Kayla Harris



Influencing Women: Responsibility in Writing

Having been a keen reader since childhood, I have devoured a great many books over my time. In the early days it was the Point Horror series that had me glued to my bed every evening and weekend. From there I felt brave enough to tackle Stephen King until finally taking on Shaun Hutson novels; an attempt on my mother’s part to scare me off horror for good. When I really did ‘grow up’, I moved on to J R Ward and Gena Showalter! But I never really got any of it, I just read never thinking about the influence they were having on my thought processes and decisions I made whilst growing up, or how they impacted on my actions and attitude.

In recent times, having gone through life-changing experiences that have helped me to rediscover myself, I’m still reading at the same phenomenal pace, only this time, I have a new perspective.

When I attended the Freedom Programme I was reminded of my time studying A-levels at school; one of those subjects was Media Studies. Pat Craven often refers to the media in her programme and points out the deficiencies within it. For example, imagine you are an alien visiting planet earth and you were to look at newspapers and magazines for guidance about the human race; what would you discover? It doesn’t take a genius to work out how much of an influence the media has on the general public, does it? There are many women out there who complain about how magazines objectify us; men’s magazines portray us a sexual objects and even our own magazines promote objectifying ourselves for the men of the world.

Going further than that, you could look into advertisements on the TV, again in magazines and on billboards around towns, they all display a similar image of women and it never seems to matter what it is the company is advertising. They give us this perfect persona and image we all should aspire to be. Then we get to film. Here we get to see women strutting around in barely-there, sexy outfits and seducing the leading hunk into bed.

On the flip-side to this, we could say we are seeing more promotion of the all empowered female in this predominantly male world. We read about the women who can manage full-time careers whilst being a parent, we see women making choices about what they want out of life. The ladies who are making all the money they want, enabling them to buy fashionable, designer clothing (advertised in the magazine that features them) to strut around in and attract themselves a ‘real man’. How they are taking control of who they sleep with and if they want to sleep with 1500 men in a year then that’s their choice. Right? We also see the ‘Kick-Ass’ female in leading roles in films, who takes the enemy on and wins. You know the ones, the ‘all-fighting, all-aggressive, bad-ass, sexually dominant girls who won’t take no shit from no one’ attitude, the girls who will never be victims in life.

In any case, it still comes down to sex, no matter which way you try to look at it, it will always come full circle. By promoting the women who are choosing to sleep around we are giving the public the impression that having sex is the key to power and being in control. Therefore, all we’re doing is pacifying them into the state of belief that they are empowering themselves, when in reality, they are just allowing themselves to be treated as sexual objects, just without realising it. This is the image of a woman having to prove to the male that she can be anything the male can, if not better. We are beginning to see women act like men in order to gain status and respect. A misguided Neo-Feminist attitude of ‘anything you can do, I can do better’. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for empowering women and for gaining us some respect in today’s world, but must we really act like men for that to happen? I’ve always lived by the moral, two wrongs do not make a right.

I’d like now, to bring the focus back to books and reading because, this for me, is where the real action can be found. Again, there are authors out there who are just as bad as the filmmakers and magazine publishers, but I’ll deal with them in due course. The ones I like to talk about are the Kit Berry’s, Suzanne Collins’, Maggie Steifvater’s  and Jackson Pearce’s of the literary world. Authors such as these are, in my opinion, producing some amazing work that women of all ages should be getting to grips with.

The one thing that strikes me, every time I finish one of their novels, is how impressed I am with their female characters, especially given that they are all in their late teens, which is not an easy age to write realistically. To me, every one of their characters are the kind of person I wish I had aspired to be when I was a teen myself. They are strong, clever and successful. They are not the air-headed, kick-ass, sexually motivated freaks we are all too frequently bombarded with.

