Young adult literature is targeted towards an audience of individuals at a crucial, developmental time in their lives. These teens, usually between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, are making quick decisions that have the potential to impact the rest of their lives, and these decisions are often led by media tools, including literature. YA tackles the topics of sexuality, mental health, violence, alcohol and drug use, as well as gender expression. This genre is targeted almost primarily to young women and thus impacts the types of characters they see. Books let readers experience mature subject matter in a safe space and because of this, it is vital that literature remains safe against harmful gender stereotypes.

Like other mainstream forms of media, literature is a strong line of communication between societal ideas and individuals, transferring messages back and forth either explicitly or implicitly. This especially impacts younger generations and how they perceive the world. Since we live in a very gendered society, gender inevitably plays an integral part in this transfer of ideas, functioning on both sides of the communication. Literature and society mirror each other, relating not only positive messages but negative ones as well. Because of literature’s acute affect on youth, this mirroring can result in a cycle that can be harmful to young adults especially because of the depictions of themselves that they see in what they read and how that is mirrored in society.  Heavily gendered character tropes that are used over and over again can damage one’s sense of self because they perpetuate outdated ideas of gender roles. The four most common tropes we see used in Young Adult Literature are the Popular Girl, the I’m-Not-Like-Other-Girls Girl, the Bad Boy and the Nice Guy. I will specifically be talking about the ramifications of these tropes in regards to young women, as they seem to take the brunt of these tropes.

Case Study #1: The Popular Girl

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Anyone who considers themselves a connoisseur of YA fiction knows this character, the one described as gorgeous and shallow. She dates around, flirts with teachers, probably runs the cheerleading team or another extracurricular activity. This character is the villainess of Young Adult Fiction, out to steal your boyfriend (if she hasn’t already) and your nomination for prom queen. This character is the natural enemy for the “I’m-not-like-other-girls” girl and frequently uses her wealth, beauty, and social standing to bend the rules. Though she is generally used as a foil to the protagonist, she’s a sympathetic antagonist. There’s a deeper motivation to her superficial attitude, whether it be absent parents or insecurity. There is something about this character that makes the reader identify with her, even if it’s only for a split second, thus making the reader accept what society is communicating through this character, rather than reject it.

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My go-to example is Caroline Forbes from L. J. Smith’s THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, though it’s important to make the distinction between the book character and the television character, as they are quite different. (I’ll be strictly discussing the way Caroline is written into the books.) She is the childhood friend turned rival to the female protagonist, Elena Gilbert. Her beauty is compared to that of a Vogue model— tall and curvy in all the right places. She remains in competition with Elena, engages in enough boy drama to last a lifetime, and still ends up with a less than lackluster life in the end. Spurred by jealousy over Elena’s boyfriend Stefan, as well as her social status, Caroline steals Elena’s diary in an attempt to embarrass her, though her plan backfires and it is Caroline who ends up mortified in the end—a classic YA move. There’s a level of insecurity in Caroline, as well as other popular girl characters, that drives her to take extreme measures to validate her place of social prestige, even if it means divulging someone’s private thoughts to ultimately humiliate them. Caroline stealing Elena’s diary proved her to be a character that cares more about her reputation than the feelings and privacy of another character.

This popular girl character demonstrates society’s obsession with physical appearance and female competition. She’s portrayed as being beautiful, though she has a hideous personality to counter, as if it’s impossible to be both pretty and kind. This says nothing for those girls who are both attractive and empathetic people, or for the girls who struggle with their body image or self-esteem. Because she’s visually perfect, the popular girl is granted pardons that other characters are not. This teaches the young girls reading these books that to be valued by their peers, their social circles, or society, all they need is to be beautiful and everything else will fall into place. It reinforces an unattainable standard for beauty that other forms of media already set. This obsession with physical appearance is a gateway to poor self-image in the girls who already struggle with finding the beauty and worth within themselves.

Case Study #2: The I’m-Not-Like-Other-Girls Girl

The I’m-not-like-other-girls girl uses her disinterest in makeup, dating, and social interaction as a way of holding herself above other characters, specifically other female characters. The I’m-not-like-other-girls mentality is a direct rejection of the sexist standards regarding femininity and the characteristics that make them “weak” in the eyes of their male counterparts. But by rejecting sexism from these male counterparts, these characters ultimately become female misogynists, fully equipped with slut-shaming of the aforementioned “popular girl” and extremely high expectations.

Bella Swan of Stephanie Meyer’s TWILIGHT is a quintessential I’m-not-like-other-girls girl. She acts almost exclusively on her own emotions, then turns around and condemns other women for doing the same, although she hands out excuses for her male counterparts who act impulsively. She excuses emotional outbursts from her boyfriend, Edward Cullen, saying, “he was upset/stressed/angry,” but she never does this with women.

