White (Straight) Girls in Dresses

Hi Readers 🙂  I hope your day is going well!  I have a lot on my mind (that’s been there for a while) so I hope you’ll allow me to rant for bit…

I recently read this post on ‘Why Hasn’t the Number of Multicultural Books Increased In Eighteen Years?’.  Interestingly, I’ve been happening upon a lot of posts like this lately like this one by Spencer Hill Press Junior Publicist, Jazmin Labrada, and this one: Sarah Rees Brennan’s Tumblr, and this: It Matters If You’re Black or White: The Racism of YA Book Covers, and finally this: Whitewashing in Young Adult literature.  This all got me thinking… why are there so many White (Straight) Girls in Dresses (and/or with flowing hair, I might add) on the covers of so many YA books?

via Lee & Low Books (yeah, it’s that bad)

You know, I’ve read YA like, since forever.  Not the best way of putting it but still, it’s true.  I’ve seen the category change so much from more contemporary books with the occasional “dystopian” (although I’m not sure we called it that then) like Westerfeld’s Pretties series & budding mythology-esque books like Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.  Then came TWILIGHT which really set off this huge trend of paranormal books.  I’ll never forget going into the YA book section in B&N, after what seemed like forever (I stopped reading YA for a long while…), and being shocked at how it had changed.  You know, before you had Contemporary, maybe Fantasy, and/or just YA and New Releases.  Now there’s paranormal & fantasy…a change I’m quite happy about since Adult has been separating them for years (not in every book store but still) and they’re different genres (ones that take from each other yet still different).

The one thing that didn’t change and I might argue, for me, might’ve even decreased was the representation of multicultural people.  I’ve definitely seen more “queer books” however they usually are in a separate section just like the “multicultural” ones are.

To make my point, I need you to use your imagination.  The world as we know it has ended, we’re dead, apocalypse came & went and now a new culture of people/whatever is here.  After many years they’ve decided to venture to Earth (from wherever they came from) to learn about what our society used to be like.  So they’re digging up stuff and they happen upon some books…guess what?  There’s a pretty good chance it has some white girl in a dress (with flowing hair) on it.  They read the book, and well…they come to the conclusion that our society was only full of white people.

I know, that’s a little far fetched but my point is that these books aren’t representative of real people, of Americans, of us, of me, of the world!  And if there is a PoC (person of color) in a book you can bet that person probably isn’t going to also be gay.  We’re existing in these binaries with no intersectionalities of race and the fluidity of gender and sexuality which is something that is very, very real, always has been but it coming to more prominence today.

The part of me that likes trying to see the reason in others arguments gets it.  I mean, I’m black therefore I’m going to have black characters in my book.  It makes sense.  So I guess I can understand only having white, straight characters in your book if that what you are.  But I also think that’s rather boring.  I like to write what I know but we’re interpreting that phrase too literally.  You know people, so write about them.  We’re writers, we’re supposed to observe and take from the world.   These books are getting old, and I promise you one day people are going to get sick and tired of it.  From a marketing standpoint, one day you’re going to lose part of your target audience.

Like really, another girl in a dress???  I love wearing dresses but seriously, come on.  It’s not that hard to feature characters of different races.  We don’t have to speak differently or even act differently, we aren’t a foreign species.  I’m tired of the only PoC main characters being those ones a little removed from the other books, with a black girl, for instance, looking “tough”.  You know, the books that are about her and this guy and how she’s pregnant or her dealing with life “in the hood”.  I just don’t get it.  I’m not trying to say contemporary multicultural authors failed, they didn’t.  Jacqueline Woodson, anyone…I would read one of her books any day! They wrote what spoke to them.  But those experiences don’t represent all of us. They’re important to read, yes, but that shouldn’t define an entire race.

And I know, I know it’s not completely the fault of the authors.  Most times you don’t get a say in your cover.  In fact you might strongly dislike your cover, I know that too.  That’s why it’s important for us to write realistically, write true, and if you do that we, together, can tackle the matter of covers.  But we can’t tackle that if story actually only features white, straight girls (and guys…).  Which is why I’m calling for everyone to ban together and make a change.  Because I’m sure even the white girls are tired of wearing flowing dresses.

