Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Pendulum of YA: "girls who do things" and boys who don't do anything at all

WARNING: The following post contains opinions about the Twilight series that may seem negative or overly-critical. I would like to proudly proclaim that I am a Twi-fan. I love the series, and so I feel like it's okay for me to wag my finger at it a little, because I'm still a fan! I love the Twilight series, I love Stephenie Meyer... it's all good!

Okay, let's begin:

It seems that YA books nowadays represent a sort of pendulum: they swing in one direction and you see domineering, arrogant/egotistical unhealthy bad boys, and they swing in the other direction and you see…pretty much same type of character, only instead of a boy, it’s a girl. Girls in teen books are either meek and flat, with little to no personality, who enter into unhealthy relationships with boys who push them around (but apparently that’s okay, as long as the guy in question is “hot” and/or some sort of mythological creature), or they are butt-kicking angry chicks who scream independence…which I think has the potential to be just as unhealthy.

Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment: everybody seems to hate Edward Cullen, but what about some of these other “gloriously independent” girls? If Edward is a chauvinist, how are these angry chicks any better?

There’s a difference between “girls who do things” and “girls who are angry bitches.” Sorry, but I had to put that word in! However, the former has lately been overshadowed by the latter.

Like I said in the intro, there seem to be a lot of messages that teen authors are portraying – my blog buddy Choco tackles weirdo “romances” in one of her latest posts, and that got me thinking about one of my pet peeves that I’ve seen a lot of recently: overly-dominant girl characters. This is the 21st century, and it really bothers me when authors try and drag us back to the Dark Ages.

Now, I know that there are some awesome, strong, able-minded girls in fiction that readers can look up to: presently, I’d say the one of the truly strongest characters out there is Annabeth Chase from the Percy Jackson series. Here’s a girl who is smart, a good fighter/no weakling, and not really dependant on anyone… but here’s where she’s special: while she may not need anyone – especially a boy – she seems to want one, and that is normal and healthy. She’s not trying to be an island unto herself; she’s not trying to be “greater than thou.” She is at her strongest when she’s with her friends (Percy in particular). Another good character is Eilonwy from the Chronicles of Prydain, for many of the same reasons. I really do think that the Intermediate-age authors are the ones who best get it right: they are the ones with the most well-rounded “role model” characters and they also seem to be the ones who present the healthiest relationships. Way to go, MG authors!

So I kind of bristle when teen authors get so excited with themselves for writing “butt”-kicking female characters…is it just me, or is that taking a walk down the hypocritical road? Why is it bad for boys to push girls around and for boys to be pillars of strength, but totally alright for girls to treat boys like they don’t matter? That seems a little chauvinistic to me – and that’s a phrase that I find myself using a lot: “female chauvinism.” I don’t want to annoy anyone, but I found darling Katsa in YA’s Most Beloved Novel Graceling to be a complete Female Chauvinist. I’m sorry, but are we seriously saying that someone who is anti-marriage and anti-kids is a positive role model for girls today? Um, forget that: when exactly was Katsa positive about anything? I read that book and all I heard was, “I’m an angry young woman! I’m an angry young woman!” Or how about everybody’s favorite heroine: Tamora Pierce’s Alanna. I must be the stupidest girl in America, but the main character moves from one sex partner to another over the course of the 4 books…and she’s a role model?! Oh, I forgot: she’s brave and she’s a good fighter. Well, wonderful! Is that all that matters?

Now, while I like a rant just as much (or probably more) than the next person, I think they are pretty futile without some sort of suggestion. Yes, I think we have a problem in YA with the constant image of domineering, overbearing male love interests. However, I think we have a problem on the opposite end of the spectrum with “girls who kick too much butt” characters who are screaming independence. I learned this in my Marriage & Family Therapy class, and it’s some of the most beneficial and crucial bits of information I’ve received from my time in college: the goal of a relationship needs to be INTERDEPENDENCY. “Interdependency” means having two mature and complete people who come together to form a relationship based on give and take and working together. Not codependency, Miss Swan. Not independence either, Miss…Everyone. Now, in order to be an interesting story, there still have to be some elements of drama going on, but using this model you don’t have controlling boys OR girls. Yes, everybody likes to harp about domineering boys, and they should! But let’s not forget that it is possible – and just as unhealthy – to have domineering girl characters. If boys aren’t allowed to get away with lack of commitment, girls shouldn’t, either. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a double standard.

So yes, I can see why Edward would be unpopular. I might irritate some blog buddies (hopefully not), but I didn't really think Edward was all that bad. Edward's gonna do what he's gonna do - he thinks he's being protective and whatnot...but he was able to get away with it because Bella's such a moron, she didn't put him in his place! And please: of course Edward has to protect Bella! She's such a klutzy doofus! Okay, but I don't want to get into a Twilight rant. I liked the Twilight saga okay because you had a romance where the characters actually waited until marriage to have sex - what a concept! That's always a safe bet: if you can't write an appropriate love story, just don't put that element in there! Mrs. Meyer, if I ever amount to anything as a published writer, I'm gonna look you up and buy you a cup of coffee! You go, girl! :) I think if Edward was my boyfriend, I wouldn't give a flying burrito if he watched me sleep - long as he didn't wake me up! In fact, I'd probably put him to work doing my homework - he doesn't sleep after all, am I right?! But I'm getting way, way off topic. That happens a lot. Apologies.

So what I would like to see axed:
1) boys who are too overbearing
2) girls who are too overbearing
3) lust-based relationships
4) love triangles. I haven't touched on this, but it's just a pet peeve. Are girls just total losers if they don't have at least 2 guys chasing them? I hope not, or else my self-esteem will take a hit.
5) boys and girls who's main goal in a relationship is to maintain their independence.

