— Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard
Amanda Nelson wrote a really great post over at Book Riot recently about her conflicted feelings for Elizabeth Gilbert (most well-known for her Eat, Pray, Love) that struck a chord with some of what I’ve been thinking about lately in regards to YA fiction and more specifically, the problems that girls encounter in YA fiction. It’s a short post, but the heart of it for me was this:
What the wealthy white American lady complains about is the heart of the book and the heart of the criticism people have for this particular book. Gilbert’s memoir is about how she was working through the spiritual and personal aspects of a changing relationship that had, at one time, meant a lot to her but now had left her feeling something different. Amanda nails her own biases here in a way that many readers don’t or don’t think about when they approach a book like Gilbert’s — she judged the seriousness of the problems in the book, rather than reading and considering the book on its own merits.
People don’t wanna be compared to the teenage girl; the teenage girl is hated, teenage girls hate themselves. If you listen to a certain kind of music, or if you express your emotions in a certain kind of way, if you self harm, you write diaries, all those kind of activities are sort of laughed at and ridiculed because they’re associated with being a teenage girl. Even just things like being cripplingly self conscious or overly concerned with our appearance, that’s considered like a teenage girl thing and therefore its ridiculous, it’s stupid, it’s not relevant or legitimate, and you know, what we needed at that age was legitimisation and respect and support but all we got was dismissal and “oh you’re such a teenage girl.
This is precisely what we do when we’re reading about teenage girls as much as when we’re actually interacting with teenage girls. We call their problems — the real, honest, painful, tough things they’re experiencing — “typical girl problems.”
What does that even mean? What’s a typical girl problem? What’s a typical girl? What’s a typical problem? What puts the line between a “typical girl problem” and a book that’s published featuring a male main character going through “typical boy problems?” What’s a “typical boy problem?” And why is it that “typical boy problems” are considered Literary as opposed to throw away, fluff, or otherwise light reading that “just some book about typical girl problems” can be?
I’m not sure I have answers to any of these questions. And I know for a fact that I’ve used lines like “typical girl problems” in my own reviews to describe what’s going on in a character’s life. But the longer I think about it and consider it, the less that line makes sense and the more it sort of frustrates me as someone who not only loves books about “typical girl problems,” but as someone who loves working with teen girls. I think about this in light of what it might mean to be an unlikable/complicated female protagonist in YA and what it means when a girl learns about her own ability to make choices for enjoying her body and sexuality.
Are we scared that by legitimizing the issues girls face that they might learn to like themselves or that they might find themselves valuable and worthwhile despite not having global problems to work through?
Rather than offer up answers — I can’t — I thought instead it’d be worth looking through some of the common criticisms leveled at books featuring female main characters and why those perceptions are problematic. As Hubbard notes in that quote from Wanderlove — a book about a girl who needs to travel in order to sort out what’s going on in her own personal life and her own relationships — while the problems may be trivial, they’re very real to the character experiencing them. That doesn’t make them less challenging or less important.
In many ways, it’s that very thing which keeps girls coming back to YA. They’re seeing themselves in the fiction and they’re empathizing and relating to the problems in these stories. These are their stories and their challenges, and for once, they’re finding a place in the world that not only understands them, but accepts them and loves them through it.
These books remind teen girls they are perfectly capable, lovable, and valuable as they are right now.
There are so many books about teen girls and silence. About what happens when something terrible happens to a girl and she isn’t invited to speak up about it or when she tries to, she’s brushed off as being just some girl who doesn’t really know what’s going on.
Silence has played a role in the lives of girls in YA for a long time. That was the whole premise behind Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. It played a huge role in Colleen Clayton’s novel about sexual assault, What Happens Next. It certainly played a role in Courtney Summers’s Cracked Up to Be. In all four of these cases in particular, that silence revolved around sexual assault or sexual impurity or at least perceived sexual assault or impurity on some level.
Which is interesting because for whatever reason, sexual assault and rape and the notion of sexual purity are “girl problems.”
It’s interesting too, how many parents in these stories don’t exist. Whether that’s by design — they aren’t there — or by perception. Whatever the case is, the truth of it is the adults in so many of these stories aren’t there.
Girl voices aren’t valued. Girl voices are written off as unimportant, and even when it’s clear there is a girl in trouble — a girl who maybe even knows the key to something bigger — she’s seen as a devalued member of her world. She’s troubled and has problems and needs help but no one actually reaches out to her and sees her through it. Or worse, they do but they’re doing so not because they care about her, but rather, because she’s causing a scene or a fuss and needs to be silenced again.
In many ways, it’s because of the culture of being undervalued, for being seen as not having something worth sharing, that these girls internalize. They don’t choose silence. It’s not a choice at all.
The Love Triangle
I’m not the biggest fan of love triangles in YA fiction, but they serve a purpose and do reach a number of readers. But responses to love triangles in YA are fascinating and I think speak to what I’m working at here, too.
Love triangles are about not just the romance — though that plays a valid and important part. They’re about choice. They’re about making choices among people who a girl wants to get to know better and they’re about making choices regarding time and energy. They’re about following one’s heart and one’s mind in pursuing relationships.
Responses to love triangles? They’re lame or overdone or tired or stupid plot devices. They’re boring because who cares about romance?
The girl in the story cares about the romance or else she wouldn’t be struggling with which boy or girl she wants to pursue. Just as fairly, the girls and boys reading the story care about the romance. They relate, even if it’s in their own personal fantasies, of having to make a choice between two people who want to be involved with them.
Do you see that?
