Feminist Reads, Rape, and the Bitch Media list

People have been asking for my take on the whole Bitch Magazine debacle. There’s some incorrect information out there, so I thought I’d try to clarify my position.

Last week, I learned that my novel RAMPANT had been placed on the Bitch Magazine’s 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader. I was initially very pleased — it was a great list, I’d read a bunch of the books on it, and I was glad that the list compilers recognized the feminist themes in my book.

I was looking at the list and saw that a discussion had sprung up around one of the titles on the list, specifically, Sisters Red, by Jackson Pearce. One comment stated “surprise” that the book was included, because there had been a blog review of the book that took issue with one passage and said it “promoted rape culture.” The response from the list compiler, Ashley McAllister, was basically “thanks for letting me know, I’ll replace it.” I was shocked by that, since I thought that the list was made up of books that the compiler/s were familiar with and, you know, recommended.

Having read both the book and the blog post in question, I disagreed with that interpretation, so when the compiler came back on and said that the editors had decided to re-read (or read for the first time) three of the books on the list that “dealt with the subject of rape” I contacted them and said that there were LOTS of books on the list (I counted at least a half a dozen, very quickly) that dealt with the subject rape, including my own, and if they questioned the appropriateness of Sisters Red because one reader who has a blog disliked/misinterpreted a single pagssage, they could certainly find something similar on every other book on the list. I urged them to keep the list as originally published, as a diverse and varied selection of literature that would be of interest to a feminist reader.

In the ensuing day and a half or so, I was not online — I was in Florida, visiting with my parents and watching my three month old’s bottom gum erupt with four teeth. Yes — FOUR.

Anyway, I came back to see that they had chosen to remove Sisters Red from the list, as well as Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl. At that point, a bunch of YA authors were asking to be removed from the list because they took issue with this behavior and the arguable cowardice of the editor. As I was reading their comments, I saw that McAllister had responded to my comment from a day earlier, saying how happy she was that I was happy to be part of such a diverse list. There was no comment about whether or not they reconsidered Rampant.

At that point, I asked them to remove Rampant from the list. There is a lot of talk going on right now about how the authors who asked to be removed from the list did so “in solidarity” with the removed authors. While I definitely support that motivation, it was not my motivation. Frankly, my motivation can be summed up in the graphic accompanying this post. (Credit for the graphic goes to Sarah W. of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.)

Sisters Red was removed following: 1) there are characters in the novel who express anti-feminist, “victim blaming” views which may be traumatic to the reader, 2) there was a reader of the book who chose to interpret that character’s viewpoint as being the one sanctioned and championed by the author.

Yes, and George Lucas really hates kids, since he let Anakin go on that child-killing spree in Revenge of the Sith.

If this is the justification by which Sisters Red was removed from the list — that someone on the internet read a passage of it and didn’t like it or didn’t understand it — then Rampant does not belong on the list, either. There have been people who didn’t like or understand passages of it. There have been people who interpreted the fact that immediately after being raped, one character experiences confused, guilty feelings about what happened to her (and is also blamed by another character), as being anti-feminist and triggering and the other buzzwords that Bitch Magazine is so concerned about.

Here’s an example (whited out for spoilers):

“Is it?” Lilith folded her arms over her chest. “Guess I’m just not like perfect, easygoing Neil, who is far too polite to say the things that need to be said. Well, maybe it’s not proper, but if you’d stayed inside, where you belonged, this never would have happened.”

“Enough!” I shouted so loudly that the words reverberated off the mosaic walls. Phil’s chin was high but trembling. “How can you possible talk that way to her, knowing what she’s been through?”

“Because Philippa knows full well she’d get a hell of a lot worse from her father. Why do you think she’s staying here rather than going home?”

Phil wouldn’t meet my eyes.

My novel includes passages such as these because the characters live in OUR world — a world where one in six women is sexually assaulted, a world where women can and do feel confused or guilty after being raped, a world where women are sometimes — even often — blamed for being raped. We write to explore these topics. I wrote because I, personally, find this subject matter to be very close to my heart. I would never attempt to speak for every woman who has been sexually assaulted, but I was very concerned with crafting a story that reflects with integrity and honesty the experiences of those around me who have been through similar situations.

That the supportive role is played by the heroine of the novel and the victim blaming comes from the mouth of a character who is wrongheaded and insane at best and villainous at worst should probably make it pretty clear how I feel about the issue, but whether or not I was successful in portraying what I set out to is not the issue here. The passage (and others like it) exists, and some people have had problems with it. If this is the metric by which the Bitch List is judged, then Rampant is only on the list because they didn’t happen to get a complaint about it yet.

I was initially honored to be on the list because I thought it meant that Bitch had read my work, appreciated its feminist outlook, and was recommending it to others. Now I think they just didn’t happen upon one of these negative reactions.

