Friday, November 23, 2012

The Quandary of Boys in YA: A Rant



Not in the mood for my bilious stream of vitriol? Understandable. Go enter to win FREE BOOKS instead. I won’t blame you.

I hope you all had fantabulous Turkey days (or Thursdays, as the case may be). I myself am in the midst of a tryptophan coma and currently look like this:
 
And yet after reading a couple articles about the state of BOYS in YOUNG ADULT FICTION, I have found myself slowly getting ranty. And stabby. And clearly very CAPSY. So I am dragging myself out of my carb-induced stupor to open up a discussion.

Every couple months or so, some bookish person feels obliged to write an article bemoaning the female takeover of young adult fiction (like this one) (plus an awesome rebuttal at Forever Young Adult) (oh, yeah, and another awesome rebuttal). A lot of writers and reviewers and bookish people don’t think this is a good thing. “What of the BOYS?” they say. “How will they ever learn to read if all the heroines and authors are FEMALES? Boys can’t even READ books written by women. It makes them break out in hives. It will teach them bad things about girlish feelings and all the testosterone inside them will mysteriously VANISH!”

Which makes me react like this:

 

Think back to your high school English days (or your current high school English days). There will probably be a couple female authors there, correct? Some Bronte, Austen, maybe Toni Morrison or Emily Dickinson. MAYBE. You are guaranteed to read Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, Twain, et cetera, et cetera. I’m a college English major. Except for a little Willa Cather, Elizabeth Gaskell, and the like, the “classic” books I’m assigned are mostly by men.

This is, unfortunately, an accurate representation of the past. The vast majority of writers, publishers, readers, and reviewers back then were men. Fewer women had the education or the chances to be published. For centuries, we women read books written by men. So why is it that people assume boys can’t read books written by women? Or about women? Like it’s some horrendous assault on the construct of manhood?

In the article I linked to above, the author worries and worries that all the little boys growing up don’t have good role models in literature, as if boys are incapable of learning life lessons from female protagonists like Katniss. She cites many nineteenth century books as presenting a better, more classic idea of what being a man is. It’s an out of date idea that completely negates all the gender progress we’ve made in the last century (make sure you read the comments of that article. The commentators got FEISTY and it was great).

Yes. Since I’m a girl, I was incapable of learning anything from Harry Potter, because we do not share the same parts. This makes total perfect sense.

 It just BOGGLES MY MIND that people NOW, after women have fought so hard to have a voice, complain that men are getting shafted in the world of literature. And by “shafted” I mean they are not the majority (in the specific world of YA lit). Take a look at this interesting article about the gender imbalance in YA awards. NPR did a reader poll of the best children’s and young adult books. There were 59 female authors on the list and 44 males. People were all “OMG THE FEMALES THEY ARE TAKING OVER GRAB YOUR FAMILY AND RUN FOR THE HILLS!!!” The article said this:

It's interesting how a slight predominance of female authors on a list immediately makes people think "female dominance". If the numbers were reversed, we would perhaps say appreciatively that the list was close to being gender balanced. We expect to find male dominance everywhere - anything else is an unusual occurrence, and as such it stands out. And this affects how we view the world far more than we realise.

I think that hits at the base of the problem. People EXPECT male authors and protagonists to be the default setting. Take this article, for example. The author was listing which tropes are overused in young adult literature (a valid discussion) and she was positively foolish enough to include the use of a female protagonist in her list.

This is the definition of a trope. From Merriam-Webster.com:
a : a word or expression used in a figurative sense : figure of speech
b : a common or overused theme or device : cliché 

You know what is not a trope? HAVING A FEMALE PROTAGONIST. Thankfully, a commentator names AnimeJune piped up:
 
“I’m sorry – what? A female protagonist is a TROPE? Excuse me? Having a female POV is an overused cliche? Or, I’m sorry – a theme, a motif, etc? Really? Because, you know, women with stories and agency, they’re just a passing fad. It’s not like they’re half the world’s population or anything. 

And it’s too overused? Right. There simply aren’t enough books with male protagonists. Except, oh I don’t know, THE LAST FOUR HUNDRED YEARS OF ENGLISH LITERATURE. 

How sad is it that you list the definition of a trope in this same post and then get it completely wrong.”
SNAPS.
I also posted a comment on the article, because I’m cantankerous like that.

“This would be a great post if not for trope number 2. HAVING A FEMALE PROTAGONIST IS NOT A TROPE. That assumes that having a male POV is the default setting. That assumes that authors are choosing to write from a girl’s POV to jump on the bandwagon. Classing that with love triangles, Mary Sues, and quirky best friends is really just offensive. 

Authors do not chose female protagonists because other authors are doing it. They choose female protagonists because females are (over) fifty percent of the world’s population. Those poor males. SO underrepresented in the world of literature.”

The awards bias and gender bias also implies that literature about and for women and girls is somehow lesser. Like we girl readers/authors will get all caught up in our hormones and crushes and start blathering about One Direction. As if the thoughts and feelings of teenage girls are not meaningful. As if we aren’t equal people.

But books written by men about men are Important. They deal with Big Concepts like penises. SO many books I’ve read as an English major are about men and their inability to Penis (yes, that is now a verb). It’s just something you deal with as a female reader. The author is male. He is discussing what it is like to be male. It is interesting to read. But apparently boys are incapable of doing the equivalent?

It also does a disservice to the boys who do DARE to read books written by females without somehow growing ovaries in the process. Boy readers are intelligent and thirsty for good stories, just like girls are. There are a lot of GREAT representations of boys in all forms of media.

