Writing Young Women: An Interview with Author Rebecca Maizel (w giveaway!)

Hey y’all, this is my 150th post! Today we have the fabulous Rebecca Maizel, author of the Vampire Queen trilogy, here to talk about gender. (And she’s offered the whole trilogy as a giveaway this month to the person who comments the most–I’m jealous!)

I first met Rebecca, like so many talented writers, at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program. We shared a workshop together her first semester, and I was very impressed with her writing at the time. I also remember that Infinite Days, her first novel, had just come out and she was so anxious about how it would be received.

As I have said before, I love that book. But I’ve invited her on here today because of her thoughts on portrayal of females in fiction. She gave her graduate lecture on this topic, and she has some really interesting things to say about it. So without further ado:

Me: What tropes do you see represented the most? and how do these portrayals affect young folk?

Rebecca: I think the trope that is most often represented in young adult and middle grade literature is the “gossiping girl” as the antagonist. I’ve even fallen victim to this myself in my own work. It’s hard when charting the map of your own understanding of gender and social pressures to make the best choice – meaning how to best represent women outside of traditional stereotype. In hindsight, I’m not sure I would have made The Three Piece so gossipy (from Infinite Days). Nevertheless, this is the trope that I see the most. If you look at endless covers of YA novels (more so in Middle Grade, IMHO), there are rarely girls looking at one another in a way that isn’t conspiratorial or competitive in nature. I think the impact of this is subtle but powerful. If we associate not only females with gossip but our female antagonists as well, it perpetuates the stereotype.

Me: What should we be aiming for in terms of gender representation?

Rebecca: To represent our women and girls outside of stereotype. It’s simple and a bit general but I think this is really important – at least in my own life.  I have tried to do this in my own work though I am not sure how successful I have been. I am reading a book presently called Blind Spot: Hidden Biases Of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaj and Anthony G. Greenwald. One of the theories in the book is that if something is unconscious, say a bias about a group of people, gender, etc, and this unconscious bias is brought into your conscious mind, you can then temper your behavior once this realization has occurred. I think this is similar to theories about therapy (though I can’t say for sure), but I hope that the more I educate myself the more I can recognize stereotypes in books or media and attempt to break them in my written work for teens.

 Me: What questions should we be asking that we aren’t?

Rebecca: I am not sure of a specific question I think we should be asking though one that constantly comes to mind is: Why aren’t we educating young men more? I went to a lecture given by Byron Hurt last year about the race, gender, class, within popular culture, with a particular focus on hip hop and rap music and it was transformative for some of the young men in the audience. I know there has been some movement and there are people advocating for young men but I’m not sure how much access young men are given to these kinds of conversations. I think this is a conversation we need to have with both sexes – not just women. 

 

Me: And when you sit down to write, how do you think about all of this?

Rebecca: I try to remember my teachers (not really just through their work): Naomi Wolff, Gloria Steinhem, Jessica Valenti, Rebecca Solnit, Roxane Gay, and Shere Hite (and more) whose books and words have transformed me. I hope I can do justice to the many women who have come before me who write about women in a full and three-dimensional way. I will do my best in all of my work, especially my current work to follow their lead. 

Thanks for stopping by!

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About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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8 Responses to Writing Young Women: An Interview with Author Rebecca Maizel (w giveaway!)

  1. Megan Hoak says:

    I think the bias I’ve held in the past was “Pretty girls = bitchy girls” Or, more specifically, that “pretty girls” had everything and were therefore shallow and cruel (or that their suffering wasn’t legitimate). I held this belief as a severely bullied, awkward, acne-ridden adolescent…but have since some to realize that life is a lot more complicated than that.

    Still, I noticed that subconscious, old bias creeping into some of my writing: the idea that people – men or women – are only one sided and are either “good” or “bad.” Lately, I’ve been enjoying tinkering with the gray space, the shades of good and bad in all of us. And both me and my writing are better for it.

    Thanks for this post.

  2. pamwatts says:

    OK, but why were those pretty girls so mean in middle school? I mean, the trope is a trope for a reason. The beautiful girls in middle school were a clique and they were really bitches. Of course, they had other sides, too. I had a few conversations with some of them when they were away from their pack and they weren’t so bad. And there was that one girl (Elaine Rabkins) who was beautiful and well-liked but was also nice. But there really is a connection. Why? And should we stop portraying most pretty, popular girls in middle school as mean? Because that seems kind of false.

    • Maria Lilie says:

      I do notice, in my small world of ‘mommy’ experience, a lot of that meanness that Pam brings up here seems to translate and appear both earlier and later in ‘these girls’ lives – I have observed it at a first and second grade level of my daughters school and amongst mothers who are two decades older than me (late fourties). The biggest question for me is: are American women and young girls capable of breaking away from this ‘mean’ girl stereotype, and if not, what causes these (at least three or four) generations of women to act this way from so early on?

    • I think those in power wield power. Beauty is a commodity. It grants you popularity. And a major factor in defining popularity is exclusivity. So pretty girls in middle school, who have very little if any real world adult-style power, wield what power they do have by limiting access to popularity/acceptance. And don’t we all do something similar when we have our version of power? And don’t we continue to do it even as adults?

      So I don’t think you necessarily stop portraying mean girls as such, but good writing should explore what makes any given character mean or gossipy or whatever it is that they are. And if they break that mold, like your pretty but nice friend, an author should explore why. I bet that friend had a “backstory” that made her wield her pretty power differently than others. And wouldnt it be interesting to know what it was.

  3. Maria Lilie says:

    I really like Rebecca’s point on gossiping and competitiveness which is very common among women of all ages of this culture, personally I’ve never experienced so much ‘gossip’ culture until I moved to the States, in Russia a lot of ‘gossip’ is reserved for retired babushkas sitting on benches in the parks shelling sunflower seeds and ‘washing out everyone’s dirty laundry’.

  4. After reading this interview I went and perused some of the online covers in middle grade and YA that have more than one female on the cover. When they do occur they are most often looking sulkily or suspiciously at each other. (Brava, Ivy and Bean for bucking this trend!) It is an easy antagonist shortcut. It takes more writing talent to invent problems that aren’t just stock personalities at odds. Thoughtful interview! Thanks, Pam and Rebecca.

  5. pamwatts says:

    Wow, interesting points, all. It is interesting that so many covers do show that trend, Nicole. And Rebecca, you are spot on about power and the ways we wield it. Do boys not get the same sort of power in adolescence from looks, I wonder? And Maria, if “mean girl”/womanness is an American thing, why do you think that is? Do russian women wield a different kind of power?

    Also, it made my day to get home from work and discover such a thoughtful discussion going on on here. Thanks, guys!

  6. Pingback: Gender Book list | Strong in the Broken Places

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