How to Write a Feminist Young Adult Novel


Here is the best writing advice I ever got: “Figure out what you like, and then try to do something like that.” Here is the second best: “Write the book you wish existed, but doesn’t.”

When I first got the idea for my book Starstruck (the first in the series that bears its name), I was operating on the purest form of these two principles. As a so-called “young adult” (a marketing euphemism that somehow always reminds me of the various genteelly squeamish terms for pregnancy), I loved books about show business, because I wanted to be a movie star, and books set in the period between 1933 and 1945, because I was obsessed with the Nazis. A teen series set in Hollywood in the 1930’s and 40’s seemed like a no-brainer. I mean, there are only so many times you can check out Valley of the Dolls from the library. (And I mean, literally, there are only so many times. When I was a kid, you were only allowed to check out one adult book to every 12 from the children’s section, and I chose Valley of the Dolls so many times the librarian called my mother to explain why she was forcing me to choose something more appropriate from now on. My mother, for her part, was just relieved I was interested in something besides the Holocaust.)

It was only when I had made the deal for a three-book series and was forced to deal with the ramifications of actually writing three books that I started to worry about the Message my books might send to the Youth of Today (or youths, as may more accurately reflect my admittedly limited readership.) And that if I was going to send any message at all, I sure as hell wanted it to be a majorly fucking feminist one.

But how to do it? And how would I know I was doing it right? And would everyone be mad at me if I didn’t? My interests and personality traits don’t always fall perfectly in line with the tenets of mainstream feminism. If I’m not a perfect feminist, my characters aren’t going to be either. Then, there’s the subject matter. Starstruck is sudsy, soapy, glossy, and many of the other cleanliness-related adjectives. Its main characters, the up-and-coming starlets Margo Sterling, Gabby Preston, and Amanda Farraday may come from very different backgrounds, but there’s one thing they have in common: to paraphrase Sally Field in Soapdish, they never said they were tattooed girl-warriors symbolizing hope and change to the brutalized hellscape of a dystopian future America, they’re just working actresses.

But there had to be some way to reconcile these disparate parts into one glorious, soap-covered, self-empowering whole. So I did what generations of feminists have done before me: I tried to figure out what pissed me off (on a scale of “subconscious” to “massively”) in the past, and I came up with a set of five immutable guidelines to see me through. We’ve had the Bechdel Rule and the Orwell Rules; meet the Shukert Young Adult Guidelines.

You don’t have to be a reluctant heroine to get us on your side. YA literature is filled with brave, gutsy, complicated female characters. They also, for the most part, are not exactly the first with their hands up, unless it’s for totally altruistic reasons. (During that scene in The Hunger Games, my sister, who I was watching with, and I turned to each other and said, virtually simultaneously: “No offense, but I don’t love you that much.”)

There’s nothing wrong with this; in fact, in most cases, it’s admirable. Somebody has to sacrifice for her family, her society, and the boy she loves who keeps her from going to college and impregnates herwith a vampire child that will probably eat its way through her stomach and kill her, but hey, that’s what it means to be a mother. (Actually, strike that last one.) But I wanted the girls in Starstruck to be different. They’re looking for adventure, they want to be the center of attention. They’re “leaning in,” to be really obnoxiously meme-y about it (I’m assuming that’s a word), making sacrifices and difficult decisions, but they aren’t doing it to satisfy anything but their own artistic ambition, their own need for recognition, their own big dreams. They’ve got a lot at stake—Gabby is the sole breadwinner for her family; if things don’t work out at Olympus, the fictional studio in the book, Margo and arguably Amanda will have nowhere to go—but nothing so much as their own dreams. These sisters doing it for themselves are doing it for themselves. And that’s fine.

Femininity is not the enemy; misogyny is. I’m not exactly the most…glamorous dresser. In fact, just the other day, as we were preparing to go out to brunch, my husband asked me: “Just let me know, are you planning to spend the rest of our lives dressed as a gentleman famer, like Uncle Monty from Withnail & I?” (Typical. You think Diane Keaton, you wind up Richard Griffiths. Who was a wonderful actor and by all accounts a lovely man, but, you know.) But despite my own desire to spend most of my life in a barn jacket, some of my most cherished passages in literature—especially young adult literature—are those when the main characters are deciding what to wear. I vividly remember Laura Ingalls’s pink hair ribbons, and brown dress with red trim that made her look like a little brown bird. I can still recite, almost from memory, the litany of dresses Scarlett O’Hara considered wearing to the barbecue before deciding on the slutty green one. God knows we all have our problems with the fashion industry, but fashion and clothes aren’t the same thing. Fashion is about cleaving to an arbitrary set of usually punishing standards; clothes, on the other hand, have transformative power, marking rites of passage, smoothing our transitions between worlds, from childhood to maturity, from one identity to another. I wanted the girls in Starstruck to understand that; after all, they’re people who spend their lives in some form of costume or the other. Sheltered finishing-school refugee Margo understands the power of discarding her uniform and putting on a shade of lipstick so illicitly red she’d get arrested for it in Pasadena (much as they can get in East Hampton for red shoes on a Sunday); later, in a scene I shamelessly stole from Jezebel (released in 1938, the same year in which Starstruck is set) she defiantly shows up at a virginal debutante ball in a bright red dress. Gabby Preston, the eternal juvenile, yearns to be out of her studio-mandated frills and into something sleekly post-pubescent. Amanda Farraday, the Okie former hooker with a heart of gold and the taste of the Duchess of Windsor, knows that her love for a minimalist Mainbocher may be ruinously expensive, but it’s also a clear dividing line between where she started and where she wants to be; the designer salon at Bullock’s on Wilshire may be her downfall, but in some sense, it’s also her salvation.

