I’ve spent a lot of time defending the integrity of young adult novels. Sure, they can be silly, but that doesn’t negate their impact on the thirteen-to-mid-twenties demographic, and they shouldn’t be condemned just because teenage girls are the major target audience.
I still think this. In fact, I’m pretty adamant on the fact that teenage girls have good judgment skills when it comes to a lot of things (my teenage sister, for example, dresses way better than I do), and that includes books. Mary Shelley was sixteen when she wrote Frankenstein, so chew on that for a bit before you start slamming the XX chromosome.
The more I read and grew up, though, the more I started noticing the problems with YA/NA – problems that would have adverse effects on the same teenage girls I’ve been defending and now feel the need to caution. While plenty of these tropes are laughable and pretty much harmless, there are a number of influences that are potentially damaging to young women’s psyche, self-image, and lifestyle. Here are some of the pitfalls when it comes to how YA girls are portrayed.
Perfect Heroes, Clumsy Heroines
The hero tends to be good-looking, well-spoken, intelligent, charming, witty, and introspective. Meanwhile the heroine is stuttering up a storm and falling down every set of stairs that gets in her way. I’d say it’s a simple matter of extrovert/introvert, but then there seems to be the suggestion that all men are outgoing and all women would rather stay curled up in bed with a classic British novel or whatever. She’d probably fall off the bed repeatedly, though, since she’s always portrayed as a klutz. But I guess the heroine has to walk into the occasional wall. I mean, she needs some flaw to balance out her unprecedented hotness and overall perfection, which brings us to our next point…
The [Un]pretty Heroine
I don’t mind a heroine who doesn’t think she’s all that and a bag of chips. I mean, let’s face it, teenage girls aren’t offered a lot of encouragement when it comes to self-esteem; everywhere they look they see models who don’t even have pores. What I do mind is when authors try their hardest to convince you that their protagonists aren’t at all conventionally attractive, even though when they clearly are. Not only are dudes hitting on them left and right, but when the writer describes the character, she’s undeniably hot. Whatever happened to adolescent awkwardness? I’m not talking about that heroine who trips over the air, either. I’m talking about growth spurts and oily skin and pimples and bad haircuts and misdirected fashion choices and too much eye shadow and just the general weirdness of being a teenager. All these characters look like bammin’ slammin’ bootylicious twenty-somethings who’ve got their s— together. I cannot suspend disbelief for that; it’s too ridiculous.
Side note: Why does no one have brown eyes anymore? They’re all green with flecks of gold or steely blue-gray or violet (color contacts much?). Listen, if brown eyes are good enough for Van Morrison, they’re good enough for your super special snowflake protagonist.
The Selfless Adolescent
I mean, the heroine is seriously, will-get-themselves-killed kind of selfless. It’s an admirable trait, but it sets this precedent for a real-life teenager to be some kind of superhero. Kids, don’t feel bad if you’re not into the idea of jumping into the path of a speeding bullet or stopping a sociopathic villain from bombing an orphanage or some other hypothetical, probably life-ending thing. Just because Katniss volunteered as tribute in her sister’s place (which is one of the understandable exceptions to these godlike teenagers), that doesn’t mean you have to exhibit that level of fearlessness. Don’t feel bad if you’re scared.
The Bookworm Heroine
I’m all for a bookish girl; I am a bookish girl. But the denizens of YA/NA seem to think that a girl who reads is a rarity, an anomaly (which is odd, considering some of these authors are bestsellers, so they have to know that a lot of people read). Reading doesn’t make you automatically “deep” and perceptive; and it definitely doesn’t work like an aphrodisiac. Girls, listen up: Reading Bukowski at the back of the classroom isn’t going to make that hot popular guy crush on you. By all means read Bukowski if you want to, just don’t do it for the wrong reasons.
The Love Triangles
Otherwise known as the laziest plot device to add intrigue to a story, and to prolong the eventual and inevitable match-up of two characters. We all know who’s going to end up together, and it’s frustrating to watch the hero or heroine grapple with their prom date choices. If it causes them this much angst and conflict, they’re clearly not ready to make a commitment to anyone.
Look, I’ve been in real-life love triangles before and I’ve learned there’s nothing romantic or intriguing about them. It’s painful and confusing and you only get your feelings hurt. You get led on and only end up feeling bad about yourself, and even if you end up with the object of your affections, chances are you’re going to break up. I realize the heroes and heroines in the books stay together forever because at sixteen they’ve found their true love and reason for living, but in real life that’s just not the case.
The Female Enemy
The heroine often sees other women as a threat. Usually because the other women are hot and appear to be flirting with the hero. Nonsensical slut-shaming ensues. Ladies, ladies, ladies. Please. Don’t we have enough problems without attacking each other? I’m not saying you can’t dislike another woman; just find another reason to aside from the fact that you share the same sexual organs.
The Absent Parents
Seriously, where is the supervision? These kids are just going out, either drinking heavily or battling dark forces, and their parents are just tra-la-la-ing totally out of the picture. Sometimes they’re dead, which is the easiest method to get them out of the way (plus it gives your protagonist that “haunted” edge to their personality), but otherwise they’re just… I’m not even sure. And if they’re not six feet under, their negligence doesn’t have much effect on the protagonist’s character. If the protagonist does happen to have some adult guardianship, it’s usually a “wacky” relative – an aunt or a grandmother who acts more like a kid than the actual teenager does.
The Girl Who Changes A Dangerous Man
This is hands-down the most dangerous of YA/NA tropes. These books often portray emotionally damaged, guarded, disturbed, brooding young heroes who the heroine must “fix” by loving him despite his treatment of her. This treatment often involves verbal abuse at the very least, possessiveness, and jealousy. (Note to young men everywhere: Do not mimic these behaviors because you think it will make a girl like you. A healthy alternative is to treat all women well and with respect.) The heroine, meanwhile, has to love him no matter what, and she must remain the personification of perfection so that he’ll reciprocate that love, because women must emulate some of that 1950s housewife standard in order to be worthy of love.
The Lack of Diversity
So many of these fictional teenagers just haven’t had a boyfriend or girlfriend before. That’s normal enough for a sixteen-year-old, but it’s not exactly the end-all, be-all of social pressures and problems. Representation is so important and necessary. Write characters of color, characters of varying sexualities and identities, interracial relationships, characters with glasses or mental disorders or diabetes, teens who are paralyzed from the waist down. Because of the lack of diversity in these books, so many teens are being underrepresented. I would like to pause here for a round of applause for David Levithan. He’s got a few of these characters covered. But we could use a few more, don’t you think?
Katie (preferably “Maj”) is a detoxing caffeine addict, lover of literary fiction, and the metaphorical lovechild of Gary Oldman and Boober Fraggle. If she were stuck in a war-torn Westeros, she’d rather be in Dorne, where the weather is rad and you’re less likely to end up headless. You can follow her on Twitter at @majthevaj_.