But that's just my two cents. Do you have something to add? I hope so - I'll look pretty silly just blogging to myself!

11 shout-outs!:

The Book Guru said...

Wowza! Amen! Regardless of the fact that I did read the Twilight series and liked it for the most part I do feel that there is an imbalance in the way female protagonists are portrayed in YA novels. Probably my biggest pet peeve is the lack of self respect that female protagonists seem to have. While I think it is important to write about sex and characters that have had sex before marriage you don't see any mainstream popular main characters that are in healthy "balanced" relationships that include healthy age appropriate sexual behavior without actually having sex. I actually enjoy reading a book where the female character starts out questioning her self worth, lacking in morals, or dealing with insecurities and going on a journey with her in discovering her inner resilience, strength, etc while not becoming the "overbearing" female protagonist you are speaking of.

Its got me thinking about what YA novels I have read that have balanced characters....

Sheri said...

Ok, fine... you got me. I'm Sheri, one of your many goodreads friends, and I'm stepping out of the protective shadow of my google reader and officially declaring that I read your blog daily and love it lots.

Just wanted to note that I am in complete agreement with every word you just posted. I don't have a whole lot to add, because quite frankly I'm a bit intimidated by your intelligence and flawless grammar (even if I am almost 10 years older than you). I've never been to college - give me a break! :o) I'm all about strong female characters, but a line definitely needs to be drawn in order for me to still respect the author in the morning.
Fantastic thoughts!

bookaholic said...

Fab points! No arguments. Nada. I second you!

Jillian said...

This is a fantastic post, Amelia. I completely agree with you with everything you just said! Especially though, with Annabeth's character in the Percy Jackson series. She is not dependent on men, and she can handle herself completely on her own, but she does not pretend that she can handle everything on her own. She wants company and friendship -- from boys or girls. To me, that is the kind of character that I root for. I do like Twilight, but Bella's character is kind of horrible to me. Too needy. But then again, that is just me. No offense to anyone!
Awesome thoughts. Keep writing :)

in which a girl reads said...

Ooh, interesting post!

You are right that kickbutt female characters are sometimes a bit too extreme. But it's just my personal preference: I LOVE books where girls are completely independent of boys--and the overbearing aspects & other problems within their characters that you pointed out don't bother me quite as much. I guess that's just the feminist part of me speaking, though :)

I have to say I agree to some extent, but at the same time I'm all for kickbutt heroines.

Also, you're completely right about MG authors getting it right. Earlier today I was considering only reading MG for a while so I could cool down with all the problems I'm having with YA at the moment.

Great, thought-provoking post! :)

Darlyn said...

Emm..pretty interesting. I just realized about this when i read your post. i dont mind to read any girl to lead in books but somehow i love to read a male lead in books too.especially in YA books.these past few days i read about 6-7 YA books and my head rather spinning to munch all those.i prefer middle grade.i read sidney sheldon, jeffrey archer, grisham as early as when i was 15..

this is a great post Amelia..honestly.

A Story Untold said...

As I totally agree with you about YA books,and mostly the paranormal ones, having a weak female character that's always depending on her man to make eeeeverything alright, I have a question to ask : Who, on his/her right mind, would have a totally fictional book character as a role model?I mean, books are great and all but they are just stories, fairy tales.Bella is as much a role model for me as Cinderella or SnowWhite is.But that's just cynic old me!

Amelia said...

That's a good point, AtenRa. If I have fictional role models (and there aren't very many) they're like from CS Lewis or Tolkien - major writers. But yeah, these characters are ultimately FAKE! And yet you know that there are some teens and young people out there who can't distinguish very well and so it does get a little weird to think that they're searching for role model characters in books...or worse, on TV!

Tales of Whimsy said...

“female chauvinism" = SO true!

A Story Untold said...

You're absolutely right, Amelia.That is, in my opinion, why people should read books(any kind)in the first place, to expand their mind and to start thinking more...well, to start thinking in general, I guess.If you get obsessed about a character and desperately want to be like her/him,and miss all the positive stuff a book can give you, then what's the point? But I think I've gotten a bit off topic here,and I'm sorry for that.
Overall, writers whose books target a specific audience, should be a little bit more sensitive and a little bit more careful about what they write.It sounds like a big generalization, but I truly believe most of them should.

The Critic said...

I wouldn't DISAGREE with you, but I wouldn't agree with you either.

I completely agree with you that guys and gals don't need and should NEVER be overbearing. However, I do disagree on the Love Triangle part. There's a good way to do it, and there's a bad way to do it. I don't mind a good love triangle as long as it's not annoying and guys are playing girl-tug-of-war or girls playing guy-tug-of-war. I would prefer if the girl (or guy) in question be totally fine with two boys chasing after them and maintain a strong personality. However yes sometimes they can be annoying.

And about the annoying famminist-kick-butt-type women: Again, I disagree. There's a way not to make the girl stupidly feminist how *gasp* OMG SHE WANTS TO BE A GUY!!! Or: *gasp* OMG SHE NEVER WANTS TO GET MARRIED BECAUSE SHE DOSEN'T WANT TO LOSE HER FREEDOM EVEN IF SHE'S MET THE LOVE OF HER LIFE!!! *cough cough* The Luxe Series *cough cough*

I see where you're going, and I agree that authors don't do it very well these days. It's really sad, especially in Historical Fiction where we see girl Highwaymen or women who break up with their boyfriends because they never want to get married. It's all about the quality of the character and unfortunately, there's not much quality nowadays. What a shame... :(

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