As a writer navigating the YA romance world, I hear a lot about the message we (writers) are sending our audience (mainly teenage girls). I’ve noticed two vastly different, equally irritating frames of mind that often come out of the same people at different times, depending on the subject at hand. In fact, here’s an article that (unintentionally) argues both sides.
The “traditional” relationship that gives men dominance over women is sexist and sends the wrong message to our teen readers. We as writers need to branch out and show our audience that there are other options.
The “non-traditional” relationships—female-dominated, same-sex, polyamorous, friends-with-benefits, etc.—are unhealthy and send the wrong message to our teen readers. We as writers need to show them there are better ways of self-expression.
After reading a bunch of crap from both sides, here’s what I’ve gathered. If you write a “traditional” trope in which the relationship dynamic is male dominated, you are telling teens that it’s okay to be a weak, brainless, pretty princess. However, if you write a “non-traditional” trope in which the relationship is female dominated, you are telling teens it’s okay to be a controlling bitch and emasculate men. Furthermore, if you write something for teens that explores a same-sex, poly, or NSA sex relationship you are just plain creepy.
It would seem to me that the ONLY relationship acceptable in YA, then, is a heterosexual relationship in which both parties have equal footing, neither is dominant, both have absolutely “pure” intentions, neither fucks up (because if the offended party forgives the offending party, the offended party is weak), and they dance through life constantly (and equally) lifting each other’s spirits and getting on just wonderfully.
This doesn’t exist in real life. It would be BORING to read, and it’s unattainable (and what we really need are more teenage girls striving for unattainable relationships).
Relationships are messy, sometimes harmonic, sometimes tug-of-war, beautiful, ever-changing creatures, and they can develop for any reason. Whether the reason is “right” seems to be an issue in this discussion, but how many real teenagers get into a relationship for the “right” reasons? And can you please define for me the “right” reasons to get into a relationship?
Don’t get me wrong. I do believe we need to be aware of the message we’re sending to YA readers, because whether we intend to send one or not, we do. But at the same time, it’s important to talk about real-life situations.
Yes. I would love to teach teenage girls (and teenage me) that the most important thing in the world isn’t to have a boyfriend. But I remember how important it seemed. Even if you weren’t “boy-crazy,” we all knew someone who was. It’s relatable. It makes sense to the audience.
Yes. I would love to teach teenage girls that bad things can come out of an NSA hook-up. You can get your feelings hurt. Your reputation can suffer. And if you don’t do it safely, there can be far worse consequences. But seriously? Our slut-shaming society makes things so much worse than they are. Hookups wouldn’t have horrible results if we talked about things like this and weren’t so concerned about sex being evil. Somebody write a book where the heroine has a friend-with-benefits and something good comes of it. Please.
Yes. I would LOVE to teach teenage girls that there is so, SO much more to a guy than his looks. Combine this with, you don’t need a hot guy to “save you.” We aren’t Disney Princesses, ladies. I wish more YA novels would convey this message. BUT—and let me preface this by reminding you that I’m genderqueer, pansexual, and all kinds of non-traditional. Sexism enrages me to the point of speechlessness, and I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t need a man. BUT. There is a reason Prince Charming characters are written. There is and always will be something sexy about a strong, gorgeous guy. Even if you are a ferociously independent woman, this is still attractive:
No. It’s not okay for men be misogynistic, sexist assholes, and it’s certainly not okay for women to put up with it. But they do. Forget sexism; women stay in downright abusive relationships all the time for any number of reasons: pride, fear, kids, you name it. I’m not saying it’s right or that it’s okay. But I am saying it happens. We as writers have to talk about real things. If your YA hero makes some idiotic, gender-and-sex-organ-related comments and the heroine ends up forgiving and dating him, you may have just written about a real-life situation.
And finally, I’m delighted that LGBT YA romance is on the upswing, but there is still so much heteronormative BS out there that I could devote an entire, ranty blog post to it. (I reserve the right to do this in the future). The discussion surrounding LGBT YA baffles me too—many authors talk about having to or being asked to “straighten” their LGBT characters—and I’m like
Here’s a post on this and here’s another one.
This aside, there seems to be a lot of support for LGBT YA. However, there are so few actual books in the category that I get a little sad about it. CS Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone,” and I agree. But what do you do if you read and read and read and you can’t find anyone like you? Now you think you’re weird or a freak because you’re a guy who likes guys or you’re a girl who’d rather be in a relationship with more than one person at a time or you’re someone who identifies as neither a guy nor a girl and are outside the gender binary entirely and oh my lord how on Earth am I supposed to have a romantic relationship now because ALL I CAN FIND IN LITERATURE ARE STRAIGHT, CISGENDER PROTAGONISTS?!?!
Okay. More non-traditional YA romance, please.
There’s a reason things are stereotypical and traditional. Because they happen in real life. And it’s okay to write about them, as long as you give the full picture.
There’s also a reason things remain taboo; because we don’t talk about them. So no, I don’t think it’s creepy if an author writes sex into YA. Many teenagers are sexually active and what do they have to look to for advice—porn? Because that’s realistic/creates positive gender roles. And I don’t think it’s creepy if a YA author wants to explore a relationship outside of the accepted norm. Again, as long as you give the full picture.
Bottom line: write whatever relationship you want, but be aware of what you’re telling your readers.