Friday 11 September 2020
Paperback's Pondering's: My Problems with The Selection series
If you've been around the book community for a while, then you probably know of The Selection series by: Kiera Cass. The Selection is about a girl named America Singer, who is entered into a competition to see if she can win the charismatic Prince Maxon's hand in marriage. The land in which America lives is divided by castes, and economic divisions between the castes, resulting in rebel fighting, are what drives the main conflict throughout the series. I used to LOVE this series. To be honest, it makes for a good reread too. But given what I now know about diversity in YA and the ways in which heroines are written, I feel like I need to get things off my chest.
America is your typical "I'm not like other girls" protagonist. She is described as plain to look at, and she hates dressing up and putting on a lot of makeup. In the palace, when the other girls get excited about makeovers, American typically chooses to scale back, rejecting big jewelry for her simple songbird necklace. Now look, America can do whatever the hell she wants. I can admire a girl who rejects typical roles of femininity and instead wears what she feels comfortable. My problem lies in how much America silently judges the other girls who do like dressing up.
If we're going to write female protagonists who dress how they want, then the respect needs to go both ways. Yes we can admire America for following her own path. We may even relate to her. But so often, women are judged for being frivolous or too girly. I am sick and tired of girls in YA being shamed for liking to dress up and put on makeup. If you want to paint your face everyday, go for it! If you want to go bare-faced, go for it! But what I am so done with, are girls being shamed for the former. America does judge the other girls based on their looks, which is very shallow, especially considering she is supposed to be the heroine. If I have to read one more female antagonist who acts as a complete foil to the main character because she enjoys dressing up, I'm going to lose it.
Along the same topic, I wanted to address the main antagonist, Celeste Newsome. Celeste is, like I hinted at, a typical "girly girl." She wears a lot of makeup, she is also a professional model, and she is known for being catty towards the other girls and for trying to seduce Maxon. Now the seduction part is what I have the most trouble with. The fact that Celeste is portrayed as a pretty model whose only strength is her body, is really troubling to me. Celeste is overly sexualized, with America constantly talking about her plunging necklines and sultry voice. This borders on slut-shaming for me. While America is pure and naive, Celeste is is risque and scandalous. Quite frankly, I am sick and tired of the female antagonists having to be overly sexual. It makes it seem as if their sexuality is their negative trait. I read Celeste as a product of her environment. A girl who has constantly been told that she needs to be perfect, and she needs to stand out if she ever wants to succeed. Does she do shitty things? Yes! But I think villainizing her for simply being comfortable in her body and in her sexuality is a pretty crappy thing to be teaching young women. As long as you are being safe and responsible, nobody should be able to police how you carry yourself.
It would be remiss to not discuss the lack of diversity within this series. America is a red-haired, white-skinned girl who is often described as beautiful in her simplicity. Her best friend Marlee, who is praised for her kind and pure demeanor, is also white and blonde-haired. The only glimpse of a person of colour we see throughout the series is in Elise, who we can assume is East Asian through her family's ties to "New Asia."
My problem with Elise's portrayal, is that she never seems to be able to take up any space in the story. She is constantly described as quiet and reserved, and never a threat to any of the other girls. This is a problem, because people of colour, specifically women of colour, are often taught to blend in, keep quiet, and not occupy too much space. The fact that she is never seen as a threat to America, and is even admitted by Maxon to being kept around because she could help in the war with New Asia, perpetuates the idea that there's no way a WOC could have won The Selection. Elise simply is just there to advance the white character's needs. And this is so stupid to me.
I think Kiera Cass could have done a lot more with The Selection. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, The Selection gets a lot of its action through the inequalities within the caste system. The problem is, I don't think Cass did much research on how caste systems work when she was writing this series. She could have explored how capitalism and the patriarchy works to keep the caste system moving. She could have explored how people of colour are more likely to fall in lower castes due to marginalization from the all-white government. Instead, she barely scrapes the surface of these issues, and only portrays the lower castes as being ways for America to heighten her saviour storyline. But to be honest, I never bought America's bullshit. She is not the heroine I admire.
I think it is important to look critically at book series we used to love. I do reread The Selection from time to time because it is easy to get through and can provide some escapism when I need it. However, I do think it is time for publishers to look beyond series such as these as the pinnacle of YA literature. These series on the surface can seem to portray a strong female character who is "not like other girls." But if she's not like other girls, then why does she have to tear other girls down? Why does she have to shame female sexuality? Why does she have to be white? It's time to put these series to rest, and to focus on teaching girls that no matter how they present themselves, they are valid.
Have you read The Selection series? What did you think?
Emily @ Paperback Princess