Monday, April 14, 2014

On Expectations for Girls in YA Fiction, Misleading Reviews, and Sexuality

A few weeks ago, I picked up and devoured Julie Halpern's The F-It List. It's a story about two girls who are best friends and how their relationship weathers everything. It starts with Becca sleeping with Alex's boyfriend the day of Alex's father's funeral. The summer immediately following, the girls aren't hanging out as much as they used to. Sure, Alex is angry and upset about what Becca did, but their reason for not hanging out has much more to do with Alex's need to grieve losing her father than it does what Becca did or losing that boyfriend.

When the school year begins, Alex learns via another girl that something awful happened to Becca over the summer: she was diagnosed with cancer. Alex immediately runs to Becca's side, and their friendship, while not perfectly patched up, is allowed to continue, and it's through this agreement of continuing their relationship that Becca asks Alex for a favor. She needs to complete her f-word-rhymes-with-bucket list. Since Becca's sick and worried a bit about what her future may hold, she wants Alex to do and experience a number of things that she's always wanted to do but wonders if she'll ever have the chance to do.

A number of items on the list have to do with sex. Becca wants Alex to masturbate, and she wants Alex to have sex with someone she can say I love you to and mean it. Other items on the list range from doing some silly prank-like stuff to more relationship-driven items. But it is those sexually-related items that Alex homes in on most and those are the items that come to signify not just a lot of what the relationship between the two girls is -- blunt, honest, and unashamed -- but also points where readers may either bristle or dig in for something deeper. In many ways, I thought the ways that both the sexually-related items and the friendship more broadly played out in the story were what made The F-It List knock out. It's rare to see such positive portrayals of sex for girls. Both Becca and Alex enjoyed sex and both were very open and honest about liking it and sharing those positive experiences with one another.

But not everyone felt this to be the case. Here's the review Halpern's novel got in School Library Journal (you can click to make it larger):



I've read and reread this review many times, and every time, something new feels off in it. Keep in mind many trade reviewers review from advanced reader copies of books, meaning that not all of the kinks have been entirely worked out.

I note, too, that I also read The F-It List from an advanced reader copy.

Although I could dive into the notion that Alex performs the items on the f-it list out of guilt -- an idea I disagree with entirely, as Alex begins to really embrace this as a commitment to her relationship with Becca -- what I find fascinating is this line: "Both girls have casual, unprotected sex with all of their boyfriends without any thoughts of taking precautions."

This line presumes a few things in it. The first is that it's the responsibility of the girls to think about and carry out the actions necessary for protection during sex. While print space is limited and words have to be carefully selected in a trade review, the way this particular line is phrased, in conjunction with the line before it, casts a judgment upon the female characters in the story. They're crass, with limited vocabulary, and they're not taking responsibility for their own actions. These are the kinds of girls you don't want to be role models for readers, since they're not being "good girls." They don't arouse sympathy because what happens to them is all a matter of consequences and choices they make. They weren't smart enough or thinking through things enough to protect themselves.

But what is worse in this line is that it's factually incorrect.

Early in the book, Alex talks about the first time she's had sex, as a means of thinking through Becca's request that she have sex with someone she loves and cares about. The first person -- and only person at that point -- she'd slept with was a boy named Aleks, who was a foreign exchange student. Starting at page 76 in the advanced reader copy, Alex lays out the story as follows:

Becca was disappointed I hadn't seen his penis yet and handed me a condom the next time I saw her. Two days later, armed with the Trojan, I followed Aleks back to his house again. [...] Me in my underwear, him in blue boxers, we moved over to the bed. "Wait--" I told him, the first work spoken that afternoon. I found Becca's condom in my backpack and brought it up to the bed. [...] He slapped on the condom.

It's pretty evident immediately that condoms play a role in not just Alex's sex life, but in the discussions she and Becca have had as best friends about being sexually active. Alex got the condom from Becca, and Alex insisted that Aleks wear it when they slept together. Seems straightforward enough.

But there's more.

