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By: Mitali Chaudhary
Recently, the market for the Young Adult literary genre has ballooned. Geared mostly towards the mid-teen to early adult demographic, their popularity is attested by the large number of movie adaptations, which become widely successful due to the huge fan base that the books amass.
Unfortunately, publishers know that any book labelled “YA” will sell well, regardless of the quality of the story. This has yielded a slew of cookie-cutter novels with the same paranormal/romantic/dystopian plots and one-dimensional characters facing the most overdone conflicts, all within the span of 350 pages.
The most disappointing aspect of these novels is the incredibly flat, teenage female lead. It’s as if authors flip a coin to pick which mould the character will be shaped from — either a dopey damsel who’s constantly in distress, or a hardened unsentimental woman who lives only to bring down the patriarchy.
I remember reading dialogue from Graceling by Kristen Cashore (which made it to Publisher Weekly’s “Best Books of the Year”) in which the main character, Katsa, states proudly that she hates dresses, and can’t imagine why others wear them. To provide further context, this came from an individual that spent the entire novel looking down on other women. These other ladies were always portrayed as dress wearing and meeker than Katsa; they worked menial jobs to make ends meet because they were meek and wore dresses and therefore were less than men.
Making that first statement in itself isn’t a crime (I can understand if dresses are just not for some people) but it does not immediately make one a feminist, as this novel would suggest. Another issue is how ‘tough’ some of these women are created — after a while, it becomes borderline creepy when the character doesn’t react to a given situation as you would expect a human to react. Moreover, authors don’t seem to realize that it doesn’t make a woman automatically stronger if she is ultra independent, sullen, sulky and refuses to show emotion or rely on anyone else for help even in the most extreme of situations.
In fact, crafting these overly “tough” female characters does nothing to help the feminist cause, as it just sends the message that you need to act less feminine and show less emotion to deserve the same respect as men. That makes absolutely no sense, and sends a very negative message about what the spirit of feminism is. Why can’t you wear a floral skirt and still care about pay equality?
Even worse is the portrayal of the weak, helpless girl. Another very popular novel, The Elite by Kiera Cass, starred one such teen, America Singer, who cried at the end of every other chapter. This is not an exaggeration. Most of her tears, of course, involved the state of her cringe-worthy love triangle (another annoying trend in YA literature). Both of the boys she’s “in love with” break her heart (and she theirs), but she never grows enough of a spine to break it off with either of them, choose which one treats her best, or refuse both of them (how about working to develop your own personality, America?). Such characters also consistently mope, run away from mental or physical work and require the constant support of a man, without whom they are useless — I’m looking at you, Bella Swan.
It’s unfortunate that these books are only a tiny sample of what fills up shelves across the country. The worst part about this trend is that these novels get insanely publicized, and are read by thousands of young girls that are forming their identities in a society that already popularises unhealthy depictions of women. Why make it more confusing for them by creating these unrealistic characters, which reduce complex individuals to black and white cardboard cut-outs? They are difficult to identify with because they’re not real.
Women can be strong and shed tears and wear pretty dresses and be scared and need validation and be feminists and get angry and be shy. One woman can be all of these things. It’s time authors start creating characters in YA that are realistic and multifaceted.