Guest post: class, gender, and YA lit

“not a pretty girl” was a ton of fun to write, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the discussions it’s started about gender, gender roles, and gender presentation. But I have to acknowledge it was a pretty narrowly focused series: gender intersects with class, race, sexuality, and physical and mental ability in all kinds of ways that I didn’t get into. So to start getting into that kind of intersectionality, I’m pleased to host this response from Teri Carns ( on gender, class, and the books she grew up reading.

One thing embedded in my generation, and my mother’s and her mother’s, and so on back was social class. It’s a mix of ancestry, education, origins, ethnicity (there’s arguably no scientific basis for the term “race,” so I avoid it), manners, and social skills. Every woman I grew up with on both sides of the family was exquisitely attuned to social class, and expectations for one’s life (I originally wrote “goals,” but women didn’t have goals, they had roles).

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but I am not a maiden fair

Ani DiFranco

I guess it was inevitable. I posted a series titled “not a pretty girl,” and what I heard back — invariably from male friends —  was “but you are pretty! Don’t you think you’re pretty?”

When I first got asked that, it gave me pause for a couple of reasons. The first was the sudden cognitive dissonance of trying to decide which of two socially acceptable answers to give. On the one hand, calling yourself “pretty” or “hot” or praising your own appearance is considered vain: with the concurrent advent of sites like MySpace and Facebook and Tumblr and Twitter and the advent of digital cameras, the phenomenon of “selfies” became very popular very quickly and become very mockable just as fast*.

On the other hand, I am an Empowered Feminist Woman who believes in body positivity and self-esteem and so forth, and being self-deprecating about one’s appearance is considered damaging and toxic and buying into Western beauty ideals.

On the gripping hand, my attractiveness isn’t even secondary to the point — it’s, like, quinary at best. But the title of the blog posts seem to have convinced some people that I don’t consider myself attractive, and it seems very important to them that I understand that I am pretty.

On top of all this, from other conversations people have been having around this series, I think I may have given the impression that I value the ideal of “pretty” over “not pretty” — that I think the pretty Other Girls are better than the not-a-pretty-girl Me’s, when really I just think girls shouldn’t hate on girls for being girls because being a girl is hard enough already. And since I wrote about identifying as a “I’m not like those other girls” type in high school, maybe it came across like I wish I were prettier.

So here’s my answer:

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not a pretty girl: THE GIRLENING

The response to not a pretty girl has been INCREDIBLE (I had nearly more than 600 visitors and more than 1000 views on October 11, at which point I had to go have a lie down with Elysian Brewery’s imperial stout). People have been bringing up awesome points all over the place that I want to discuss at greater length. But first! I totally forgot in my rush to get that thing finished in the first place that one topic I wanted to talk about was YA media that I think do a good job of dealing with the many different ways of being a teenage girl — the stuff that I would steer a teen toward if she asked me for recommendations. So here are some of those!

You don't always have to be who they want you to be, you know.

I didn’t see this movie until SENIOR YEAR because something was dreadfully wrong with me.

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not a pretty girl, epilogue

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

And I REALLY love Xena and Hilary Clinton and Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and Wonder Woman and Sandra Day O'Connor and Oprah...

Hey, thanks for sticking through all of that!

Because I’m only human and my thoughts on these kinds of identity politics are constantly evolving, and because I ended up covering several more topics than I originally intended to, and because I’ve only had one cup of coffee today (what???), I may have said stuff you disagree with, or stuff you want to discuss more, or stuff that’s just straight-up confusing. I love conversation and I always appreciate the chance to learn more and hear other viewpoints. In the interest of keeping any discussion streamlined, though, I’m restricting comments to just this post.

Thanks for reading!

Further recommended reading/viewing:

Got other stuff we should be reading? Drop it in the comments below!

not a pretty girl, pt. 3

Done looking for the critics ’cause they’re everywhere
They don’t like my jeans, they don’t get my hair
Strange ourselves and we do it all the time
Why do we do that? Why do I do that? Why do I do that?

-P!nk, “F**kin’ Perfect”

Part 1
Part 2

While working on this post (originally it was just going to be one post, WHOOPS), I emailed my mom and asked her what books she read with female protagonists growing up. My mom was (and is) a great reader, and got in trouble as a kid for reading when she was supposed to be napping. So what was she reading under the covers when she was our age? What were the heroines like, pre-1970 and the Womens’ Rights movement? She wrote back:

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not a pretty girl, pt. 2

I am not a pretty girl
that is not what I do
I ain’t no damsel in distess
and I don’t need to be rescued
so put me down punk
maybe you’d prefer a maiden fair
isn’t there a kitten stuck up a tree somewhere

-Ani Difranco, “Not a Pretty Girl

Part 1

We get these ideas from a few different places, I think.

First, we define the Other Girl. We may not even know any Other Girls — I certainly didn’t. Every girl in my class was as smart or smarter, as nerdy or nerdier, as I was, and I can’t think of anyone I knew before college who even got close to the Other Girl stereotype. But the Other Girl is very much what we’re fed as an ideal by all kinds of American media. She’s the Covergirl. She’s bouncing through our movies and our advertising and our books, blonde by hook or by crook and there to attract men. She’s Cosmopolitan, she’s Sex and the City, she’s years upon years of Miss America pageants, she’s Barbie, she’s most of the contestants on America’s Next Top Model.

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not a pretty girl, pt. 1

God help you if you are an ugly girl
‘Course too pretty is also your doom
‘Cause everyone harbors a secret hatred
For the prettiest girl in the room
And God help you if you are a phoenix
And you dare to rise up from the ash

-Ani DiFranco, “32 Flavors

There’s a trope in YA lit that I’ve seen get called out a fair amount in recent months on the tumblogs, arising in part from the boom in YA speculative fiction aimed at girls that followed Twilight‘s success. Our heroine, introducing herself/being introduced, describes herself as roughly this:

  • i just never felt attractive even though by some standards i’m kind of okay i guess i’m thin and white with shoulder length brown hair and big eyes
  • i’m very mature for my age very grown up yes yes serious

That’s from Tumblr user delladilly’s list of tropes that are getting too much play in YA lit at the moment. (The first part is also well worth reading, as are her follow-up posts on how hard it is to find diverse characters and plotlines in YA and why YA is great in spite of the work it still needs to do on itself.)

Bella Swan (and her adult counterpart Anastasia Steele) is by far the best example of this. She describes herself as plain, pale, brunette, klutzy; she has trouble connecting with her peers and prefers to bookworm away with classic literature like Wuthering Heights. She wears flannels and drives a pickup truck and doesn’t like to shop:

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