Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Are we all this dense at age fifteen?

As I read more and more YA fiction, something has begun to bother me. It's about the girls in so many of the stories. What is wrong with them? I mean, why in the world are they so clueless?

Here's what I mean. Most people would agree at this point that Bella from Twilight is a total ninny. She's klutzy and weak, always in need of a hero, willing to let herself be destroyed to keep her man around, etc. I've been poo-pooing Bella for a long time, recommending other titles to my female students in order to give them a chance to read about some butt-kicking, no-fear chicks. Problem is, even the girls who appear to be awesome at first often end up as mind-numbingly dense when it comes to boys. So frustrating.

Example: The totally fun books in the Mortal Instruments, and now Infernal Devices, trilogies by Cassandra Clare. I talk these up all the time. They are supernatural books, so they appeal to the Twilight drones. They have romance. They have danger. They have adventure. They are better than Twilight all around. However, in this new installment (a prequel to the first series) called Clockwork Angel, the main character Tessa is infuriatingly stupid about whether or not Will (sexy demon-killer) really likes her. This is in spite of the fact that he planted a seriously smoldering kiss on her while they were sprawled on the attic floor, he recovering from ingesting vampire blood, she delivering the holy water that would be his cure. He risks his life numerous times to save her, blushes furiosly every time their eyes meet, and every other character in the story has made some comment to Tessa about Will's interest in her. Yet she still doesn't believe it. She constantly wonders to herself why he is so rude/cold/distant/confusing/aloof. For god's sake woman!

Another example: Pretty much every book by Meg Cabot. I like these books. They are light and funny. They usually present some real confict about friendship to which my students can relate. But in practically every dang book the girls spend the entire time misreading very clear signals from boys about how they feel. Signals like: being asked out on a date, holding hands, audibly beating hearts, defending against bullies, phone calls at night, embarrassment at being called about having this crush, etc. The girls don't see it until the very, very end of the story, at which point I am literally yelling at the page every few paragraphs, "What is WRONG with you? Just freaking kiss him already!"

My question is this: Was that what it was really like? Are these realistic portrayals of teenage girls? I cannot remember. What I do remember was never thinking a single boy liked me all through high school. Could that have been true, or was I just like these girls, blind to the reality all around me?

When and how do we begin to learn to read the signals? In middle school, we send ambassadors to one another's lunch tables to explain this or that other feeling and ask for a response. In high school, what did we do? Have our friends call the other person and ask? I don't think so. That would have seemed juvenile. According to these books, we did nothing. We remained totally confused and frustrated, one moment believing our dreams were about to come true, the next feeling utterly rejected and hopeless.

When I was in fifth grade, every student in the class was paired with another to do a project about a Central American country. To choose partners, we drew names of countries from a hat. Then the teacher would call out the country and the two people would stand up to see who their partners were. When Nicaragua was called, I stood up. So did Ben Lee. The entire class went, "Oooooooooooh", in a very embarrassing way. And then? Nothing. Did Ben Lee become my boyfriend? No. Perhaps while building our cornstarch-and-saltwater model of Nicaragua (volcano included I believe) we exchanged desperately confusing signals that caused us to have rollercoaster like emotional reactions. I don't remember.

I would like to read a YA book in which the female protagonist is direct and unobstructed by her low self-confidence. Does that book exist? Maybe not, because that girl may not exist. Except that I really, really hope she does. Maybe a YA book with a girl character like that would inspire some real YAs to get it together.

Some thoughts about contemporary YA fiction:
  • It's harder to think of a boy protagonist who feels quite this way.
  • Many authors introduce a love triangle. Why? Are they really that common? They seem to incerease the confusion and frustration. Even Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, a book with a seriously butt-kicking girl main character, has a prolonged love triangle that tears her apart.
  • When there is no love triangle, the girls tend to be stronger emotionally.
  • Boy characters with low self-confidence are often funny in YA lit. Humor supersedes awkwardness. Girls with low self-confidence are often clumsy, misunderstood, or introverted.
  • Girl characters are often wondering "Does he like me?" rather than "Do I like him?". I think this is highly realistic, but I wish it were reversed. I spent a lot of years worrying more about whether I was liked than if I even liked the person in the first place. This is bad.
So, I am in search of really kick-butt girl characters so that I can spread the word. I am also curious about what anyone else things about this topic. How far off the mark am I, for example?

Finally, some books with girl protagonists who are very, very cool and are not involved in love triangles and do not, if memory serves, completely fall apart because a boy does or does not glance their way:
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
Gingerbread by Rachel Cohn
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Razzle by Ellen Wittlinger
Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
The Earth, my butt, and other big round things by Carolyn Macler
Bloody Jack by LA Meyer (she is SO awesome, I can hardly stand it!)
Undone by Brook Taylor (my memory is a little fuzzy on this one, but I know I loved it)


katiesmurphy said...

ugh, i remember that particular ridiculousness! you'll just have to write those strong protagonists -- these girls may then fare better on this front!

delicateflower said...

The problem isn't confined to YA books!

I really love the Golden Compass trilogy. The protagonist is totally kick-ass, and although there is a Boy, it isn't at all typical.

Kate said...

I love this post. It totally matches everything that I have been realizing about YA fiction. You know my issues with Twilight and it bothers me that so many of our kids (mostly girls)love this series. CMON BELLA! Where are your cojones!?

Anonymous said...

How about Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli?

Yes, the narrator was a boy but wasn't the story really about Stargirl? I know I was routing for her. She might have been crushing on him but she didn't seem to have much self-doubt.

God I love that book.