Just A Girls’ Book, Redux

Last year, I posted a rant about a couple of YA book reviews that had evoked my feminist rage. One of the book reviewers, Malcolm Tattersall, subsequently contacted me and expressed an interest in taking the discussion further. We were joined by the other reviewer, Tony Thompson, as well as Lili Wilkinson and Mike Shuttleworth. An edited version of our online discussion has now been published in the latest edition of Viewpoint. The article is titled Pink and Blue and Read All Over: Gender Issues in YA Fiction, but as far as I know, there isn’t an online version of the article. If that changes, I’ll post a link here.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau's La leçon difficule (The Difficult Lesson)I’ve only flicked through the latest Viewpoint, but a review of Aimee Said’s Little Sister and Sarah Dessen’s What Happened to Goodbye caught my eye, because the first sentence of the review states that “these are most definitely Girl Books”. I GIVE UP! No, wait, I don’t. I just finished reading the review by Jenny Zimmerman. It is mostly positive about both books, but concludes:

“I must protest about the deeply unhelpful message in almost everything aimed at adolescent girls. You know the one: Then She Met a Perfect Guy and Lived Happily Ever After . . . Mr Right is out there and waiting to rescue you from eating disorders, teen pregnancy, parental divorce or bullying. Unless there’s something profoundly odd about you, you will find him any day now. Is this what readers demand, or what writers feel must be included in fiction for young women? Yes, falling in love is a huge part of being a teenager, but it would be nice to come across some YA fiction which doesn’t assume that a girl without a boyfriend is an unfinished story.”

Well, I can think of a few YA novels that end with “a girl without a boyfriend”. All of my novels, for example. At the end of The Rage of Sheep, Hester drives off with her trusty dog and her Walkman, perfectly capable of solving her own problems – and I can’t imagine any of the FitzOsborne girls waiting around for a boy to rescue them.

5 thoughts on “Just A Girls’ Book, Redux”

  1. Found this via other Jo’s (Jo Horniman) blog – just wanted to say how much I agree with this, and that I’m going to have to look for a couple of your books, if they avoid the boyfriend panacea trope! It’s so frustrating, browsing the YA section and finding a lot of books that look really interesting… up until the second last line of the blurb, where it becomes “and then she meets insert name of boy who is different to all the others but really not.

    – Jo

      1. Welcome to the blog, Jo, and thanks for commenting!

        I think Jenny Zimmerman has a point when she asks if ‘girl with a boyfriend’ is what readers demand. The enormous sales of books like Twilight suggest that this is what a lot of teenage girls want to read. Hopefully, these readers are treating the books as escapist fantasy. If they think they’re going to meet Mr Perfect-Problem-Solver in real life, they’re going to be very disappointed . . .

        Oh, and I’m very glad you enjoyed the Montmaray books!

  2. Fascinating post.

    I must admit that I tend to fall into the school of thought that sex, love and intimate connectedness (in all its forms – family, friendship, romance) is one of the compensations for death (mortality but also nihilism – I have a theory that all YA books feature a Nietzchen “God is dead” realisation – like Montmaray being occupied and the Fitzosborne’s fleeing and all the old systems of meaning being if not destroyed then decentralised – the protagonist’s journey is then to hew a life out of the leftover materials, finding meaning from within.) I think romance features strongly in YA books because it features strongly in YA lives – looking for alternatives to the old order that doesn’t completely work anymore – family, peer group. Romance is a part of self-making, whether it’s successful or failed (and it can be Oedipal – an attempt at annihilation of the self). So I think a certain amount of romance is entirely acceptable, as long as it stands for something, which is where having a complex, active protagonist comes into play and where, say, Twilight falls down, because Bella is entirely passive and has no story of her own. To me healthy romantic endings are where the self is won and THEN romance is made possible, rather than the self being subsumed by the Other. I wrote about this on my blog a few years ago:
    http://eglantinescake.blogspot.com/2008/04/nelly-i-am-heathcliff.html

    Incidentally, I think the other compensation is story, which is why in Only Ever Always story is an organic, living entity.

    Sorry, this was the self-referential comment that never ended. Maybe I should have written my own post.

    1. Hi, Penni. You make a lot of valid points about why romance is such an important part of YA novels. Still, I think a lot of the really popular YA books contain unhealthy romance – stalker behaviour from boyfriends used as a sign of ‘true love’; a girl winning a boy’s love only after she changes her hairstyle/clothes/makeup/personality; girls expected to marry their first sexual partner (and of course, the partner has to be the opposite sex). I know teenage readers are smart and can tell fact from fiction, but being constantly bombarded with these sorts of messages can’t be helpful for developing a strong sense of self.

      And I totally agree with your idea about story as compensation for death! There’s a scene in Montmaray Three about this very thing – Sophie standing in a graveyard with (ahem) A Boy, discussing the nature of heaven and whether religion is a story designed to make death easier to bear.

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