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bookgazing ([personal profile] bookgazing) wrote2010-11-16 03:46 pm

Excepto-girls (Or 'Great She's Making Up Words Now')

In my review of ‘Girl Overboard’ I mentioned that I thought Syrah, although very cool, was written as a bit of an Excepto-girl heroine (could not think of a better term, please suggest, as I keep thinking of Octo-girl whenever I use this term), but I didn’t really explain what I meant. Let me try to do so now (with some invaluably clarifying help from Jeanne at Necromancy Never Pays and her husband Ron).

What makes an Excepto-girl heroine and why do I find them such negative versions of non-traditional womanhood? There are a couple of criteria that all Excepto-girl characters fit:

An Excepto-girl character is usually the only female character in a book, who is engaged in a particular activity, for example a sport. Usually this activity is something traditionally identified as a male activity (like sport) or an activity that doesn’t fit with traditional ideas about femininity (like, oh, let’s say making dark, angry graffiti art).

Even if she’s not the only female character who is involved in this activity (for this post’s purpose let’s say the activity is a sport that is traditionally viewed as male) she’s described as the only female character who is serious about the sport, the only female character taking part in the sport without a secondary agenda.

However you can’t just use those criteria to identify an Excepto-girl. Following that logic every character who defied gender stereotypes in sports, or who took a sport more seriously than other would fall into the Excepto-girl bracket. A female character can of course be the only girl playing a sport, or taking an activity seriously without falling into the Excepto-girl category, but an Excepto-girl character will have one of the above two criteria coded into her characterisation. To identify whether a female character who fits the above criteria is an Excepto-girl, or an exceptional female character it is necessary to look deeper and examine her relations with other women in her world.

Excepto-girls use their attachment to a non-traditional form of womanhood to elevate themselves above other girls. They point to their competence or dedication to an activity that is not traditionally female as a distinguishing factor between themselves and other female characters, as many sportswomen characters must do implicitly because they’re the only girls playing a particular sport. In many novels sortswomen are different from other girls in their world (although novels about teams of female athletes do exist) as other girls don’t play sport. In novels that feature Excepto-girls the only sportswoman character frames her difference from other girls as a superiority over these girls, an enhanced state of being that goes past the facts of superior physical ability and instead relates to a creating a version of the female gender that the Excepto-girl character judges better than other versions of femaleness. Basically the Excepto-girl heroine judges her anti-feminine behaviour better than other women’s feminine behaviour, rather than framing their non-traditionally female way of life as a positive, alternative form of girl lifestyle. She concentrates on framing the traditionally feminine as a negative state and ignoring other women’s right to claim they are leading a similar authentic non-traditionally female lifestyle because they don’t hit the same anti-feminine standards that she does. When their narrative is done it is impossible to go back and find any other female characters who match the Excepto-girl in the authentic nature of her dedication to her sport.

What I guess I’m trying to say is that when a female character rejects feminine standard for herself, or shouts down the way the prevalent call for a woman to be feminine excludes all other forms of womanhood she becomes exceptional and brave, for example a tomboy who doesn’t want to live a life in dresses when her soul is made of ripped t-shirts and studs, or a weightlifter who prizes physical fitness above received ideas on what a feminine body looks like. It’s when these exceptional female characters begin to use femininity as a slur, or distinguish themselves as almost a separate species from traditional women by condemning other women because of their femininity (‘she’s so girly’) that these characters become an Excepto-girl.

Firstly Excepto-girls describe other, traditionally female girls in derogatory ways, that specifically link these girls femininity to negative traits like a lack of competence, or dedication (‘she’d break a nail if she tried to catch a ball’). They often explain how femininity is negative by showing how it fails to conforms to masculine ideas of interest, coolness and strength (He can’t possibly find anything to talk about with a preening girly girl like her). Excepto-girl characters will typically talk about other female characters in a derogatory way that focuses on the other girls femininity (they’re so girly), or because the character feels that their interest in an activity is only part of a strategy to snare boys interest (they wouldn’t snowboard if he wasn’t into it). It’s the inverse of the rhetoric some traditionally feminine girls have been using to deride non-traditional feminine girls for decades (‘she’s so unfeminine’, ‘how does she expect to catch a man if she doesn’t do X’).

Crucially, I wouldn’t class a female character as an Excepto-girl just because she used sexist terms to describe why another female character is lesser than her. There has to be an interplay between one of the criteria I listed at the beginning and sexist derision. An Excepto-girl is both the only representation of the female gender ‘getting it right’ by playing sports, or taking sports seriously and determined to explain why she is the only girl ‘getting it right’ by using sexist language to deride other women, or sports women and clearly showing how separate she is from these malfunctioning women.

It’s probably easiest to explain what makes a female character in a sports novel an Excepto-girl heroine, by explaining why I think Syrah in ‘Girl Overboard’ qualifies as an Excepto-girl.

