Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Discussion: On YA's Tropeyness

I often write drafts on Blogger simply ranting about the issues prevalent within the Young Adult genre. Don't get me wrong: I love YA. But, let's just be honest and admit that there are some messages that are becoming trope-y and repetitive; lessons that shouldn't be pervading the minds of Young Adults and skewing their world-view.

First of all, I really need to address the issue of romance in YA. Before Twilight, having a central romance was exclusive only to contemporary novels. Even then, the story would often end with the protagonist acknowledging her crush; talking to him, becoming his friend, and maybe with the possibility of a relationship in the future. Now, however, there is a romance in every single YA novel. Irrespective of the genre, a central relationship--or, god forbid, love triangle--features prominently in the story arc of a novel culminating in the heroine finding her "true love", complete with a hot kiss and a make out scene if we're lucky.

Like any girl, I love a good romance. Give me a rom-com over a horror movie any day, friends. My issue with romance in YA, however, is that all too often it feels forced. I appreciate the authors who don't hesitate to throw their romances into the backseat. Or, better yet, don't introduce one until late in the series and leave us with a hint of possibility. The YA romances I've loved and returned to and appreciated are the ones in which the relationship aided in the growth of the main character. I want young readers to be able to pick up a novel and appreciate that finding love as a teenager is a rare and wonderful thing. I want them to read and glean that there are so many lasting and important relationships that one can formulate at this age; parents, teachers, friends. It isn't all about the romance, not in real life, so shouldn't literature be a reflection of that reality?

I just fear that the young girls I meet today are too wrapped up in finding a boyfriend instead of their bridesmaids. I attend an all-women's university and one of the most eye-opening experiences I've had lies in forging friendships that have nothing to do with the opposite sex. You wouldn't believe the number of female friendships which have begun from mutual like or dislike of a guy. You wouldn't believe. Still, though I firmly believe that there is a large place for crushes and romance in YA, particularly the New Adult age group, there is also room for more.

One of those more items, in addition to friendships and parental relationships and teacher interactions, are role models. Mindy Kaling has swiftly become one of my top role models this past year. Not only is she a woman, a minority, and not the classic hourglass-shaped model, but she's highly intelligent and incredibly successful in a field she is passionate about. Moreover, she doesn't hesitate to portray her characters, such as Mindy Lahiri on "The Mindy Project" as unconventional. Dr. Lahiri may be a gynecologist but she's also unapologetically into Hollywood and cares little for politics; stances that aren't popular or accepted but are, unabashedly, the truth. Mindy Kaling, quite simply put, is confident. She's comfortable in her own skin and that shows in the characters she plays, whether it be Kelly Kapoor or Mindy Lahiri.

I want that in YA. I want more confident protagonists. I feel as if the all-too-familiar trope in YA is to have a protagonist who is shy and unpopular and generally friendless and make her, within the span of a few hundred pages, become widely social and gain a boyfriend. Why can't we have a variety of heroines, each confident and comfortable in their own skin? Maybe the goal shouldn't always be to get teens to identify with YA protagonists but to show them that, no matter how introverted or extroverted you are, you are perfect the way you are. I feel like shaking so many of these heroines for falling trap to fear and insecurity time and time again. While these are valid and honest emotions, I also want to see confidence in my protagonists. Why is it that the "bitchy" cheerleaders are the only confident women in these novels? Why is the underlying message that to be confident is to be bossy and horrible? Let's see some more inspirational protagonists, YA. I don't just need heroines I can identify with; I need heroines I can look up to.

And, let me make this very clear: my heroines need to be real people, not models. I find that this is an issue more prevalent in Adult Romance than YA (seriously, you expect me to believe that every single character in these Adult Romance novels is stick thin with "just the right" curves and that their hunks have six-packs?). Whether it is unintentional or not, all too often the heroines and heroes of YA are beautiful and tortured. A dark past they're overcoming, a beautiful tear-stricken face, a tragic romance... Yeah, I want to read that book too. But, I also want to read the book about the not-so-perfect teens; the ones who defy Hollywood standards of beauty to be beautiful and fall in love anyway. Occasionally I'll come across novels like these but they're in the minority. Weight loss isn't a bad thing and novels about athletes with killer bodies is realistic enough, but I simply feel as if YA is underrepresented in more areas than just ethnic and sexual diversity.

It's not just about the fact that women of color don't write enough books or that women of color aren't represented enough in books or that multiple sexual orientations aren't discussed enough in novels or that people of multiple sexual orientations can't find characters to identify with; it's not just about that. It's also about taking the characters we already have--white, heterosexual--and making them rise above the status quo of tropes. Even better, writing about characters of ethnic and sexual minorities who further defy classic YA tropes. I think YA is an incredible genre--it's compulsively readable and covers such a wide range of topics that pertain to teens all over the globe. But it's been too long that we've been stuck in a rut of romance novels with introverted protagonists who are all secretly sexy.

What do you think? Are we really stuck in a cycle of repetitive tropes? Do you know of any titles with the types of protagonists I outlined above? I'd love to hear your opinion on my rant-y thoughts, dear readers! :)


  1. PREACH, KEERTANA. I love this post/discussion you wrote for us today! Honestly, I agree with you on a lot of fronts. I think it's really interesting how authors write characters who always manage to find love in their books, and how readers feel that they too must find their one true love in their teen years. Is it a matter of readers following authors' tropes, or are authors following readers? I feel that, progressively, teens in real life nowadays are searching more for a boyfriend than a bridesmaid for sure, and that maybe that's what authors are portraying. But I totally agree with you on that authors need to be brave and write about those characters that aren't necessarily relatable, but ones we can grow to relate to - just like you said, ones that can inspire us. From time to time, it's fun to read about those perfect couples, but it's important to dive back into reality, too. If an author chooses not to write about under-represented ethnicities and sexual orientation, at least step out of the tropes!

    Seriously, this ramble-turned-thoughtful-discussion was awesome! So glad you brought your ideas to light, Keertana! <3

  2. I also tend to start drafting rants about YA/book issues, but unlike you, I tend to lose steam about halfway through so good job for following through. :P

    I struggle with romance in YA because on one hand, I love character- and relationship-driven books, and I think romantic relationships can become really powerful in books. On the other hand, you're right, there are tons of other relationships that are just as powerful, whether it's family, friends, or a mentor… Romance becomes a problem to me when it becomes all-consuming. I want my characters to have other things going on in their lives than just their boyfriend or girlfriend.

    I don't care for a protagonist who has constant self-esteem issues, but I don't mind if they're shy (although I do prefer "quiet" over "shy") or unpopular or friendless. I don't even mind if they're bitchy, as long as that's not all they are (e.g. I love Chris, Lara Jean's best friend in To All the Boys I've Loved Before). What's more important to me is that the character has a spark and some dimension to who they are. I think sexy is boring - there's so much of that already - sexy, skinny, beach blonde. It's what we've come to expect on TV, in films, in books - I'm always looking for characters that feel refreshing and less like a magazine spread in Cosmo.

    Anyway, interesting post. All good things to think about!

  3. "Why is it that the "bitchy" cheerleaders are the only confident women in these novels? Why is the underlying message that to be confident is to be bossy and horrible?"

    YESSSSSSSSS. I think that right there has often been one of my biggest complaints with YA fiction. The only confident women are usually typecast as the villains or Mean Girls, while the protagonist's own lack of self-confidence is seen as endearing(?) to the love interest. OR, conversely, the few protagonists who ARE confident are generally blond/blue-eyed, which is a whole 'nother topic altogether. But it does seem to send the message to teens that the only girls who have the "right" to be confident are the ones who look a certain way—women of color or even just brown-eyed/brown-haired ladies are almost always shy/"mousy"/uncertain in YA. Which is both saddening and frustrating.

  4. Love what you have to say here. I've been frustrated for YEARS about characters becoming nothing more than a stereotype. We have broken through a bit more now than we ever have, but it is still rampant. At least it is moving in the right direction. :)

  5. I don't read a lot of YA generally, but even from the sample I've read, I've noticed all of these tropes.
    Since I'm not as widely read in the genre as others, I don't have a ton of recommendations but here's two:
    It looks like you have Un Lun Dun on your virtual shelf already, though I can't tell if you've read it or not. Anyway, no central romance, main character is a person of color - it's a fantastic, fun book. I loved it.

    Geraldine McCaughrean's White Darkness has a few trope leanings, but is free of a central romance. It took me a bit to get into it, but it's stuck with me. I still remember it and it's been years since I read it.

  6. Oh such a good topic!I find that since I haven't been reading much lately, I'm not willing to put up with things I might have tolerated, even just not noticed in the past. I am really enjoying middle grade fiction right now because romance rarely plays into the storyline so it is all story and character development and plot. Life is good in MG!

    I have seen some more unique titles coming up for publication, maybe they will satisfy the non trope desires we share!

    Great rant!

  7. I'm definitely tired of mandatory romance.

  8. Great post. I think it's ridiculous that so many YA books nowadays feature a big romance. It just seems forced and it's not necessary. There is so much else happening in the world and in people's life. Show that, regardless of genre.

  9. I haven't read much YA, but I did go through a YA Buzz Books sampler once and so much of it sounded alike that nothing really appealed to me.

  10. OMG. This is the best post. I nodded the whole way through and totally would have high-fived my dog but he was having none of it. I do love romance. I'm all about the HEA but, in YA, I don't want an HEA. They're teenagers, for god's sake. Sure, there are some high school sweethearts who did find The One in HS but it's pretty rare, really. I want those strong female friendships. I want those confident young women (who don't have to be confident all the time but know how to fake it until they make it or ask for help when they need it). I want the Mindys of the world to be seen in more books, to be the main character in more books. YESYESYES!!!


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