Bitch Backed Into a Corner

My friend, SS, emailed me last week about a brouhaha going down over at Bitch Magazine’s website.  She sent me a nice, succinct link.

Basically, Bitch published a list of the top 100 feminist young author books.  I loved this idea so much that I put it up on my facebook page.

But then shit hit the fan.  People complained that some of the books were triggering and so the list was altered.  The author of the list explains (emphasis in the original):

A couple of us at the office read and re-read Sisters Red, Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl this weekend. We’ve decided to remove these books from the list — Sisters Red because of the victim-blaming scene that was discussed earlier in this post, Tender Morsels because of the way that the book validates (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance, and Living Dead Girl because of its triggering nature. We still feel that these books have merit and would not hesitate to recommend them in certain instances, but we don’t feel comfortable keeping them on this particular list.

We’ve replaced these books with Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley and Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden.

Then authors from the list, angry at Bitch for removing the books mentioned, responded in the comments saying they, too, wanted their books removed.  First up, Scott Westerfield:

Two requests:

1) Please remove my book Uglies from the list. It’s an embarrassment to be on it.

2) Perhaps change your name to something more appropriate, like EasilyIntimidatedMedia. After all, the theme of Tender Morsels is that one must eventually leave a magical, fabricated safe haven for (sometimes brutal) reality. The theme of this blog would appear to be the exact opposite.

PS I haven’t read the other two redacted books, but “triggering,” really? Don’t you think Uglies might be triggering for a cutter? Or a victim of bad plastic surgery? (Or an ugly kid? Or a pretty one?)

Then Justine Larbalestier and Maureen Johnson (via Scott Westerfield):

Okay, Justine (Larbalestier) just got back from gym, and she wants her Magic or Madness series off the list too. She would have posted this request herself, but has RSI at the moment and therefore finds internet slap-fights triggering and debilitating. (Not kidding about this.)

She says to add she’s a huge fan of BitchMedia and is HUGELY disappointed, and yells “Margo Lanagan is a GREAT feminist writer!”

Also, Maureen Johnson has requested removal of her books on her twitter feed. But she pretty much only tweets these days, so don’t expect a comment here.

Then Maureen Johnson responded herself:

Ladies, feminist media should be held to the highest standard. This kind of waffling and caving on comments is no good. Lots of people would have LOVED to use this list for educational purposes, but it’s such a mess now that no one wants near it.

I request that either you get a grip or remove me from this list. If Margo is removed, I’d like to be removed with her. And please remember that young feminists are looking up to you. When they see you so easily intimidated, so easily swayed, so eager to make concessions . . . it sets exactly the wrong example.

Then Ellen Kages:

For me, part of being a feminist is challenging the status quo, talking about things that “nice girls don’t talk about.”

Censorship is cowardly, and not a feminist act.

Either reinstate Tender Morsels, or remove my book from your list as well.

If you’re willing to make snap judgments and promote closed thinking, then I am no longer proud to be a part of your politics.

So, Bitch responded to the response and said this:

After posting the list last week, we received feedback from readers through the blog, our social media, and email, asking us to reconsider a few of our choices. As a feminist media organization, we took these concerns seriously, and took last weekend off to read. […]

While many of the books we recommended cover difficult and controversial topics, we decided to remove these particular books because of how they deal with issues of sexual assault especially. Our particular concerns were elaborated upon in the comments of the previous blog post, as was our (continued) belief that the removed books deserve to be read and certainly should not be banned or otherwise kept from any audience. On a list of just 100 books, though, the problems we had with these texts were enough that three close runners-up deserved to take their place on our roster. […]

Hearing some of this criticism, particularly as it has grown more and more tangential (and detrimental) to the original topic of YA literature and putting books into the hands of young feminists, has affected Bitch deeply, on personal and organization-wide levels. We have also been touched by the outpouring of support we’ve received. More than anything, though, our old-fashioned, ink-lovin’ hearts here at Bitch have been bolstered by such a passionate debate taking place over literature.

Westerfield also wrote a long post on his blog about this.

I have to admit that I haven’t read the books in play.  I don’t know what they say or how they say it.  What I don’t understand is why the list needed to be altered by removing the triggering books.  Why did Bitch not simply put trigger warnings next to the books in question?  I don’t understand still why a triggering book is not worthy of being on this list.  I imagine (though don’t know) that the books triggered in ways that the authors intended.  I agree with Bitch that even with the best intentions, sometimes art fails to trigger in a way that is productive or meaningful.  But clearly there are plenty of people who felt that these works were important and worthy of being on the list.

