Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bitch Media: Does Wishy Washy Equal Censorship?

Some of you might have noticed a controversy within the YA community today. It started with what sounded like an exciting concept, a list of the Top 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader, compiled by Bitch Media.

You could go read the list here. Except, well, it’s not the original list. And therein lies the controversy.

Soon after the list was published, a commenter complained about Sisters Red’s (by Jackson Pearce) appearance on the list. “Living Dead Girl” by Elizabeth Scott and “Tender Morsels” by Margo Lanagan quickly followed. That’s to be expected though, right? Of course not everyone is going to agree about what constitutes great “feminist” literature. Nothing out of the ordinary there.

It’s Bitch Media’s response that gets kind of...peculiar. Instead of opening up discussion about the books, or better yet, DEFENDING the reasons why the books made their list in the first place, Bitch Media started removing books from the list. Not only that, but the person commenting on Bitch Media’s behalf indicated she hadn’t even read the books in question. Here are the reasons stated for removing the books:

“We've decided to remove these books from the list -- Sisters Red because of the victim-blaming scene that was discussed earlier in this post, Tender Morsels because of the way that the book validates (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance, and Living Dead Girl because of its triggering nature.”

Well, you can probably imagine what followed. Several other authors—including Scott Westerfeld, Maureen Johnson, Justine Larbalestier, and Diana Peterfreund---took offense to this action, and ultimately asked to have their books removed from the list as well, some claiming censorship on the part of Bitch Media.

Personally, I feel like putting books on a list and then removing them based on commenter opinion strips the entire list of its value. Read the books first. Discuss them. Decide at that point if you think they’re appropriate. Do not carelessly toss books on the list, only to waffle later at the first sign of dissent. Also, as Scott points out, where is the logic in removing one potentially "triggering" book while leaving behind scores of others, including his own Uglies or Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls?

And while some of my other writer friends might disagree, I absolutely believe this smacks of censorship. The list-makers are trying to “protect” readers from potentially objectionable material. If that’s not a form of censorship, well, I’m not sure what is.

Please, tell us your thoughts on this matter. Do you agree or disagree with removing the books in question, and if you disagree, do you think it’s censorship?

18 comments:

Cory Jackson said...

GREAT post, Deb. And I concur. And I <3 you.

Michelle said...

I so agree!! One poster does not a book take down make. I would have understood if there were a hundred protests, but a couple? Psh. Democracy, people. Get with it.

Dorothy Dreyer said...

I agree! Ugh! Great post.

Tara (The Bodacious Pen) said...

I concur completely. I read about that whole fiasco last night and was left shaking my head. I haven't read all of them, but I did read Sisters Red and I think that people are bashing a book on ONE paragraph, which is pretty ridiculous in my opinion. I was glad to see it on that list because I feel Scarlett and Rosie are strong heroines.

Krista Ashe said...

Great thoughtprovoking post, Deb.

I agree....I also hate to see people fold based on other people's opinions. If you make a list, then stand by it, regardless of criticism. It's also ridiculous that the persos(s) listed these books yet hadn't read them. That's absurd.

kellybarnhill said...

Wow, I'm really saddened by all of this. I love Bitch Magazine a lot and was thrilled that they made the list in the first place (and I linked to it on my Facebook page) but making a list like that without reading the books in question is COMPLETELY irresponsible.

And honestly, I think it speaks to a larger issue in the book world - the online book world in particular. We list books, we categorize books, we spend a lot of time talking about awards horse-races and the like, but unless we're interacting with and responding to the complexities inside the covers - how those books *talk* to us, how they talk to other books, how the content of the book meshes with our own imaginative life to make a language all its own - it ends up being just noise.

I expected better of Bitch, I really did. And their response is painfully similar to the back pedaling I'd see from my students when they were asked to respond to something specific in a book that they failed to read for class.

Debra D. said...

Cory, Michelle, Dorothy--thanks for commenting!!

Tara--I haven't read Sisters Red yet, but I plan to. I did read Living Dead Girl, though, and I am also shaking my head at how one book could be removed for potentially being "triggering" when you could say the same of so many other ones.

Krista--thanks for weighing in!

Kelly--I totally agree. I think Bitch Magazine had a wonderful idea which unfortunately, their behavior devalued. Hopefully, they'll learn something from this experience so they can do a better job next time.

Kathleen said...

The whole mess makes me sad and I avoided commenting on it last night because a: it's hard to put my thoughts into words and b: I feel like I'll come off like a rambling idiot.

Two things first:

1. I've been a casual reader of Bitch off an on for about five years.
2. I absolutely applaud them for the initial initiative in putting together the list. Despite the complete mess that was to follow, I love that someone tried to put out a list of YA reads for feminist readers.

That being said, I wish the situation had been handled better. Much, much better. And I wish they had stood behind their original list.

I haven't read Tender Morsels or Sister's Red, which makes it hard to comment, but it does strike me that novels are the world glimpsed by characters and that the thoughts and actions of those characters do not necessarily reflect the entire message of a book or the view of it's author. It's a bit like when people criticized Mad Men for being sexist. The show itself is reflecting a certain time and a certain industry in which sexism was rampant and rarely discussed. In an ideal world, no one would blame the victim and rape would always have consequences. Unfortunately, that's not the world we live in.

Regarding the triggering concern, Anyone reading the list would have likely looked at the book before buying it. If, however, they were worried about it, Bitch could have added a small note to the bottom of the list. I'm not dismissing triggering (because it's a very real thing) but I think there would have been ways to address it without removing books.

Should Bitch have removed the books? IMO, absolutely not. Are authors and writers justified in their concerns and the backlash? Yes. But, in all of this mess, I hope that something isn't lost and that's the importance of drawing attention to great books with strong (and I don't mean physically or emotionally strong) female protagonists.

