Representation of Race and Gender: Update 2

Last week I said goodbye to Williamsburg and finished coding the last books in my sample. To briefly recap, I have been researching representation of the intersection of race and gender in children’s and young adult fiction by reading and coding a sample of twenty books. These past few weeks have been incredibly illuminating. The biggest revelation was my decision that one of my books I planned to read, Scott Westerfeld’s So Yesterday would function as a case study for the purposes of my research, separating it from the other sampled texts. So Yesterday articulates the phenomenon of the erasure of Black female representation, applying the term (or should I say, code?) missing-black-woman-formation  to various pieces of media, and even to their own narrative. Since So Yesterday was the novel that inspired my research, and was not selected in the same method as the sampled books, I feel that using it as a case study of representation is only fitting. I do not intend to present So Yesterday as a model for racial-gender representation in children’s and young adult fiction, but rather as a text whose narrative and characterization is defined and shaped by the erasure of individuals at the intersection of race and gender. As such the text itself serves as a critical analysis of representation in media as a whole, but in young adult and children’s literature in particular.

My next step is to begin analyzing the codes I have acquired. Hopefully in doing so I will be able to find patterns of representation across texts. I will also be doing more reading on theory and methodology in preparation for my final write-up of this research. At the same time, I know I will miss coding. More than anything else, these five weeks have been fun. I have been able to read a wide variety of texts, from illustrated children’s picture books, to narratives told entirely in verse, to graphic novels.

Unfortunately, the diversity of medium and style has not lead to a diversity in representation. So far, the pattern generated by the texts I have read lean more towards erasure more than intersectionality. When character of color occurred it was mostly as supporting characters, only three of the twenty books I sampled featured main characters of color. Interestingly, while I created my research question to focus on the representation of women of color, particularly Black women, what stood out to me was a pattern of representation of men and boys of color. This pattern is one of heavy sexualization. In Cristina Moracho’s novel Althea & Oliver[1], the Latino doctor Dr. Crespo is referred to almost exclusively as “Dr. Curls”, a reference to the narrator’s focus on his meticulously maintained hair which borders on effeminizing. When Dr. Crespo speaks admiringly of the work of White nurse on staff Oliver, a White teenage boy, assumes he must be referring to her in a degrading, sexual manner. That same book features a Black male minor character who’s character quirk is to get partially or completely nude at large gatherings of people. In another novel, Say What You Will (2014), an Indian character, Sanjay, who refers to girls as “conquests” and to himself as “brown sugar” (McGovern, p. 74). While I don’t think young adult literature shouldn’t depict adolescent sexuality, it is troubling to me that depictions of sexuality of men and boys of color are so one-dimensional, degrading and even predatory.

Of the three books with characters of color as main characters, two of these characters are Black girls. While these texts provide nuanced and complex depictions of Black girlhood and the intersection of race and gender, outside of these books Black girls and woman and woman of color in general had a tendency to be almost completely erased. I interpret this erasure as an inability of the authors to conceptualize Black woman as subjects, as individuals with unique perspectives and experiences. As Patricia Hill Collins writes, “Objectification can be so severe that the Other simply disappears” (2000, p. 71)[2].

In my first blog post I mentioned that many of the texts I read featured Othering as a prominent theme while failing to address race. This theme continued through the duration of my coding. In one instance, in Say What You Will a baby is put up for adoption where the fact that the baby may be disabled is brought up as a potential barrier for adoption but that the baby is non-white is not, though in real life demand can be so determinant around racial lines that some private adoption facilitators charge higher fees to adopt White babies than babies of other races[3]. Additionally, I recently developed a code that I tentatively named “Fantasy Oppression Comparison”. This is when a text borrows from or explicitly compares real life, systematic oppression to Othering as a result of some fictitious, fantastical facet of identity. For example, in the YA novel Noggin, the text compares the experiences of its protagonist, the second person in the world to be cryogenically frozen and successfully reanimated with his head transplanted on a “donor body”, to the experiences of being a closeted gay person:

