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

14 comments:

  1. This was such a good post Emily!! I haven't picked up the Selection before because it didn't really appeal to me premise-wise but I've definitely doubted my decision with all the hype that it's gotten. Your points about how female characters are portrayed in YA is so incredibly relevant and frustrating how the double standards are used against them. This also makes me want to reread some of my old favorites with a more critical eye and see what themes I can pick out that might have escaped my notice the first time around.

    riv @ small stained pages

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    1. Thank you, Riv! It’s got a renewed hype because of the tv series that is coming out now. I can only hope that things are improved through the series.

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  2. Not my kind of book, but I loved your analysis, and I guess that if the series should be published now, some of those issues wouldn't fly well with readers, though barely a few years down the line. Things ARE changing.

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    1. Exactly! And we should be happy that things are changing :D

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  3. Wow, this is just Amazing!!!! ( I’m Lucy just in case your wondering who in the heck this person is 😂).
    I read the Selection series a while ago and never really noticed these points but, ahh there so true. I always hated that America was playing the typical "I'm not like other girls" protagonist because, it’s not like she was so much better or different from everyone else. America DOES judge all the girls around her who like to dress up and act well. All America does is insult Maxon and lie to him and still manages to make fun of the other contestants. Wow, you go off preaching over here because it’s absolutely true. Women can dress up or dress down but either way, they can’t be judged or criticized for that! It’s a choice that they make and just because you like to dress up and act “ girly” does not mean your someone who’s only greatest asset is their body.
    As you see, I was never a big America fan but I do love Maxon and will probably watch the TV series when it comes out but, I hope they can portray America better.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Lucy! I'm glad you agree. I also love Maxon, I think he's a total gentleman. He also judges the girls way less harshly than America does. I definitely will watch the tv series as well, and hopefully because of the new time period we are in, some good changes will be made.

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  4. Love, love, LOVE this post! Criticism is where free speech thrives! XD

    Also love the line 'But to be honest, I never bought America's bullsh**' - multiple meanings are available ;)

    I can't say too much about the actual books, 'cos I haven't read them, but I think the Madonna/wh*re dichotomy is one that's been used against women for centuries - and no-one wins against that structure.

    That said (again I haven't read the books, so kind of talking outta my a** here, tbh,) isn't the whole series a commentary on pitting girls against each other? Or have I given it too much credit? (Lol.) <3

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    1. Thanks Cee! I definitely think that purity vs. sexuality dichotomy has been around for too long. (We’re talking medieval times). It is time to put it to rest.

      I don’t think the series is a commentary on pitting girls against each other, because the most annoying girl wins in the end! I wish the book was more of a critique on these roles we put onto women in competition. Instead we get the competition and just a lot of girls villainized for being a certain way.

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  5. Yes yes yes to all of this! I actually recently reread The Selection and it's strange how just a few years can make such a difference in my perspective. I absolutely agree that Cass spent too much time with the whole 'Bachelor' part of the story and not as much time properly devoting time to researching and thinking through this world. In reference to the whole girly-girl bit, that's one of the reasons I love the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas despite its problems. Celaena loves beautiful gowns and the like while also being a total badass. Why can this not be more commonplace! Also, with the white-washing, I was really confused when I was rereading why, like you mentioned, there's only one POC. I mean, this is taking place in the future United States so unless some kind of genocide happened in one of the previous world wars that are just tossed in, wouldn't there be more diversity? Or was the king not-so-secretly racist and chose only white women to bring to the palace? I have so many questions! Bottom line, I totally agree, I wanted way more out of this series than it gave. Great discussion as always, Emily!

    Laura @BlueEyeBooks

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    1. Thank you Laura, and I’m happy you agree!

      This series was way too much Bachelor. It’s almost like Cass forgot she was writing a YA novel that young girls would be exposed to. She should have been a better example for them. And even in the actual Bachelor tv show, there is less pettiness than in this book! I just wish there were more redeeming qualities.

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  6. I loved reading this post, Emily! I agree with everything you wrote. I've always wondered if Cass realized that she didn't do a good job with Celeste's character and that is why she tried to redeem Celeste at the end. I really enjoyed those few scenes, so I was MAD Celeste had to die. Also, what irked me about that scene where America saw Maxon and Celeste make out was how quickly she forgave Maxon. The thing is, yes, it was his "role" in this thing to find a partner... but he chose to make out with Celeste even though he pretended to be totally devoted to America. With Celeste, though, America held onto her resentment which felt so hypocritical to me. :| In any case, this was fantastic analysis, Emily! :)

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    1. Thank you Veronika! Celeste’s redemption all to have her die was so uncalled for. Why couldn’t she just have been happy? I also totally agree on the Celeste/Maxon scene. America was so quick to blame Celeste for all of it. But Maxon could do no wrong. Ugh!

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  7. I remember specifically disliking America in the first book (and maybe the second?), but the overall impression I'm left with of the series is that I liked it. I know that's all very vague, but honestly, that's all I'm left with is vague impressions. I think one of these days I may read the series again, but I agree with all of your complaints here.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

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    1. I didn’t mind America the very first time I read the series, but now in my rereads I am reminded that I cannot stand her! The series is ok for me. It’s a great comfort series, but not anything more than that.

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