I have already reviewed one of the Stonewylde books in the Kit Berry series so far and am excited to review the rest. The message that comes out from those pages are all too meaningful to pass up. But, I am also very excited about the other authors, despite them having very different styles and characters. Kit Berry manages to create a world that is so believable within a fantasy setting. She is extremely smart in her use of ‘magic’ within the story, because it is used in such a way that not only gives credibility, but it is all part of the character’s journey into discovering themselves. The ‘magic’ is always within them, they just need to learn how to channel and use it well. What I am trying to say is that the reader is not mislead or dragged off into pure fantasy. She can legitimately aspire to the lead character and take a positive outlook on tackling their own issues at minimal risk of being for all the wrong reasons.

Jackson Pearce was an absolute joy to read, Sisters Red and Sweetly are brilliant concepts. Their message is almost ironic on some levels. Her ingenious twist of the original fables we heard as children got me thinking that this could almost be a little two fingered salute to the tacky, tasteless fantasy novels or films that are churned out for public consumption. She has a fresh and original idea of the werewolf, or Fenris, theme and she delivers this with exceptional effect. As with my other favourites, her lead females are strong and courageous, but are kept firmly grounded. She too plays with the romance issues, but rather than making it the focal point, she weaves it into the tapestry of her storyline subtly. In Sisters Red, although written from two perspectives, we find that the secondary character is the one to find love.

I find myself placing Jackson Pearce neatly between Suzanne Collins and Maggie Steifvater, although I think she has a clear, definitive style of her own. The boldness and strength of her leading females can be likened to Katniss, who we find in the Hunger Games. While the romance side resembles the almost fragile relationships we find within Maggie’s plots.

Suzanne Collins is the genius behind The Hunger Games; another very well deserved success. She again brings a similar element as Kit Berry, just in an altogether different way. Collins goes into the Sci-Fi, Futuristic and a more political note than Berry. I again ventured into this plot feeling a little apprehensive, not knowing quite how well she may deal with keeping the character grounded and believable. I am yet to finish the final book in the trilogy, and yes it is taking a huge amount of dedication to this article to keep away, but so far I am once again impressed with her visuals and morals.

Without going into details of the story lines, (I’ll be doing that any time soon) I want to focus on Katniss, a marvelous and remarkable young lady who is dragged through hell and back repeatedly. She’s a little kick-ass and feisty madam, but I actually like this about her. Its captured in all its teen glory and you are constantly reminded throughout this story that she is, after all, still a teenager. Despite the horrific and deadly situations she has to face, and lets hope that it could never become a reality, she succeeds. Yet Collins holds true to the person we are following. What I mean is that, although Katniss matures throughout the book and has had to through previous experiences, it’s depicted in such a believable way that you don’t question it.

I was also particularly warmed by the minimisation of the romance element. Through Katniss’ eyes, we see how she struggles with love and boys. She clearly has no idea how she feels about the boys in her life, but she does have very clear morals and respect for her peers. She contains a fierce love for her surrounding family and close friends, and her sense of loyalty is so very strong that you would be hard pushed to exceed it. In my opinion, the great thing about Collins use of romance, is that she allows it to enter the plot so naturally, because of course it is normal to encounter these experiences during any girls teen years. However, the love element does not outshine the really important issues and messages within the plot. We’ve seen, all too many times, the heroine falling head over heels in love with her co-star and together they succeed on love alone.

What many of us will say is that we love to see, read or hear about is that love conquers all and to some extent this is not untrue. However, at what cost should we rely on ‘love’ to get us through life and all its twists and turns?

We have been witness to the heroine ending up with the man who by definition, would not be classed the best suitor in the world. We watch how she is the one to change this person, turn him into the perfect man, tame him and make him hers to love and cherish for the rest of her life. We experience the torment that she suffers in trying to work him out, to build trust in this person and push past all the detrimental behaviour he repeatedly spews out throughout the entire plot. If this was real life would any self-respecting woman really want to take such a risk and end up with a guy that has taken up all her energy, effectively destroying her self-esteem and all for the sake of turning him into the guy she desires?

The response from women would be a mixed one, because the obvious reaction one would have is “no of course not!” Think deeper though, because rather worryingly most teenagers and adults do make this choice, they do put up with these kind of men because they see it work out in the movies and novels time and time again. Women believe when they find this exciting and dangerous man, that he is the almighty fish to catch and is just what they want. Instead they find themselves in a less than desirable reality and they don’t understand why.