It does a disservice to YA in general. Right now, YA is where it's AT. This category is sophisticated, varied, diverse, welcoming, and wonderful. YA readers are active. They question things, like whitewashed covers and misogynistic characters. They obsess over books and words and characters. They engage with authors. They are the utter BESTEST, and treating them like they're nothing more than sugar-addicts, craving the next sweet-fix disguised as a book, is wrong. This category is all about learning who you are and growing up. Male AND female.

It does a disservice to female authors who are just as talented as their male counterparts, but who are being slapped with labels like “fluffy” and “romantic” (which the industry for some reason thinks is bad. As if an author who writes fluffy books is somehow less talented than one who writes about Big Ideas).

I love John Green and the books he writes, but NOT because he’s male, but because he’s good. I loved Endangered by Eliot Schrefer not because it was written by a male, but because it made me cry. And I loved Where She Went by Gayle Forman NOT because it had a male POV and I found it “refreshing”. I loved it because it had a STRONG PROTAGONIST, regardless of gender, and was beautiful.

So can we stop lamenting the tragic state of boys in young adult literature? The boys are fine. There are millions of great books out there for them to read. We should be encouraging boys to pick up books written by women and portraying women. We should be encouraging authors to write about whichever gender they want. We should actually try to act like the genders are EQUAL. For a change.

What do you think about how boys are portrayed in books? Am I just ranting on like a crazy old lady (entirely possible)? Sound off!

10 comments:

  1. Some great stuff here. (I especially loved the section where you talk about the not as recognized state of the YA community - being sophisticated and diverse and having active readers.)
    I agree with almost everything in here and the parts where our opinions differed were small and not worth noting.
    Part of me can't believe this is even still a problem. Haven't we, as readers and as people, gotten past the point where we explode about unnecessary gender issues? Just let me read my book without having to stress about whether the protagonist is a strong/weak willed male/female. Like you said, it's about the discovery the reader makes through the journey of the character, regardless of sex.
    (Also on a side note, I love the way you incorporate gifs into your posts. Funny stuff.)

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    1. I completely agree with you that this shouldn't be a discussion anymore. Part me wants to just dismiss it with a wave of my hand and a "Pshh. Whatever." But it doesn't go away. There's ALWAYS someone bringing it up, and everytime they do, I feel obligated to say my piece. And one day we won't need to.

      And you're SO right. I don't pick up books going, "Hmm, I will be parsing the gender dynamics at play here very closely." No. I just want to read something good. No matter who it's written by or for.

      Thanks for the gif love. I unashamedly love gifs (gif IS the OED word of the year, after all).

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  2. I don't think the author of that blog entry was to suggest that female protagonists were trite and cliche, but it's just becoming hard to differentiate between them anymore. They've become a stock character in a lot of ways. (Not unlike the farmboy hero and, like them, if they are done well, they still work.) I'm a big "boy book" supporter and, as Inigo Montoya once said: "I do not think it means what you think it means." I'm afraid that I won't be able to express myself in such a short space without offending you full-blown or sounding misogynistic. The idea is that there is a need to create stories and characters that appeal to all readers. I write from a male perspective but that doesn't mean I'm not going to have an audience with female readers. And I'm not suggesting that it has to be a male writer or even a male protagonist either, it just has to be the kind of story that appeals to a male reader.

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    1. You're not offending me in the least! I actually agree with you. I don't think our viewpoints completely counteract each other. I too like male view points. The author of the article was right to say there are fewer of them in YA, and that running across a good male protag can be really refreshing. I just took issue with the word TROPE. I don't think a female main character is a trope or a stock character. I still think that makes it sound like having a male main character is the default setting. It's a shame you think a lot of girl protags blur together. I would venture to say the problem with those characters is their lack of originality, or how undefined they are as characters, not their gender.

      I in no way meant to imply that authors who write from a male perspective won't have female readers. I feel the total opposite. The point I was trying to make is that we shouldn't be freaking out that so much of YA is "geared" towards girls, or attracting more boys than girls, like this is a bad thing. I think it's a bad thing that boys are being told they can't read books marketed or girls, and vise versa.

      Extra points for quoting Inigo Montoya, even if I think I do know what it means :). Don't worry about sounding misogynistic. You totally don't and I respect all points of view.

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  3. Read an interesting blog recently by Kate Elliott about the difference between the female and male "gaze" and the number of books that really were written from a male mindset despite having a female protagonist.

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    1. That was a really great article! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Really interesting point about the male mindset in spit of the female main character.

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  4. You're right when women are ahead in any area people start freaking out for some reason and saying that women are taking over. It's really annoying. I read just as many books that have male POV as I do female. Like you I find it interesting to see things from the male perspective. Some authors are even retelling their books from male POV's which I find interesting.

    I think in the back of even the most progressive minded person there are still those archaic thoughts that women should be in the background of things and not at the forefront. It's like in the business I work in it is primarily a female profession (caregiving) and when a male caregiver gets hired our residents don't like that. They talk about how it's just wrong for a male to do caregiving. It's just the attitudes of a bygone era being trotted out in a supposedly more open minded future.

    The thought that women will ever be equal to men is at this point just a thought. We have made great strides but until everyone from the past generations, when women were still ornaments, dies off we will still be only thought of as second best no matter what we do. It's just the way it is. Sorry for the rant. I loved this post by the way :)

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    1. Aw, thank you! Good point about the gender bias in caregiving. It goes both ways. People are hard-pressed to give up their traditional ideas of gender roles.

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  5. Aw man, I just did this rant yesterday at my younger brother who had the AUDACITY to complain about how The Hunger Games was about a girl and "why aren't there any dystopian books about men?" (clearly, the boy has never been to a bookstore).
    tch.

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