After many a false start, I've concluded that I have far too many post-its in Female Chauvinist Pigs to begin to form any kind of coherent discussion about it that pertains to YA fiction. I think I'll have to pick up my own copy and keep referring back to it, as I'm going to do here for my own purposes. Suffice to say there's a wealth of ideas about feminism to chew on, and I highly recommend it to most females over the age of twelve.
One of the observations I gleaned from Levy's work that really stayed with me stems from the already obvious notion that there is not any one kind of behavior indicative of feminism. That is to say, we know that there's no one way to act that makes a woman a feminist or not, but it's worth noting that, especially in today's culture, the presence or absence of desire can be a defining factor.
In my roundabout way I'm trying to say that a young woman behaving in a sexually aggressive manner--dressing provocatively, using her sexuality to call attention to herself in a public forum or seeking out sexual experiences without emotional attachment--is not necessarily empowering herself, as the myth of today's raunch culture would have us believe (the idea being that by letting oneself in on the joke by "acting like a man" and taking ownership of her sexuality by flaunting it). Sure it can be empowering, if it's something the young woman feels good about for her own sake. But, as is becoming more and more evident through indicators such as the loathsome Girls Gone Wild empire, it's not the case at all, but just another manifestation of chauvinism in disguise, cloaked in denial.
In interview after interview in the book, the young women she spoke with who had flashed their breasts on tape or who wore extremely revealing clothing to school or made out with a stripper for the attention of a man or myriad other examples of increasingly common and accepted behavior admitted that their actions were not borne of an innate yearning to engage in them, but because of pressure to fit in or because it was what was expected of them, that it was what they needed to do to get along in the modern world. So much is shown to be blank-eyed mimicry versus actual desire. And that is exactly what frustrates me.
It would seem that I'm criticizing or maligning girls for the very things I'm always fighting for them to feel free to do. But that's not it at all. I'm all for young women owning their sexuality, in whatever way they choose - the important distinction, though, is that it's what they choose because it is what they truly want. Desire is the difference. In the attempt to keep up with the trend of outrageous in-your-face expositions of what amounts to shorthand for sexual expression, many young women are actually suppressing their own real sexuality, relegating it to an afterthought and ultimately devaluing it. It looks to me like feminism going backwards, and it scares the heck out of me.
Luckily in the children's lit world we have people such as Tanya Lee Stone who, in her new verse novel A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, shows a wonderful appreciation and respect for young women's sexual desires and their complexities. Her three protagonists are very different, and each handles her own experience with the same icky boy in various ways. They are each remarkable to me in that, in their own distinctive ways, they are unapologetic sexual beings and...wait for it...are not punished for it.
SPOILERS BELOW: READ AT YOUR OWN RISK
Nobody gets a disease, gets pregnant or dies as a result of sex so there's a big deal right off the bat. There are a few broken hearts, because in the end all three girls do end up getting played by the nameless lothario (I still want to know who is the female equivalent of a lothario and what book has been written about her, but that's nothing new). And the male/female emotional attachment dichotomy is taken for granted once again, which I'll let slide. Because it is important to me simply that these girls are allowed to be openly desirous and act on their desires. It can't be said that any of the girls did anything they didn't want to do - there are external pressures on them, but each chooses to follow her own influence. As a result one loses the offending boy because she stops just short of having sex because she isn't ready, but she certainly enjoys herself up to that point. One was already sexually active and willingly engages in sex with him. Another experiences her first time and regrets the choice of partner, but not the sex itself. The female characters are granted an awareness of their own pleasure and the ability to pursue it.
Stone's descriptions of their feelings, both emotional and physical, are spot-on. She never condescends nor adopts a moral tone, and she doesn't give into easy either-or scenarios. There is no Madonna-Whore complex inherent. By making the boy character nameless and one-dimensional, all the girls and their differences are given a level playing field.
I was happily shocked at how graphic she was allowed to be (hooray for allusions to cunnilingus - well-performed at that), yet she never crosses the line into gratuitous.
If this is a sampling of what the current generation has to offer as evidence that feminism is alive and worth fighting for, I'd say we're headed in the right direction. Well done, Ms. Stone.
Written material © 2006 Dawn Emerman