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There’s a distinct tension between Bella and one of the Cullen sisters, Rosalie, until the latter half of the final book in the trilogy. Rosalie is the only one of the Cullens that doesn’t fawn over Bella. Because the story is told from Bella’s point of view, all we know as readers until the final book is that Rosalie has a heart of ice. She’s portrayed as a woman who is absolutely stunning but who lacks substance other than a bad attitude. Even when we do get a peek into her back-story, it still portrays her as a woman who is bitter that she never had the opportunity to get married and have dozens of children. The relationship between Bella and Rosalie does nothing to strengthen the idea of comradery between women. Because Bella spends so much time passing hypercritical judgement onto the other women in her life for either being ruled by their emotions or lacking a greater purpose outside of domesticity, she holds herself above her fellow female characters, rather than view herself on an equal level as them.

The I’m-not-like-other-girls girl is, at the core, a female misogynist. By using her rejection of feminine norms to place herself above her fellow female characters, she is viewing them as lesser or inferior simply because they express femininity. It degrades the freedom of gender expression that women have worked hard for. This trope fails to recognize the spectrum of gender expression and perpetuates the archaic stereotype that femininity is a sign of weakness. Furthermore, it shows young girls that to be taken seriously, they have to bring down the other women in their lives. It shows them that expressing femininity if they choose to, makes them weak in the eyes of society, effectively taking away the choice. By rejecting sexism, these characters only further the rift between women and fuel the fire of patriarchy.

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Why are these character tropes harmful to young girls?

When these two tropes are used over and over again to the point of exhaustion, it seems that most young women are supposed to fit into either of these two tropes. They have to choose between being beautiful and shallow or being average and ironically misogynistic. The problem lies when a young girl finds herself somewhere in the middle or completely unlike either trope. Self-esteem is fragile in teenagers, particularly teenage girls.

A heavy focus on appearance in media, including literature, promotes unhealthy messages about self-image, especially about weight. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 2.7% of adolescents aged 13-18 struggle with an eating disorder. They also estimate that nearly 50% of teenage girls use weight-control behaviors such as skipping meals, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives in order to maintain their weight. While there is no single cause of eating disorder onset, it is important to recognize the role literature has the potential to play in spreading unhealthy body messages as well as fueling body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. 

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Do Something estimates that 7 in 10 girls believe they are inadequate in the eyes of their peers, themselves, and society. They also estimate that 20% of teenage girls will experience depression by the time they reach adulthood. 75% of girls who struggle with self-esteem engage in self-harming behaviors like cutting and alcohol and drug abuse. Media plays into this by showing a limited scope of people who are considered “adequate.” Showing girls that their different personalities are valued in literature, and thus valued in society, could be the difference between a girl who makes it through high school unscathed and a girl who develops an eating disorder or alcohol dependency at an early age.

At the end of the day, teenagers desire to feel like they matter. While these two female character tropes are arguably the more dangerous because they mirror the way society views women, it is important to recognize male tropes as well, and the impact they have on the way young women view their male counterparts. 

Case Study #3: The Bad Boy

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The bad boy is the one who wears leather jackets, smokes cigarettes, has a poor attendance record, and is unwilling to settle down. He’s criminally inclined if he doesn’t have a criminal record already. He’s never been concerned with fidelity, but he hasn’t held a relationship long enough for it to be a problem. He generally has a dramatic back-story that includes drug or alcohol abuse, if not domestic abuse. He’s not stable. He’s the protector, the hyper-masculine man that might have violent outbursts. He’s jealous but in a hot way? He appeals to the age-old idea of natural selection, where a woman chooses her strongest mate in the hopes of reproductive success.

Take, for example, Noah Hutchins in Katie McGarry’s PUSHING THE LIMITS. An apathetic boy who grew up in foster care and totes a leather jacket around. Throw in some trust issues, a bad attitude, and a trail of girl tears behind him, and there we have our beloved bad boy. He comes complete with verbally abusive outbursts, an anger management problem and a strong desire to “mark his territory.” Literally, those are the words he uses. When his love interest, Echo, is simply speaking to another male friend of hers, he links their hands together even tighter, as a way to show that she belongs to him:

“Not sure how I felt about Antonio and Echo, I linked my fingers with hers. Antonio cocked a surprised eyebrow. Damn straight, bro. I just marked my territory.” – Katie McGarry, PUSHING THE LIMITS

The bad boy is not only a feminist’s nightmare (definitely my nightmare) but a dangerous portrayal of young men and what it means to be masculine. Somehow, masculinity has come to equal violent, though I would argue those two words should be mutually exclusive. This trope leads young women to believe that this possessive, unpredictable, and criminal depiction is normal. It sets a standard for masculinity and promotes unhealthy messages about romantic relationships. It shows a dark side to fiction, where it’s okay for men to grab women and become irrationally jealous because they have a tragic back story or because they “really do love them at the end of the day.”

