Academic journal article English Journal

Saying What We Don’t Mean

Academic journal article English Journal

Saying What We Don’t Mean

Article excerpt

It took a seventh grader to introduce me to the Bechdel test. I recommended Nicola Yoon's Everything, Everything to a middle school girl- I'll call her Marley-when she asked me if the novel passed this test.

"I can't stand to read things that are totally boy-centered," she said. "I mean, it can be a lot about boys, but that can't, like, totally be what it's about."

The Bechdel test, Marley went on to explain, is named for the US graphic novelist and cartoonist Alison Bechdel. To pass the test, a work of fiction must contain at least one scene in which two or more women (preferably named characters) discuss something other than a male. Marley, a big fan of superhero movies, was bothered that most of her favorite films, and many books, could not pass the test, though she noted that movies such as Finding Dory and the recent remake of Ghostbusters scored well.

"A lot of the books teachers suggest are mainly about girls thinking about boys," Marley told me. "But you'd be surprised. Like, for example, everybody thinks The Selection is just about this boy-crazy world, but it passes the test just fine."

I had to think hard about Everything, Everything, which is, in fact, largely about an adolescent girl falling in love with a boy (I was relieved to recall scenes in which the girl speaks to her mother and nurse about other topics). More importantly, Marley got me thinking about the messages literature sends to young readers that educators might not even suspect.

Students who read from the canon of works regularly encounter historical examples of bias in the fiction they read; I suspect that many teachers consider the bias of authors' voices in the texts they teach. I also believe that many English teachers are adept at helping young readers consider context and purpose, whether those become important when Theseus compares Helen of Troy's beauty negatively to "a brow of Egypt" in A Midsummer Night's Dream or when teaching, say, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Bias that presents itself clearly or that is front and center in a work is worthy of-and frequently prompts-discussion and opportunities for reflection in English classes.

What interested me about Marley's response was that she had keyed in to an area of bias I, with nearly 25 years of experience in schools, had missed entirely. Her response drew out an implicit bias in my thinking and reading. What else, I wondered, had I missed?

To get to the answer, I convened a group of a dozen seventh- and eighth-grade girls (randomly selected according to their availability-the group included different races and academic levels) and asked them to tell me about other trends they noticed in the fictional works they read that I may have missed. Here are just three of their immediate observations:

* Liza's answer: In many works of fiction, and especially in fantasy, strong girls are presented as being strong because they have older brothers (who usually bully them in some way). Girls rarely glean strength from growing up with sisters.

* Jasmine's answer: The skin color or race of Caucasian characters is almost never discussed in an initial description, while the skin color of minority characters is not only pointed out but is usually linked to food; these characters have skin the color of coffee, caramel, cappuccino, chocolate, mocha, or almonds. One girl called this the "coffee shop effect."

* Marissa's answer: Too often, minority characters in young adult novels are, in Marissa's words, "white people wearing costumes." In other words, Marissa suggested that she could see through what she took to be authors' attempts to make one character a minority just for the sake of having a minority character, with no authentic experience in the background. That's not to say, the other girls chimed in, that all minority characters needed to speak in different dialects, eat different food, or come from poverty, but rather that they needed to be "real. …

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