In ‘Girl Overboard’ Syrah is not the only girl who snowboards, lots of her female peers snowboard, but she is the only one who is described as taking it seriously as a sport. All the other girls in Syrah’s town who snowboard are described disparagingly by Syrah:

‘The Shiraz in me wants to demand, “So you mean, why I aren’t Miss Pretty in Hot Pink like the rest of you? Because I’m not trolling for boys when I ride.” ‘
or are set up by the author to appear as poser snowboarders, only interested in getting men to notice them.’

Now I get the need to hate when you’re a misunderstood, nonconformist teenage female character. All YA books need a good villain for the underdog teenage heroine to despise. In real life nonconformist teenagers are getting harassed by other teenagers and the underdogs need to see that aggravation recognised as a reality in books. The conflict between feminine girls and non-traditionally female heroines is still so existent (damn you dualist society) that it doesn’t surprise me that so many conflicts within YA are between the feminine, popular girl and the unfeminine misfit. So, when a character like Syrah, who doesn’t feel feminine, thinks derogatory, feminine bashing thoughts about some of the nastier girls at her school I get her attitude. Syrah isn’t a girly girl and the girls make fun of her because of that (among other things). She reacts by entrenching herself in that opposite position of non-girly girl and denounces what is most precious to her enemies (their constant, defensive presentation of feminine appearances).

When the author Justina Chen Headley backs Syrah up by making her enemies lack interest in serious snowboarding she’s showing Syrah’s justification for rejecting their specific brand of femininity as bad. These uber-feminine girls really are mean, lazy posers in comparison with Syrah, the authors writes them like that, so Syrah has a reason to use comments about the way these girls dress and act in a traditionally feminine way as derogatory descriptions because their femininity is connected to their negative traits – they let their femininity hamper their lives. I mean I don’t love that Headley gives Syrah this justification for her hatred, because it’s hatred with a decidedly girl specific edge (these are girly girls and that’s why these characters are worthless/ hateable/useless – girly girlness equates with stupidity and desperate flirting and preening and fakeness and EVIL) but then I am not a teenage girl reader, trying to find a way to hold my head up against the girls who torment me for not dressing in a feminine way. If I’d read this book when I was a teenager I’d have probably hissed unreservedly at all the mean girls.

And I think Justina Chen Headley goes some way towards correcting this feminine focused hatred (Syrah makes female friends and enjoys a gossip which sounds divinely girlicious and she has a small moment of sympathy for the leader of the mean girls). Headley also goes a long way to explaining that Syrah’s attitude towards women is partially taught (Syrah’s family is a pit of women hatred and the women in her family are also full of self-hatred, all of which they transfer to Syrah).

What cemented Syrah as an Excepto-girl is not that she uses her status as a non-traditional girl to elevate herself above the mean girls at school who just happen to snowboard idly; it’s that she uses it to elevate herself above every other woman involved in snowboarding. There is not a single other female snowboarder in this novel who takes the sport seriously enough to compete with Syrah, in fact there isn’t another female character that could be described as a serious athlete. The idea that no other girls in Syrah’s snowboarding town are serious snowboarders becomes a background assumption that the reader must make because Syrah never mentions any other serious female snowboarders. I’m not sure I want to dispute the reality of this, because I don’t know anything about how many female snowboards there might be per town, but I was surprised there wasn’t even one other serious snowboarding girl mentioned – even briefly, even if she lived one town over. It struck me there that the author was setting Syrah up as an Excepto-girl, a heroine who transcends all other women in her chosen field. It’s not only the specific mean girls that hate on Syrah, who are described as being non-serious snowboarders, it’s all other girls who are described as non-serious snowboarders by omission of the presence of any other snowboarding girls.

Let me briefly compare another sporting heroine to Syrah to try and make clear the difference between an Excepto-girl and a girl who is exceptional, but not the only positive representation of female character (traditional or non-traditional). DJ may be the only girl who plays football in ‘Dairy Queen’ and she’s the only girl we see train seriously, but there are brief references to her female friends who play sport and take it seriously. DJ remembers her best friend Amber crying when they lose an important basketball game.

With no other serious snowboarding girls mentioned in ‘Girl Overboard’ Syrah’s negative comments about the mean girls from her school and her description of the boy motivated interest Natalie, (Age’s girlfriend and a negative female character) suddenly develops in snowboarding, set the standard for other snowboarding girls in this book. Without any other sportswomen to offer perspective, Syrah’s words ring as a criticism of all other girls who try to snowboard. With the inclusion of a few other serious sporting women in ‘Dairy Queen’ Catherine Murdock stops the non-traditionally female DJ from standing as the sole positive model for how to be a serious sportswoman and avoids excluding all women who don’t act like DJ from achieving serious sportswoman status.

