So the internet blew up again because Andrew Smith said this:
On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work?
I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.
I have a lot of feelings about this.
The first is that I’m not all that surprised by his comment.
I’ll be honest about saying that the only book I’ve read of his is the recent Grasshopper Jungle. And I probably won’t read any more of his books because I fucking hated it.
To be fair there were many elements of the book that I liked, or at least respected. From a literary perspective, it was well written and much of my ambivalence was purely personal. I absolutely did not need to read that much detailed description of giant insect sex, see the word “semen” printed that many times, or read that the main character was “horny” every single paragraph. And that’s okay. As a lesbian who hates bugs, that’s not really my cup of tea. So whatever. I could still have acknowledged it as an excellent book.
Except for the treatment of women in the book.
The adult women are weak, one dimensional characters who are so blitzed out on Xanax they can barely function. They have no apparent role in the story, and seem to serve no purpose in the world Smith has built.
Austin’s girlfriend, Shan, is also lacking any definite personality. She serves only as the “other” choice to set up the triangle between Austin, Robby and Shan, to create conflict for Austin. Shan finding out that Austin kissed Robby could have been a brilliant opportunity to explore the complex feelings one has when one finds out one’s boyfriend is attracted to boys. I have experienced those feelings and they are many. But rather than acknowledging the fact that this would have an emotional impact on Shan, and also that Austin kissed someone else of any gender, Smith chose to make Shan’s reaction as horrible as possible.
At the end (SPOILERS) Shan is basically denied a choice about giving birth to the child Austin fathered. The child lives with Austin, who also gets to go out with Robby on adventures. It is the very definition of having your cake and eating it too. And we see that Shan’s real purpose in the story was to bring the next generation of life into being.
Gross. Sexist. Totally uncool.
When I brought up these points with a male teen librarian, his comment was,
Teenage boys don’t need more books sending them the message that they can do whatever they want with no consequences. That is the opposite of what they need. Everything on earth is telling them that. What they need are books sending the message that when they treat people of any gender badly there are consequences. And they deserve those consequences. Because they aren’t entitled to shit.
This is why, with my problems with Grasshopper Jungle summed up so nicely by my co-worker, I am not remotely surprised that Smith thought that saying women are these utterly different, utterly unknowable creatures was acceptable, and that his words would have no impact.
Now, do I think that bullying him to the point he deletes his twitter account is okay? No. I don’t. Because he is a person and we all say stupid things and yelling at him about it won’t solve anything. But I find it interesting that authors who quickly call out Jonathan Franzen for his ignorant and sexist comments are coming to Smith’s defense.
Because when we are friends with people we want to believe the best in them and we make excuses for them. I’m sure Andrew Smith is a nice person. I don’t think he should be treated this way online. But what he said was deeply problematic, and no matter how nice he is, no matter what he “meant” or how much he’s “trying,” it doesn’t change the fact that his comments reflect a society that continues to view boys’ stories as universal and girls’ stories as niche. It reflects a world where it is possible for a man to grow to adulthood, work professional and have a family while still remaining “ignorant to all things woman and female.
And while we don’t need to yell at him, we do need to talk about this.
We need to talk about how girls have NEVER had the option of viewing boys as a alien, unknowable creatures.
We need to talk about how we find it acceptable for girls to read about boys masturbating but not the other way around. How it’s okay to have literally buckets of semen in a book, but not expect boys to read about menstruation.
We need to talk about the pervasive presence of female characters who are one-dimensional and serve only superficial functions to the plot, and how that presentation of gender is problematic to how all genders view themselves and each other.
We need to talk. Not yell. But also acknowledge that women are regularly trolled for simply daring to speak at all. Women are attacked online and forced into silence for fear of their lives. Not that that makes it okay to attack a man, but just that we still live in a world where women know every word they speak will carry consequences, and that men are so often surprised when they words they speak do the same.
And beyond all this talking, I want to see action. I want to see Smith actively work to improve his writing of women and girls. Don’t just say “I’m trying” take steps to changing things. When people truly want to do something, or learn something, or change something THEY FUCKING DO IT!!! If you want to write better female characters then you talk to women and you read about women and you talk to people who write women well and you learn how to write better female characters. You. Just. Do. And if you don’t do those things then you clearly don’t want to do it enough to change. And I have a problem with that.
I am angry about Smith’s words. And I’m angry that the world tells me that I’m overreacting by being angry when this is ANOTHER example of sexism that piles on top of all the other examples of sexism that I’ve come across in the past 24 hours alone.
I don’t think he’s a terrible person. But I have a right to be angry. I have a right to demand better from authors. I have a right to demand more from people. Especially people of such privilege.