016: Problematic sexualisation in books (and also, a review)

This was written for GoodReads, but I’m crossposting, since I want to use this blog more! Today’s topic: problematic portrayals of women in books.

Since I started my GoodReads account in 2009 I’ve given a total of six one star reviews. I’m generous, usually, because I’ll always appreciate the work that goes into a book, being a writer myself, and usually round up. One thing I can’t stand is men writing questionable portrayals of women, especially teenage girls. The most memorable one stars here are World War Z (review) and Eldvittnet (review), a Swedish crime mystery, translated to English with the title The Fire Witness.

My review for World War Z details how bad it is at portraying women, how few there are (I read 25% before deciding not to finish, and in that time there were interviews with 17 people, of which 14 were male and 3 female (82 vs 18%), 1 male and 2 females (7 vs 66%) had their looks described), and how they’re objectified and their accomplishments are passed by. For Eldvittnet I talk about how problematic it is when a crime mystery is centered around teenage girls with mental health problems, many of them self harming, when a big plot point is them being either used sexually or drugged or restrained in unethical ways by staff at a treatment centre they’ve been committed to against their will.

And then there’s this book, Oktober är den kallaste månaden, translated to English with the title October is the Coldest Month by Christoffer Carlsson (review, though this is more or less a c/p of this post), which incidentally have won a price for best crime novel for children and teens. (Insert my alarm that a book with this portrayal of a sixteen year old girl won an actual prize?)

The setting is the following: Vega, 16, lives in rural Sweden where things are bleak in every way. Police starts searching for her brother, who goes missing after being present at the scene of a crime. What they don’t know is that Vega was present too, and knows what happened. That sounds like a decent story, right? It would’ve been, if it hadn’t been so rife with unnecessary, gross depictions of sex in relation to this girl, who is 16. I’m no prude, and I’m actually a fan of books that talks about sex in frank terms, because people have sex and that’s just the way it is. I’m not in any way saying that YA it has no place in YA. I’m saying that if you, as a male, write teen girls, you really need to be mindful of how you write about sex.

In this book it’s done in a way that makes it feel… everything but that. Under the cut I’m listing all the sexual references in the first 40 pages, which is as far as I read. They’re graphic, as a warning. (Will using these terms give me gross bots? Time will tell.)

Page 12: Vega’s mother: “You need to eat more. your breasts and that nice butt of yours will shrink down if you don’t.” As far as ways of telling the reader that Vega is on the skinny side, this is pretty strange?

Page 16: Someone calls her a [c word] in a ‘she’s a girl and thus weak and feeble’ way. She does object and talks back, at least, so if it wasn’t for the rest, I’d let it pass.

Page 22: When Vega is searching for her brother she’s offered money or information in exchange for sex. It includes a description of the man rubbing himself hard as he makes the suggestion.

Page 26: Vega relays the story of the time she saw her mother blow one of her brother Jakob’s friends, named Malte, who obviously has a huge d, because that’s just the way this story goes I guess. Somehow makes Vega turned on. She sneaks off and masturbates thinking of her mother going down on someone in the kitchen (???). I’m also in favour of masturbation in books, tbh. It’s normal! Everyone does it! But… like this?

Page 30: Vega is with Malte, and thinks about blowing him herself, something she’s thought about so times since she saw him with her mother, that it feels like she’s actually done it.

Page 38: Vega takes her shirt off because it’s wet since she walked in the rain, and Malte blatantly tries to check her boobs out, making her very uncomfortable.

Page 40: Vega relays the story of losing her virginity. Apparently she only picked the guy, Tom, because he wouldn’t stop staring at her boobs so she figured he wouldn’t say no. (He didn’t.)

Page 44: Relays the story of the next day, when Tom comes to her house, and they have sex on the sofa in the living room in the house she shares with her mother. There’s no foreplay or other lead up to it, nor any mentions of being sore from the day before. Which honestly, she should have been. Every woman is different in this regard, but some soreness is normal, and doing it without any… warm up, so to speak, when it’s only your second time can’t be enjoyable. (Except, here it is.)

On the next page rumours about her being a slut started spreading, and I gave up.

The reviews on this book are generally decent. They speak mostly about the mystery, and very little about the portrayal of Vega, which is what alarmed me the most. One review talks about her sexualisation being uncomfortable, one about her not being shamed for liking sex, and one about how this can’t be YA. The rest seems to focus on the mystery itself, the bleakness of the rural area she lives in, and so on. Which, fair. It’s possible the mystery would’ve caught my attention if I’d kept reading, but at about 30% I decided against it. Life is to short to hate read books.

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