Maybe, for some, living in a 100% white society is great, obviously for me, it wouldn’t be.  When your main character dates a guy of color, you don’t always have to tackle huge race issues.  Your PoC don’t always have to be “spicy-er”, and your white girl doesn’t always have to be straight.

The other part of it is that we need more PoC/queer authors, in not just Contemporary but Fantasy and Sci-Fi and Dystopian and Paranormal.  We also need more PoC/queer editors and agents and publicists who want to see more stories with a realistic composition of people.

And as for the argument that mostly white people buy books so therefore characters should be white…false.  PoC/queer people buy books too, we also read all genres & if we, who will eventually be a majority in the U.S. (all together) can read/have read books with white characters then everyone else can read books with PoC/queer characters.

Ever fail?  No matter, fail again, fail better.  You can do it, I have faith in you.  

As, one of my favorite authors, Holly Black once said:
“As someone who is not a person of color and who worries about messing up myself, I am probably the last person who should be giving anyone advice.  But I think that we as writers have an obligation to tell the truth about the world — and diverse world is a true world.  I also think that we have to be conscious of which stories are ours to tell, which stories we have points of identification with and which stories we need to do more work if we want tell responsibly.”

Author Malinda Lo gives great writing advice including posts on topics such as not stereotyping queer characters.

Whimsically Yours,

PnC

P.S.  Stop using chocolate & caramel skin.  And don’t forget, don’t feel as if you have to take a stand & talk about multicultural/queer issues. Story & characters first, everything else on the back burner.

-Patrice

What are your thoughts on this?  Any advice?  Things you’ve observed/experienced?

-Oh and check out this post too, if you like…it captures how I felt as a child & now :)’

**Be sure to read part 2: “Countering the White (Straight) Girls in Dresses“**

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12 thoughts on “White (Straight) Girls in Dresses

  1. The whole “chocolate/caramel/toffee/other tasty sweet thing” is practically like calling a character Brown Sugar. Tasty sweet thing whose skin is sexually exoticized. I mean, maybe I get doing that ONCE. But seriously. I read this poem by a white woman describing a hot black man, and his lips were raisins, and his skin was chocolate, and blah blah blah “I WANT TO EAT YOU. Or at least parts of you IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN SLOBBER SLOBBER DROOL DROOL.” It was like Race Fetishism 101. The opposite exists for white women — porcelain skin, snow, ice, always something pure and easily breakable that has no value once broken, smudged, or dirtied (aka, once used sexually). But what does that imply about the opposite — skin you’re describing as something you’re *supposed* to desire, eat, and “spoil”? Discrimination is coded into language in many different ways.

    The one “white girl in a dress” cover I approved of was PARANORMALCY. She had long flowing platinum blonde hair on the cover (which she did in the book), she wore a prom dress (the climactic fight scene takes place on prom night), and she was a girly-girl character who loved pink (hence the pink dress). So that cover was accurate…but most other covers like it aren’t.

    • You raise a really good point. It does create this either fetish or “you’re ruined if you’re not like this” aspect. It’s quiet unfortunate, and I’m not even sure people realize what they’re doing. I didn’t realize all of this until I took the time to really look at the books I was reading and so forth. That’s not to say I’m going to stop reading these books (even if the cover is ridiculous or they describe one character as mocha skinned) usually I get pissed then get over it because the book overall is amazing. Of course, that right there is the problem, publishers know we’re going to read it anyway which is why I’ve started to be really selective about the books I read. I also put a book down faster now if it has too much of that.

      I haven’t read PARANORMALCY but I’ve heard she’s cutesy like you said so that makes complete sense. I’m so glad books like DIVERGENT just had a plain cover, Tris Prior being a boss in a dress…I mean Katniss only wore a dress when she was being dolled up/special occasion. I’m not saying heroines can’t fight evil or whatever in a dress but too much of it is ridiculous. I love dresses, but it’s got to stop.