Later on in the story, when Alex begins a relationship with Leo, the issue of the condom isn't the only one that comes up before they take the plunge and have sex (they had a few intimate moments, but in each case, Leo stopped when Alex asked him to). She talks about why she wants to make sure there is protection. Starting on page 141 of the advanced reader copy:

His hands were gentler than I wanted, and I grabbed one and wrapped it around my breast. I let out a sigh, and Leo reciprocated with a sound of his own. "So you have a condom?" I asked. Life had been too cruel in the last year not to get me pregnant or diseased if I wasn't careful. I couldn't trust my body to do the right thing, and I didn't want to have a conversation with Leo in the middle of this to talk past sexual partners. I didn't want to know. I just needed it to happen. 

Immediately after, Leo puts on a condom.

In both instances, Alex takes precaution. In both instances, it is Alex -- the girl -- who insists on using a condom before engaging in intercourse and in the second section, Alex lays out why it is she finds taking this precaution important. With everything going on in her life right now, she recognizes that not being careful would only lead to further problems. She didn't want to saddler herself with that, nor did she want to get into it with Leo, either. It's clear and evident that Alex thought about precautions prior to intercourse, and she's not shy in laying that out there for readers, just as she's not shy in laying out there what and how she comes to enjoy her budding sexuality.

I'm struck by that review line again because it seems to me the reviewer missed these things (reading too quickly? Not paying close enough attention to the details yet still bringing them up in the review?). But I'm further struck in thinking about whether or not we as readers need to be hit over the head with how careful our protagonists -- females especially -- need to express how they're protecting themselves when they choose to engage in sex.

Did the reviewer find fault in the fact that Alex doesn't tell us about condom use in subsequent sexual situations, despite the fact she's made it clear she wouldn't be crazy enough to have sex without a condom? Is it necessary for every instance of sex, whether on the page or fade to black, be explicit in its depiction of protection use? And if that's the case, where is there a line drawn between telling the story and being faithful to how the characters are and positing an over-the-head message about safe sex? Do readers believe that if Alex doesn't explain in every sexual moment that she's making sure there's a condom in place that she's chosen instead to not protect herself? Because as a reader, I assume when it's laid out there for me as openly as it is, that there will be a condom. That I don't need to be reminded again and again.

Because when real people have sex and are resolute in their wanting to be protected against pregnancy and disease, it becomes a routine, rather than a point of conscious decision making. You always have that box of condoms or you're faithful in taking birth control (or both or neither). The story isn't in the routine; it's in the break from the routine. In Alex's case, the routine is protecting herself, and I think any more insertion of the condom lines through the story would have turned this from a book where Alex (and Becca) really come to embrace their ability to be sexual beings to a story where they become pawns for the Message of "make sure you use protection."

Part of me wonders, too, whether the fact this is such a positive portrayal of girls embracing sex and doing so without apology and without holding back on being crude and, at times, obscene, is what will hold some readers back from seeing these smaller moments when Alex is very keen on keeping herself and Leo safe. Halpern hasn't written an easy story here in any capacity. But I think it's this complexity which makes The F-It List such a great, memorable read. Because it's not about Becca's diagnosis. It's not about death or the fear of that. It's about embracing life and relationships -- friendly and romantic -- to their fullest in whatever way you need to. It's unfortunate, though, that a trade review in one of the largest, most well-respected library journals could be factually incorrect about the story. In doing so, this book might not end up in the hands of those readers -- girls particularly -- who would get so much out of it. Who would see themselves in Alex or in Becca. Who would see it's perfectly okay to enjoy sex alone or with a partner.

And that yes, it's important to take precautions for yourself and have solid reasons behind why.

I can't help wonder, too, whether books that do similar things as Halpern's but feature a male main character undergo the same scrutiny and character judgment.

20 comments:

  1. Well, goddammit, Kelly Jensen. You are a menace to my TBR pile. Now I have to read this book for myself! It sounds right up alley, anyway.

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  2. Wow.

    I can't believe how thoroughly that review misrepresents the book. I'm glad that I have the freedom to buy whatever I want for our YA collection. I'm sure that review would keep this book out of a lot of school libraries. This underscores the reason I take all professional journal reviews with a grain of salt, and am much more likely to rely on signed reviews (like in VOYA) or reviews of librarians/bloggers I know and trust (or at least have a sense of their taste and perspective.

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  3. Well, the mistakes in the "they don't even talk about protection" thing is sloppy - but ties into what protection even means. BE ON THE PILL IF YOU REALLY MEAN IT or something? I don't even know.