Of course, Bitch has the right to alter a list.  It isn’t like there are ONLY 100 good feminist YA books (thank goodness).  But I don’t like this message that because a YA book takes on a difficult, even triggering, event that it must be excluded from a list created by a group of people who are supposed to be addressing the things in this world that are difficult, even triggering, for women.  The debate could have been about how or why we label things with a “trigger warning”, rather than whether something that is triggering is good enough to be on such a list.  That seems, for me, to be a more productive discussion that allows for a greater expanse of stories and points of view, that does not lead to feminist voices being shut down on a feminist blog, nor would it ignore the concerns and issues that readers of the blogs have.

What do you all think about this?  Ultimately, did Bitch do the right thing by changing the list?  On some level, I appreciate that they were clear about why they altered the list and continued to allow space for debate about it.  Is a trigger warning enough?


UPDATE: commenter ohands noted that Smart Bitches, Trashy Books had taken on this issue. Here is SB Sarah’s take on what went down.


15 thoughts on “Bitch Backed Into a Corner

  1. My mother called me a bitch while I was trying to comfort her when I was 12. Will Bitch Magazine change their name so it does not trigger those bad memories? No? I thought not.

    I think the debacle reflects stuctural weaknesses in the magazine. An article was posted without sufficient preparation, and the editorial staff lacked the experience or authority to stand by their work. Worse, the magazine lacks the professionalism to remove authors from the list on request. They did us all a favor by signaling that they are not worth our time.

  2. Thanks for reading and for commenting. I hope to host my site soon and will look into an edit function on comments. For now I am at the mercy of WordPress.

    I appreciate your perspective. I have had an on and off relationship with Bitch over the years and I am very disappointed in their wishi-washiness with this situation.

  3. Hi, I’m here via shakesville, where I just finised reading the epic penny arcade threads – where, in a nutshell, someone had posted something triggering, then refused to examine the issue or apologise. I’ve heard about this book list before, but reading that thread then this one straight after, I think I saw something… well, something that didn’t sit right in terms of expectations. Something for me to think on further….

    All that aside, I’ve been thinking about this list for a few days. And, to be honest, I’m happy that someone has created a list like this; so many times have I wanted one. And more, I’m glad they made the changes. I can’t understand why it’s being called censorship, when it’s not. And Bitch didn’t throw those authors under the bus, they specifically said those books had merit but were not appropriate for this list. Surely they get to set the terms of the list they create? And, having made a mistake, surely admitting to it and correcting it is far better than the kind of stubborn denial seen so often?
    This is ‘A list’, not ‘THE list forever and ever set in stone and defining who is and isn’t a feminist writer’. I for one don’t want there to be one definition of a feminst book and one short list of feminist books. Hell, i’ve made my own list! You can too! Why give bitch the authority to mandate books when all they did was make a list and then modify it? You say the debate could have been better if it was about trigger warnings instead, but I can see how that debate would turn out the same, with the same arguments, right up to where someone says it would be more productive if the debate was about xyz. I think maybe it could have been more productive if, instead of bitching about Bitch, people had used this situation as inspiration to create their own lists. That’s what the women of Australia did when the hottest 100 (songs, run by the nationwide radio station JJJ) came out without any women on it. We could also use it to examine our own expectations, our own beliefs about what people should and shouldn’t do, who we invest authority in, what censorship is and isn’t, as well as the appropriateness of trigger warnings and what we expect from media. I like the idea of a list that is sensetive to how sexual assault is portrayed, and I like the idea of media which can stick to it’s principles, listen to it’s punters and correct its mistakes. I wouldn’t want Bitch to be the only feminst voic out tere and I don’t want this to be the only list. For me it’s just the beginning….

    Thanks for this post btw, not sure if I’ve commented before but I read frequently and like this blog very much, and I think this post was thoughtful and well written.

  4. ‘feminist voices being shut down on a feminst blog’

    Sorry, forgot to address this. I’m not familiar with Bitch beyond their posts on this; are you referrig to something I’ve missed, feminsts actually being shut down or refused to be allowed to speak or something like that? If so then that’s something I don’t approve of either. Or are you sayid, in effect, that you think removing these books from this list is shutting those authors voices down? Because I don’t see how it is…. Bitch didn’t censor the books or even warn people against them; they even said they would reccomend then in other contexts.

    Maybe this could be an opportunity to create (or ask Bitch to create) another list, with another criteria, of other feminst books, including the ones they didn’t think were appropriate for this list?

  5. Thanks for reading and commenting. I really appreciate your thoughts about this. I, too, love that they did this list. I was thrilled when I saw the title pop up in my RSS feed.

    That said, I, too, would love to have other lists. I, myself, can’t create such a list because I haven’t read enough YA lit, feminist lit, etc (one of the things about grad school is that it makes it hard to find time to read for pleasure; it also zaps reading of pleasure). I also wasn’t trying to suggest that Bitch should create the only list and that this list be THE list – I hope that was clear.

