Pictured: Google image search’s definition of a “mysterious stranger.” (from channel4.com)
EDIT: Because there has been some confusion on this point, I want to clarify that this post is not meant as an attack on individual authors. Rather, it’s a criticism of the social milieu that allows “aloof, mysterious boy” to be a major selling point in literature aimed at teenaged girls. Within the context of the stories themselves, these boys may or may not be as distant or scary as the marketing claims. The marketing may, indeed, run completely counter to the author’s intention. That’s a given. However, I believe the way literature is marketed says at least as much about our society as the literature itself. I’ve edited the post to make that point less ambiguous.
I finally got a library card last weekend!
I know what you’re going to say: it’s more than a little shameful for an alleged writer to have traipsed about for nearly a year without a library card. In my defense, I was working through a massive backlog of Kindle purchases, and there was no room on the docket for additional books from the library. Also in my defense, the library’s like, a whole ten minutes away. Who has the time, am I right?
At any rate, one of the first things I did when I got my card was comb through the electronic catalog in search of Young Adult fantasy novels. I’ve been writing one for a few months now, and a familiarity with the field never hurt anyone. As I went through the listings, though, I began to notice something.
Check out these blurbs for popular YA fantasy novels:
“Shocked by the brutality of her new life, Tris can trust no one. And yet she is drawn to a boy who seems to both threaten and protect her. The hardest choices may yet lie ahead….” –Amazon summary for Divergent, by Veronica Roth
Hmmm. I’ve yet to read Divergent–from what was shown in the movie trailer, I gather it involves a totalitarian society, a boy with tattoos up his back, and teens getting classified by the worst substitute for the sorting hat this side of an unexploded bazooka shell–but I’m willing to take the blurb writer at their word when they say that Tris’ life is “brutal.” One wonders, of course, how a child fighting for her life in a brutal police state would have time to feel “drawn” to a boy. Ah, but that’s YA, isn’t it? You need a little romance to hook the teen and pre-teen girls who make up the bulk of your audience.
But wait…what’s this about the boy seeming to threaten her? That doesn’t sound like fruitful soil in which to plant puppy love. The last time I associated with a boy who both “threatened” and “protected” me, he suggested I stop seeing my friends and told my parents I was too emotionally unstable to survive without him. Maybe that’s just the marketing, though. I doubt Ms. Roth was aiming for anything so sinister.
“Ever since her sixteenth birthday, strange things keep happening to Seraphina Parrish. The Lady in Black burns Sera’s memories. Unexplainable Premonitions catapult her to other cities. The Grungy Gang wants to kill her. And a beautiful, mysterious boy stalks her.” –Amazon summary for Wander Dust, by Michelle Warren
Hang on: a mysterious boy stalks her? That’s not a recipe for romantic tension; it’s a recipe for winding up locked in a rotting attic with a maniac who rubs doll clothes on his nipples. I know people who have been stalked, and there was nothing exciting or fantastical about it. If, instead of being “beautiful,” said mysterious boy weighed three hundred pounds and was constantly whittling tiny swords while staring Seraphina directly in the face, I guarantee the story would end with a call to the police instead of a grand adventure. Hey, marketing team: maybe reconsider using the “beautiful stalker” angle to drum up interest in a novel.
“When Emariya Warren learns enemy forces have captured her father, she’ll do anything to save him. Anything. Even marry a mysterious prince she knows nothing about in order to rally the strength to arrange a rescue.” –Amazon summary for Cornerstone, by Kelly Walker
Again with the “mysterious.” I don’t know of Emariya and the prince end up together, but I rather hope they don’t. Young women need to understand that “mysterious” doesn’t always mean “fascinating, with a greater depth of feeling than the shallow boys at my middle school.” At best, “mysterious” means “shy,” or “in the witness protection program.” At worst, it means “I have exhaustively cataloged more than seventy ways to make your skin into an infinity scarf.”
“Kara needs an ally, or she might not survive Ourea’s monsters. She drops her guard when Braeden, a native soldier with a dark secret, vows to keep her safe.” –Amazon summary for Lichgates by S.M. Boyce
All right, I’m getting annoyed now. I understand that a love interest sells novels, but does it always have to be the same love interest? And does the love interest have to be so instrumental in the female protagonist’s personal journey? Society has already convinced many young women that they cannot be complete without glomming on to the closest be-penised thing they see. Why use marketing to play into that dysfunctional world view?
Well…because it sells books, of course. But I like to think we humans are capable of taking the high road every once in a while. Surely it would be preferable to offer an antidote to all the boy-craziness, to lure intelligent girls with the promise of an equally intelligent protagonist who succeeds or fails on her own merits without worrying about what some dumb (potentially unbalanced?) boy thinks.
Because here’s the thing: when a male protagonist has a love interest, she’s usually treated as an added bonus, something he gets as a reward for facing his demons and blowing up the secret jungle base or whatever the heck. When a female protagonist has a love interest, he is usually presented (by the marketing team if not by the author) as a necessity, someone she needs in order to complete her mission. Pepper in the wildly incorrect notion that boys show their interest by stalking or remaining aloof and mysterious, and you’ve got the ingredients for a pretty pathological view on love and what role love should play in a young woman’s life.
I apologize for this heated scree. If it caused you any undue distress, you know who to blame…
…the Farmington Public Library.