Before you read any further, I have a confession to make: I’m not a very good feminist. I have been known to stay in the car until my boyfriend comes around and opens the door for me. The kitchen is my domain. Cleaning is a source of pleasure for me. You would think that would mean that I was a bit old-fashioned when it comes to relationships, but that isn’t true. I believe in equality in relationships, even though I was told at a young age that if a boy is mean to me he must have a crush on me.
I’m afraid this message has carried over in young adult literature. Not only are literary female characters drawn to bad boys, but they insist on staying in unhealthy relationships thinking their male counterparts really must love them when they are being controlling and hurtful. This continues until another guy—the “good guy”—makes the girl realize how special she is. It’s rarely the girl who saves herself. It’s almost always the guy. This kind of relationship is frequently off balance and will often lead to brokenness, especially for the girl.
I have been reading YA for over a decade now, beginning around age 12, purely because my mom couldn’t make me turn off a book when things were starting to get kissy. As a pre-teen, Sweet Valley High and The Baby-sitters Club taught me everything I needed to know about junior high and high school. Sweet Valley High was an invaluable godsend; it taught me how to handle all the boyfriends I would supposedly have once I entered high school. (Where were they?) Nowadays, people would describe these two series as wholesome and tame, but believe me, they were quite something for a 12-year-old.
Thinking back on these novels, I noticed that their boyfriend characters mostly stay in the background; they’re only called to center stage when the plot needs them. Most of the the YA novels I read as a pre-teen focused on sisterhood and friendship instead. As I grew older—and as YA became more popular—the plots began to revolve more around the protagonists’ (potential) boyfriends. Good-bye to the quirky girls of my youth who had a boyfriend but never put up with his shenanigans unless the girls enjoyed them, too. Hello to the girl who has to deal with her father abandonment issues while having to take care of her baby brother because her mom turned to alcohol when she couldn’t handle life anymore after her husband left. This girl says she will never fall in love—but spends most of the book trying to choose between the bad boy with the heart of gold and the rich but snobbish popular guy who she can’t believe is paying her one bit of attention.
One of the best examples of this type of novel is If I Have a Wicked Stepmother, Where’s My Prince? by Melissa Kantor. The unpopular new girl somehow manages to catch the attention of the star basketball player, and because she thinks he’s hot, she decides to be his girlfriend even though he’s kind of a jerk. Another example, of course, is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series: Bella Swan stops existing once controlling Edward Cullen breaks up with her in order to “save” her. An article at In Which a Girl Reads has a more extensive list of these types of novels.
Although the “saved-by-the-boy” YA novel seems frustratingly popular, there are, thankfully, many books that involve girls saving themselves. Hope Friis, Ruth Tenzer Feldman’s character in The Ninth Day, is a great example of a strong female character to who saves not only herself but others as well. Similarly, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story of Melinda Sordino: horribly broken in the beginning, it is her—not a boy—who manages to save herself in the end.
Some people may say that the more problematic relationships I’ve been talking about really aren’t about the boy(s) but about the girl finding herself and her strength. But can’t she do that without the love triangles and misunderstandings? Why are we drawn to brokenness in literature, especially in YA? As publishers we have the wonderful privilege to help young women and men figure out how to define themselves. So why would we support the message that you have to be broken to even be interesting or to be loved?
Everyone breaks. It’s how you handle the breaking and how you overcome it that makes you worthwhile. Young adult characters don’t need to have a million issues to be good characters just like humans don’t need a million issues to be good people.