YA Heroines and Heros: Paragons of Virtue?
A few weeks ago, I read and reviewed Rainbow Rowell's brilliant novel, Fangirl. To recap, the novel tells the story of a young woman who is utterly immersed in the fandom of a series of books. Cath loves the hero of the series, Simon Snow to the point where she owns a massive range of merchandise associated with the series and spends her evenings at home writing massively popular fan fiction about the character. Fangirl left me thinking about the relationship that YA readers often have with their characters. There is no denying that YA is a huge genre. And within that genre what is hot right now is Dystopian, with publishers and authors favouring trilogies or series, for example The Hunger Games or more recently, Divergent. There is also no denying that the novels leave the reader with a fascinating alternative realm to escape to. At the beginning the world is well, quite frankly, shithouse. The heroine has little or no control over her life and choices--in Allie Condie's Matched for example citizens cannot make even the most basic choices such as what they will eat, let alone major choices such as a career or who they will marry. To a reader who is at an age where they have spent most of their lives being controlled by their parents and yet know that major decisions will be thrust upon them very soon, such as careers and possible relationships, it is probably very easy for them to identify with the problems in this world. Some of these novels require a greater suspension of belief than others--for example citizens being segregated on the basis of their personality type--but suspension of such disbelief usually comes easily when one considers what the author is trying to do. Something usually happens early on that makes the heroine question the government or other ruling forces and she's soon off, somewhere between the ages of 15 and 19 and leading a rebellion before eventually overthrowing the corrupt government and marrying the man who stayed by her side the whole time. She lives on and leads a happy, virtuous life in a new society.
In October 2013 when Veronica Roth released the final novel in the Divergent series a certain segment of the fanbase was not happy. After many months of waiting for this book to be released, they discovered that Beatrice, or Tris, Prior was not getting her happy ending. There might be change in her society, but Tris and hero Tobias or Four would not be getting a white wedding. The reason? Tris Prior was dead. Tris Prior had killed herself to save humanity. And some readers were not happy. Within a day of Allegiant's release, a slew of angry reviews from supposed hardcore fans were coming in through the usual places--chiefly amazon and goodreads. Most, it seemed had either read of the heroine's death, or more alarmingly on goodreads some fans had heard about it from others and had decided to post a review on site with righteous proclamations that they would not be reading Allegiant. What these readers (or self-proclaimed non-readers) were unhappy about, deep down, I suspect, was the fact that the series did not end as they expected it to. It was an uncomfortable end. Tris makes a Christlike sacrifice but does not rise triumphant from the dead. The author created a character that readers loved and watched grow from a silently petulant, idealistic teenager to a mature young woman and then killed her off. It is reality. Sometimes the people you care about die.
And sometimes books don't turn out like you expect them to. Bennett Madison's September Girls (a book that is currently sitting on my to-read pile as of early March 2014,) features a romantic picture of a young couple kissing underwater. The plot, it appears, is a coming of age tale from the perspective of a teenage boy. From what little I have read so far, it appears to be a very honest perspective. The novel itself has attracted a huge debate on goodreads with some reviewers proclaiming that the book deserves no stars or that the narrative was poorly written and sexist. Also September Girls seems to fall victim to the culture of goodreads where an honest review can sometimes mean stating ones opinion in the pettiest way possible.
I think the problem lies with the fact that September Girls is confronting. Teenage boys, even the best and most noble of ones, are not paradigms of virtue. What Maddison is trying to write about, I feel, is someone who is very human, with humanlike flaws and failings. Sam is not Edward Cullen. He's that kid in your Maths class you barely even noticed. Recently, I also wrote a review on Judy Blume's Forever after being surprised by a number of reviews on goodreads by a number of people who seemed to miss the moral of the story. Forever was a realistic book about two normal teenagers experiencing their first sexual relationship. The ending of their relationship sticks to the themes of realism by the pair simply growing apart and Katharine realising that Michael will be just one of many lovers that she will have in her lifetime. A number of the reviews judged each of the characters for their behaviour, including one passionate reviewer who claimed that they wanted to punch Michael in the face. Once again, I think the problem is that readers are being confronted with characters who are not perfect. Michael was never intended as a role model. He was just a normal kid with human quirks and faults. The reader isn't supposed to fall in love with him. The reader is supposed to watch his journey to adulthood, suffering highs and disappointments along the way. He and Kath are not people that you are meant to want to be, or to date, they are meant to represent real people. And lets be honest here. Some books are written in a way so that readers are supposed to imagine that they are the heroine and the hero is someone that they would like to fall in love with in real life. That's why Twilight gives Bella such a bland description, yet there are literally pages describing Edward--a man who can offer her a father figure, wealth and eternal youth, meaning that she never has to worry about her future. Real relationships do not work like that. And sometimes, writers want to write about things that are real, rather than worlds that are imagined.
I guess, sometimes, that is hard to swallow. I suppose to some extent we would all like to think that if placed in the right circumstances we could be the virtuous heroine like Tris Prior. We like to think that we may have an equally virtuous true love. But reality and adulthood often work out quite differently. Sometimes, it is nice to sneak a glimpse into an alternate reality where every unfair thing is eventually accounted for and punished. Sometimes people do become heavily emotionally invested in their worlds, which brings me back to Cath from Fangirl. So much of her life becomes based around Simon Snow that she neglects to seek out new people and experiences until they eventually force themselves on her doorstep. She eventually grows up and begins to let other people and things into her life and for the first time, learns to write something other than Simon Snow fanfiction. The Simon Snow books remain a part of her life but she also learns to except the outside world, new friends and that her life will be filled with various disappointments and happy moments. Cath is a very realistic example I think of many of these young, enthusiastic readers who invest so heavily in their favourite series and characters. Lets hope that authors continue to challenge them with different material. And lets hope that they allow themselves to be challenged and to learn something from it.