  2. its funny how once you make yourself aware that the books that you’re reading dont have characters you can identify with racially, spiritually, sexuality or any other sub culture one might identify with, you begin starting to make a conscious effort to seek out those types of books and support them.

    • Haha, yeah it’s crazy. After I started noticing I literally could not stop talking about it. The topic came up everywhere. I actually had to take a break to calm myself. After that, with a clearer head, I knew something had to be done.

  3. Hi Patrice,
    I’m laughing now. I was just over at a book cover site looking at premade YA covers and 18 out of 20 had a white girl in a flowing dress with long hair staring into the horizon with a thoughtful/melancholy expression on her face, standing in a forest or beautiful misty background. I can only hope that these book covers will eventually go to someone writing a fantasy novel or something. 🙂

    • Haha oh boy, that’s sad. Yeah I don’t even know lol..and it’s horrible because the book often has nothing to do with those book covers.
      Thanks for stopping by Emma 🙂

    • Hi! I can’t speak on translating since I know nothing about that but I can say you should write what you feel drawn to write. I promise, it’ll come out sounding better, stronger, and more interesting if you stay true to your writer voice. I will say this though, I have a character in my work in progress who is Dominican, she occasionally says Spanish phrases/words…I put the full Spanish in there. People will figure it out, and people who are multicultural don’t just speak English/think English so I say do as you wish and worry about how it sounds when you’re revising the story. That’s what the revision process is for, making everything sound good…the first draft should just be about getting it all on paper and telling the story as honestly as you can 🙂

  4. Awesome post, Patrice! I totally agree. I’m a straight white girl myself but not everyone in my world is, so why would they be in my book? I love what you said about how characters’ race and sexual orientation can be present without becoming a stereotype or even their most defining feature. People are never just one thing and characters should be multidimensional too. Though my main character is a straight white girl (definitely my comfort zone! But not into dresses, I think that’s a nod to the romance genre personally), I like writing characters who are different from her (and me) and who have lots of aspects to their personalities, including their race, ethnicity, gender identification, sexuality, supernatural powers, etc. Thanks for posting about this and make sure to list any great books you come across with real diversity so we can buy them and support the authors!

    • Hi Mariah! Thanks 🙂 I think what you said is really the important thing, what I’m trying to get at…all the characters in your books don’t have to be people of color or queer but should represent a realistic sample of people and be multidimensional. Too me, since Sci-fi, Dystopian, Fantasy, and paranormal books are of imagine worlds or feature mythical creatures, etc…I’ve never understood why the population is always the same.

      Thanks for stopping by & I’m glad you liked it. I’m currently in crazy research mode, looking for diverse ya books…I plan on having the beginnings of a list together later today/Saturday so feel free to check back then 🙂
      -Patrice

  5. I have always disliked the phrase ‘write what you know’ simply because most people take it literally, and they put limits on the stories they tell because they want to be safe and don’t want to offend anyone. From a reader’s standpoint, I think that’s sad because by doing that authors are alienating a group of readers that faithfully read their books despite not being accurately presented or not being presented at all. The thing is…we’re writers. We have imaginations and if we can write space operas and dystopian worlds then we can definitely step out of the box and write characters who aren’t straight and white. Once people get over that fear, once they say ‘hey, I don’t have to limit myself to only writing what I know if I can also expand what I know’ then I think we’ll start to finally move in the right direction. I’ve written many blog posts about race on my blog, and each time I’m not sure who to ‘point the finger at’ or if there’s really any one particular group of people in the YA spectrum to blame for there not being more diverse stories where the queer/non-white characters aren’t two-dimensional and secondary.

    As a writer, I realized that if I wanted to see more characters ‘like me’ in YA then I knew I had to write them myself. I grew up in a bad neighborhood, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about it or that I struggle with who I am as a POC or more specifically as a black person. I’m not a product of my environment, I am in college, and I don’t have a kid. So I can’t relate to any of those stories where the girls drop out of high school because they get pregnant. I want to write stories that I can relate to. Stories that don’t have to do with the characters being POCs and if they want to slay dragons or go on adventures in an unknown land…then the color of their skin shouldn’t prevent them from doing it. And neither should their sexual orientation or what they identify themselves as.