A love triangle is, in many ways, where the girl at the center of the story is able to not only make a choice, but she’s making a choice among two pursuers who are interested in HER. Who want to get to know HER. Who care about who SHE is as she is.
These sorts of responses don’t get leveled at books where there a male at the center of the story, though, quite in the way they are when it is a girl choosing between two romantic partners. Andrew Smith’s Winger features Ryan Dean West, who has a choice between two girls. But the responses to his pursuits aren’t met with nearly the same vitriol a novel which features similar set ups but with a girl choosing between two boys (and here is my bias, since I haven’t read enough YA where a girl is choosing a non-heterosexual partner). It’s not that Ryan Dean is seen as a hot shot who can get all of the ladies — he’s not! — but rather, his pursuit of romance and physical intimacy and enjoyment isn’t met with the cries of boredom or triteness or the phrase “who cares about the romance?” And while the girls in his book get to make a choice too, about whether or not he’s the guy for them, because the book’s in his voice and through his perspective, we don’t get to know what it is that’s driving them or why it matters to them.
Boys in YA novels are allowed more choice when it comes to pursuing romance. And in many ways, there’s a special novelty granted to stories where the boy pursues romance in the way that when a girl at the center of a YA novel pursues it, she’s judged for doing so and in many ways, the strength and value of her character are determined based on this decision.
Dismissing the love triangle trope in YA and complaining about how it’s lame and boring undercuts the value of choice, of independence, of romance, of making tough decisions about relationships to pursue and relationships to drop that teen girls do experience. Though the girls in the real world don’t always have two boys seeking their love, they do deal with tough choices similar to these choices. They have to make choices between activities to engage in. Between friendships to hold onto and those to break. Between making choices about the futures that send them down one road or another. The love triangle in YA is both the literal choice among two romantic paths and the metaphorical choice. That sometimes you simply have to make tough decisions between two appealing but different things.
Further reading on the love triangle and why it is valuable can be found on Angie’s blog in relation to Katniss in The Hunger Games titles “Why Team Peeta is a Feminist Statement” and on S. E. Sinkhorn’s post “Love Triangles: Why? – A List.”
The Every Girl
There was a really interesting comment last year over at the Someday My Printz Will Come blog about the Sarah Dessen formula. And it’s a comment that’s appeared in more than one review of a Dessen book. While I definitely agree there is something formulaic in Dessen’s writing — all of her stories feature an average girl dealing with challenges of balancing family, self, romance, and friendship — the writing is always top notch. But more importantly . . .
All of her stories feature an average girl dealing with the challenges of balancing family, self, romance, and friendship.
The Moon and More debuted at #3 on the New York Times best sellers list. Dessen isn’t a stranger to this list, and her books are among the first associated with realistic fiction. She’s been around for a long time, and her books are always highly anticipated when they come out every couple of years. Readers love Dessen because they know what to expect of her stories: a girl working through her life’s challenges, with the hope and promise of a satisfying, honest, and real ending. There’s also hope for a little romance and an adventure or two — however small — along the way.
I talked at length about female sexuality in YA already and the positive, empowering portrayals of it in recent titles. But in many ways, I think that when we think about positive female sexuality in YA, it’s not given the same sort of merit or time or praise. Much of it has to do with the greater book, of course, which leads back to the idea that stories about girls, with girls at the center, aren’t received with the same seriousness and merit as literary as those with boys at the center. Yes, Looking for Alaska was primarily about Alaska. But it was about Alaska through the eyes of Miles.
So . . . what?
I don’t have any answers, but I have a lot more questions.
We see girl problems in stories, and we call them out as much.
We dismiss girls’ feelings and experiences as “typical girl problems” and I think we often do it in a way that makes these palatable. But they’re palatable not to girls through this sort of language, but instead, they’re dismissed as a means of making the story palatable to boys.
Think about the books — realistic, in particular — featuring amazing male lead characters. Whether the book is written by a male or female, those boys are noted for having memorable and strong voices, often because they are boys. This is something someone pointed out to me in my own reviews and discussion of memorable voice. I’ve fallen into calling a voice memorable on the basis that the voice is a male’s. Even when I am conscious of my own thoughts on characters, on gender, and on avoiding conflating either or both of them, I find myself coding them together. This isn’t something I tend to do when talking about a girl main character’s voice.
Is it because I, too, have silenced her voice in my own reading?
Or is it because I’m trying to making statement about the palatability and the importance of problems in these stories, even though it’s far from intention on my part to do so?
Many times I think we go much easier on our male main characters than our female ones. We don’t have an easily-created “unlikable male characters” book list. We forgive tragic back story much easier (note that male characters don’t often have a back story where they were a victim of rape, sexual assault, or sexual abuse — big, heavy, hard-to-take female back stories that are so often dismissed as “tragic” or “easy” or “lazy” back story). I’ve found myself thinking a lot lately about those books about boy main characters — those I’ve loved, especially — and wonder what the reactions would be toward the behaviors and stories would be if it were instead a female main character. Would they be memorable? Or would they be disposable? Or would they face harder challenges? Or would it be easier?
There is a lot here, and there is a lot more I can’t say because I don’t have the words to sort through my thoughts on this topic. But I keep going back to the Hubbard quote, and I keep coming back to what Nelson notes in her post about Elizabeth Gilbert.
Despite many of the books being about “girl problems,” there’s no such thing as “girl problems.” These are people problems. And if we keep devaluing people problems by calling them “girl problems” or “typical girl problems,” we inherently devalue the girl. We keep her silenced. We keep her from making choices and pursuing her destiny on her own terms. We make her an every girl. And we keep her scared that she’s always going to be just a teenage girl.