Weird Feminism: The Bergstrom Storm

There’s something I’ve noticed about white middle-aged men who write thrillers with young female protagonists.

On the 24th, S. (Scott) Bergstrom basically pissed off the entire YA community in an interview with Publishers Weekly with his claims that the category is bereft of moral complexity. This sentiment is echoed in his Amazon author page: “What has disappointed me about so many YA novels is the lack of internal conflict when it comes to difficult moral choices.”

While that’s clearly pretty messed up, considering the fact that YA has some of the most morally complex books I’ve ever read (like seriously, has he been reading picture books or…?) what also bothered me was the way he touts his “strong heroine” in interviews. In this interview, he trashes “princess-this, Barbie-that” femininity, and the ideal of “a woman in a pink dress and a nineteen inch waist” – which is ironic, considering that the main thing mentioned in the PW interview about his main character is that she starts out overweight and then becomes, ahem, “a lean warrior with hair dyed fire-engine red.”

(No idea what her Manic Panic has to do with it, but okay.)

Bergstrom describes his character as the opposite of the “cheerleader-prom queen.” She’s “bullied by her prettier, richer classmates”, but turns into a gun-slinging army-jacket-wearing shoots-first-asks-questions-later badass (once she loses the weight, of course, to symbolize her personal growth and all.)

The thing that annoys me is how he makes this character out to be some groundbreaking feminist revolution. The “action girl” is not new. There’s a TVTropes page to prove it. YA is spilling over with Katniss Everdeens, Triss Priors, Meadow Woodsons, and a bazillion other kill-em-dead lady warriors who abhor pink, avoid dresses at all costs, and shoot first, ask questions later.

The thing that confuses me is that these male authors always seem convinced that theirs is the first.

Once, in a writing group populated mainly by older males, I listened to a thriller author explain that his protagonist was not like other girls. “She’s tough,” he explained. “She’s not into girly things.”

What I don’t think these male authors realize is that when they reassure us constantly that their female characters would never deign to touch anything pink-Barbie-cheerleading-related, is that it’s pretty clear that this disdain for femininity doesn’t just belong to their characters. It belongs to them. And they’re telling us that the only way a female character can be strong is if she acts, in every way possible, like a man.

See, these male authors are going to save us from traditional feminity by daring to write a female character who rejects it with the scorn it deserves. They often cite their daughters as inspiration for their rescue mission. They’re going to provide a positive example for the poor young girls drowning in pink.

But here’s the thing: I like pink. It’s my favorite color.

I’m also the author of a thriller coming out next spring with a main character who may or may not have murdered the boy she hated more than anyone else.

She also likes pink.

Liking pink and enjoying traditionally feminine things does not mean a girl can’t be strong. Strength can be conceived in many ways other than traditionally masculine, bullet-after-bullet strength. This is feminism 101, guys. Introductory course stuff.

So my message to Scott Bergstrom is this:

It’s okay! You can lay down your mantle. I’m sure it was a heavy burden, your duty to rescue girls from the chains of femininity by writing the world’s first strong female character. Lucky for you, the young adult category is full of women writing girls who express their femininity and strength in hundreds of diverse ways.

I’m sure you’ll be very relieved.

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24 Responses to Weird Feminism: The Bergstrom Storm

  1. Briana says:

    That was really my main takeaway from the interviews I’ve seen with this author: he’s really late to the party. Tamora Pierce was writing strong YA heroines in the 80s, but if he missed that then there was an EXPLOSION of them after The Hunger Games came out…seven years ago. I get that he wants to jump on the marketing of “strong female protagonist,” but he should at least realize he IS jumping on a bandwagon, not doing something ground-breaking.

    And, I, too, am a bit tired of people who take things too far. I like “girly” things. I like pink things and dresses and baking and whatever else it is I’m apparently not supposed to like because it makes me “weak and princessy.” It’s possible to write a tough girl who likes these things. And it’s ok if she doesn’t like these things, too, but there’s no reason to insult people who do.

  2. I hope this isn’t a derail:

    Ellen Ripley. The only one who wanted to follow the protocol for quarantine, and she lost the argument because the men were too emotional. She was the sole survivor… AND SHE SAVED THE CAT! Real heroes save their pets.

