I am scratching my head over this article, which was published online by the LA Review of Books today and brought to my attention by a number of book bloggers on Twitter. It’s called YA Fiction & the End of Boys, written by Sarah Mesle, who has studied gender theory and teaches about contemporary novels. Which is great – I love having an expert on the scene – except that I had quite a strong negative reaction to the article. I don’t quite know how to approach this without flying off the handle, so perhaps I’ll just pick some choice sentences and give my opinion. I don’t want to be reactionary, but that’s what’s going to happen. Also, I realise that by choosing to highlight a few quotes I’m decontextualising Mesle’s argument, so I urge you to click on the link above and read it for yourself first. I apologize in advance: this is going to be long.
Mesle opens up with an anecdote – while pregnant, she hoped that she’d have a girl because
…it seemed that parenting a girl, as a task, offered an appealing kind of clarity. You teach a daughter to be a strong, brave woman. But what, I wondered, do you teach a son? “Don’t get too full of yourself,” was about the best I could come up with.
I understand the quandry. As a woman who doesn’t have children, but certainly envisions having them in the future, I feel like I’m much more capable of imparting wisdom to a girl than I would be to a boy. This is just because I have only ever been a woman and I can only speak to a woman’s experiences with the world. Certainly, raising a strong, brave girl is a respectable goal for parents of any gender. That said, being a lady is not going to stop me from trying to teach my sons to be strong and brave, too. Why create an artificial gender binary? Being strong and brave and also good is something that we all aspire to! Strength, courage, and goodness come in many forms. And I think that if you have these characteristics, they’ll generally preclude the pridefulness that Mesle is concerned about.
But as we debate ad nauseum whether, for example, Bella Swan is a dangerous role model for young women, we’ve neglected to ask the corresponding question: what does it tell young men when Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are the role models available to them? Are these barely-contained monsters really the best we can imagine?
Now, I think we can come to the general consensus that Bella is a terrible role model – she’s so obsessed with Edward and his whims that she almost commits suicide when he leaves. She’s quite happy to date a boy who has admitted to A) creeping in through her window while she sleeps, and B) stalking her. COME ON. And Edward and Jacob are pretty much self-centred man-children who compete over her like she’s a shiny toy to be won. It’s worth noting at this point that both characters reflect the alpha-male stereotype – Edward is handsome, wealthy, and hates to be overruled; Jacob literally becomes the head of his own werewolf pack. They are extensions of the gothic brooding male that we find throughout literature – they’re remixed Heathcliffes, new-model Edward Rochesters, with a dash of modern misogyny thrown into the mix. So I would suggest that no, Edward and Jacob are not the best role models that we can imagine. We can – and do – imagine much better. Twilight is a spectacularly bad example of the good male role model.
Mesle goes on to compare contemporary YA with Victorian fiction for children, which throws modern interpretations of manhood into sharp relief:
Why is it that in YA literature — a genre generated entirely to describe the transition to adulthood — there is so much fear and ambivalence surrounding manhood? When I read contemporary young adult novels, I see them asking over and over again a fascinating question, a question both for boys and for the stories describing them: are there any good men? And how can a boy become a good man, if he doesn’t know what that would mean?
Here, I think, it’s a question of intent. Victorian children’s fiction (which I love!) was not usually written to challenge the status quo. It was intended to show children the path to an enlightened adulthood, and generally disregarded barriers like race, class, or opportunity. These novels were written for the children of literate, monied parents – that is, white land-holders or merchants – whose opportunities in life had been laid out before them at birth. I would argue that Victorian society generally wanted it’s children to take those opportunities as they found them – social climbing was something that was done by the uncouth. Today’s young adult novels, however, push kids to challenge the status quo – to react against the stereotype of the popular kid, to do the right thing even if it’s perceived to be wrong, socially. More importantly, it reflects realities of our society. So many kids do grow up without good role models – this is the reason that organizations like Big Brothers/Big Sisters exist. And we need to confront this challenge within our fiction, which is always our strongest reflection of society. We represent the racism, poverty, civil rights abuses that permeate our society in our fiction for young people because it affects them. It is relevant to them. And they are the ones that will be dealing with the consequences in twenty years’ time.
But more than anything, I object to Mesle’s framing of the argument. She wonders how a boy can become “a good man, if he doesn’t know what that would mean.” But I fail to see how, in contemporary YA, girls are presumed to fare any better. Let’s take a look at The Hunger Games. Peeta and Gale, our heroic male leads, are basically stuck looking up to sycophants and dictators or their own terribly repressed fathers for guidance. Less than ideal. Katniss, on the other hand – there is not a single woman of power in Panem. She can look to Effie, the bubblegum airhead who escorts her and Peeta to the Capitol; she can look to her mother, who was so depressed after Katniss’s father died that Katniss had to become the family’s primary earner; she can look to… well, that’s about it. For role models, Katniss, Peeta, and Gale are all on the same page. But they overcome that by being strong, brave, and good in themselves, and by looking to the people with whom they surround themselves – mostly kids their age who want to make a change. I don’t understand why Mesle creates this binary, suggesting that only boys might be confused about what adulthood means. Girls are equally confused, and equally represented within YA fiction to be battling with this confusion.
