-a-social-construct with some of them!