By Sarah Hannah Gómez
There are some times when people deserve to be named wholly responsible and there are other times when a person does something ill-advised and insensitive, and they therefore become the latest public example of an underlying, ongoing problem.
Andrew Smith is an example of the use of one person as a public example of a larger, systemic problem. In a March 2015 interview with Vice magazine, the award-winning YA author made an unfortunately worded statement about how he was “completely ignorant to all things women and female,” since the first and only girl in his life was his daughter. This was obviously said with snark, since of course Smith is married to a woman and is a high school teacher who does not work at a single-sex school.
He was trying to be funny, though most people would say he failed. However, Vice is a publication with wide readership, and as Smith’s interview reached the masses, the YA community responded. And many bloggers, readers, librarians, and writers used Smith’s statements to point out an issue endemic to YA in particular, but also publishing in general: there’s a gender problem.
Publishing is a field that does not pay particularly well, so it has long been dominated by white women. Overall, white women, more than other demographic groups, traditionally can afford to work for low pay because they are likely to be in dual-income relationships with white men (who are demographically the highest income earners). Literature, though, with a capital L, has long been the domain of deceased white men, and white men’s tastes have long defined the legitimacy of stories, even if they are published by white women.
Children’s and young adult literature, though, has been deemed the domain of women because women are “nurturing,” and because the gatekeepers through which literature is provided to children are parents, teachers, and librarians – all careers that are historically female-dominated. So publishing is a murky place, where (white) women are in charge of (white) men’s vision of the world. When women write the stories, they may choose to publish under pseudonyms or initials in order to appeal to more genders, or they risk being relegated to the lowest of the low – for women, and not just for women, but for young women, and published under the umbrella of “only for young, tasteless plebeians, and on purpose instead of just accidentally being co-opted by whippersnappers.”
Back to Smith. He said some things that were sexist and uncomfortable. A great deal of YA writers and advocates responded – not to Smith directly, but to the nature of his comments, which reflected the thoughts of the white male establishment that sees women’s stories and lives as niche, less universal, and difficult to understand or care about. This primarily took place on Twitter and then linked out to the tweeters’ blogs and Tumblrs, where they clarified and expanded upon the absolutely cogent and brilliant original tweets. Their points?
It is insulting to imply that a group of people making up 50% of the world’s population are too alien to tackle – even if your job is to explore the world around you and write about it, and even if you are known for having such a wild imagination that giant praying mantises can exist, but not a woman with a personality.
The internet’s subsequent conversation about sexism in YA, while not a new conversation, might have been jumpstarted on that particular day by that particular article, but it was about a topic – sexism – and not a person. It was in essence a writing prompt, not a book report assignment. As Derek Attig of Book Riot noted, “calling someone on participating in and perpetuating a messed-up worldview isn’t attacking them. It’s challenging a status quo that has, through the awful magic of repetition, achieved the false appearance of truth [emphasis mine].” That did not keep people from claiming that the people engaging in this Twitter conversation were “bullies,” however.
Can’t believe the amazing YA writer & tender-hearted Andrew Smith is being vilified for honest comment abt a shortcoming. We all have them.
— Jandy Nelson (@jandynelson) March 11, 2015
Sara: I’ve met Andrew Smith on several occasions. I’ve interviewed him, and read several of his books, and feel confident enough to call him a friend. We’re not super close or anything but we’re on first name basis, and I know him well enough to say this…he’s the last person I would call sexist. He’s the last person that I would lump in with white American males, bla bla bla. He’s one of the kindest and funniest people I’ve met, and I’m always happy to talk to him. He’s an incredible writer and storyteller. He has shown nothing but absolute respect for me, and has done nothing but encourage me in my own endeavors to become a writer.