    But the other stuff ... I can't lie, my first reaction was basically a DO NOT WANT Grumpy Cat .gif. It doesn't sound sex-positive to me that these girls are sexually active but have yet to masturbate to the point that they have put it on a "I might die so I wanna do this first!' list. It ain't that hard, just reach down there and touch or rub yourself off. Anyone can give it a go and, hell, you totally should before you let another person start trying to get you off. (my advice for the kids!) And it's really the best way to explore what makes your body feel good for you. And, well. It's just problematic to me that Alex is doing these things because it's on Becca's list. I mean, I get it. I really do, I don't need the primer on how it's REALLY for Alex but the set-up that Alex is feeling the pressure of how Becca is going to die so she better start fulfilling things on her list, like seeing penises because BECCA is disappointed and BECCA puts the condom in her hand and tells her she better speed it up. Whoa. That's all kind of awkward peer pressure (with the added extra guilt trip, did I mention, of DEATH) that I don't feel entirely OK with as a dynamic about anything much less sexual activity. Again, I "get" what's happening here - I just don't know if I can get down with it as a model of empowerment or even friendship. Real friends don't pressure you to do things on THEIR timetable or comfort level, even if they're sick.

    Any thoughts on this aspect of it?

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    Replies
    1. Actually, it's never about the pressure of Alex doing it because Becca's going to die. Alex makes fun of the whole thing a LOT, and since it's BECCA's list, not Alex's, she doesn't feel compelled to have to do it. She does it because she wants to.

      I'd suggest reading it in full, honestly. I thought it did a great job and it wasn't shy/naive about anything. There's not peer pressure. Alex does it because she WANTS to, and that comes through well.

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    2. And what about the masturbation angle? That they are sexually experienced but have masturbating on a bucket list?

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    3. Becca does (again, her bucket list), but she's not weird about it -- and Alex definitely is not. It's not awkward nor weird nor depicted as gross. It's handled well.

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    4. They come at it as it being a positive, enjoyable thing and it's something they can openly talk about with one another, rather than as something they should be ashamed about enjoying, doing, or discussing.

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  4. Great commentary. I haven't read The F-it List yet, nor did I know what it entailed, but now, it's on my TBR. We need more sex-positive books with girls.

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  5. Interestingly enough, a lot of TEENAGERS have bought this book from my store.

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  6. Great post. Actually very helpful. Lots to think about!

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  7. I think SLJ should be made aware of the factual errors in this review.

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    1. Thanks to your alerting them, I've been in touch with the SLJ editor and submitted a letter to the editor in hopes of covering what the review didn't and hopefully, for people like you and others in your position who rely on these reviews for selection, giving another opinion.

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    2. I'm glad to hear you've been in touch with them, Kelly. I just finished the book myself and found it to be very raw, real, and relateable. Did it make me as a reader uncomfortable at times? Honestly, yes, but that's neither here nor there. I hope that SLJ makes its readers aware of this glaring misrepresentation and that some of the damage is undone.

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    3. She actually solicited me for a letter that pars down this post, which is what I submitted! So I'm hopeful that'll help fix the misrepresentation.

      You're right in that it's raw and real and at times uncomfortable BECAUSE of that...but that's what made me appreciate it so much and what makes me hope it finds the hands of readers who need this kind of story.

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  8. For my money, the operative phrase of that review is in the bio line and reads "Episcopal School."

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    1. I wouldn't say that necessarily -- I've worked for the Episcopal Church!

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    2. Yeah, I know. There are great sex-positive church folks. I know some, too. I just...grrr. This shaming stuff around esp. female sexuality so often seems to come from the church camp. Thanks so much for writing about this.

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    3. Unfair, Aaron! I work for an Episcopal school and we're a lot more liberal than many/most other "church" schools.

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  9. Unfortunately I am not surprised the other reviewer had an axe to grind and choose to outright lie about the books content. I read a review for Man Of Steel where they said that Superman, after snapping Zod's neck, kicked the body and laughed. A complete and utter lie just because they did not like the movie. The other reviewer did not like The F it List and just started making stuff up.

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  10. All I will say is this, if a sex scene in a book does not specifically mention a condom (or other protection) that does not necessarily mean it isn't there, and leaves it up to the reader to interpret the scene how they like.

    If the reader assumes protection wasn't used, and is then offended, that says more about the reader than it does about the book.

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