I’ve recently learned that the editors of Bitch have chosen not to honor the request of writers that asked their books to be removed from the list. It seems to be a misunderstanding as to the nature of the list — we were considering the list to be an honor (one we could deny), and they were considering it as a review. We were considering it to be a published list that could be printed out and passed along to librarians or teachers interested in tracking down recommended reads. There are many such lists in the YA world — ALA’s lists for reluctant readers, NYPL’s “Stuff for the Teen Age,” Locus’ list of recommended SFF reads — but apparently, that’s not what this was, since the most recent comment from the editors is that the list will be in a state of constant flux (rather like the IMDB top films, or the Amazon bestseller list, perhaps?)

Anyway, that’s my take. I think it’s inappropriate for them to have removed those books from their list, but I also think it’s inappropriate for my book to remain on it, given the way the editors seem to give a lot of weight to the misguided complaint of a reader or two. And, as a former journalist, I think that’s not how good journalism works — stand by your opinions, correct your facts.

More on this issue:

Liz B (School Library Journal)
Meta Filter (in which some very nice things are said about the feminist bent to my work)
Foz Meadows
Chasing Ray (some incorrect stuff here, but overall very good timeline)
Smart Bitches
Margo Lanagan (my fellow Zombies vs. Unicorns Anthologist and the author of the removed Tender Morsels)
Karen Healey
Tansy Rayner Roberts
Gwenda Bonds

Okay. Now I’ve spent my baby’s naptime responding to this instead of working on the book I have due next month.

I’ll be back presently to talk about another list where my work has appeared this week. But this one makes me happy!

Posted in feminism, other writers, writing industry, YA

16 Responses to Feminist Reads, Rape, and the Bitch Media list

  1. Susan says:

    Perfect. Nail on the head. Bitch kind of messed this whole deal up and I’m disappointed in them.

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  4. Foz Meadows says:

    Thanks for linking! The whole issue is frustrating as hell. Also, have corrected my post to state that you requested the removal of Rampant in protest at Bitch’s censorship, rather than in solidarity with Pearce 🙂

  5. Cessie says:

    You go. Well said!

  6. Diana says:

    Hey, Foz, that’s okay. That’s a good reason, too! But I was offended by Bitch saying that it wasn’t “enough” when what I was really trying to do was say that there are a LOT of titles that should be removed on the same grounds.

    Plus, I honestly suspect they DID NOT “re-read” (or even read) Sisters Red or they wouldn’t keep saying there was a rape in it.

  7. PurpleRanger says:

    I’m probably going to be setting myself up as a target, but here’s my take on the matter:

    1. With a list that long, my guess is that the compilers/editors solicited recommendations, and may not have read all of the books on the list. (I’m probably familiar with only about half the list.)

    2. It would probably have helped if the books had been listed in SOME kind of order, whether alphabetical by title, alphabetical by author, or chronological.

    3. This is BITCH’s list, after all. They can put whatever books they want on the list. (I am now breaking out the Kevlar.)

    On a different subject — wow. Is Bugaboo really getting four teeth all at the same time? and isn’t this a little early? I thought the first teeth didn’t start erupting until the baby was around six months old.

  8. Diana says:

    1. Me too, but MAN ALIVE, sloppy! My work has appeared on some long lists before (see next blog post, NYPL, etc.) but I assume someone around there’s doing the vetting so they can stand behind their choice.

    2. Helped the list in general or helped with this issue?

    3. They can, but since they did publish a list which was then disseminated for several days, how long do they expect to play the retraction game? There are doubtless many different “official” lists tacked up on walls in libraries across the country. Not everyone is on twitter.

    Re: teeth. Right? My mutant child. I’m told she takes after her father. Or maybe she’s part unicorn.

  9. PurpleRanger says:

    Helped the list in general. There is no sense of organization to it, IMHO.

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  11. Rachael says:

    I agree with your post but I hate to see the phrase “triggering” dismissed as a buzz word and discarded.

    Triggers are real and should be taken seriously. For the record, I don’t really think Bitch used the word genuinely either. If a book is triggering, that’s not a reason to remove it from a list. That’s what warnings are for! (And many books on the list, like Wintergirls, would definitely be considered triggering and weren’t taken off)

    But–it really does bother me in this to see many authors and commenters saying that the idea of triggery material is laughable and that people should just be able to handle fiction, since it happens in real life. Well, it DOES happen to real people, and some of them may be traumatized if they are forced to reenact it in a narrative.

  12. Rachael says:

    Oh, and I totally sympathize on the teeth thing. My son cut his first one at 3 months. Totally unfair! They\’re too young to even really hold on to their teethers in their mouths. 🙁

    He’s 11 months now and cutting another one. Ugggghhh

  13. Diana says:

    Rachael, I did not say it was laughable, and neither, to my knowledge, did anyone else. They made the exact argument you did — that the idea of “triggering” being a compelling reason to remove a book from a list is inappropriate.

    Additionally, I feel that the extent to which Bitch Media fell back on the excuse of “triggering” to remove Sisters Red from the list (We must protect the poor, helpless women from a single line in a novel spoken by one wrongheaded character!) rendered it merely a buzzword that they knew people would get up in arms about. The original comment complaining about the book’s inclusion on the list threw a firebomb with a similar buzzword: “rape culture.”

