Monday, March 30, 2015

Discussion: The Challenges of Reviewing Through a Feminist Lens

Today, instead of a review, I want to talk about something that's been in my mind a lot lately. As we've begun to really settle into this blog, I've also begun to think about how I want to review the books that I do on this blog. This particular dilemma came to me when I was writing my review for Nil. In that review, I talked about how the author, Lynne Matson, did a great job with on-the-surface diversity, and then I also said that I wished for more--maybe some characters with disabilities or something. And it got me thinking about how I've been reviewing on this blog and how I want to analyze the books we review here.

At the very basic level, I'm always going to be talking about the female characters, regardless. That's how this blog came about after all. I know I'll always talk about female representation and how the females in a book are written as compared to the males. Along the same vein, I'll be talking about complex characters, gender roles and stereotypes, diverse representation (are females being treated as humans, or are they all roughly the same?), slut shaming, etc. At the very basic level, that's what we started this blog with, and I know it's what brings this blog together.

But as we've noted, feminism is about more than how the characters are written and how they may be treated differently because of their gender. It also includes us seeing more diversity of characters as a whole. We don't just want females to be treated as humans, we also want people of other marginalized groups to be treated as humans in the books we read. We want to see all types of people represented in books.

I will almost always comment on what a book does well in terms of diversity--mental illness, disabilities, race/ethnicity, LGBTQIA, experiences, etc. But at point do we ask for more? At what point do we say the book has done a great job? Is it bad to keep asking for more of a book/author, even if a book already does much better than most of what's out there? Is there a point at which a lot is too much?

This was my problem when reviewing Nil. There was already a lot of diversity and there was a good gender balance, with each character having equal treatment in that they're all real and human and have flaws. But I wanted more. Certainly, I don't think asking for the central characters to be more PoC rather than the PoC being secondary characters is too much too ask. But is it right for me to say that I was hoping for disabilities to be represented, even if it's just asthma? Should I be happy that the author tried to do something great in terms of diversity already? Because I don't hold all books to that same standard (expecting there to be some disabled characters), so is it fair for me to add that for that book/review?

And sometimes, I can't tell what's realistic. Is it realistic that most people in the midwest are white? Probably. Certainly there are non-white people living there, but can I fault a book that takes place there for lacking racial/ethnic diversity? My school has a great program for students with mental disabilities and learning disabilities, but I don't hang out with them. Should I ask for authors to represent such people more if they're not a huge part of everyone's lives? (Of course, if the character or someone close to the character is, I would hope it's well represented in the book.) Is it reasonable to ask for a little bit of everything or is that too overwhelming? How can we represent everything, as we can find in our actual lives, without overwhelming the books? I know disabled people, people with mental illnesses, people with anxiety, people of different/multiple races/ethnicities, LGBTQIA people, etc, but I find that often, when authors try to have all of these in a book, it becomes too much and perhaps even begins to cause other problems.

I don't want my reviews to be inconsistent, but I can't help but wonder if that's the only way to review books here. Each book should always be taken on a case-by-case basis, but again, I have the issue to not being sure what to do about a book such as Nil. There are books that certainly manage to address multiple areas that I like to look for, such as Lies We Tell Ourselves, but what about the rest?

It's these questions that have become challenges for me when I'm reviewing. I don't think there is one particular answer. I don't think there is a right way to do this. I hope that I've explained my dilemma/challenge well enough for you all to understand my conflicting thoughts.

What do you think? (And for my co-bloggers, I'd love to hear your thoughts!)
PS. Apologies for not posting last week! I had a dance competition the weekend before, so I didn't get a chance to write something.


  1. This is something I think about a lot too, though probably in broader terms. Is it fair to define a book by what it's not? I think there are points where there are--for example, a fantasy saga with hundreds of characters that are all white, able-bodied, and straight? That totally should be looked at critically. But what about a book that focuses on a singular family and has only a handful of characters? I don't think I would fault a book for that. I would want to say the larger the scope of the book, the more it should include a diverse array of characters, but how do you really go about evaluating that without making it sound like you're just looking for a quota to fill? There's a lot of really good questions there, I think. So I don't have any other insights beyond more questions, I suppose, but I really like this discussion.

    1. Yes, exactly! There definitely isn't any one answer to these questions, and I think you phrased your thoughts much more eloquently than I did. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.


  2. This is an interesting question. Along the lines of what Stomy said, you might think about where the story is taking place/what the focus of the novel is. If the story takes place in modern New York City and there's a large cast of characters, I would expect that novel to have more diverse characters than, say, a historical fiction story about an upperclass English family in the sixteenth century.

    You can also think about the places you've lived and the people you've met in your own life. The city where you go to college may be much more or less diverse than the city where you grew up. You might also think about population statistics, if you want to judge whether the presence or lack of diverse characters is "realistic." For instance, Google is telling me that 8% of the population has asthma. That's a relatively small, though not insignificant number, but I think it does mean that a lot of people have perhaps never met someone with asthma. It wouldn't be unusual for a character in a book to not know anyone with asthma either. If they do, great. If they don't, I don't think it's strange or unfair or discriminatory.

  3. I don't have an answer to your overall question and I'm too tired to figure out a cohesive response, but I have a couple of thoughts:

    1. Even if the setting makes it realistic for most of the characters to be white, for example, authors (or movie producers, etc.) have a choice as to what stories they want to tell and where they want them to be set. So I think the argument that if your book is set in the midwest, for example, you don't need to have any PoC characters is kind of a cop-out.

    2. I don't think that asking for the MC to be PoC is asking too much. The MC is the one whose story is actually being told, and it's so important for PoC and other oppressed groups to be able to have their stories told, rather than just being an add-on to someone else's story.

    3. Like Stormy said, when asking for diversity, I think it's important you're not just checking things off a list; the way the characters are represented matters just as much, if not more. But I still think it's important to note whether a book includes diverse characters. I struggle with that in my reviews, too, because if there are no PoC characters, I feel awkward writing a paragraph that just says there are no PoC characters, or something like that, but it also feels weird not to mention it at all. I think it would be helpful if, some time along the line, we figured out a more set format for our reviews; maybe we could write our regular reviews, but then also rate the books on diversity, meaning quick mentions of what kinds (if any) diversity are represented in the book.

    1. I agree that the types of stories that we as a society choose to tell matter. However, I think suggesting that only diverse stories should be or deserve to be told is also problematic. Suggesting that we shouldn't bother writing stories about the American Midwest comes close to saying that the experiences of people in the Midwest are unimportant (and that they're unimportant because those people are white).

      The point about being able to choose your stories and settings thus makes a bit more sense if we're talking about fantasy. So, a realistic historical fiction about England in the Middle Ages would probably have a lot of white characters. But a fantasy novel or movie that's simply inspired by England in the Middle Ages? That could definitely be more diverse. So, FROZEN, even though it's inspired by Scandinavian countries, could be more diverse because it isn't set in a real country with a real history of being somewhat un-diverse.


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