Maggie Steifvater is yet another stunning writer within this subject. She is a romance and fantasy novelist for young adults. Yet throughout her books, she doesn’t often give the reader the perfect happy ending. The reader is left almost expecting the worst for the characters. The female character meets and falls in love with the dangerous and exciting ‘bad-boy’, yet she is aware of her conflicting emotions. Steifvater explores protective behaviour by describing how the character feels when she is in the presence of this love-interest. For example, she describes how her lead female will get a ‘butterfly’ feeling in her belly whenever she encounters this boy and will openly question whether or not it is fear or excitement (how many of us would just simply call it excitement?). The best part of it is that Steifvater does not fall prey to the stereotype who would quell the thoughts of fear and apprehension without consequence. In fact she never misleads the reader into believing that her main character will live her happy-ever-after with this character. Yes the male character reciprocates her feelings, but Steifvater casts doubt over the success of this relationship. I believe this style of writing offers respite to the constant promotion offered by the media that this is the best women can hope for.

Of course, we still find the generic novels by authors such as Rachel Vincent and Lauren Kate, who do nothing to help the situation at all. Vincent desperately tries to convince the reader that in order to find love, danger and ‘excitement’ must be included in the mix. While Kate just gets confused as to what kind of woman she wants to portray. She repeatedly changes direction with her main lady, Luce, in Fallen. One minute she is a strong young woman who is determined to face her ‘demons’, the next she’s a timid little creature unable to fight and so needs the protection from the dark mysterious guy who refuses to acknowledge her until danger strikes. Everytime Luce seems ready to stand up for herself she goes and faints or needs to be removed from any dangerous situation and never actually faces anything, her rescuer does it all for her while she just contradicts herself from the safety of her bedroom. My point here is not that women should necessarily fight physically,  the message is more about the fact that women should be able to find their own courage and face their fears, not hide behind a shield, modelled into a handsome stranger. For a young teen taking in this kind of writing, this would just be confusing.

Vincent’s series that begins with Stray, is all about the self-obsessed, kick-ass wannabe, spoilt brat Faythe. She is, by definition, the epitome of what all teenagers and young adults should avoid aspiring to become. Vincent confuses her reader into believing that the hard, aggressive, violent male character Marc, who has issues beyond repair, is the best thing Faythe could ever hope for. What!?! The two constantly dance around each other fighting one minute, loving each other the next, then they have brutal, violent sex by way of ‘making love’ to one another! This completely exploits the consensual love-making that should occur between two people in real love. I lasted three whole books before I finally came to the conclusion that this kitty-cat was never going to grow up!

Clearly a fan of writers such as JR Ward and Gena Showalter, as am I, Vincent also quite obviously misses the point. Whereas, JR Ward and Gena do describe scenes of ‘rough’ sex, they also do not forget to include the necessary ingredients in order to make this an acceptable part of any relationship. They do not hide the purely fantastical nature of these scenes, they merely offer the reader escapism. By doing this they do not mislead the reader into thinking that all is well in the love stakes. They both make constant reference to an unseen force that brings the two characters together. Neither character understands why they are so irrefutably drawn to one another, but they give into it. This saves the reader from believing this is the natural way of falling in love, a constant reminder that this is pure fantasy and not to be taken as something that could really happen. Therefore the reader may simply enjoy without consequence. Which is probably the reason as to why they write for the older, experienced reader and not our easily influenced teens.

It is my belief that all artists bear the responsibility of the messages they convey to their audience. It is imperative that when putting those messages across, the authors give consideration to what it is they are trying to say and exactly how they wish to be understood. Reckless and thoughtless writing has consequence and with the level of influence the media has over our teens today those repercussions are all too evident. We have teens with eating disorders, wanting surgical enhancements and an ever increasing level of domestic violence. The results of this alone are having devastating effects on the child care system and we are forever finding women battling against the odds in care proceedings. All this because society will not voice its opinions against the media and what it is doing us all. The first steps are being made, albeit small, but by recognising where the problems are and tackling them head on we can hope for a better progression.


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