    FWIW, I have dealt with the concept of PTS and triggering in my own fiction. The heroine of my novel Tap & Gown is triggered by the sound of her kidnapper’s voice. She is triggered by sleeping in the same room as her boyfriend, since she was kidnapped the last time she slept in the presence of a man. I know it’s a real thing, and I know that the source of the trigger can be so innocuous (cf. the trumpets for Josh Lyman in The West Wing) as to make it impossible for the innocent bystander to avoid.

  14. Heather says:

    As someone who agrees with points on both sides, I think this entire battle comes down to the fact that people on both sides of the debate seem to be pitting feminism against triggers–this idea that a book can either but feminist or triggering but not both. But of course that’s not true (as you acknowledge above). Bitch could have left them on the list with a trigger warning and been completely in the right. (I also thought it was odd that their removals for triggering content seemed to be limited to sexual assault references–it’s hard for me to conceive of a YA book that would be more triggering for rape survivors than Wintergirls is for those recovering from eating disorders, for example, but no one contested that.)

    I do think Bitch handled the whole situation quite badly (and commenters throwing around the “rape culture” stuff seems ridiculous to me, although I’ll admit I haven’t read any of the books in question), but I also think some of the authors did too. While you deny seeing it, it’s pretty apparent to me that some of them are being mildly dismissive of the idea of triggers–there’s this whole “literature can’t hurt people; they don’t need to be protected from it” vibe that’s going on in some authors’ statements. And that’s simply not true–if books didn’t have the power to deeply affect people, why would anybody bother writing one? Triggers are real, and sometimes can hit you even when you think you’re totally over it, and for me to read E. Lockhart saying, “Oh, they should just read the cover blurb and take responsibility for themselves!” is absurd (and a little depressing, since The Disreputable History is one of my favorite YA books of all time). Yes, that’s a good first step, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of avoiding things that can hurt you if you’re a rape or sexual assault survivor. Certainly not ALL people need to be protected from literature, but Bitch wasn’t saying that they do. They weren’t saying that those books should be pulled off the shelves or even that women shouldn’t read them. They were saying that their audience–which, like many feminist audiences, tends to skew heavy on the rape/sexual assault survivors who are still suffering from the fallout–might be more affected by the content than the average reader, and they’d be right about that. Personally I feel like their reaction (removing the books) was a little over the top, but I don’t think that their reaction to make readers aware of the problematic content was wrong, nor was it on par with censorship.

    I also was turned off by the multiple demands to be removed from the list, which is unfortunate because I really like and respect most of the authors who did it. I know you explained your reasoning above, but as a reader, it didn’t come off as “I’m turning down this award because I disagree with the criteria” to me; it came off as “If you won’t do what I want, I’m taking my ball and going home!”

  15. Diana says:

    Heather, I disagree with several aspects of your assessment, and I think you are accusing me of making accusations that I never made, or comments that I never made, and expecting me to answer for and justify the statements of other authors as if we are some sort of monolithic political party with our own platform. That’s hardly fair. I can only speak for myself.

    I do not believe that feminists or feminist media skews heavily toward rape survivors who are still dealing with post traumatic stress, and thus should avoid all mentions of rape for fear of triggering. Most feminist media in fact, seems to be deeply involved with the incredibly feminist issue of rape. (Being a member of the feminist media, myself.) In fact, Bitch Media’s current top story includes the word rape twice in its headline — no trigger warning for the embedded video, in which a comedian makes a bunch of darkly satirical comments about how various types of rape don’t really count as “rape.”

    And my point is that Bitch Media is applying their “protection” rather arbitrarily. Sisters Red is pulled because one reader had a problem with one passage, but my book, SOLD, TITHE, and any number of other books on the list which have far more disturbing content that is potentially triggering — it isn’t pulled?

    You say you have not read the books in question, and if so, I think it’s an interesting position to take that you think some of the authors are “trivilaizing” the matter. Rather, might it be that Bitch Media is blowing the potential “danger” way out of proportion, especially given that they themselves regularly publish information of a “triggering” nature without any warning?

    And I’m not really sure why you brought censorship into the issue. The word censorship has never been typed by me at all regarding this situation.

    Did you read the comment thread on Bitch Media or did you just read the other bloggers coverage of it? If so, it’s easy to see why you could “as a reader” tell me what that coverage made you feel like “the authors” (en masse) were doing. If you read my original exhange with Ashley McAllister, it’s a lot more difficult to make that statement. And, once again, it’s not a question of “turning down the award because I disagree with the criteria” in my case — it was saying “if this book doesn’t belong, then mine doesn’t either.” I’m HELPING them meet their standards, even though I disapprove of them.

  16. Alexa says:

    I’m late hearing about all this (I’ve been in a cave!), thanks for sharing your point of view, it was interesting to read. It’s such a shame it all went pear shaped, as the initial idea is was great one. I guess the main lesson is don’t recommend books you haven’t read!

    Also four teeth, WOW! Hope they aren’t causing her too much pain!