“Because I think you and Kyle might have a lot more in common than you realize.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah. I mean you’re both living these lives you didn’t choose to live with a world full of people telling you what that’s supposed to mean. It’s messed up.”[4]

While I did not encounter very many instances of the Fantasy Oppression Comparison, possibly because of a low percentage of fantasy and sci-fi among my sample, I think this phenomenon says something about how people view systems such as racism, misogyny, and heterosexism. By presenting an invented, fantasy identity as comparable to a real marginalized position, it divorces Othering from historical and societal contexts. There is no institutionalized system of discrimination against individuals who have been cryogenically frozen, for instance. Additionally, comparing a fantastical, ahistorical identity to race, gender, or sexual orientation carries the suggestion that the real life identity is equally fantastical or “unnatural”. In this way, I found the Fantasy Oppression Comparison helpful as a way of discovering which elements of their text an author believes are too fantastic. At the beginning of Noggin, the main character describes his neighborhood’s history of segregation and redlining to explain why it is almost exclusively White, an exchange that also serves to justify lack of diversity in the novel itself. Apparently transplanting a teenager’s cryogenically frozen  head onto another teenager’s body requires no further explanation but depicting non-white people in Kansas City is too unrealistic.

[1] Moracho, C. (2014) Althea and Oliver. New York, New York: Viking Books For Young Readers.

[2] Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought : Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge. Available from            http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzcwNzk1X19BTg2?si      d=043aa865-03c9-4bf6-b33e-fd816a864f68@sessionmgr103&vid=0&format=EB&rid=1

[3] NPR Staff (2013, June 27) Six Words: ‘Black Babies Cost Less To Adopt’. NPR

Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/2013/06/27/195967886/six-words-black-babies-cost-less-to-adopt

[4] Whaley, J. C. (2014) Noggin. (p. 104). New York, New York: Athenium Books for Young Readers

Comments

  1. What an interesting project! It sounds like you picked a topic you are really passionate about, and that you are enjoying the research as you make a lot of progress. I really appreciate your discussion of “Othering” and your creation of the concept “Fantasy Oppression Comparison.” Unfortunately, in literature and in reality, Othering is so salient that the Other is completely erased. Because, if someone who, by existence, strays from the norm does not exist, then there is no problem, right? And I really like the way you described the concept you termed Fantasy Oppression Comparison as a way of separating Othering from historical and societal contexts. Even when ‘other’ identities are presented, they are done so in a fantastical, unrealistic way, in effect establishing their real-life counterparts as even more different, anomalous. So frustrating! Anyways, keep up the good work, and I can’t wait to see how your project ends up!

  2. bkmeeks says:

    This is such an interesting project, and I look forward to reading your findings! One question: how did you choose the novels you would study? Did you use the most popular ones, or did you try to diversify it by genre or author? It’s impressive that you were able to read and code all of these in such a short time, but I’m curious as to how you chose the specific 20 books.

  3. htlawrence says:

    Hi! I actually chose my sample from the Best Books for YA and Middle Years lists put out in 2014 by Publisher’s Weekly, Times, and School Library Journal. I chose best lists over best-selling for a couple of reasons, partly because best-sellers are listed by week and are often really repetitive so it would be harder to to put together a wide sample, and also because naming a novel as “best” is a value conferring judgement that singles out a book as especially important for educational and entertainment. I was interested in what kind of representation these “best” novels portrayed, and that these lists were indirectly sanctioning and promoting.

  4. htlawrence says:

    Thank you for your feedback! Yes, it’s very interesting to me that so much literature is unwilling to presented marginalized individuals, or at least present them as subjects, but still features Othering as a very prominent theme. There’s this trend of using, coining this term on the fly, the “aesthetics” of Othering, where authors without exploring socio-historical context, how those doing the Othering benefit materially, etc. that is very common. It’s so intriguing, it almost reminds me of the conversations surrounding appropriation these days.