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I work with teens and I frequently see YA novels described as "feminist". Sometimes all this seems to be is that the protagonist is a queer girl, usually badass in some way. Sometimes it's on a feminist subject - often rape.

I don't know. I'd like something more than this. I'd love to see YA novels where teen girls really question the fundamentals of patriarchy, and get political, even philosophical about it. Like there are books about fighting dress codes but the girls never really confront social norms with regards to female dress. They're just like "yay! we can wear camis".

What do you all think makes a novel feminist? What are some good feminist novels for teens?

I work with teens and I frequently see YA novels described as "feminist". Sometimes all this seems to be is that the protagonist is a queer girl, usually badass in some way. Sometimes it's on a feminist subject - often rape. I don't know. I'd like something more than this. I'd love to see YA novels where teen girls really question the fundamentals of patriarchy, and get political, even philosophical about it. Like there are books about fighting dress codes but the girls never really confront social norms with regards to female dress. They're just like "yay! we can wear camis". What do you all think makes a novel feminist? What are some good feminist novels for teens?

19 comments

It's probably a bit on the younger side of teen, but one of my favorite books growing up was Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede. (It's the first part of a series called The Enchanted Forest Chronicles). It's about a princess named Cimorene who decides she doesn't fit into the princess/feminine box and decides to get captured by a dragon and be a dragon's princess. This means that she becomes a dragon's assistant, rebuffs the suitors who come to rescue her, defeats wizards with intelligence, and helps save a kingdom. I always loved that she's independent but also never tries to be a man. She's just herself.

Another one I love is the graphic novel Persepolis. It's a memoir about the author's childhood during the Islamic Revolution in Iran and her personal problems with the oppression placed upon girls and women.

+1 for Persepolis. That was such an eye opening book for me, as someone who was deprogramming herself from Bush II Republicanism in the early to mid aughts. I really loved it.

Younger side here too, but Tamora Pierce ... her first series is about a young girl Alanna who wishes to become a knight ... now, she does have to pretend to be a boy for the first 2 books (there are 4) however, its not really about that, because as the reader, you are very much aware of her being a girl due to inner dialogue, etc, ... there is even an entire chapter in the first book called Womanhood where she gets her period, and while she is pretending to be a boy to the people around her, she is on an emotional journey as she accepts what Womanhood means to her, and who she is, especially as she sort of "comes out" as being a woman and learning how to be who she wants to be in a male dominated world ... The other stories from the Tortall Universe are female protagonists who s are able to live freely, strongly, and independently as a result of the female protagonists in the Alanna series, in some ways. Anyways, I think they are pretty amazing and, honestly, a detailed chapter about menstruation ais pretty uncommon, at least it was nearly 20 years ago when I was reading a lot of YA.

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Anne McCaffrey - Dragonsong

Also on the young side (preteen - mid teen years)

I LOVED it as a kid. It's not aggressively feminist, but the protag exists in a very sexist society and, living in a small backwater community, excels at a job intended only for men. It deals a lot with feeling like an outcast, angst, and finding autonomy

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I don't know if this is specifically classed as YA fiction or not (I don't keep up with the genre as I honestly am not keen on a lot of the stereotypical subject matter of such stories), but The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden is a series set in medieval Russia with folklore and fantasy aspects. It has a romance subplot (of course), but it also contains instances of a girl dressing in boys clothing, and this situation is not romanticized at all, nor is it taken as a sign that she's 'really a boy', in fact [SPOILER] she suffers some rather severe consequences for doing so that highlight the underlying issues of the patriarchal society she lives in. There are likewise several additional explorations misogyny/sex-based oppression, as well as examples of female solidarity within the story (especially later on as the story progresses). I would certainly recommend this series to any teens who are interested in history, fantasy, folklore, and fairytale retellings.

And regarding your question... hmm. I would say what makes a novel feminist will be at least somewhat subjective for each reader at times, and I don't feel comfortable making some kind of hard definition of that. (Especially since I don't consider myself strictly a radical feminist, I don't feel qualified to speak specifically on that side of it.) Rather, my own approach these days is more along the lines of recognizing what is not feminist (aka most of what tends to considered such from a liberal feminist view). In other words, understanding that just because there's a main female character who does 'strong' things as an individual, doesn't automatically mean that the story itself offers any feminist views. If set in a world that mirrors our own, then there needs to at least be some greater analysis, exploration, or critique of patriarchy, misogyny, and/or sex-based oppression. Alternatively, if the story is happening in a more ideal world (futuristic, sci fi, fantasy, utopian, whatever) that is being put forth as 'feminist', then it probably needs to explore at least a little bit about the structure and benefits of a female-run society. Since we are talking about teen/YA stories here, then I wouldn't necessarily expect a super heavy level of analysis or critique, but I do think it's important that female characters are depicted in relation to the struggles of other girls and women in some way, rather than just as 'badass' characters floating through a man/boy's world.

I really like Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard. Probably because I relate so strongly to the main character. She's a gender nonconforming lesbian with a shit ton of internalized misogyny, but she grows and develops throughout the novel. She also has some physical dysphoria, and flat out rejects the idea of being transgender.

I was reading some reviews on Goodreads just now, and a lot of reviewers are still convinced the main character Pen is on the trans spectrum despite her denying it outright. One of the reviewers complained about the author seeming like an "older lesbian" (code for TERF) and there was a review who felt that it wasn't nuanced enough in terms of 21st century gender complexity. They really want Pen to be non-female in some way and seem upset that she claims her femaleness and womanhood despite her masculinity.

Pen on how she knows she's not a boy:

"I don’t feel wrong inside myself. I don’t feel like I’m someone I shouldn’t be. Only other people make me feel like there's something wrong with me."

Oh I'm glad you said that because I was curious about this book, but Iw as worried it would be a trans narrative. I'll have to check it out.

Yeah, it's definitely not a trans narrative. It's pretty much TERF city in comparison to the kinds of books that are coming out now.