Wednesday, June 05, 2013

YA Lit & Social Attitudes

Fashion to hairstyles. Sexual orientation to lifestyles. Racism, bigotry, prejudice, bullying, and even rape. How does social attitudes affect YA literature? 
 (This is a repost from my personal blog. I felt it was such an important topic in YA literature that it deserved a second look, even a third if you'd like to write a post on this subject yourself.)
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I recently came across a video showing a young man taking a stand against a fashion mogul. Some of you may have seen this video or read the post. I've posted links to both at the end of this article.

The gist of the story is that Abercrombie & Fitch - huge young adult fashion icon - has publicly stated they want to cut off the not-so-cool-kids from purchasing their products. Uh-hmmm. Excuse me? This is just as bad as the recent admission from Starbucks that traditional marriage lovers should stay home. Dude, I'm cool with however someone wants to live their life, but I'm thinking that being married to the same man for over twenty years kind of makes me a traditional marriage lover.


Apparently, Starbucks believes those who've been in a traditional marriage are against anyone else's views. Or maybe they think we might be allergic to their coffee or that it causes teenage acne; teens do drink boatloads of coffee today, do they not? That must be the reason, yes? And it looks like A&F has developed a perfect description of the not-so-cool-kids in America and around the world. So, who exactly is this group of kiddos?
  • the teen boy, who wears hammy-downs from his cousin because he works two jobs to help his family buy oil for the winter?
  • or what about the sophomore girl, whose eyeglasses are too big for her face but her parents can't afford to buy her more expensive ones?
  • maybe it's the high school senior unable to afford college or simply feels that school is not his/her thing?
  • could it be the teenage cashier or bus-boy, or babysitter? 
Another issue A&F has decided to go public with is their opinion of overweight people, woman in particular. A&F will not make large or extra-large clothing for woman, wanting only the fit or lean woman showing off their brand. 

What I want to discuss today is how social attitudes such as these affect young adult literature and how much responsible should rest on those larger entities for influencing our YA population. Do young adult authors include such dynamics in their stories. If they do, how much responsibility is theirs--ours?

Now, I'm not a bible toting person and I rarely refer to religion here. But the later half of the above sentence brought to mind a life lesson I've learned over the years, which just happens to be a biblical truth: Do well in the smaller things and you will be entrusted with larger things.

We've seen YA literature of the past address racism, prejudice, and teen gangs. To Kill A Mocking Bird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn came out in a time when racism was outwardly prevalent. Did writing about such a social issue during its modern height add to social awareness or simply poke a stick at it, giving haters the nod? The Outsiders released later, but also dealt with racism, gangs, acceptance or the lack of it. Did that story open new views about such issues?

Now writers have no control over how their audience will react to the social issues they choose to explore through their work. However, they can control the manner in which it's delivered. It is my opinion that To Kill A Mocking Bird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Outsiders did open new views on those social issues. Countless other young adult stories, whose authors had the courage to explore such social thorns and expose them for what they were/are, have done the same.

How did these authors and these particular stories open new views? Was it timing, delivery, character & story setting, a combo of both, or something more? Does society have to be ready for the challenge to change?

Granted, there are more pressing issues than the one raised here about A&F. But we, as young adult authors, are in a unique position. We can stand up and shed light on such issues. And in doing so, we can lean to the right or the left, weaving our opinions through our characters, settings, and overall arcs. We can remain neutral and thread both sides of a social attitude through our stories, letting the reader form their own opinions. We must always remember--as A&F and Starbucks have obviously forgotten--that we're dealing with impressionable teenagers. We have the ability to make a difference, change wrongs of humanities' past, and pave the road for a brighter mankind.

But on the other hand, we are merely writers. Each of us living in our own space and time, towns and ideals--social attitudes. Where do the young adult readers fit into this? My three teenagers would be the first to tell you they know it all or that they can handle it. They've even told me that I've raised them to know better. Although that is encouraging, the world is much bigger than me alone. Then you alone.

With today's social media and technology being merely a fingertip away, teens are inundated with social opinions and attitudes. So many of these are delivered by retailers through products or services attractive to young people. Just look at the Homecoming or Prom gowns of today. Most of the gowns I see make me ask "Where the heck is the rest of it?" Retailers airbrush amazing images of high school girls draped in gorgeous gowns, coxing teen girls to want whatever they are selling. Once again, how does this simple act of buying a prom dress affect YA literature?

Laurie Halse Anderson spotlighted the topic of teen rape in her amazing book SPEAK. The gripping story of a young girl, who was raped yet feared to tell anyone, created a great stir among teen and adult groups alike. As most of you know, that book was placed on a band book list years ago.

Let's talk about branding and platforms. As authors, we all want to sell books. For the most part, authors say they write because they want to share stories with the world, love to create and explore, and simply enjoy writing. But let's be honest, we also have to make a living. So that lends to the subject of platform. What content do I use on my blog? What topics do I steer away from? What social attitudes am I willing to include in my work, and will any of those alienate a group of readers, marketers, publishers? I'm not sure about you, but even though I write for kids/tweens/teens, I'd love for my books to be read by everyone regardless of age, race, status, etc.... The question we have to ask ourselves here is "Am I willing to sellout my personal ideals, morals, and opinions to sell my books? If not, how far am I willing to push the envelope of bucking-the-social-system?"

So why would A&F cut off certain buyers? Is it solely for appearances? Social status? Do authors do the same thing?

How do young adult authors incorporate these social attitudes in our stories without preaching? How do we deliver material in such a way that gives the young adult reader the freedom to form his/her own attitudes and feel courageous enough to stand up for them?

My answer to those two questions is simple: I will remain true to myself in all things, even if it goes against the grain of accepted social attitudes. What is your answer? 

Here are the links:
 ARTICLE - VIDEO. (I would love it if you'd share this article. I'd really like to start a discussion about this, maybe make a difference. THX!)

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Sheri. And I've been furious about this AF thing for a while. The thing is, they are publicly acknowledging what every teen knows though, there are "golden" people out there, and most teens would love to be one. Heck, that's what makes Cinderella and the Ugly Duckling such great stories--and it's what made Twilight into such a sensation. The name Bella Swan is no coincidence, SM knew exactly what she was writing, and the genius of the books is that she turned sparkly vampires into rockstars that a human could aspire to be. So where does that leave AF? I don't know. I hope no one rewards them for this by buying the brand.

    I loved your quote about doing well in the smaller things, and I love how that ties into how writers can write about issues without getting preachy. SPEAK is a great example. LHA focused on the small things, the day in and day out of a girl imprisoned by her silence about something horrible that was done to her. Because she was so deeply in her character, she didn't have to tell us a damn thing. We felt it right along with her.

    So, maybe we need a book about the girl whose clueless aunt gives her an AF gift card but she can't find anything that fits except a scarf. Showing us her pain as she thumbs through racks of lents she knows will never slide up her dimpled thighs, and the shirts that leave her chest exposed and vulnerable. The salesgirls all stare at her and giggle, and the music gets louder as her skin gets clammy, and in the end, she runs out of the store feeling even more horrible about herself. It's easy for us to say that how we look isn't what's important, but it's hard to convince a teenager of that when everything in her society says otherwise. As if they don't have enough to worry about already just trying to grow up these days.

    I'd love to get into the AF boardroom and tell those people a thing or two.

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