Tropes, Girl Protagonists, and Mollycoddling

| Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Today's Tune: The First Snowflake

Over the past few weeks, I've been repeatedly stumbling onto comments and blog posts about a particular article -- an article I first noticed because it actually linked my Common Clichés series and I started getting a noticeable influx of traffic from the site. This article has inspired some criticism for a particular comment regarding female protagonists being a "trope" in YA fiction. Which strikes me as sort of ironic, given that I said something similar on my Paranormal Romance post, although I'd intended it a different way (and have since changed my mind even on that and gone back to edit it out).

My original comment implied that female protagonists were a "trope" in paranormal romances, and that it might be interesting to see some from a male point of view. However, what I actually meant was that I thought it would be beneficial for some male readers to see realistic portrayals of romantic teenage boys in recent literature without it being a big thing about masculinity. I also encourage GLBT portrayals in YA, so I thought some Queer male-narrated Paranormal might be a fresh change. I'd never intended to imply that we need more boy books because wah wah wah where are all the boy books, because we all know how I feel about that.

Even so, I realized that the way I'd worded it basically sounded very much like "girl protagonists are so cliché!" Which, ugh, no. But since I didn't feel I'd made the point clearly or that it was necessary to have something about girls potentially being clichés floating around, I took it out.

And yet... I can't deny that I used to exist in a mindstate where I was pretty concerned about boys not having boyish books to read. I partly attribute this to the fact that I'm a pretty intensely empathetic person, and I used to do this thing where I'd try to see everyone's point of view, no matter how extreme, in the same light and try to understand where they were coming from. I still do that, to a degree. So when people started going on and on about the lack of male representation in YA, I tried to see where they were coming from and said things like, "Well, yeah, of course teenage boys deserve good books, too." Which I look back on now like hahahaha since when have young white men not been represented in literature what was I thinking.

I also attribute this to the overwhelming pressure on ladies to use softened, coded language and disclaimers when talking about feminism. Ladies, you know what I'm talking about. Whenever we start talking about female inclusion or feminist struggles, some dude (or several dudes) pipes up to say, "Well, I'm not like that. I don't have it easy, either. Why do you have to be so mean and exclusive? [Secret translation: why are you being such a bitch?] I didn't do those things to you. Whatever. Have your little *girl's club*."

If you're like me, which I know many women are, you've been raised on a steady diet of "don't make people feel bad; always be polite and nice because no one likes a RAGING FEMINIST BITCH." Which is the only kind of feminist, I guess? So we learn to preempt such accusations of meanness and exclusivity with disclaimers like "I know not all men are like this! I love men!" or "It's really important to consider how this affects boys, too!" It's really not that surprising that this eventually blends into constant handwringing and trying to "include" boys and advocate for more male presence, because heaven forbid anyone think we're a horrible exclusive girl's club of man-hating feminist bitches. Or something.

Here's the saddest part: this IS about men and boys, too. It's about them because upholding stringent gender roles harm people who are not biological cisgendered males, and they encourage (mostly straight white) boys to continue to believe they are owed space everywhere, and any space that's taken up by someone who isn't them is an encroachment on something that should be rightfully theirs, which in turn creates feelings of anger and resentment. This is patriarchal masculinity at its finest, and it inspires pain for everyone involved: women because we always have to nod our heads and say "yes yes yes, of COURSE you matter, of course you do, you poor baby" lest we be branded misandrists, and men because they are not learning that it is okay to not have representation in every single space ever, and that's not going to hurt them and could in fact teach them a good deal about empathy.

It bothers me a lot that we keep asking the question "what about the boys?" When really we should be asking "what about everyone who isn't straight, white, and middle-to-upper-class?" You want to talk about lack of representation in YA? Let's talk about the people who are actually severely underrepresented, maybe.

Anyway, here's my point for those still tuned in: I can understand why this mindset exists and keeps coming up over, and over, and over again. I understand why many female writers keep saying "yes, absolutely, boys TOTALLY need more facetime in YA." I don't agree with it, but I understand it, and although I'll criticize it to my dying breath, I usually find it difficult to hate on. When your choices are "mollycoddle the dudes" or "be accused of exclusive bitchism," it's little surprise that many opt for the former. Which is to say nothing of potential internalized misogyny, but we'll skip over that for now.