    Also, I’m cishet and I’ve got a pink shirt. I’d wear more if I could find more comfortable shirts in that color.

  3. There is something I notice about young, Hispanic women authors.

    There is something I notice about old, black male authors.

    There is something I notice about teenage, white women authors.

    Yes, the author comes across as annoyingly self-righteous and shallow. Even so, I’m not a fan of generalizing the source of his being either due (in part) to his age, race or gender.

    I can criticize Erika Mitchell or Diana Gabaldon for their unrealistic portrayal of their male characters. If I was to do so, I (personally) wouldn’t have the courage to state that the reason for their character being written the way they are is because they were written by middle-aged, white women.

    • Robin says:

      You’re not wrong, exactly, but consider the context. Do you really think any of your examples carry the same historical baggage as a middle-aged white man co-opting and benefiting from cultural traditions not his own?

      Generalizations are problematic but sometimes they’re both accurate and deserved. Scott Bergstrom may have written a great book — heck, for all I know it could redefine the genre — but the fact that he feels so comfortable claiming credit for something that isn’t his to own is reflective of a much larger issue (i.e., one large enough to generalize about).

  4. This guy is a former ad exec who ‘ “created campaigns for everything from pizza to democracy,” decided to switch careers in 2013 with just the idea for the novel and a few pages written’ according to PW. He then goes on on to majorly simplify/dismiss existing YA and — as you said — presents an already-tired trope of YA as “new” and more morally complex! I’m not saying that someone can’t switch careers or try to do something different with whatever they’re writing, but from these statements it kind of looks like he wanted to jump on the YA trend while it’s hot and market his book as “different” in some way without actually researching the existing market. Even if he’s a perfectly decent writer and his book is actually good, this whole thing is just bad advertising and he should know better.

    • Lisa says:

      Yes! He is a former ad exec! And that right there tells me he probably knows exactly what he’s doing. He should indeed know better than to say the things he’s saying, and he probably does, but he’s saying them anyway because the hardest part about selling books right now is getting them noticed. How many people do you think are talking about this book right now who had no idea it existed last week?

      Here’s the thing though. If he had spoken out of ignorance, that’s bad enough. But the fact that I see through his “marketing plan” means I know he’s insulting women and YA authors *on purpose* just to get their attention. The sad part is it will probably work and his book will probably sell millions. *sigh*

  5. Cat Rue says:

    Buffy Summers – cheerleader, girly-girl, worried about her hair and nails, and saved the world… a lot.

    Sincerely,
    A Joss Whedon Fangirl
    *grin*

  6. Veronica says:

    Reblogged this on Peace of Writing and commented:
    Excellent article by a blog I recently discovered (and started following) called “Literature and Laura.” It really hits on an issue that is important to me: feminism and how it gets misconstrued. Hope you enjoy this post as much as I did!

  7. Jennifer F. Santucci says:

    Reblogged this on Jennifer F. Santucci.

  8. I have to say that line about the character being overweight then changing into a lean fighting machine irked me. I’m not the type who that sort of stuff gets to either. Mostly, I shrug it off, but to me, the way it was worded just screamed “You’re not good enough if you’re overweight and can’t lose weight.” And yeah, I’m not into so-called girly things like make up or pink, but I am tired of seeing so many YA main characters looking down on those kinds of girls. It actually made me write a story where the main character is a popular girl (then aliens kidnapped her.)

    • chloe says:

      to be fair to the author unless you have some extreme thyroid problem you WILL lose weight if you train in krav maga for 10 hours a day every day for 3 weeks. that isn’t a ‘ you aren’t good enough if your overweight ‘ thing, thats just reality.
      theres a reason martial artists and soldiers (of any gender or sex) don’t share an ounce of fat between them and its not oppression.
      trust me, i lose nearly 3 dress sizes just going skiing for a week, and i was only skiing 5 hours a day.
      I’ve been doing various martial arts since i was 8 years old, the serious ones will almost never be overweight- no matter their age or gender. thats just biology. she isn’t a ‘lean fighting machine’ because that makes her appealing to men (in fact, in the book her weight is barely mentioned and isn’t mentioned once after the first half :i.e. when she gets badass) she’s a lean fighting machine because training yourself like that MAKES you one.