Later in the book Syrah goes to Whistler for a big snowboarding event. While there she doesn’t meet, or see any female snowboarders who might be serious about the sport. She does see girls who have come off the slopes early to hang around in the hotel lounge:

‘…this lobby that could double for a fashion runway of Gore-Tex, there are so many girls in here. With three good hours of riding left in the day they’re inside? What I would do to grab their gear and go.’

and screaming fan girls ‘jostling to get an even better position at the fence, hoping to attract the attention of both the snowboarders and the cameramen’.

These are the girls she chooses to mention. Syrah remains the exception to the girl rule, the odd one out surrounded by ‘pro hos’ lavishing adoration on the male snowboarders, the only girl serious about sport.

Finally there’s the disparaging way that Syrah refers to the vague mass of female snowboarders who have gone pro. She describes them as ‘boobs on boards’. Now let me just get this clear; Syrah doesn’t mean to imply that they’re talentless bimbos with this derogatory term (although ick, I really wished she wouldn’t use it), instead she’s talking about the double standard pro snowboarding enforces on female snowboarders. Female pros have to watch their weight, dress attractively, say the right things as well as having killer tricks. They have to be supermodels on boards, or no one will care how well they snowboard. Male snowboarders rock up and perform. She doesn’t see any pro female snowboarders who like her, are a little bigger and wear baggy jeans. However her repeated use of the term does seem to reduce other female snowboarders to girls who have caved into the pressure of having a feminine body image, whereas Syrah eventually comes to accept her larger size and other things that make her appearance less ideally feminine, like the scars from her accident. Her use of this term doesn’t really allow for the idea that sportswomen display a variety of appearances, although it initially seems to aim to do just that.

Later when Syrah decides she doesn’t want to go pro, she says it’s because she wants to ‘keep snowboarding pure’ and avoid conforming to the sexist demands sponsors will make because she’s a female snowboarder. Her reasoning denigrates other professional female snowboarders. By Syrah’s logic they conform to all the things the industry asks of them, which she now believes sully the sport’s purity, so to her it seems that the current crop of professional snowboarders didn’t keep snowboarding pure. Following her reasoning through it seems she is saying they weren’t serious enough about snowboarding to go against the sexist demands of pro sport and turn down a pro career. By forming this type of argument Syrah excludes pro female snowboarders from being able to make an authentic claim to a commitment, or a true, deep passion for snowboarding. There’s also a really sketchy comment that she makes about how she doesn’t ‘need to reel in an up-and-coming star and stand at his side while everyone congratulates him on his drool-worthy tricks.’ as if every ‘pro snowboard girl who’s featured on the covers of magazines and in countless ads’ employs this predatory form of dating to boost their profile. Maybe because Syrah makes female friends who aren’t sporty, but are capable her Excepto-girl status is cut down, but personally I’d say it’s split in half. In general life she learns and acknowledges other girls can be awesome, in the sporting arena she’s an Excepto-girl uses sexist descriptions and reasoning to place herself above every other female member who takes part in snowboarding.

My problem with Excepto-girls is not just that they seem unrealistic in the present day (sportswomen may have low public visibility and there may be lower numbers of them in many sport than male athletes, but they do exist in numbers great enough to create competitive categories around). They also seem to fortify a system of feminism that doesn’t fit comfortably with a third wave of feminism based on choice, which I think is in general helping to advance society’s ideas about what a girl can be. By placing Excepto-girl characters into sports fiction authors perpetuate the idea that a girl can be either/or, sporty or feminine, not both and that one state is better than the other, rather than different but just as valid. They ultimately say that only a few women can achieve sporting legitimacy without compromising, which encourages girls to either emulate these girls exactly and deliberately alienate themselves from any of their female peers who deviate from the template Excepto-girls set, in order to gain legitimacy, or to give up on sports because they can never achieve this legitimacy in other peoples eyes. Haven’t we got enough boys telling girls they’ll never be legitimate sports people because they’re ‘too girly’, do we need female characters ramming that message home too? Personally I’d rather see a female character who doesn’t conform to the ideal of the feminine becoming a triumphant sporting heroine despite the obstacles put in her way, than a female character who doesn’t conform to the ideal of the feminine becoming the only possible sporting heroine at the expense of erasing any other sportswomen. There’s a difference.

In my opinion Excepto-girl characters perpetuate girl on girl war, even as they redefine gender limits. There are more girl friendly ways to present a sportswoman as an exceptional, positive, non-traditionally female character than isolating her and setting her up as the only serious female sportswoman in her world. There are three levels on any podium and I would hope that if Excepto-girls are identified and critiqued more often I might start to see more narratives with a range of serious sportswomen who can fill all three steps.

[identity profile] 2012-06-14 02:30 am (UTC)(link)
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