I've been a fan of Stephanie Su's blog and book reviews for a long time now. Her reviews are always written honestly and intelligently. And the girl is my age! So when I asked her to guest post, I was thrilled with the post she came up with. Check it out!

What YA Lit Taught Me About Feminism and Femininity

By Stephanie Su

A few weeks ago, I started reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein. This is a hilarious, yet biting and troubling, nonfiction account of our society's consumerist (re)obsession with all things pink, frilly, and girly for females. In the book, the author wonders how this phenomenon will impact the current generation of little girls. Is this female penchant for feminine things such as princesses, playing House, and the color pink biological, or is it the result of the conditioning females have received at the hands of an unwitting (or perhaps very intentional) society?

Related to that, I'm curious as to what effect recent trends and tropes in YA literature have on our notions of feminism and femininity. Below, then, are some things I learned from reading YA*:

Girls can do anything just as well as boys.

YA lit is the land of strong, proud, capable, and brilliant female protagonists. So many YA books are about strong females who prove that they can do anything that boys can: Alanna becomes a knight in Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness quartet; the gifted Menolly dares to become the first female musician in Anne McCaffrey's Pern: Harper Hall series; and these are just the first two I can think of. Reading YA, readers can get ideas of what females can do in the face of traditional opposition.

Be thyself, and thou shall attract sexy, sexy boys.

One of the greatest things that YA promises heterosexual female readers is that if they stay true to themselves, boys will flock to them, sure as the sun will rise. This is a double-edged message. On the one hand, it's great that YA lit encourages its female readers to not change for love. On the other hand, this message is problematic when the female protagonist is a personality-less dullard who is incapable of standing up for herself and yet inadvertently attracts the devotion of incomprehensibly perfect guys. The message of "be yourself" has, in some cases, become conflated with "don't be inclined to develop emotionally or mentally" or "boys like personality-less dullards who can't stand up for themselves"—neither of which, I think I can say fairly certainly, are good things to teach people of any age.

Furthermore, very few YA books feature girls who know what they want in love, and take it upon themselves to get their happily ever after. YA lit sends the subconscious message that love will find you without you having to do anything to encourage it along. This is an unrealistic notion. How wonderful is the idea of being loved without even having to try to encourage it! The truth of the matter is that, whether you're interested in males or females, we are all still vulnerable human beings who rarely wish to be emotionally hurt, who will rarely make our affections for someone known without some concrete evidence (confirmation from a mutual friend, perhaps) that that person just might feel the same way for you too. Think about whether or not you would declare your love for someone whose regard for you you are unsure of. How likely are you to do it? I thought not.

If you have a boyish (nick)name or figure, you will have more fun.

Sometime in the past decade, names like Charlie, Joey, Billie, etc. began to appear more as girls' names than boys' names in YA lit. At first glance, there is nothing wrong with this—until we look closer and examine what drives this female appropriation of masculine names: the subconscious devaluation of feminine traits. This literary choice, seemingly harmless on the surface, implies that we females cannot have fun or succeed unless we reject traditional feminine characteristics. Instead of empowering females, this trope perpetuates the old patriarchal ways, that masculine characteristics are superior to female ones.

It's okay to have unrealistically high expectations for romance.

Don't get me wrong: I don't think anyone should settle in love. I think it's okay to have high standards for the one you want to end up with. But there are high standards, and then there are standards that are impossible for anyone to reach. Breaking up with your BF because he doesn't sparkle in the sun? Honestly, girl: he can't help the fact that he's human! Couples therapists always advise people not to expect their partners to read their minds: if you want something, you have to let them know! You can't expect your partner to act like your perfect fictional boyfriend/girlfriend. Fiction is fiction, and reality is reality, and when readers start mixing the two up from reading so many YA romances, I think they could use a little slap upside the head.

You are not complete until you find love.

What I am going to suggest is not something I have an answer to, and it's not something that I think many will find problematic or wish to change, either. It's the subconscious danger of implying that love is essential for young adults, or young adult literature. There is nothing at all wrong with a good romance in literature. Many of us LOVE when there's a romance in fiction. But when agents and editors suggest to authors that they add a more concrete romance to their novels so that it will sell better—when YA books' more salient themes get pushed to the wayside in favor of Team Boy A vs. Team Boy B debates—when I start a YA book and can immediate predict who the main character will end up with romantically by the end of the story, as if the fact that the MC will end up with someone is required of the story and the author… well, yes, I'm a little worried about the message that is sending to readers.


I suspect that the points I make here will garner their fair share of criticism, criticism along the lines of what feminists argue when they say that their choice to flaunt their femininity is a sign of their success in overthrowing patriarchal attitudes. But does it really? Or does that chain of thought reinforce for men that it's okay to objectify women? Similarly, when such archaic notions of love and femininity are visible in YA lit, is that really a success on our society's part? I have no answers, merely lots of questions and room for discourse.

*This list should be taken with a grain of facetiousness. I am not outright criticizing YA and suggesting that people should stop reading and writing it. That would be very, uh, counterproductive to my blog and my writing aspirations. I just want to move people to consider some issues latent in things they might have taken for granted.

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Published on April 22, 2011 07:02 • 207 views

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