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Pink Book, Blue Book

2013 March 18
by Chelsea Condren
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url 13-28-28“It’s just so hard to find books for my teenage son,” lamented a woman in one of my library science classes. My friend and I eyed each other with identical faces of confusion, horror, and disappointment. Does this woman live under a rock? Has she ever actually seen a teen services department of a library, or even the “Youth” section of a Barnes and Noble?

After thinking about it, I realized that she was probably making one of two mistakes: She was either assuming anything published after the year 1995 lacked literary merit (we all know a parent like that, or else we are that parent) or she was exclusively looking for books for her son with male protagonists. Books for boys, about boys.

The New York Times published an article about this epidemic wherein there are just so many feminist characters (one might even say too many, am I right, ladies?) that the entire young adult market seems to have plum forgotten about the boys. I was confused by this article because, at the time, the teenage boys I worked with at a Connecticut library were devouring four, five books a week and happily discussing their thoughts at our teen book talks. And yet, the article was insistent: boys need Strong Male Characters They Can Relate To, and right now, there are apparently too few of those.

But what if the mistake we’re making isn’t about the works themselves? What if, instead, we’re doing teenage boys a disservice by assuming they won’t or can’t relate to female characters (or gay characters, or nonwhite characters, or disabled characters…)? What if we’re setting these boys up for sexism by telling them that they simply won’t enjoy this novel, no matter how much they like dystopian futures, because the main character is a girl? What does that say about our opinion of boys and their ability to relate to characters, and, moreover, what does that say about our opinion of girls in general?

The characters in literature I relate to most strongly are Ron Weasley and Denise Lambert from The Corrections. One of them is, like me, a queer female. The other is a heterosexual male wizard. (I’ll let you sort out who is who.) When I was growing up, I was encouraged and even expected to relate to male characters. All of us felt some kinship towards Holden Caulfield or The Perks of Being a Wallflower‘s Charlie, even and especially we girls. But a teenage boy reading and enjoying A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Laughable. She gets her period in that one, after all.

Somehow, I’m not convinced that the issue is boys inherently being disinterested in female characters. I’m more convinced that the issue is that we raise our boys to think they shouldn’t be interested in female characters. Maybe in patriarchy the worst thing a boy can be is interested in silly girl stuff. Silly girl stuff like adolescents fighting to the death, teenage rebellion against the government, spies, technical geniuses who crack sinister codes, romance, death, comedy, and tragedy.

I’m not about to sell out teenage boys to some washed-out notion that they can’t relate to female characters. I think they’re smarter than that. The question is whether literature for young adults (and all ages) will stop holding up the white straight male character as the ideal so that our boys get the chance to see the world from a new perspective.

– Chelsea Condren, currently reading A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin.

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9 Responses
  1. March 18, 2013

    Somehow, I’m not convinced that the issue is boys inherently being disinterested in female characters. I’m more convinced that the issue is that we raise our boys to think they shouldn’t be interested in female characters. BAM!

    • March 18, 2013

      Well said and I tend to agree. It always frustrates me when parents in storytime say to their male toddlers, “that puzzle isn’t for you, let’s find you a boy puzzle.” Really? Just because a puzzle features a girl getting dressed doesn’t make it a “girl” puzzle. The same can be said for books. Because of the gender identity lines WE (as parent/adults) draw for young children, we end up with generations of closed minded teens who think they can’t and shouldn’t read about an opposite sex character.

    • Sashabaz permalink
      March 19, 2013

      You could mirror that statement for girls. The entire games/film industry have a clamour for strong female leads because it’s sexist to not have many…

  2. Lin permalink
    March 18, 2013

    Two thoughts:

    1) I think this really does cut both ways. As a teenage girl, I enjoyed reading books about boys (for whatever reason) but sooooo many of them seemed to be sports-themed mysteries. John Green has two good ones (Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns) but I would like to see some more male-protagonist stories that deal with inherently social situations as opposed to spy-kids or sports stories. Likewise, I would like to see fewer romantic comedy YA girl novels. Overall, I what I’d really like more of is just a diversity of plots, rather than a simple diversity of genders.

    2) It’s great that we’ve accepted the “tomboy” type girl as a society, but we still have yet to accept the boy who likes “girl things.” Until the boy who wears a skirt is just as much of a non-issue as the girl who wears pants, we’re still sending the message that acting in a feminine manner is something to be avoided. (And now I will get off my soapbox).

    • Chelsea Condren permalink
      March 19, 2013

      I agree that we’ve “accepted” less than stereotypically feminine women in a sense, but I’d caution against saying that we’re all set there, either. A “tomboy” is okay as long as she’s either still attracted to men or still sexually attractive to them. A butch lesbian, not so much. You’re right that for boys effeminacy is definitely something to mock. We’re ultimately sending messages that boys and girls are too different to relate to one another, even if the girl plays sports or the boy does theatre or whatever, and that’s my issue with how we market YA novels (and also with society.)

  3. Jess J permalink
    March 19, 2013

    “But what if the mistake we’re making isn’t about the works themselves? What if, instead, we’re doing teenage boys a disservice by assuming they won’t or can’t relate to female characters (or gay characters, or nonwhite characters, or disabled characters…)? What if we’re setting these boys up for sexism by telling them that they simply won’t enjoy this novel, no matter how much they like dystopian futures, because the main character is a girl? What does that say about our opinion of boys and their ability to relate to characters, and, moreover, what does that say about our opinion of girls in general?”

    BOOM. THERE GOES THE DYNAMITE.

    Beautifully said, accurate, on point, etc.

  4. March 19, 2013

    To give a male perspective, when I was 14, one of the characters I identified most with was Menolly, a teenage girl in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong and Dragonsinger.

  5. Sashabaz permalink
    March 19, 2013

    When I was younger I didn’t care about whether the protagonist was Male/Female. All I cared was that there was some sort of magic, maybe some orcs/elves/fantasy characters.. oh and also that the cover looked “cool”.

    Might it also be that boys read less than girls? not sure if that’s a real stat, but in my experience that holds true… and if you are trying to write a book that sells then much like games, it makes sense to pander to the majority, doesn’t it?

  6. Lindsey permalink
    March 22, 2013

    I notice in my library it is not the female characters that bother my male students, but the weepy, love sick female character stuck in a love triangle. My boys enjoy The Infernal Devices series , but do not like the Jem, Tessa, Will can become a little overwhelming. Where as The Mortal Instruments series is fine to them. Romance can be a part of the story, but it cannot be an all encompassing part of the book. Katsa, in Graceling, is a good example of a female character my boys had no problem relating to even though there is some romance in the book.

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