On Sexism and Lady Characters and Andrew Smith

Hey there–Kazia here!

So recently, rising star of YA Andrew Smith was interviewed for Vice and said a thing in response to their final question:

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.

A lot of The Alex Crow is really about the failure of male societies. In all of the story threads, there are examples of male-dominated societies that make critical errors, whether it’s the army that Ariel falls in with at the beginning, or the refugee camp, or Camp Merrie-Seymour for boys, or the doomed arctic expedition, they’re all examples of male societies that think that they’re doing some kind of noble mission, and they’re failing miserably.

Now, I missed a lot of the most intense internet (inter)action regarding this interview–including Smith’s apparent departure from the Twitterverse–but it seems to me that the YA world is divided into two camps: “His writing of women is misogynistic and sexist. This is problematic and should be critiqued!” and “I’ve met him/am friends with him and he’s such a sweet guy! He’s a good guy. Don’t bully him!!”

It’s important to note that these two things aren’t mutually exclusive, as others have already noted. You can be a good person and say or write shitty things, but those things should be interrogated. It’s not about tearing apart an individual–it’s about critiquing the way that an individual’s comments fit into a larger culture–in this case, one of patriarchal sexism.

Here is the thing, though, the thing that Smith (and plenty of others) seem to be missing: characters are meant to be people and people are human. Gender is an aspect of being human, but it is not the ONLY aspect of being human. I’ve only read Grasshopper Jungle, but I know that Smith can write fascinating, complexly human characters because he did so both with GJ’s protagonist Austin and his best friend/sort-of love interest Robbie. Shann, Austin’s girlfriend, is also a human–but a human who happens to be a cis woman. She’s a flat, two-dimensional character (as are the rest of the women in GJ), and although Austin says he loves her just as frequently as he mentions his affection for Robbie, we literally know nothing about Shann besides that she is a vessel for Austin’s sperm. Attempting to show the failures of patriarchal societies (as Smith notes above) does not negate the necessity to write women characters as human beings, rather than objects for men’s sexuality and procreative desires. Yet, as valiant critic Kelly Jensen notes, SOMEHOW, humongous praying mantises “who fuck a lot and depressed cryogenic crows are in Smith’s wheelhouse of experience, but women are far too beyond the realm of comprehension.” It’s a terrifyingly on-point criticism that points to the luxury of being a male author in a patriarchal society. Although there have been a handful of people who have critiqued the sexism in Smith’s novels (check out the comments on this post from Someday My Printz Will Come for a strong debate about the women in GJ, including some more rad comments from Jensen), unfortunately these critiques have rarely had any staying power in the YA community.

Here’s to hoping this time it sticks for longer.

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