There’s nothing wrong with being a jeans-and-t-shirt (or barn jacket and wellies) kind of girl. The problem is when her lack of interest in her appearance becomes a sort of shorthand for why we should love her. Because she isn’t into girly things like clothes, which are stupid, because girls like them. (See: Arya vs. Sansa Stark.) It’s like the conventional wisdom that its much, much worse to be called a “cunt” than a “dick,” because while they are both crude terms for human genitalia, obviously the female one is so much more insulting, because of society’s underlying insistence that the simple, ontological fact of womanhood is an infinite source of shame. Which brings me to my next bullet point:

Virginity is not the world. If I could get one message through to the adolescent girls of America, it would be this: the state of your hymen has nothing, I repeat nothing, to do with your worth as a human being. Being a virgin means that you’ve never had sexual intercourse with another person, just as still having your appendix means you’ve never had an appendectomy, and that’s it. If, for whatever reason, you decide it’s more meaningful than that, fine, but know that value is not inherent. It exists only because somebody decided it exists, the same as they decided a piece of paper with the face of a dead president printed on it is “money” that can be exchanged for good and services. Everybody hopes their “first time” will be meaningful and special and, like, doing it on a cloud without getting pregnant or herpes, but if it isn’t like that-barring major trauma or violation—it doesn’t matter. You aren’t tainted. You aren’t cheap. It hasn’t spoiled everything. And if he doesn’t respect you in the morning, that’s his problem. When it comes to sex, the only thing—literally, the only thing—that matters is that you respect yourself.

But we already know this. What we have to do is somehow pass this not-so-secret knowledge onto the girls who may not realize it yet (although I sometimes worry it will take forty years of wandering in the desert, until there arises a generation who hath not known Twilight).

And I don’t know if I accomplished this in the book or not, honestly. I mean, I think my characters all have a relatively healthy attitude toward sex. The Hollywood of the 1930’s was a place where a lot of powerful women fucked like champs, but it was also rife with double standards, hypocrisy, and abuse. Powerful producers treated underage starlets as sexual playthings to be discarded the moment they got inconvenient. The office of Will Hays, the self-appointed Hollywood censor and “guardian of morality” functioned basically as another arm of the Catholic Church (and we know how cool they are about this stuff.) Homosexuality was never to be spoken of, and there was enough slut-shaming to give the Alabama state legislature masturbation material for a month. Margo may have evolved past the repressed Victoriana of her lock-jawed upbringing, but that doesn’t stop everyone back in Pasadena from calling her a whore and treating her like one. Amanda, once a penniless teenage runaway living in the streets, has no personal shame about doing what she had to to survive, but she knows there’s be a steep price to pay should anyone else find out. I’d love to publish a book in which young women are totally empowered by their sexuality and their bodies and decisions are unquestioningly respected as their own, but look, I don’t write fantasy novels. The best we can do is to try to make it clear we’re judging the judgers, not the judged.

Other women are neither cheerleaders nor enemies. A female friend is another person, with her own thoughts and feelings and motives, which may or may not dovetail with the protagonists. If they do, it doesn’t mean she is unconditional, unthinkingly self-sacrificing fan. If they don’t, she isn’t necessarily an implacable enemy. The girls in Starstruck, trying to make their way in a man’s world (because, let’s be honest, what isn’t?) know it’s generally in their best interest to be on each others’ sides, and ultimately, they mostly want to be. But they are also, often, in directly competition with each other (along, a la Tina Fey, with everyone else.) That’s Hollywood. It’s also life, which brings me to my final point:

If you want to write a feminist YA novel, be a feminist. Like, a real one. Not someone who denies it. Or apologizes for it. Or desperately tries to find a different word for it, like tweaking the semantics will somehow make it all so much more palatable. Because every cutesy denial of feminism seems to lead a fundamental misunderstanding of its most fundamental premise. Being a feminist isn’t about hating men, or being angry, or asserting that women are somehow suprerior and/or looking for special treatment. Being a feminist is about one thing: being fair. It’s about judging the circumstances along with the person. It’s about refusing to settle for being second best, which is different than thinking you’re better. It’s about acknowledging—loudly, vociferously, even obnoxiously—that everyone can be shitty, and everyone can be noble, and there is no generalizing about people.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the bestselling memoir Eveything Is Going To Be Great and most recently, Starstruck, the first book of the trilogy of the same name.

Image via Getty.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin