Up until about five years ago, Young Adult (YA) Fiction was overlooked by most critics. Instead of being viewed as worthwhile books, they were regarded as teen schlock, primarily for young women who hadn’t yet “discovered” “literature.” However, since the dawn of Twilight
and similar YA novels, the genre as a whole has been viewed in a whole new light of success and money making.
In this time when YA novels have become significant bestsellers, there’s also been a significant trend in YA; beyond having a heroine that readers can easily project themselves on, the heroines are often portrayed as tough, cool, and “bad-ass,” only to have them ultimately sacrifice themselves in some way for the male protagonist.
Books like Divergent
strongly reinforce the idea that first love is the only real love, limiting the world view of young women who are often entering their first relationship. These concepts discourage young women to engage in exploration of relationships, and often impresses upon them that if they break up with their first boyfriend, they may lose their “true love” forever.
Self-sacrifice can be a valuable literary device, but when it becomes a literary trope most associated with young heroines, it can be frustrating and also dangerous:
In Divergent, the heroine Tris ultimately allows herself to be killed in order to specifically save her boyfriend.
In Twilight, Bella attempts to commit suicide on multiple occasions because she was left by Edward. Later she sacrifices herself to give birth to Edward’s bizarre, half-vampire baby, only to be brought back as an undead, “perfect” version of herself.
In Matched, Cassia sacrifices her own family and livelihood for just a chance to see the boy she loves.
Even in the Hunger Games
, Katniss ultimately ends up with Peeta, even though he’s been “hijacked” and continues to have the impulse to kill her on occasion.
The repetition of “strong female characters” sacrificing themselves for their relationships is upsetting, and essentially negates any of the characters’ power or strength. These characters are presented as powerful women, but they allow themselves to be un-empowered by a steadfast pursuit of the boys they love.
And that’s the thing, all of the male characters portrayed in these books are boys, not just in age, but in terms of maturity as well. Many of the relationships portrayed are specifically abusive (especially that of Edward and Bella), and almost all of the male love interests are either presented as completely insensitive (Gale from Hunger Games) or sensitive to a fault (Ky and Xander from Matched); often, the heroes fall into both categories, presenting a frustrating and almost unreal dichotomy that sets up unrealistic standards in terms of relationships.
There’s also an issue with the John Green
(The Fault in Our Stars
) brand of YA fiction, which often idolize illness, depression, and the idea of “forever.” Some assert Green and others of his ilk abuse their “internet fame” to promote mediocre books, but the truth is, Green’s “style” of YA storytelling has been prominent since at least the 90s (think The Perks of Being a Wallflower
and how it romanticizes mental illness, abuse, and PTSD), and is supported by quotes from people like YA actress idol Jennifer Lawrence when she told actor Jesse Eisenberg “[his] OCDs are awesome!” (She later apologized for her insensitive comments, but her momentary idolatry of mental illnesses like OCD as “quirky” and “cute” is one that seems to be shared throughout many popular YA novels).
Ultimately, as many problems as YA fiction has, it has led to an industry that views female heroines as positive characters, and that encourages female writers to produce work that is frequently profitable and well-received. These character and writers are encouraging young women to read more voraciously, and also shows that female-led movies, especially female-led action flicks, can be outrageously successful. After all, the Hunger Games: Catching Fire
outsold Thor: The Dark World