When We Talk About “Girl Problems”

My problems might be superficial on a global scale, but they’re real to me. 
Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard
One of my favorite quotes in YA fiction is the one above. It’s one I’ve thought long and hard about, and part of the reason is that it captures one of the reasons I love realistic YA fiction so much. On the global scale, problems about boyfriends or about parents or even about the “tougher” stuff — drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, and so forth — are fairly superficial. Few of the stories presented in realistic YA make a huge impact globally. They’re in the here and now, but that doesn’t at all discredit their importance and immediacy to the characters who are telling the story.

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:

I have CONFLICTED FEELINGS about Elizabeth Gilbert. I read Eat, Pray, Love, and while I thought her actual putting-words-in-sentences-in-nice-and-interesting-ways WRITING was really good, the subject matter was so annoying that I ended up turning my nose up at the book. A wealthy American white lady complaining about…what, exactly? The spirituality-lite? Leaving her husband because she doesn’t want to be married, then spending the rest of the book talking about men? Ergh.
Except I could deal with it, apparently, because I didn’t fling the book away in disgust or even irritation. I finished it, thought about it, talked about it with other readers. Realized that judging the seriousness of someone else’s problems and the sincerity of their spiritual expression was probably a personality flaw of mine. Changed a little–all because of a book I kinda sorta didn’t even like.

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.

This is where I see a huge link to what many readers do when it comes to YA fiction, particularly realistic fiction about teen girls. Their problems become disposable, collapsable, and easily judged by the reader. Their problems aren’t considered as global or with any heft. They’re seen as silly and it’s almost an insult to even be compared to a teen girl. Because whatever they’re feeling or experiencing isn’t legitimate or worthy of consideration or attention.
This video is a shining example of what I’m getting at. The standout moment for me is what she has to say here:

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.  

Keep Calm, Keep Silent 

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.

I’ve been thinking about this since I finished Julie Berry’s All the Truth That’s In Me (September). There’s nothing spoiler in saying the book is about what happens when a girl comes back from being kidnapped. She’s lived in a cult/Puritanical-like world, and that world values a girl’s virginity above all else. When the nameless main character is kidnapped but returns home from where she was taken two years later with her tongue removed — a literal statement — no one wants to listen to her. When she wants to go back to school to be educated, she’s met with sexual advances on the part of her teacher. 
The assumption is that when she was kidnapped, she was made unpure. And as an unpure woman, she had no value to society anymore. She’s not entitled to an education. No one wants to hear her speak up and no one will help her meet her own desire to do so. 
Even though the book is set in a historical time frame, what made it standout was that it was so much a reflection of our own world as it is right now. We silence teen girls and belittle whatever their experiences and opinions and insights might be about what’s going on around us. The main character in this book had the answer to a major crime in town, but no one wanted to listen to her. No one wanted to find out why her tongue was cut out because by virtue of her being a teen girl, the town had already metaphorically removed her ability to speak

The girl knew what was going on. And part of her motivation for coming back home was to help people understand what happened to her friend. To make sense of a senseless crime. But no one would listen to her. It wasn’t simply that she had no tongue, making her voice impaired — remember, she wanted to go back to school to learn how to communicate — it’s that no one valued her voice enough to want to help her get to that point. Part of it was her perceived impurity, but a bigger part of it was that she was a teen girl. 

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 Dessen girl is the every girl. She is, if you will, often much like Elizabeth Gilbert. She is worried about her own life and the tough things she’s going through at the time. Yes, this often revolves around a boy. Sometimes it revolves around a good friend. Sometimes it revolves around a family that’s not necessarily 100% whole and intact. 

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.

Dessen writes books that readers relate to because they’re their stories. And in many ways, Dessen’s books are criticized for that very thing: for being formulaic and for being predictable. But the truth is, that’s the bulk of a teen girl’s life — it’s formulaic and predictable. That is not a slight on teen girls but rather, a window into the truth of what their every day experiences are. They find themselves drawn to stories like Dessen’s or Susane Colasanti’s or Deb Caletti’s or Jessi Kirby’s or other similar writers because they understand these girls because they are these girls. 
They’re finding authors who completely understand them, but more than that, who want to tell their stories. These authors respect and cherish teen girls and do so by illuminating their worlds in ways that readers (and I don’t leave out boys here!) completely understand because they are living these stories every single day. Contemporary YA authors do this in their work, but there’s something even more intimate and personal about the authors who are so focused on these stories about girls working through their every day challenges. 
The characters in these books? They’re living the problems their readers are. And these books respect that. These are not grand, end-of-the-world problems. They’re real world problems. Today’s teen girls are told over and over their problems don’t matter. They’re trivial. They’re not global.  
But these same teens are buying these books and caring about these stories because they’re finding here that their problems DO matter somewhere.

What’s Scary For Teen Girls To Know?

In 2006, John Green’s Looking for Alaska won the Printz Award. It’s a book which features an oral sex scene. The book is considered literary despite that.

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

Coming back to this particular topic in YA is important because I spent a long time reading and considering the comments about my own post over at Dear Author. I wonder if it’s true that a sex scene as mild and implied — not explicit but implied — as the one noted in Doller’s book really and truly wouldn’t fly in some of the public and school libraries as suggested. 
Do these libraries not have Looking for Alaska on shelf? 

I think we come back to the same thing — when a girl is at the helm, the perceptions of what a book is or isn’t about comes through. A girl exploring and being positive about her sexuality is considered too much for some libraries, but a book about a boy doing the same thing is par for the course. It’s, in fact, literary, where the book about the girl is considered more disposable. And sure, there are books where girls who are sexually active or experience positive sexuality which merit the label literary. But I think there is a much quicker knee-jerk reaction to what a book is or is not when it is a girl having these experiences. When it’s a boy, it’s just a boy being a boy.

