YA Fiction: All the Boys are HOT
In the Guardian today is this interesting article: Is teen romantic fiction bad for boys? | Childrens books | theguardian.com.
The gorgeous guys of young adult romantic fiction do a disservice to real life teen boys, with their acne and braces, says blogger Millie Woodrow-Hill
I have to admit–I can see the author’s point. YA fiction is full of hot boys, bad boys, impossibly-mature-for-their-age boys. Girls love it (and what’s not to love?), but it does send the message to boys that hotness is to be found in one’s muscles, dreamy eyes, low voice, beautiful face, and rebel devil-may-care attitude. Is this unfair or damaging to boys who don’t fit the criteria?
Maybe. And maybe it’s damaging to girls, too, who could possibly overlook wonderful, but not hot boys who haven’t filled out yet, or who have bad skin and high voices.
On the other hand, Ms. Woodrow-Hill should remember that every time we are in the point of view of a book character, that person is an “unreliable narrator.” We only see the story from their perspective–and so we are fenced in by their biases, their personal tastes, their thoughts, their interests, and their desires.
And when it comes to romance, finding the other person incredibly attractive is kind of key, right? I mean, it wouldn’t be a romance if the heroine thought, “Gee, this guy is nice, but butt-ugly and I can’t imagine ever wanting to kiss him.” Maybe she might start out feeling that way, but there’s going to be something about the boy that makes her change her mind. Otherwise, we might have an amazing story, but it’s not going to be a romance. The literary genre “romance” always includes physical attraction in addition to the growth of a romantic relationship.
So of course our unreliable (i.e. biased) heroine is going to find her hero attractive. And in YA fiction, those feelings are always heightened, as they tend to be for teens and young adults. So the boy is not just “attractive,” he is insanely hot–to that particular character.
Could we write more stories where the heroine finds a conventionally-unattractive boy hot? Probably. Would readers accept it? I don’t know.
But there’s another element to this–the imagination of the reader. When the heroine says “this boy is hot” the reader creates an image in their own minds of what that means. It may be influenced somewhat by the description in the book, but I guarantee that the reader’s own mental picture is going to outweigh even the book description. The reader is going to create that character into what the reader finds hot, and that will be quite different for each reader.
So there’s a lot going on here–experiencing a story is a joint effort between the author and the reader. And I will be the first to admit that as authors, we need to try to bring more diversity into YA fiction. It’s not just not-so-hot boys being left out of our stories. What about gay teens, or disabled characters, or main characters that aren’t Caucasian? The people we present as interesting story characters are very limited, and I do think we can and should do better on this.
I do disagree with the author of the article when she suggests that YA fiction heroines are generally “awkward,” “clumsy,” or “out-of-place.” YA fiction heroines tend to fit conventional ideas of beauty and they always discover that they have amazing skills or talents they never dreamed of.
What Ms. Woodrow-Hill is forgetting is that concept of the “unreliable narrator” again. The heroine of YA fiction may see herself as clumsy or awkward or unattractive. But that usually turns out to be a matter of her own warped self-image and not actually the unbiased truth about her.
And I think that’s the point of a lot of YA fiction and why it is so popular with girls. Being a teenager (of any gender) is hell on the self-image. The appeal of these books is not so much the hot boys, though hot boys are fun. It’s the idea that no matter how insecure and doubtful I feel about myself, something is going to happen to prove me wrong, something that will show me that I am desirable, that I have potential, that I am so much more than I thought I could ever be.
I highly doubt that YA romance is causing vast numbers of young girls to expect fantasy hot boys instead of real-life flawed boys. Girls already do that, with or without books, just as boys do. We are all shaped by our culture’s definitions of beauty and attractiveness. Those expectations leave scars on our self-image, no matter what gender we are.
People have expressed the same fear about adult romance warping women’s views of men. But the vast majority of women are perfectly able to separate fantasy and reality, and that goes for young women as well.
I think a more important question to ask is whether our emphasis on hot boys is showing that women still have a tendency to measure their own value by the cultural value of the man they are with. If the point of most YA fiction is the heroine discovering her own true value and self-worth, are we saying that happens because a hot boy falls for her? Would she still have incredible value and importance if the boy who loves her was unattractive?
Or maybe we’re just overanalyzing all this. Maybe it’s as simple as this: teen girls have strong sex drives and vivid sexual fantasies, just like boys do. They are fully as capable of objectifying boys’ bodies as boys are of girls’ bodies. And while part of growing up and becoming mature is the ability to love and appreciate another person in spite of their imperfections, the fun of a good novel is the chance to indulge in a wildly unattainable fantasy.
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