Before long, a hashtag was born: #KeepYAKind. The response to a response to sexism was to tell the people criticizing sexism that they were being “meanies” and needed to stay in their place. The purpose behind this hashtag was to tell people who regularly experience sexism (women and non-cis individuals) that they needed to shut up about it, because it was unfair to the man who happened to be the latest person to spark a conversation. Yet numerous bloggers and writers have gone through tweets, and not a single one has come across any personal attacks.
An overwhelming push for politeness is not new; white people have been telling people of color to stop complaining for as long as they’ve been oppressing them, and sexism is a similar insidious system. It’s called tone policing, and it’s what happens when the oppressive class (insert any privileged group of choice) tells the group they disenfranchise (now insert any marginalized group in relation to the privileged group you chose prior) that they’re going about things in the wrong way, that there’s no reason to be so agitated, that if they just changed their tone, certainly everybody would listen to them.
It’s about controlling someone’s outrage in order to maintain power over them, effectively cutting them off and telling them you won’t consider their argument valid until they appeal to your comfort – but, of course, comfort means not having to admit you might be complicit in oppression, so there’s no winning here. Everyday Feminism can break it down for you even more:
Many of the people telling others to “be kind” were from the same group as those who were most vehemently dedicated to fighting the sexism Andrew Smith’s words represented: the face of YA literature and publishing – white women.
Authors Lindsay Smith and Anne Ursu fielded a long conversation just after the #KeepYAKind storm. Read it if you dare. Notice that Wyzlic talks to them as if they are children (“It’s hard, I know…”) and admonishes Ursu and Lindsay Smith to consider the good intentions behind everyone, rather than engaging with the content of their tweets or with the content of the Andrew Smith comments that prompted them.
In other words, the tone policing in the YA community was coming from – and aimed at – the people with nothing to gain from shutting down a conversation on systemic oppression. If that’s not a wacked version of respectability politics, I don’t know what is. Women have been told for so long that we need to quiet down, demure, and be nice that now we do it without being told outright to do so.
Looking at the incident a year later offers us an opportunity to understand how tone policing isn’t just a tool of the oppressive class, but an ultimately self-sustaining system that comes out of internalizing one’s oppression. This is a concept studied by many scholars, notably Paolo Freire, who suggested that in order for this system to work, the oppressed (in this case, women) must unequivocally accept the oppressor’s (men) guidelines for operating in the world so that they feel inherently less than.
Because white men define literary tastes, standards, and “quality” in western society, it’s really not surprising to see women who work in a field defined (if not statistically dominated) by another group trying to uphold that group’s established standards. But it doesn’t get women anywhere. Or any other oppressed groups, for that matter, even as the calls for equity and social justice in YA grow ever harder to ignore louder (diversebooks.org). As writer and publisher Sarah McCarry noted years earlier, “This cult of niceness is at its heart a pernicious kind of misogyny, one enforced almost exclusively by other women…. By caving in to an unwritten code of conduct that promotes a false sense of community over honest discourse, we’re not doing ourselves any favors.”
YA is a place where the glass ceiling has chipped, and yet its women are upholding the status quo that made it so hard for them to even get close enough to the ceiling to hit it in the first place. Maybe there are so few men, numerically speaking, because they know women are doing their work for them.
After the Vice interview, Andrew Smith secured his Twitter to approved followers only, called a woman an “asshole,” and eventually made the account public again. The world moved on, because the argument had never been about him. It was about sexism.
But it’s not hard to find more recent examples to see how easily calls against oppression result in an intra-community shushing war, in which the less oppressed members of the group tell the more oppressed (or the loudest allies) to keep it down so they don’t hurt the feelings of the privileged. Even though criticism is not bullying, the YA community has created a space where it is perceived as such – and it keeps it from getting any other work done.
[Note: Within this article, gender identity inclusivity is implied.]
Sarah Hannah Gómez writes, teaches group fitness, sells biotech skincare products, and consults on library- and literature-related matters. She is pursuing a PhD in the history and critical theory of children’s/YA literature. Visit her at shgmclicious.com or on Twitter @shgmclicious