Regina George And The YA Pile On
Sometimes the best we can do is stay out of it
Particularly when it’s a grey area, rather than a clear demarcation line between right and wrong the best we can do is not play into the “fragility of white women in need of protection” archetype.
Right now there’s a situation where a white woman is crying “victim". Hello, Sarah Dessen.
Power In The Pen
Sarah Dessen strategically selected what part of a quote — made by Brooke Nelson in 2017 — to include in her tweet and failed to disclose the full context because she was crafting a reaction that would favor her.
Places like twitter can ignite a maelstrom of vitriol that could exceed the supposed slight, and endanger people’s livelihoods, mental state and even their lives. Tweets load and disappear in a blink, so we are often given minimal information (unless we choose to dig) and are left to exhibit or witness knee-jerk responses.
This is not to excuse anyone as we are all responsible for our words, but social media is designed this way and there’s no use pretending otherwise. But when it appears a person is purposefully; misinterpreting or removing key elements of a quote or article that would give a fuller context in order to slant the narrative to one they are trying to achieve that will inevitably lead to harassment and threats of the parties they want targeted— the fault should be laid squarely at their feet. Such is the case with Sarah Dessen.
Sarah Dessen was upset because a women, Brooke Nelson, who attended school at Northern State University described her books as being good “for teen girls” but not at a level deserving inclusion in the “Common Read” at her school. Brooke wanted to make sure that Sarah Dessen’s book was not selected so she joined the Common Read Committee. Sarah Dessen then took specific parts of the the article knowing conclusions related to misogyny would be made and fellow writers did not disappoint her. They rushed in to stand beside her without realizing the full context, and with little regard to the impact this may have on the women who made the comments.
Sarah Dessen did this by design. The picture at the top of the article she quoted shows the books selected by “Common Read” thus far, which includes woman authors, Black authors, YA fiction, self-help and biographies. For Sarah Dessen to purposefully craft a different narrative not only damages her, but impacts the authors who blindly rushed in to defend her without doing research.
No one is discounting that criticisms can and do hurt. However, the wording Sarah Dessen used to describe how the critic felt can only be described as exagerrated. Stating the quote was “mean” and “cruel” is over the top. Brooke Nelson’s criticism is blunt and honest with no sugarcoating to help digest it but hardly cruel and this over-exaggeration is part and parcel of white women fragility.
YA or Sarah Dessen
The claim that “she”, Sarah Dessen, is “fine for teen girls” could be either a slight against YA teen girl books or it could be a critic on Sarah Dessen alone. If it’s the latter, which seems likely given Brooke Nelson said she specifically did not want Sarah Dessen’s book to be chosen that has to do with the quality of the book and the skill of the writer. Also the use of the pronoun “she” clearly tells us that the issue is Brooke Nelson is not a fan of Sarah Dessen’s books being read for college. As such, it’s hardly an attack on all YA writers.
Saying a story is good for a particular demographic is not an attack on an entire genre. It’s no different than films. There are those you love as a kid that, upon second viewing as an adult force you to question your childhood cool; while there are other films you rewatch as an adult that are still able to move you because, though made for children, they have a timeless, beautiful quality that touches the heart and soul at any age. Not all children’s movies do this. Not all YA books do this and it’s ludicrous to claim they do.
Disliking an author or a book by an author is not an attack on all YA writers or an attack on teen books.
Many people, myself included, would scoff if Twilight was a recommended book for college — I’m sure it has been somewhere though. In my defense, I read Vampire Diaries first and it was one of my favorite books as a teen. I still would not recommend it for college. I would recommend Someplace To Be Flying though I’m not sure it would be categorized as YA.
Writers create stories within a certain demographic; however, the deeper threads that are woven into the stories can explore societal issues that are universal and transcend time and age. Not all writers are able to achieve that level of storytelling; some are. Many will have fans on both sides.
Thanks to Sarah Dessen’s manipulative tweet, the pile on was significant and inarguably was far more “mean” than Brooke Nelson’s statement warranted. Decrying misogyny while hurling misogynistic slurs of “bitch” is a level of blindness and hypocrisy we should all strive to avoid.
Sarah Dessen doesn’t discourage them from using patriarchal insults. On the contrary, she initially basks in the defense of her fragile feelings and Northern State University tweeting an apology gave her the icing on her fragile cake.
Of course, it didn’t take long for fans of all these writers to locate the social media accounts of Brooke Nelson and harass her online. Given that some of their faves called her a “bitch” really gave them an extra layer of endorsement in harassment.
Here’s the next issue. Social media is not a drink and chill hangout among your friends. What you say will be seen by thousands: act accordingly. Never mind that the power differential is huge — a recent college graduate versus an award winning author — so why it had to escalate to such a point is nonsensical. But, it escalated because the orchestrator, Sarah Dessen, created it to feel validation from her fans and peers.
Once it began to backfire the biggest excuse coming from all the authors who piled on was, they didn’t know the full context and they are not responsible for their fans harassing Brooke Nelson on social media because of course they wouldn’t endorse that.
White Women Fragility
Sarah Dessen then deleted her tweet and tweeted an apology.
This was not about women against misogyny. This was about a white women using her tears to get her ego stroked and writers who failed to see that gave her exactly what she craved.
The amount of authors that attacked and/or praised Sarah Dessen was in the double digits, one going so far as to claim Brooke Nelson was “brainwashed”. The irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone save the one making the claim.
Some tweeted apologies, while others double downed and argued they did nothing wrong before finally tweeting some semblance of an apology.
Others just continued on as though they had no role in the fiasco after deleting their original tweets.
It’s upsetting that many authors refuse to acknowledge what others plainly see: they played into the “white women in need of rescue” that is an subset of the patriarchy that is part of the machine that is white supremacy.
How can we hope to get to a place of equality, when our literary favorites themselves not only participate in the system of oppression, but refuse to acknowledge it?
What strides can be made when our own will rush to protect whiteness’s power at the expense of those who have little to none?
It’s not only that they made a mistake, but more importantly their responses afterwards are drenched in the same white supremacy that imprisons us all.
Avoid, deny, move on and only craft a bs apology if the others do not work.
In the end, the greatest let down is their responses in the aftermath. It didn’t look good for a bunch of authors with varying degrees of wealth and power, go off on a college student didn’t like a particular authors writing. Each should admit their culpability in the escalation of this, with the exception of Sarah Dessen who intentionally began it all. They need to also be aware of the racial aesthetics when rushing to the defense of a white woman.
Similar to the museum hip hop curation fiasco, sometimes what is best, is to simply not jump into the situation. Think about how it will “appear" and also consider why you want to get involved. Is it because a friend’s feelings are rightfully hurt? Or is it because a white woman’s feelings are hurt? Is this a grey area where there is room for debate and discussion? Hurt feelings suck, but many have to suffer a lot more because of other’s beliefs.
We all have internalized biases and those affect who we feel for and who we do not. That is why countless times on the news when a Black girl is abused by police there is little sympathy for her. It’s why the media uplifts the Alyssa Milanos and the Greta Thunbergs while the Tarana Burkes and Mari Copenys are still obscure names.
Addressing our internalized white supremacy will inevitably help us to dismantle the external white supremacist forces. It’s up to us because white woman like Sarah Dessen will continue to push their “victimization” and will only cease when we no longer feed into it. The media will only cease pushing a white agenda when enough people collectively push for change.
I’ll just leave it at this.