Fuck Yeah Feminism is a feature that highlights authors who write books that do not fall into the trap of blatant or subtle misogyny. Each month we select an author in literature and YA literature to promote and recommend a book of theirs to start with.
Maggie’s pick: Margaret Atwood (A Handmaid’s Tale)
Margaret Atwood is my soulmate. She just doesn’t know it yet.
Roped into reading her when MaddAddam was voted best science fiction novel by the Goodreads Choice Awards in 2013, I was head-over-heels for the trilogy before I’d even finished book one. After devouring all three, I remembered A Handmaid’s Tale had been sitting on my shelf for years and grabbed it. That was about five Atwood novels ago, so I think we have a pretty well-established relationship at this point.
What I love about Atwood is that she makes her female characters pop in a media culture so devoted to churning out 2D women with 3D tits. She portrays nuanced female characters that span a breathed of backgrounds, personalities, and moralities, but also doesn’t portray them as flawless, either. It’s always touched a nerve that feminist writers tend to show their women as intelligent, capable, and composed. Counterintuitive, right? Hold up a minute, though. While I love me a strong female lead, what about the rest of us? What about the women who aren’t on point, but show up to work with a jelly stain on their shirts and worry about having time to pick up cat food? Because the last time I checked, I fall into that latter category. To view women through the lens of perfectionism is problematic in its own way, so I love that Atwood pats us average Janes on the head and goes, “It’s okay, bby. I understand. I have cat-related problems, too.”
Atwood also never leaves readers feeling like a bit of grit and guts are going to change the difficult problems of the patriarchy, female oppression, and even feminism itself. An “ooh rah rah” novel featuring badass ladies scrawling our new constitution in the blood of the menfolk is entertaining now and again, but they kind of do a disservice to the complexity of real women’s issues. Atwood shows readers things like how deeply entrenched patriarchy is in both men and women, how women sometimes work to oppress themselves, and how the answer to the patriarchy is not a matriarchy – all ugly truths that are too easy to avoid in the name of girl power. While it may come off as pessimistic, it really makes readers take a critical look at how complicated and far-reaching these problems are, which is the perspective we need to adopt if we want to solve them.
If you’re looking for an author that goes beyond the trope of faultless women tackling the patriarchy with a snap of well-manicured fingers and takes a deep, sometimes uncomfortable approach to women’s issues, Atwood is your girl. Actually, scratch that. Don’t get any ideas – she’s mine.
VonG’s pick: Kirsten Cashore (Graceling)
While I volunteered at my local library, I would often be asked by moms to recommend books for their teenage daughters. This always put me in a tough spot because YA fiction is not the kindest to female characters. Oftentimes in YA books, no matter the genre, leading ladies fall into a love triangle trope and they end up sacrificing her goals or agency to this plot line. This isn’t exactly a message I want to spread to girls–hey, be strong and the main character, but look for love and make sure when you find it, you give up everything for your budding relationship!
Thankfully I read Graceling, as it was on the YALSA list for that year’s conference, and I never had to worry about a book to recommend again.
There’s still a romance in Graceling, but what sets the book apart is the continued attention to the main character, Katsa, and her story. It may be easy to draw parallels to Katniss of The Hunger Games, not just because the two characters share a similar name, but because both of them are survivors. (I reference The Hunger Games books, of course, which had far less of a focus on the love story than the movies.)
Feminism is a hard line to walk sometimes. You have to be careful of understanding how feminism doesn’t necessary mean rejecting the idea of femininity–one can be feminine and still a strong agent. It doesn’t have to swing all the way around to women being “just like men.”
At the start of Graceling, Katsa is not someone who displays that knowledge. She’s flawed: she’s violent, petulant, and terrified of being described as feminine.
But when you examine the world Katsa lives in, you understand why she’s so angry. Katsa’s hatred and fear of femininity is because being a female in her society is being something that is considered weak and to be taken advantage of. Yes, Katsa is “unnecessarily” violent, but she is because she’s scared that she’ll be forced into a fate she doesn’t want–subservience. Katsa’s violence is a result of overcompensation for her fears. It isn’t a character trait that’s supposed to be positive, like “being a strong woman.” She reacts in a negative way, but there’s a place of motivation for it, Katsa isn’t just being violent because women should be “strong.”
I often see people criticizing flawed characters (Katsa included), saying they aren’t good examples of feminism. But I think that’s not the right way to view the issue. Flawed characters should be shown because it shows how a system of oppression changes people. Katsa is violent and rude because of fear, that’s what fear does to people. Through the book, she changes, she comes to understand that romance doesn’t have to mean someone possessing her and taking away her freedom of choice (Prince Po is such a great role model of male behavior too.) Cashore’s romance is one where two people support each other and, if there is a ‘rescue,’ it’s mutual.
Kirsten Cashore gives us a YA heroine whose story I am proud to recommend.