  9. The thing I find irritating is that men like him don’t seem to realise that girls liking stereotypically feminine things was never the problem. The problem was that girls used to be told (and sometimes still are told) that that was the way they should be because men wanted them to be that way. They were told that was all that they could be.

    So…for him, a man, to swoop in and once again tell girls what they should be — that’s really frustrating. That’s not his place, or any man’s place.

    He may be claiming he’s rebelling against the “feminine ideal” but all he is doing is perpetuating the idea that femininity is synonymous with weakness (how do you insult a man? call him a girl, 9 times out of 10 he will be offended because of the negative connotations femininity has for men).

    Girls who like pink, girls who are cheerleaders or prom queens… In fiction, especially fiction written by men, those girls are often written as the “bitches” — the bullies, the shallow girls, the airheads who don’t care about anything that matters. The reason that Buffy Summers and Elle Woods were such great female characters was because their femininity wasn’t vilified, it wasn’t portrayed as weakness — they liked “girly” things…but they were also smart, and ambitious, and strong and fierce.

    Any male author who wants to write a female character for his daughters to look up to shouldn’t write a character than shuns femininity, they should write a character that teaches them it’s okay to be feminine. And it’s okay to not be feminine. That it’s okay to be whatever she wants to be.

    I was a little girl who climbed trees wearing pretty dresses, I played with dolls and toy cars, sometimes my Barbies were superheroes and sometimes they were princesses who hung out with my brothers comic book action figures, I hated the colour pink but I loved shopping and playing with make-up, I liked playing football and I liked gymnastics… Feminine and masculine stereotypes are only really a problem when we’re told we have to be one or the other, that we can’t be a mix of things, that there isn’t this whole spectrum between the two extremes.

    …Sorry, that got way more rambling than I intended. But your post is excellent and I completely concur.

  10. Maybe he’s naive. Maybe he doesn’t spend all of his time on the Cool Kids blogs.

    But I guess everyone showed him, didn’t they?

    He’ll be lucky if his nutsack isn’t stuffed into his mouth at the next book signing. Because we must destroy people, mustn’t we?

    • Maybe not the way I would have said it, but I agree.
      Why is anybody spending time bashing this WRITER? Is it because he’s male or SUCCESSFUL?
      Good golly the grapes are sour on this one.

  11. Reblogged this on Ruth Nestvold – Indie Adventures and commented:
    I am so not going to read this guy’s book.

    I also suggest Chuck Wendig’s take on the whole phenomenon of white guys bashing writers who came before them, as if they’re the first to do things better:
    http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2015/11/25/in-which-we-are-thankful-for-the-legacy-of-others/

  12. chloe says:

    tbh, though i can see the point you’re trying to make, many of your comments here indicate /suggest you haven’t actually read the book. the arrogance of the writer aside, if a girl trains nearly 10 hours a day for 3 weeks in nothing but krav maga she will lose weight. thats not a ‘you’re not good enough if you don’t lose weight ‘ thing, thats just reality. theres a reason martial artists and soldiers don’t share an ounce of fat between them and often have incredibly muscly shoulders . I’ve been competing in various martial arts since i was 9 and gone on many a skiing trip that saw me losing a good few dress sizes in the space of a week- trust me -i know.
    she will be a ‘lean fighting machine’ because unless you have a thyroid problem training that hard will MAKE you lean.
    to add another point, the comments of the author aside, from reading the book i never noticed any ‘I’m such a tomboy look at me rejecting females’ undertones. gwendolyn is just a normal girl, she isn’t overly girly but she isn’t overly boyish either. she’s whatever she needs to be at the time (cutting her hair off to avoid being recognised , dressing in a ridiculously elegant dress and makeup to get in with the bosses son and various gang members) she’s just her and whatever she needs to be to survive- and the fact you focus so obsessively on this ‘ this book is misogynistic because the main character isn’t like other girls’ thing shows me you clearly haven’t read the book in question. in your defence you may have written this before the book came out but i would still advise a read of the book followed by either amendments or continuations of what you’ve said here.

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