    I also don’t think any of this was censorship. At all. They certainly weren’t advocating people NOT read or doing something to actively stop people from reading. And like I said before, Bitch can obviously do what they would like with their list.

    I do think it matters that Bitch is a major feminist publication (one of the first that I ever heard of) and so their decisions, much more than say my own, are going to carry more weight at large. What they do matters in that sense.

    And while I definitely think that we who write about sensitive subjects need to always be aware of triggering words, scenarios, etc., there is still an importance about talking about triggering things, about bringing those things to light. So, I respect completely that Bitch responded so quickly and so well to the people who called for a response but, at the same time, I’m still not sure that removing books because of their ability to trigger necessarily does anything to further a conversation about WHY those authors wrote what they did, how them including such triggering material is part of their artistic process and the story they are telling.

  6. Thanks:-)
    sorry, I wasn’t very clear – I don’t think you saw it as censorship, that was responding to the other authors you quoted.
    I know they are a major feminst orginisation, but they’re not the only one – and I definately feel more comfortable with media which makes corrections and faces it’s mistakes because I find that rare.
    I can see how a conversation about dealing with triggers in art would be a good one to have. We can still have it! I can’t see why the list has to be about that conversation though. I think that conversation is bigger than this list. And, based on the criteria they set themselves for this list, it seems a side topic.

  7. Gotcha. Yeah, I guess my reaction to this was imagining another list that was of, say, feminist blogs and then the author removing sites because they have triggering content. Of course they have triggering content. Feminists often go up against triggering stuff because, sadly, triggering stuff often happens to the people feminists are advocating for. So, to simply remove books off the list without having a discussion at all about why they trigger, how they trigger, the use of addressing triggering in these works just seemed to miss the point – for me. But that is for me.

    That is why I really appreciate everyone’s input and their point of view.

    If you make your own list, let me know. I’ll post it. Or link to it. Cheers!

  8. Pingback: Tweets that mention Bitch Backed Into a Corner « Speaker's Corner --

  9. I thought only one of the books was removed due to ‘triggering content’, and the other two for other reasons?

    “Sisters Red because of the victim-blaming scene that was discussed earlier in this post, Tender Morsels because of the way that the book validates (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance”

    I’m not sure why triggering has become the main focus; with two out of three books removed for victim blaming and rape apologism and only one removed for its ‘triggering nature’.

  10. Hey – good point. I don’t know and have to admit that I didn’t pay enough attention (I have that problem sometimes – I focus on the thing that seems most interesting).

    I still am unsure, though, about removing the books without having a discussion about it. I wonder how or why the author of Tender Morsels chose to validate rape as an act of vengeance. What purpose did it serve in the book? Was there absolutely no lesson to be learned there?

    So, yes. I totally admit that I couched my post and my response to Bitch’s removal of the books around the issue of trigger warnings (as did other people). But I still stand by the fact that I believe more would have been served by having a forum about why these books do what they do instead of simply removing them and replacing them. Of course, I am an academic whose life is all about analyzing and scrutinizing so this may just be my trained gut reaction to hearing about something like this.

  11. One last thing. I have really appreciated your comments about this. Thanks so much for having a dialogue with me about this issue. It has really made me think through my position much more than I ever would have otherwise.

  12. (Just FYI This is reiterating what I wrote at the Smart B’s, Trashy Books site, where the issue first came to my attention. I came by your blog via Shakesville.)

    I think B- magazine screwed up in a number of ways. They didn’t seem to really debate and read these books in depth before making the list, they didn’t add notes to the list on why a book was feminist and/or why they added it to the list, and they screwed up by waiting until the comments before saying they would be changing/updating this list (with the implied “as they got feedback” to the end of that sentence). But to change the list because they feel the books don’t fit their criteria? I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I didn’t read what happened as “this book is triggering, take it off the list” as someone commented “this book triggered me, here’s why” and they realized it didn’t fit their criteria.

    I also think its important to point out they didn’t get rid of all books that are triggering, or talk about tough issues, or even that talk about rape. (Speak, for example, is the year long aftermath of a rape victim.) And they didn’t get rid of the books just because of their triggering nature (though I wish they did expand on that a little.) They got rid of them because of victim-blaming and rape apology too. Now, do those books do that? No clue, haven’t read them yet. (And I actually didn’t read them because I thought – based on a review I read – that they would be triggering for me.) But considering victim-blaming and rape apology aren’t feminist ideals, then it makes sense for them to remove them from a list of feminist YA books.

    Like others, I would like to see discussions on what it means if those books did have rape apology/victim blaming in them. And I would like to see a discussion about trigger warnings for books. And I would like to see a more analyzed and detailed list on top 100 YA feminist books and why they are feminist.

  13. I will check out Trashy Books because that sounds awesome.

    Thanks for this great response. I don’t really have anything to add to this.

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