Are girls’ stories frivolous? Are they worth less than a story about a boy?
Is it scary to think about a girl who is in control of her life, her story, or her experiences, physically, mentally, and emotionally? Why do we bristle at a girl experiences? Why do we devalue it? Why is there a belief that sexual moments in YA books that are through a female main character are there as means of titillation? 
Of course, we know that Green’s book has been challenged. But I think there’s a difference between a book being challenged because it’s made it to the shelves and a book that never gets a chance because it’s not seen as worth the expense. 

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.

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  1. says

    Love this post. So many thoughts–like how all the books I'd say shaped me as a person have girls and their "girl problems" at the center–but more thinking needs to be done on my part. However, I would like to say that I think Sarah Dessen has already written a Printz medal or Printz honor book–DREAMLAND. Freaking awesome book that makes you think AND feel all the feels.

  2. says

    RE: Sarah Dessen and The Moon and More, I've been fascinated by the reactions to the fact that Dessen, in this case, deviated slightly from her "formula" by writing a non swoon-worthy love interest for Emaline, one who operates more in service to the central themes of family and parents more than he does in service of wish-fulfillment and romance.

    It's almost as though we'll knock an author for being formulaic, but then cry foul as soon as she does something different. Hmmmmm.

    P.S. Amazing post, as always.

  3. says

    I'm amazed at how many threads you've managed to bring together in this post, and I could easily leave a post-length comment here, so fair warning —

    I read Amanda's piece at BookRiot and very much identified with her sentiment — I knew it was my own bias at work in my rejection of those kind of rich white lady narratives, and thought, at least I'm aware of what's going on and why I simultaneously enjoy that kind of writing and identify with it but recognize how superficial it can seem and have a sort of self-loathing about it…

    I discuss these kind of issues with my husband a lot, who teaches high school special ed, including 11th grade English, so he reads YA lit and works with teens. He'd already read Looking for Alaska when I listened to the audiobook. I listened to it on our stereo system rather than while headphones, and I while I knew there was an oral sex scene in the book beforehand, it was interesting to have it come on while we chopped vegetables for dinner. We laughed about how UNsexy it was. I do think that's the tendency with male versus female POV and sex scenes — it made sense to me that women/girls read female POV sex scenes as "sexier" but it was interesting (telling?) to realize that a male would also share that perspective– we've both had similar reactions to Personal Effects and Winger and thought they contained decidedly unsexy depictions of male desire. And it does seem to be the norm to view a similar account of desire from a female perspective as not only more titillating, but less literary, no matter your own gender (and even if you recognize how problematic that is, like we do).

    I had so many ARCs from BEA I knew I couldn't read them all, so I gave a copy of All the Truth that's in Me to a teen from my library book club, and I'll be interested to see her reaction.

    Great post! Lots of food for thought.

  4. says

    Great post that I can't respond to in total (at least not right now), but I must say that most love triangles I dislike is because there isn't a real choice. Two seconds after both guys are introduced I know which one the girl will pick because of how the narrative is shaped. And that's uninteresting to read. I'd love to read a love triangle were a girl is faced with two equally valid love interests and I had no clue which she would choose.

  5. says

    Such a very thought-provoking post.

    Yes, on its own terms, I read Eat, Pray, Love to the end and it resonated. Yet, within the context of the world I see/experience (I am Chinese American from an immigrant working class upbringing), it's also true that I spent much of that reading time resenting the book and the author for her privilege. I got caught up in the question: Who gets to blow up their life, go on self-indulgently about it, and gain success by doing so?

    But your question comes from the opposite perspective: Is Eat, Pray, Love (and books about teen girls) dismissed because of its female-ness?

    It's an interesting question. I used "self-indulgent" to indicate Elizabeth Gilbert's privilege, but would a male be similarly dismissed or would he be "high-minded"? If she were he, would a literary prize have been among the book's successes? (and would my resentment while reading been greater or lesser?)

    Thank you for posting this. And thank you for the links to prior discussions. Much to consider.

  6. says

    I really enjoyed this post. I love "girl problem" books because oftentimes, as you pointed out, the problems are what average teens are going through. They're real. And like the Wanderlove quote says, even though they may be as minimal has a broken heart, that doesn't make them any less real or painful. I'm GLAD these books are out there, and glad I can give them to my teens at the library. So great post!

    (Also, I love the Dessen girl.)

  7. says

    Fabulous article. I'm labeling this "important" and stashing it away for later. You've dealt with so many things here that, as an author, I'm second-guessing about what is going into my present series. If asked, I don't know if I could express these same thoughts so beautifully and succinctly. Thank you! I may quote you if ever needing to defend certain aspects of my characters or books.

  8. says

    I can't tell you how much I LOVE this post. I think the female voice and the female experience–both teenage and adult–is still not as highly valued as a male's. It was certainly true back when I was a teen. In four years of high school, I had ONE female author assigned, Jane Austen/Pride and Prejudice. It is little wonder that males and females alike of my generation became sensitized to the "importance" of the male voice and experience. Okay, that was a long time ago. Things have changed, right? Unfortunately, no. It is disturbing that young women (as in the video) are still seeing the dismissal of their experience and problems as irrelevant or fluff. Dismissal, in effect, silences their voice. Thank you for this post. I think it reflects a systemic problem in our society as a whole.

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