I literally still have to stop myself from going back to pepper in reassurances that I'm not talking about NICE men. Because let's be real: actual nice men know who they are and what they're about, and they can handle criticism of patriarchy. Much like white people who take mortal offense to criticisms of whiteness, dudes who get really insecure whenever anyone's discussing the general concept of patriarchy are showing their stripes.

What do you think, my lovely readers? Even my lovely readers who are also dudes.


{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: December 19, 2012 at 6:02 AM said...

1. Props for being willing to reconsider your own words/thoughts and even revise them.

2. A couple other response posts: and

3. We largely agree with you and with those posts, in that the idea of "boy books" is silly. First, because books aren't gendered. And second, even if they were, girls have been reading "boy books" throughout history and are still girls; there's no reason boys can't now read "girl books" and still be boys.

4. We think the real concern isn't that boys *can't* read "girl books" -- because obviously they have eyes and brains that don't suddenly stop working just because the heroine is Harriet Potter instead of Harry -- but that maybe they *won't* read "girl books." And THAT is a legitimate concern, but the solution isn't to make all books feature male protagonists. It's to encourage boys, from a young age, to identify with heroes of the opposite gender. To let that kind of empathy become a part of the "masculine" identity.

{ Blair B. Burke } at: December 19, 2012 at 8:37 AM said...

First off, tropes aren't bad in and of themselves. Everything has cliches, every idea's been done, nothing is completely new. 'Girl books' outnumber 'boy books' in YA, so you can call that a trope but it doesn't really mean anything. Having conflict in a story is also a trope - isn't that a good thing?

Second, I don't think the world of literature is as powerful as it thinks it is. Nothing wrong with trying to do the right thing, having books that send positive messages and improve society. But I think for the most part people are just trying to sell things and make a living. Even if each individual author is writing something that they define as 'good' it creates a smorgasbord of ethos that publishers choose from in response to demands from the marketplace. 'Girl books' sell because girls buy them.

I have a hard time believing there's a lack of anything being written - someone out there is writing it, whatever it is. If they thought they could sell it, publishers would buy it. It's the market that drives things. If you want to change the world you have to change the market, and that requires work outside of the literary world.

{ Zamir Zumar } at: December 19, 2012 at 1:07 PM said...

Actually I do think it matters that more woman/girls/females overall populate the YA market. But when it comes to more serious fantasy you usually see men take dominance over woman. While when you do see woman outside of the young adult market it's usually focused on relationship or just plain old sex. And while there are High Fantasy books featuring female protagonists, there aren't many who stand out.

And while yes, some cliches are avoidable, that doesn't mean we should stay stagnant. Saying it doesn't mean anything like the poster above me says is sort of like just ignoring the problem. Not making fun of her, but I am saying that we should definitely take note of this.

An emergent new thing that's come up every now and then is having not only the female's POV, but the male's as well, which to me sounds like a nice divide.

{ linda } at: December 19, 2012 at 7:15 PM said...

Ooh, interesting discussion. I don't think I've ever been really bothered by the alleged lack of "boy books" in YA, since there's no reason boys can't enjoy books featuring female protags and/or by female authors. What Zamir Zumar mentions is more of an issue, I think -- that although there are more books by women, the men still get more of the accolades.

I especially love what you say here: "It bothers me a lot that we keep asking the question "what about the boys?" When really we should be asking "what about everyone who isn't straight, white, and middle-to-upper-class?" You want to talk about lack of representation in YA? Let's talk about the people who are actually severely underrepresented, maybe."

So true. Boys are everywhere in YA -- as heroes, friends, love interests, villains, you name it. They're not always the protag, but why should they be? Let's talk instead about those who are rarely seen as even minor characters or sidekicks, not to mention the main character. Those are the people who need more facetime.

{ linda } at: December 19, 2012 at 7:17 PM said...

Also, thanks for linking to your Common Cliches series! Sounds fun and I'm looking forward to reading those posts. :)

{ Girl Friday } at: December 19, 2012 at 9:33 PM said...

SUCH an excellent post, agree with pretty much everything you say. As you say, girls/women have read books and watched films with male protagonists forever - yet female protagonists are only for women? Grrr.

Having said which, I do think it matters what *kind* of story it is. A vast number of boys read (and love) MG like Skulduggery Pleasant and YA like The Hunger Games, despite the female MCs, because they are actiony adventure books. A lot of MG also has dual girl and boy protags. But in the end market dictates, and it does them no harm to learn 'that it is okay to not have representation in every single space ever'.

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