In the Outsiders, and for Ponyboy in particular, “manhood” isn’t so much a status to attain — it’s a problem to solve.
Yes! Exactly! Mesle suggests that this is a bad thing, but I think it’s right on the money. Even as a 24-year-old educated white woman who had lots of great role models and comes from a comfortable family background, I often find the prospect of adulthood terrifying. How do you keep an essence of your childhood self, the person you’ve been actively creating for the past twenty years, without being crushed by the burdens of school and debt and work? I still don’t know the answer, but I think it probably has something to do with being strong, brave, and good. Ponyboy tries to be all of these things – he gets good grades, he doesn’t drink or smoke, he wants to escape from the conditions of his youth – but he’s at a massive disadvantage. He’s poor, parentless, in with a bad crowd. He tries to change his fate and the fate of his friends but he fails. Mesle sees The Outsiders as the beginning of the end for the notion of boyhood, and compares it against a Victorian classic, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But this is a problematic comparison, as Mesle admits:
Stowe’s novel isn’t “for young readers,” in the conventional sense, but nevertheless the nineteenth century’s most famous novel of social reform hinges on a frame narrative describing a young boy, George, growing in to a man. [...] George has social privilege — wealth, status, authority, masculine energy — and he gains moral clarity. Bringing all these together in the novel’s last chapters, George takes charge, imposes his will, and changes the world: he frees his slaves. In other words, Stowe’s novel implies that slavery ends, in at least one little corner of the world, because George mans up.
Thus Mesle privileges “manhood” to be the provenance of the wealthy and the white. Ponyboy fails to meet her accepted definition of manhood because being strong and brave and good can’t compensate for the fact that he was born on the wrong side of the tracks, while George, who has everything going for him from the outset, fulfils the definition because he is already primed to succeed. I’d suggest that Uncle Tom’s Cabin isn’t a tale of George growing up, but instead of George having the resources and wherewithal to change the lives of others. Ponyboy has no resources, and furthermore is grappling with his own life, not someone else’s – if he fails, he has no fallback. And he does fail. And it’s terribly sad. And that’s life, as it exists in slums and ghettoes around the world. It’s not ideal, no, but it’s true.
Again, Mesle goes back to the idea of adulthood as a cause for concern. She bemoans the less-than-perfect lives of three characters, suggesting that it is in fact the notion of manhood that has changed since Victorian times:
It’s not that contemporary YA boys don’t become the right kind of men, too, it’s just that the “right kind” of man looks totally different in modern stories — more like Ponyboy than George Shelby.
I don’t think that anyone is willing to suggest that we should all aspire to be like Ponyboy, but I’ll admit that, based on his circumstances, he does pretty well for himself for a time. As I mentioned above, he does well in school, he doesn’t drink or smoke, and he has dreams beyond the class in which he was born. It would be great if we could all be like George Shelby, but I think that the populace has come to realise that if you’re not born to privilege, you might want to get used to making the best of your lot rather than dreaming about a knighthood. Isn’t that what we all think? That despite our birth, we can become better people? Regardless of the problems that we face in life, we can be successful based on our own expectations and experiences? Focusing on that transitional phase between childhood and adulthood, YA is strongest when it finds a way to make even the lowest-born, most degraded characters successful. But how it defines “success” varies widely. Take as examples the characters that Mesle provides:
Whether lacking stable role models, ridiculed by their more powerful peers, or disconnected because of class, Miles in John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Gideon in Sarah Miller’s Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn, and Sean in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races all approach the end of boyhood with varying degrees of concern. And the manhood they do find doesn’t typically come through taking leadership over the world around them, like it does for George… Instead, each finds a happy ending to the extent that he fashions, whole cloth, as it were, an individuality outside of male privilege.
Now, I’ve only read one of those books: John Green’s wonderful Looking for Alaska. Miles is awkward and friendless until he starts boarding school, where he meets some nice but similarly fucked-up friends. Miles doesn’t really lack stable role models – he’s got a successful dad who loves him, though they don’t really understand each other, and some male teachers that he respects. His family has enough money to send him to boarding school. And it’s not so much that he’s picked on as that he’s invisible – the kind of kid who just fades into the background. That changes at his new school, but when the beautiful and enigmatic Alaska dies, Miles is thrown out of orbit. He struggles to understand her death, to reconcile it with his understanding of the world. I never envisioned Looking for Alaska as a journey towards manhood, but instead a journey towards an understanding the self. But to counteract Mesle’s point, Miles does take leadership over his world! He is determined to find out exactly how Alaska died, despite everyone telling him to get over it already, and through doing so he comes to several deep and important realisations about his own spirituality. He is brave and he is strong and he is good, and yet Mesle questions his manhood because it doesn’t conform to outdated stereotypes. In the end, Miles finds “a happy ending” – but he certainly doesn’t do so by rejecting male privilege. Though he’s not an alpha male like Edward and Jacob, Miles is still white, American, middle-class, and well-educated. He does weave his own individuality through spiritual awakening but he still falls very much within the societal norm. Like Ponyboy, Miles is one variety of the modern “normal kid.” He’s relatable to the millions of boys who struggle with obscurity or spirituality or death.
