Monday, March 5, 2012

Young Adult SFF: Rant #2

So, as you can see from the reviews that have been published by me at the Ranting Dragon lately, I spent a few months reading a lot of the popular young adult books for 2011. This included works by authors like Cassandra Clare, Andrea Cremer, Kiersten White, Becca Fitzpatrick, Patricia C. Wrede, Tamora Pierce, Brenna Yovanoff, Beth Revis, Lauren Oliver, and a few others. While I did pick up books that I genuinely enjoyed, I did notice a disturbing trend running through a some of these works.

I talked a bit in my previous young adult rant about the growing proliferation of pre-twentieth century literary themes and devices in modern young adult fiction. I'm going to expand this further now. Again, we can start with the Twilight books. Meyer freely admits that her books are based on Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet, Wurthering Heights, and A Midsummer's Night's Dream. Now, I'm not going to argue that all of these titles are classics, and deserve to be read, and even be read by young adults. But we need to understand something fundamental about these works: they are all from a time, place, and society different from ours. The relationship's described in them are reflections of those other times, places, and societies. When adapting them for a modern reader, in particular for a young modern reader, we need to be careful about what aspects of those relationships we keep and how they are presented. 

For starters, all four of the works mentioned above are from a time and place where women had few options other than marriage. They also deal heavily with society's expectations of what a good marriage is, which do not match modern ideals. Elizabeth finally accepts Mr. Darcy after she sees his mansion, after he helps her family avoid ruinous scandal and after he convinces his best friend to marry Elizabeth's sister even though the Bennett's are poor. Romeo and Juliet die tragic deaths because their love (and brief marriage) is not socially acceptable. Notice here that the lovers die. This is not necessarily meant to be starry-eyed romance, but a very real warning about the cost of inappropriate love. A Midsummer's Night's Dream is completely based on what are appropriate relationships, and a woman's place in society. The play opens with the very political marriage of Hippolyta (a former Amazon) and Thesus and with the threat of death or a nunnery for Hermia if she does not marry her father's choice of husband for her. Demetrius is literally be-spelled so he will fall in love with Helena. Oberon shames  his wife Titania by making her fall in love with a man with the head of an ass. While this is hysterical on stage, pull it into the realm of drama and suddenly things become very dark and very creepy, and extremely misogynistic. Wurthering Heights is a mess, with Catherine marrying Edgar because he is the more socially acceptable choice, rather than Heathcliff who she really loves. This tension literally destroys all three of them, plus a few more people along the way. While we're finally getting into the realm of love for love's sake, this gets turned on it's head when Heathcliff tries to resolve his own broken heart by making his son marry Catherine's daughter even though Linden and Cathy aren't in love with each other. What is perhaps most disturbing to me about using Wurthering Heights as modern teen literature is the choice between two men becoming a choice about a woman's future.

Don't get me wrong, before the late twentieth century, who a woman married very much decided what kind of life she would have. If she married an educated man, she would likely live in material comfort, her children would be better fed, have access to healthcare, and be more likely to be educated themselves. If she married a poor, uneducated farmer life would look very different. But this is no longer the case. Women can now have careers outside the home, and are in fact encouraged to do so. Recent studies show that women are now out earning men, likely due to higher education rates among modern American women than men. A growing number of women are the breadwinners for their families, with the husband staying at home with the children. So the idea that who a woman marries, or dates, decides her future is no longer applicable. Why then are we seeing it in teen literature in not insignificant numbers?

We can start with the Twilight books. Bella must choose between Edward and Jacob, and this choice is a metaphor for the choice between being human or becoming a vampire. Andrea Cremer is another great example for her Nightshade series. Calla must choose between Ren and Shay, thereby choosing whether to remain in her own repressive society and do the expected thing or leave. Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall uses two boys as a metaphor for who her female protagonist chooses to be at the end. Granted, this is the choice between a socially acceptable but abusive relationship which rewards her for negative behavior and a non-popular boy who actually likes her for who she is and will encourage her to be a better person, but the pattern is still there. Cassandra Clare plays with this a bit in her Infernal Devices series, even if Tessa's choice between Will and James is not a choice between two different lifestyles. It's still a choice between two boys.

It's gotten to the point in much of young adult literature where a girl's choices must involve choices about a boy. Brenna Yovanoff's new book The Space Between guides the female protagonist's growth  is through the growth of her relationship with a boy. Again, this was well done and worked in context, but after a month of reading the above books, even this was too much for me. Enough with the romance! Let's give my fellow Millennials some ass-kicking role models like Generation X had. Do we as women really want the younger members of my generation to backslide on the feminist front? Because that's what we're teaching them in their literature.

I'll end this by saying I am very much looking forward to new books by Tamora Pierce and Patricia C. Wrede. Pierce's female protagonists are always strong in their own right, and the boys can either keep up or get out of the way. Wrede's current series, Frontier Magic, had at the end of book two yet to develop a romantic line for it's female protagonist. Stories like these are becoming as rare as young adult SFF for girls was when Pierce and Wrede first started writing it in the late eighties and early nineties. Wrede's Far West is due out sometime this year, while a new as yet untitled Circle book is due scheduled for publication in 2012 as well.


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