“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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