Magical, invisible women

Diversity in YA (or lack thereof) is a hot topic at present. A comment that struck me recently was along the lines that browsing the YA section of a library or bookshop is like a “hall of mirrors” – provided you are a white, able-bodied, heterosexual female.

Well, see, that’s me. And it made me feel a bit guilty about what I read and what I write, especially because I’d been thinking the number of female writers and characters “out there” was a good thing.

Four YA books written by women featuring female protagonists.

I’m not going to apologise – I love reading books by women and about women

While I don’t denigrate the need for more diverse figures in YA fiction, as a woman I can’t help being pleased that somewhere in life there is a place that reflects back a multitude of women, because elsewhere in our culture females seem to be magical beings with the ability to vanish into invisibility.

Women make up 50% of the population, but if you judged from our media you’d be forgiven for thinking women formed a much smaller proportion of society. TV shows, films, even many books – you are almost guaranteed to find that female characters will be outnumbered by male ones. A chat show with 4 guests? Often, 3 of them will be male (along with the host). A game show with four contestants? In the unlikely event that two are female you can be sure they’ll be “balanced out” not only by the two male contestants, but also by a male presenter. TV dramas overwhelmingly have male leads, and while there will usually also be important female characters they won’t often form 50% of the cast. If nothing else, “extras” in a book or on TV will be male – drivers, guards, bystanders, supporting figures who get a mention but aren’t important enough for a name are invariably noted as “he” not “she.” The division in reality may be 50/50 male: female, but in fiction it’s warped to something closer to 80/20.

That’s the element of diversity that bothered me, and which seemed natural to correct when I created a new world. On Fane, the population has an 80:20 split, in favour of females. And while that was a deliberate choice, I guess I rather hope it doesn’t stand out as extraordinary – I want my fantasy world to be a natural, credible background for the story, not an exercise in gender politics.

Ultimately, I’m not sorry that there’s a proliferation of women writers and characters in YA fiction, I’m delighted if that’s true. It gives us a strong place to work from, because the next step is to make sure that women in YA fiction don’t only reflect a narrow stereotype of what it is to be a woman, but offer a broad window into varied female experience.

As a writer, I’ll do everything I can to make that the case.

Katy Haye

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