In the end, I think this perfectly illustrates how open discussion is always better than knee jerk reactions. When books get yanked from lists and shelves a the first hint of resistance, everyone loses.

houndrat said...

Kath--thanks for that very thoughtful comment. I definitely agree 100% we should applaud Bitch Media for making the list in the first place, something I probably should have emphasized more in my post.

I'm surprised they weren't better prepared. Feminism means so many different things to different people--there was no way to make a list that would please everyone.

Also, the triggering thing bothers me because it was applied to one type of book only. Do I think concern over triggering is valid? Absolutely. One of my college roommates suffered from bulimia, so I have some rather sad personal experience with that. But again, upon close inspection, I'm sure many books on that list could trigger for something. Like you said, identifying the triggering potential via a quick note would be a simple solution.

Jamie B said...

Great post Deb! I have to admit, I've never heard of Bitch magazine, so this is all news to me.

But here are my thoughts:

First, Feminism is one of the most difficult words to define. Personally, I think the way the word is defined today is much different than it was 30 or 40 years ago. So, to start with, this list would be difficult to compile based on differing opinions of its basis.

Anyway, backing down from their choices once Bitch made the list makes me believe they had less than solid reasons behind putting these books on the list in the first place. Which, if they had not read them all, seems to be the case.

Quite a weighty topic to take on unprepared on their part. To me, it screams of sensationalism and not of a topic they put forth with sincerity to communicate.

Melanie said...

of course it's censorship. period. and no matter how many protested it, i still don't think it would make it right. sounds like book banners in the making. good. it will increase people's curiosities and make even more people read them. ha. take that.

Tracey Neithercott said...

Great post and I completely agree with you. It's not the magazine's job to make sure anyone who may be triggered by a book is shielded. There's so much out there that could trigger someone--movies, TV, the news--that removing a few books seems silly.

And I bet you could make a case for removing all of those books if you tried. (Um, Speak? Wintergirls? Great books but talk about triggering.)

It's also appalling that those books were added without anyone having read them. Instead, they cowered to commenters without knowing context.

Alina said...

It is so disturbing to me that Bitch Magazine is unwilling to admit even a hint of wrongdoing in their, at the very least, hasty decision to remove those books from their list. I also find it so sad, and disheartening that it's always the conversations, literature, arguments about rape that people feel need to be quashed. Nothing will ever change if even the declared "feminists" silence those discussions and try to limit exposure of them.

It's just sad all the way around.

Janine said...

1. I love being in a community of such thoughtful writers. I'm impressed by all the comments here, and for the most part, throughout this discussion I've been following elsewhere.

2. I agree with Jamie. I think putting out a list of feminist books is a great idea, but it needed, at the outset, a definition of what they meant by "feminist." I hate not to define myself as feminist, but at the same time I find myself differing from plenty of self-described feminists in how they view the world. So who is the real feminist? I'm not saying I am and they're not, I'm just showing how the word itself is a thorny issue.

3. The way they handled the controversy shows they hadn't put enough thought into the list to start with. If they had, the conversation would've been different. They would've given their reasons, at least, for listing the books they did.

4. Censorship? They aren't taking the books away from people, just taking them off their list, and since plenty of great books already weren't on their list, I'm not sure if we can accurately say it was censorship. But, the willingness to remove something based on fear of content, especially hastily and without genuine dialogue, is exactly the same process that results in censorship. To me, its arguing semantics. In the end, they were cowardly, and their actions negated, to a large extend, any validity the list originally had.

Debra D. said...

Jamie--Definitely agree that a definition of feminism is challenging. I think the best you could do for a list like this is come up with a set of criteria BEFOREHAND, both for qualities that put books on the list and deal breakers that keep them off.

Melanie--yes, definitely! The side-effect of all this is more exposure for the books getting the boot!!

Tracey and Alina--couldn't agree more!

Janine--excellent points! And I can totally see how someone would argue that it's not censorship, too. But I personally think you're spot on when you say it's a matter of semantics.

Morgan said...

Censorship is completely absurd. I just don't get it, and it never fails to make me angry when I see all the new ways it manifests itself. I love that several authors wanted their own books removed in support of free speech though-- too cool.

J.S. Wood said...

I love all of these comments. I think they were too hasty in their decision to pull the books, and there's really no way out of this situation.

I read Sister's Red and the passage they're talking about is from the pov of the sister, it's true to her character. Period. Living Dead Girl bothered me so much because I have children, I don't usually read or watch things like that, because I know the effect it will have. But that character? She was amazing.

I don't like the fact that this is turning into a book banning discussion from others because I really don't see it as book banning. It's their list and they can do what they want with it, the community can choose to ignore it. It's not as if bookstores or schools are pulling it off of their shelves.

Do I agree with what they did? No! If you make a decision, stand by it. Disclaimers are okay, but pulling a book that clearly shows strong girls for a feminist site isn't what I'd do.

And the triggering thing? Now that really bothers me. We make some subjects so sensitive that we worry we'll bring up bad memories for another person, which basically says we know what that other person needs. I'm going to stop now.

Thanks Deb for the post!

Debra D. said...

Thanks for commenting, Morgan!

Jenn, thanks so much for your insightful comment. I totally agree that they have the right to put books on their list and remove them. It is, after all, their list. I also agree--it's not book banning.

However, by deleting material from their list because they deem it objectionable, I do believe they are practicing censorship, which is a very slippery slope. I resent that their actions basically say we need to be "protected" from certain books.

Again, though, I think the root of this issue stems from a failure to pre-plan, to come up with solid criteria for the list in the first place. Had they done that, none of this back-pedaling would have been necessary.