Mesle also flips this issue over to novels that focus on girls, suggesting that YA authors present a bastardized notion of the attractive male that requires the divestment of a man’s social power:
In Veronica Roth’s Insurgent series and Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone — both bestsellers this summer — the attractive romantic partner shows his moral worth by refusing the social power that’s offered him.
Again, I object to the idea that “manhood” is defined by privilege, for that’s what Mesle means by social power. By framing the rejection of social power as a way to show moral worth, she suggests that they made the right choice by choosing men who are, again, strong and brave and good (I feel like this is becoming a mantra). Mesle’s connection between manhood and power is disturbing from a feminist perspective, a perspective that Mesle understands in a very different way than I do. Should the girls in these books love men who accept social power, regardless of the cost? Probably not. That’s a pretty terrible way of choosing a boyfriend.
It’s clear in the real world that men, particularly white men, enjoy all or most of the social privileges they’ve always had. But YA literature shows us that in our cultural imaginary [imagination?], morality has branched off from male social authority. Why would this be? It’s certainly not because manhood itself, or any norm of gender, was more stable in the nineteenth century. Peter Coviello, a scholar whose work has focused on masculinity and sexuality in the nineteenth century, notes in an email interview that the nineteenth century was a period of social upheaval. The daily experience of gender expectations — where you worked, where you lived — were dramatically changing. It’s precisely because of this, Coviello says, that people sought to use older “barricades of male social privilege, like whiteness and middle-class propriety, to shore up a newly precarious sense of masculinity.” In other words, it wasn’t that nineteenth-century Americans believed, in a way we now don’t, that manhood was a necessarily benevolent force. It’s just that people still believed it could be.
What seems to be behind her argument is the idea that social privilege, not the concept of manhood, has changed. No longer is power the provenance of men. We don’t need men to be powerful anymore – women are equally capable of assuming powerful roles in society. Nor do we tend to believe, in a Western, liberal society, that benevolent societies require archetypal male leaders. And this is a good thing – let’s share power and privilege more widely! But Mesle’s position seems to be rooted in the certainty that her definition of manhood – that is, the assumption of traditional patriarchal roles – is being overturned within the genre by ill-meaning authors, rather than being challenged outside the genre by amazing and real women and then reflected within our literature.
If there seems to be lurking, here, a hint of strange and reactionary gender politics, let me remedy that problem by making my strange gender politics completely explicit: I actually believe in manhood as something that’s real, that’s inherently different than womanhood, and that is, potentially, awesome.
Here’s the thing, Mesle: this is reactionary. You’re reacting to a perceived flaw in a whole genre of English literature by presuming that it is misguided and dangerous. You’re reacting to the way that men are represented in contemporary fiction by presuming that it doesn’t reflect a substantial change in Western society. You’re reacting to something that is presented by hundreds of contemporary authors over thousands of pages by comparing it to the work of authors from over a hundred years ago. This idea of a fractured and unstable definition of gender is the new norm. I’m not suggesting that there’s a new status quo, because frankly one of the best things about YA (and indeed all modern fiction) is that there is no status quo. Authors can set their stories in any country, at any time, or they can make up their own fantastic or dystopian worlds and explore themes on an allegorical level. But perhaps this perceived sameness of conception of manhood, a fall from the traditional alpha male archetype, is indicative that we’ve come to understand gender politics differently.
And it’s great that you think that manhood is awesome! I think it can be, too, but only if it respects the rights of women, minorities, the poor, and the LGBT community. Men are still, by and large, the leaders of Western society, but there is also a place for others, one that embraces social power for all and provides a compelling and varied mosaic for our children to understand. Like all of us, Mesle wants fiction to reflect her hope for the future so that her children have something to aspire to:
In this world we are in, I want to help my sons imagine their manhood as essential to their best selves, not as a threat to it. What I am hoping for is books that guide them as they learn to be inside their manhood, rather than always on the outs.
Well, then, you’re in luck: YA, as a genre, is going to teach your kids to make the best of the situation they’re in, because it embraces a huge variety of role models who advocate for any kind of lifestyle. If they end up gay or straight or poor or bullied or spoiled and shallow or the sons of Olympian heroes or secretly orphans or princes in disguise or the leaders of a steampunk dystopian revolution, be assured that out there, somewhere, sitting on the shelf of a library, there’s a book that will help them through all the turmoil that their lot in life is sure to cause. So what I’m hoping for – and this is a hope that’s constantly rewarded in YA fiction – is that authors keep writing strong, brave, and good characters, regardless of their gender. Our children will benefit as a result.