    I’ve never really understood the dresses thing. It has always bothered me especially when the dress HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE STORY. It could be a paranormal romance where the main character never wears a dress in any of the scenes and she could still be wearing one on the cover…I just don’t get it.

    Maybe I could tolerate more if POCs got to where pretty dresses too but then it occured to me that there aren’t that many YA books with MCs who are POCs. So finally, I came to this realization:

    If a white person wants to write a POC character, then I think they should be allowed to do it and I ENCOURAGE them to do it. We need everyone on board to diversify YA and to tell the stories of the many people whose stories haven’t yet been told. I see a lot of people say they are afraid to write a POC but if their were places for them to go to learn about POCs from actual POCs who are willing to share their experiences/answer questions then maybe it won’t be a challenge. The thing is POCs write white characters, and so why can’t it be the other way around? The same goes for queer characters.

    Also, if every character in YA needs to be white, then why can’t we see more diversity in terms of nationality/culture. Maybe the MC can be Greek or Irish or Russian etc. Because not all white people are the same, and so the characters shouldn’t be either.

    The more writers who write stories (and who WANT to write stories) with diverse casts, the more POCs who write stories with diverse a cast (and just write in general, the more agents/editors/anyone in the publishing industry who are non-white and non-straight – the more of a change we’ll see in terms of what YA looks like.

    But the change starts with us. If no one else will tell the story about the POC who doesn’t struggle with the color of their skin, kicks butts, fights bad guys, and falls in love with whoever they want to fall in love with (whether they are male or female) then we have to write those stories. We have to work together to bring more diversity to YA one book at a time.

    I know I’m rambling but I’ll just end the post by saying if we read books by POCs or books with POCs for MCs and it’s good the we should talk about it as much as we can, give it enough exposure so more people can read it and (hopefully) start to demand more diverse books.

    Great post, by the way. 🙂

    • I’m with you. I just finished watching the film Misrepresentation and it talked about the exact thing…how writing what you know is what has contributed to such horrific stereotypes and portrayals of women in media. If you’re going to use the term then you’ve got to stretch it (of course even/especially then you’ve got to be careful of stereotyping). Just because you write what you know in terms of writing about experiences you’ve gone through (for example) you don’t have to only write about white/straight people if that’s what you are…just like poc and gay writers don’t just write about people from their background, like you said.

      I think you really hit on something important, we’ve got to write about these people/tell these stories ourselves and we have to make sure people like us also become editors and agents and so forth. Also top authors (white or not) writing about poc/gay experiences would definitely start a change. I know a lot of people don’t think they should write about things outside their culture but we’re writers, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Like I’ve never been the descendant of an Egyptian goddess (as the mc in my wip is) but I have been a high school senior, I have had crushes, and I know what it’s like to be alone. Each of my characters have part of me in them therefore I’m able to keep my writing true while also writing about people from different backgrounds. So, yeah I’ve never understood people saying they can’t, I think you’re right…it’s fear.

      Haha, and we should see more white diversity. Not all white people are the same, as for people of any race so it’s ridiculous for them to all merge into “white straight girls” as they seem to do sometimes when I’m reading ya books. And as for the dresses on covers, what you brought up is another thing that bugs me…the girls might be tomboys or whatever, never mentioned in the dress yet they are wearing it on the cover??? People always try to say this isn’t the case but male authors or books with guy protagonists don’t get these silly covers (at least not as much).

      And we should talk about books written by pocs/underrepresented groups and about those people more, that’s something I can easily do now as a book blogger…I really should seek out more of them and I don’t. In fact I’ve realized I’ve become complacent and used to these overload of white characters/authored books. Especially ones featuring poc/queer teens doing who don’t have a huge problem with who they are. When I am having a hard time with something in my life, often I wanted to pick up a fantasy book or something that didn’t remind me of the things I’m going through, not all the time but for the most part.

      Thanks for your comments, I appreciated getting to talk to someone about this as it’s really time we start pushing for and making a change 🙂

      -Patrice

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