Case Study #4: The Nice Guy

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The nice guy is the underdog best male friend of the female protagonist. He’s the one who has always been there, who gives emotional support and brotherly advice. Unlike the bad boy, he isn’t afraid to show his emotions and does so frequently. He’s probably been in love with the female protagonist for as long as he’s known her, but she doesn’t notice him in that way. He’s psychologically stable with an average moral compass. However, the nice guy is built on false pretenses.

The nice guy trope is a lie. It perpetuates the idea of the friend zone, which is dishonest at the core. The nice guy gets stuck in the socially constructed “friend zone” by either asking out a woman and getting rejected, thus developing a friendship with her, or admiring her from afar until he has a reason to speak to her, in which case he also ends up developing a friendship with her. However, this friendship is fueled by the idea that she will, at some point, see him in a different light and decide he’s worthy of her love and affection. He earns her trust and provides a shoulder to cry on, all the while pretending he’s not madly in love with her. He wants her to wake up and realize that all the other guys are assholes, but he would actually respect her. Except he doesn’t respect her, because he’s been dishonest with her from the start of their friendship.

Jacob Black from Stephanie Meyer’s TWILIGHT is the perfect example of the nice guy. He’s introduced as a family friend to Bella Swan and is groomed to be a viable love interest to her, becoming the third part of the trilogy’s iconic love triangle. In the second book of the series, his behavior quickly turns from friendly to manipulative and abusive when she doesn’t return his advances. Even after Edward returns, Jacob repeatedly expresses his disappointment with Bella over her decision to stay with Edward. It seems his behavior is spurred almost exclusively by jealousy and his inability to have a platonic relationship with Bella.

Young girls reading about relationships such as the one between Bella and Jacob are lead to believe that they owe something to the nice guy. There’s this transactional attitude where women feel pressured to provide affection to someone just because this person has spent time and energy on them. The nice guy trope demonstrates this transactional relationship that ultimately ends with the female protagonist changing her mind about her initial attraction or feelings to her male friend. It operates on the assumption that the protagonist will change her mind, because how could she not? He’s kind and he gives her a shoulder to cry on, and he’s also led her to believe he’s actually content with being her friend while he’s actually trying to win points in the hopes she will sleep with him one day.

The Outliers

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To be fair, there are books out there that challenge these gendered archetypes. THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky is the one that always comes to mind. This novel is written from the point of view of a high school aged boy struggling with a traumatic memory, puberty, and the trials of high school all at once. The book is written in the form of letters to an unspecified person, giving the reader an intimate look into the narrator’s thoughts and emotions. Charlie, the protagonist, lacks the qualities of both the bad boy and the nice guy. His intentions aren’t dishonest with any of the supporting characters and he freely expresses a range of emotions. This novel will forever have a place in my bookshelves because it was one of the first books I had read where the characters felt organic. It left me feeling empowered rather than insecure and comforted me in a way that other novels preceding it had not.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green also comes to mind when thinking of books that fall outside the realm of typical young adult fiction. While this book is written from the point of view of the primary female character, Hazel Grace, it challenges the obsession over appearance as a means to find validity as well as the primary character archetypes. Neither of the primary characters fit into any of the four tropes discussed. Hazel is a cancer patient who likes books and America’s Next Top Model while Augustus is also a cancer patient who really enjoys basketball. They represent the teenagers who don’t fit in anywhere else. When I think about this book, I don’t even remember what Hazel or Gus looked like; I remember what they stood for and the emotions they felt. Hazel isn’t objectified or viewed as weak because of her gender. If anything, she’s one of the strongest characters I’ve ever grown to love.

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There are dozens of other books that reject these four character tropes, and there should be dozens more that follow in their footsteps. Young adult literature is supposed to be a safe space, where teenagers can experience mature subject matter without putting themselves in actual danger. It is important that we recognize the difference these books could make in the future of young adult fiction. Including characters who are equally as strong as they are weak could show young adults that they don’t have to fit into either end of the spectrum. Including characters who don’t appeal to the societal standard of beauty could appeal to the individuals who don’t fit into those narrow confines. They could teach girls that it’s perfectly alright if you have oily skin or thighs that touch and show men who aren’t manipulative messages about promoting healthy relationships.

Literature is a powerful tool for society to communicate to the younger generations. As we all know from Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Because literature is a powerful communication tool, there is also a social responsibility to the individuals reading these books. But because of the sexist society we live in, young women are especially prone to the harmful, real-world effects of seeing negative gender stereotypes represented in their literature. While young adult literature is a safe path for teens to explore sexuality, mental health, and violence, we need to be mindful of the effects of harmful messages about gender, physical appearance, or relationships to individuals in crucial times of their lives. By creating diverse characters with complex personalities, and emotional, not just physical value, young adult literature can continue to grow into a more comforting and all-inclusive safe space for maturing readers.

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