boys can read about girls. it's okay.

| Saturday, December 5, 2009
I'm going to keep on keepin' on with my theme from Thursday, only this time, I hope to actually focus on the gender dynamic in YA lit.

I feel like I read a decent amount of YA literature. Not as much as I'd like to, being not only broke, but working super weird hours that take up the majority of my daytime. I'm not a romance/angst fan. I just can't get into stories that are romance-driven. That's not to say that I don't love books with a romantic element, I just tend to get bleary-eyed if it's the central plot point. Not my cup o'tea, as it were. As such, I tend to read more of the story-driven and character development sort of stories. With those, I'm all over the map.

What does that have to do with anything? It has to do with the idea that YA is largely focused on angst and romance. I don't really find that to be true. There's absolutely a chunk of the market dedicated to it, no doubt about that. But when I hear that pre-teen and teenage boys have "exhausted" the books in YA that are "suitable" to them, it makes me wonder. What am I missing here? I can walk into a bookstore and find any number of books at the YA and similar adult level that don't completely revolve around 1.) "girl stuff," hurr hurr, 2.) romance, or 3.) angst.

This makes me wonder if this is just a perception, and that boys (or worse... people assuming FOR boys) are skeptical of picking up YA because it's got an overwhelmingly female vibe. And it does - it is largely written by women, featuring female protagonists, and pitched toward girls/women. However, I'm still uncertain why this automatically seems to stretch to the idea that boys are uninterested in the stories. Reading books by male authors and featuring male protagonists doesn't deter girls, so why should the opposite deter boys? Why is there the assumption that they cannot connect with a more female-centric story?

My feminist spidey-sense is of course telling me that this is because our culture STILL lessens the feminine as unworthy of attention (note: just because it's less blatant now doesn't mean it no longer happens, and oftentimes it's totally unintentional). Maleness is viewed as interesting and important, while female stories tend to be lobbed more into the area of silly or vapid, even when they aren't. Of course, anyone who reads a lot knows this is goofy. Stories by and about boys can be silly and vapid, and female-centric stories can be powerful and moving. It's the insidious assumption that does it in.

Back to romance: I am in no way trying to lessen romance-centric stories. They are directed more toward the female sphere, and have an air of femaleness about them, and so perpetuate the assumption that males won't/can't enjoy them. They are centered more in emotion - that to which women are expected to aspire and men are expected to deny. This is also goofy. Romance involves males as much as females. But our culture pushes men toward viewing romance/emotion as something that weakens them, or something they must do only to woo a woman because that's "what women expect." Personal preference is one thing (like my own - I just don't prefer romance), but a blanket assumption is ridiculous. Yet it is the continued belief that men don't dig romance, and if they do, their manhood is questioned. Perhaps not by everyone, but especially in teen boys, the underlying pressure to "be a GUY" is there.

On top of this, there's the idea that certain topics aren't suitable to boys - pregnancy, rape, abusive relationships, etc. These topics are (duh) primarily focused around women, as women are the vast (and in the case of physical pregnancy, only) majority that are affected. I fail to see how this means that boys and men can't read and be moved by these topics. We read about the trials of others all the time - things we've never experienced and will never experience. Yet we relate; we are moved. I will (probably) never be a victim of genocide, or forced servitude, but I read stories about these topics. This idea that female issues are separate from male is harmful in general - these topics and others DO involve men. Indirectly or directly. We exist in the same world, and these issues are not something to be swept away and attributed fully to women.

To be less serious, even topics as common as puberty, the changing female body, dating, breaking up, being jilted by friends... these can be relateable to teenage boys. Instead, we perpetuate the idea that men and women are practically separate species, and that there's no way a male can "get" the female body and mind, so we don't try. No, a boy cannot understand what it's REALLY like to menstruate, but he can relate to feeling like an alien in his own body.

It never ceases to amaze me how few men really understand how the female cycle and menstruation works. It's something so deeply a part of our biology and existence, but they literally have no clue. They don't understand what "PMS" really means (it's just when a girl is acting like a super B, right? hurr hurr), or how sex can be physically painful for us during certain days of the month, or any of that. Of course the opposite is true - girls aren't really encouraged to understand the male body, either. Similar mistruths abound, and it all comes back to the idea that OMG the opposite sex is just WEIRD, okay?

Er, now that that's out of my system. I hope what I'm trying to get at is coming across, anyway. At the end of it, I'm not sure how to leap this hurdle - how to make it "okay" for boys to read more female-centric stories. Other than altering how society as a whole views gender, that is. I suppose I hope that if we know any young men that are struggling to find books to read, that we're not afraid to tell them it's okay to read a book about a pregnant girl, or a girl who breaks up with her boyfriend and moves to Ireland, or whatever. They might even like them.

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