Interview with Dyan Sheldon #MoreThanOneWaytoBeaGirl

Dyan Sheldon is the author of many novels for young adult readers, including the #1 New York Times bestseller CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE DRAMA QUEEN, which was made into a major motion picture. American by birth, she lives in North London.


Why did you want to write ‘more than one way to be A Girl’? 
One of the themes in just about all of my YA novels is discovering who you are rather than letting other people tell you who or what you should be, and that, of course, involves gender issues and stereotypes. Part of that is how you look, and I think we all accept that there is a lot of pressure on girls to conform to society’s idea of what is attractive and what is ‘feminine’. (Boys don’t get such rigorous scrutiny, but their dress choices are more limited – girls can wear trousers and jeans, but a boy would think twice before he went out in a skirt, no matter how cute he looked in it.)

But another even more important part of this is the pressure to conform to society’s idea of what you can and should do. What, as the British Prime Minister recently put it so charmingly, are ‘girl’s jobs’ and ‘boy’s jobs’. (Though, to be fair to her, she has some way to go before she gives the United States President any serious competition in this department.) Girls, we are told, aren’t interested in or that good at science or math. Boys, we are told, are hunters and warriors, not nurturers and carers. And so it goes, setting people up to make decisions they aren’t aware that they’re making.

Do you think that society as a whole still expects there to be a “one” way to be a girl? 
On the whole, yes I do. Turn on the television and think about how the women dress in whatever programme, and how the men dress. How many unattractive women do you see? How many unattractive men. Walk down the road and see the babies and toddlers in their pushchairs. The girls in pink, possibly with baby dolls and miniature pushchairs of their own; the infants whose hair hasn’t grown in yet wearing a pink bow headband so that no one will make the horrendous mistake of thinking their boys. Go online and tell me how many ‘news’ snippets you find that tell you what male celebrity was badly dressed, or has gained weight, or has lost weight, or has stunned the world with what he wore to some party or ceremony. How many women.

I do think that there’s a lot more flexibility than there was when I was a teenager, and probably a hundred time more than when my mother was a teenager. But the ‘traditional’ views are still there, and periodically become quite vocal. And, of course, despite the opportunities open to girls that didn’t exist even fifty years ago, many girls seem to be unaware that they’re there.

As girls grow up, does this change or are women still expected to represent a certain expectation? 
It doesn’t change, it doesn’t have to because the groundwork has all been done. You were wrapped in a pink blanket as soon as you were born. You’ve worn the frocks and sparkly shoes; you’ve played with the toys; you’ve had the pretend makeup; you’ve seen the films. You may go to university, you may choose a demanding career, but as a woman the odds are that you’ll still be the one to do most of the work in the home. You’ll be the one to stop working to look after the children. You’ll be the one to make less than that chap at the next desk who does the same job.

Besides which, it always matters what a woman looks like. Here’s a quote from an obituary that appeared in The Australian on the death of Colleen McCullough – a woman who studied medicine, established the neurophysiology department at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, worked for ten years at Yale Medical School as a researcher, was made an Officer of the Order of Australia, and, of course, was an internationally bestselling author:
‘Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth.’
Thank God she had wit and warmth since she obviously had everything else going against her.

When you were growing up did you have assumptions on how you were supposed to behave? 
Absolutely. We all do – girls and boys – but we don’t always know that we have them. They’re just the way things are. Girls didn’t do this or didn’t do that. Boys didn’t do that or didn’t do this. Especially when you’re young, you accept the way the world is at face value. I grew up in the suburbs of America, in a place where the majority of women stayed home and took care of the home and the men went to work. No one was rocking any boats in our town.

If so, did you follow these? 
For a while I did. If there is no one around you doing or saying anything different to the norm, then it takes you a while to work out that the way things are aren’t necessarily the way they have to be.

Which character in ‘more than one way to be A Girl’ is closest to you? 
Loretta. I’m about as girly as a work boot. Although I’d have to admit that she’s a lot handier at auto repairs and putting up shelves than I am.

And she is streets ahead of the me I was at her age in her understanding of gender stereotypes and the holes in the history we’re taught in school.

Why do you think the words ‘feminine’ & ‘feminism’ carry so much weight, and why are they so often shown as opposing sides? 
That’s a really good question. I think that, ‘traditionally’, these words have been used as codes for stereotypes. Feminine is considered by society to be a positive thing (unless you’re speaking of ‘feminine wiles’, in which case it’s a bad thing and shows how untrustworthy and manipulating women are). A woman who is feminine is considered attractive and pleasant and a good wife and mother. She’s not rocking any boats, either; she knows her place and dresses to attract men. Whereas feminist is seen (especially by the dominant sex, though not solely) as a troublemaker, a man-hater, a woman who doesn’t know her place and wouldn’t stay there if she did. The idea that you can be feminine and a feminist for some reason has taken a long time to catch on – with women as well as with men.

Switching things, how about sharing something about yourself that not many people know: 
I used to be horrifically shy and afraid to give my opinions. Not so much anymore.

And what’s the perfect cure for a bad day? 
Music. Whatever music it is you like, it’ll always make you feel better.

Finally, what is the question you wish people would ask and never do?
Do you miss your motorcycle? (Yes.)

ZiZi likes to think of herself as a girly girl: her wardrobe is almost exclusively pink, her daily makeup routine can take upwards of an hour and she loves a bit of a flirt. Her best friend Loretta is very different: all of her clothes are black, she doesn’t wear any makeup whatsoever and she doesn’t like the way ZiZi dumbs herself down for boys – or her old-fashioned ideas about “a woman’s place”.

One day, they decide to make a bet. Can ZiZi stand looking like Loretta for longer than Loretta can bear dressing like ZiZi? As their summer unfolds – often hilariously – the pair are surprised to find they have a lot to learn from each other.

More Than One Way to Be a Girl is out NOW!

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