Final Update: Representation of the Intersection of Race and Gender in Young Adult and Children’s Fiction

These past few weeks I spent drafting and editing my final write-up of my research. Seeing all the pieces come together after all these weeks of research is a wonderful experience, and has allowed me to view my project with a fresh, new perspective. Just as a refresher, my project sought to answer two questions: 1) What representations of the intersection of race and gender are present in contemporary young adult and children’s literature? and 2) How can these representations be interpreted using the theories of intersectionality and controlling images developed by Black feminist theorists? To answer these questions I conducted qualitative case studies of twenty young adult and children’s fiction texts using exploratory coding. These books were chosen from Publisher’s Weekly Best Books of 2014 for middle grade and young adult fiction, Time’s Top 10 YA Books of 2014, and School Library Journal’s Best Books of 2014: Middle Grade lists. I chose best books lists over bestseller lists because I felt that including a text on a best book list was a value-conferring action. By advertising a book as the “best” it sanctions and legitimizes the narrative and, by extension, the book’s representations of race and gender. While my coding was primarily exploratory and I did not want to limit my focus to pre-determined codes, I did center my coding process on four main elements, 1) genre, 2) character description, 3) character interaction, and 4) character role.

I also coded Scott Westerfeld’s 2004  YA novel So Yesterday, a text not included on the aforementioned list, as an example of young adult literature that engages with representation of race and gender on an intelligent, meta level, incorporating intersectionality as a theme. So Yesterday also provides an exchange that came to summarize my research:

“I was kind of bugged by the missing-black-woman formation.”

Mandy blinked. “The what?”

Jen shrugged, uncomfortably, feeling the eyes on her.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I said, even though I didn’t.

Jen took a slow breath, collecting her thoughts. “You know, the guy on the motorcycle was black. The guy on the bike was white. The woman was white. That’s the usual bunch, you know? Like everybody’s accounted for? Except not really. I call that the missing-black-woman formation. It kind of happens a lot.” (Westerfeld, 2004, p. 14)

The missing-Black-woman-formation was one of the many patterns of representation that I observed through my coding, but perhaps one of the most enduring. It represents, interestingly enough, the intersection of two of the most important concepts to my research: intersectionality and images. Kimberlé Crenshaw defines the term intersectionality to refer to the unique experience of being both gender and racially marginalized. In Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Patricia Hill Collins describes the concept of stereotypical representations of Black women and girls holding power over their real-world counterparts. These representations are what Collins’ calls controlling images, which she identifies as the Mammy, the Welfare Queen, the Jezebel, and the Matriarch. My largest theoretical hurdle was applying these theorists’ writings, which operated largely in the legal and political sphere, to the literary realm. However, I believe I was largely successful in doing so. I identified examples of Collins’ controlling images that had been modernized for the 21st century, instead of a maid the middle-aged Black Mammy was a nurse, but otherwise rang incredibly true to Collins’ description. This was worrisome to me, I would have hoped that such obviously stereotypical images would have fallen out of trend.

Additionally intersectionality, or the lack thereof, was a very present theme in my sample of literature. One result that I did not expect was a pattern of representation specific to men and boys of color. In the texts I studied, it was not uncommon to find men and boys of color portrayed as hypersexualized, with a lot of focus on their physical appearance and sexual exploits. Associating hypersexuality with men of color is a stereotype with a long and harmful history and it was disappointing to see this trend continue to appear in contemporary young adult literature. Representation of women of color did not have a similar specific trend. While a few representations fit Collins’ controlling images, it was more common for women and girls of color not to be portrayed at all. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Othering was a very important theme in many of the novels I read. The theme of ostracization, of feeling estranged or excluded by peers and society at large, was very prominent throughout my project and was often connected to such classes of identity as religion, ability, and gender, but Othering was very rarely invoked in reference to race. As such, meaningful thematic engagement and representation of the intersection of race and gender was few and far between. In some cases this neglect of race was very jarring, such as when texts focused on women’s experiences and gender-based oppression but featured no women of color. In worst case scenarios, the use of Othering without meaningful engagement with real-world socio-historical context became what I refer to as the aesthetization of oppression.

This aesthetization of oppression was the concept behind one of the codes I invented during the course of my research: the Fantasy Oppression Comparison. In a previous post, I discussed how I first applied the Fantasy Oppression Comparison code to an exchange in a text where the experiences of being cryogenically frozen and reanimated was equated to the experience of being gay and closeted. Not only did I find this kind of comparison vaguely offensive, but it also didn’t hold up under scrutiny: there’s no systematic, institutionalized oppression of people who are cryogenically frozen. In both the Fantasy Oppression Comparison and the aesthetization of oppression, the systematic discrimination and prejudice experienced by marginalized groups is used as a reference for the fictional, often ahistoric and invented, oppression. It comes off as authors wanting to invoke an aesthetic or theme without having to depict real marginalized individuals who could actually benefit from more nuanced, complex representation.

Going forward with this project, I’d like to focus more on the role of the author in the construction of racial-gender representation. My plan is to expand my lit review to include more studies on the application of Black feminist theory to young adult and children’s literature and more authors’, both those whose books were included in my study and those who were not, perspectives on the current conversation on representation. To do so I plan to find interviews with authors, author biographies, and published online content such as blogs and social media platforms. Looking ahead, I would also like to contact the staff of Time, Publisher, and School Library Journal who compiled the Best Book Lists I pulled my case studies from and find out what their criteria was for making these selections. After conducting this additional research, my plan would be to recode the texts from this study, preferably with another coder to ensure a higher level of reliability. I have a lot of work ahead of me, but I am confident that the result will be more than worth it.

Works Cited

Westerfeld, S. (2008, January 10) MBW Formation [Blog Entry].  Retrieved from             http://scottwesterfeld.com/blog/2008/01/mbw-formation/