By Monika Bartyzel
(We close out the adolescence issue with this great essay by M. Bartyzel on what our expectations are of our young protagonists and what this says about us.
Monika Bartyzel is a freelance writer and creator of Girls on Film, a weekly look at femme-centric film news and concerns, currently residing at Movies.com. Her work has appeared in the likes of The Atlantic, Moviefone, Collider, Splice Today, Hooded Utilitarian, Toronto Screenshots, and the now-defunct Cinematical, where she was a lead writer and assignment editor.)
Children’s literature has a very specific purpose: It’s a creative form of instruction. Little tykes sit down and learn about objects, sounds, and letters. They learn good and bad ways of interaction, and are taught how to poop. Even their wildest fantasies hold some lesson – respect your elders, do your chores, and of course, don’t cry wolf.
Adult literature, on the other hand, runs the gamut of experience. If I close my eyes and reach out to my book shelf, I might pull a book about race, time-traveling, performance art, pen pal romance, extra-terrestrial rock stars, feminism, World War II, gastroenterologists, shipwrecked sailors, crime… Though we might learn through the experience, education is not a priority (in fiction). Entertainment and/or art is key. A book might simply take us into another world, or it might delight in the careful placement of every single letter, word, sentence, and paragraph.
The idea applies to other forms of media as well. Children’s songs and films seek to please the eyes and ears whilst teaching a lesson, and alternatively, adult entertainment mixes fluff and thought on the whim of the creator. Once we’re set up in the world, adult media allows us to choose whether we want to be educated and/or entertained.
Young Adult fare, however, is the creative limbo resting between the extremes. On a basic level, editor Cheryl Klein’s summation is apt: “A YA novel is centrally interested in the experience and growth of its teenage protagonist(s), whose dramatized choices, actions, and concerns drive the story, and it is narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective.”
Outside of structural restraints, the function of YA is muddied. We chastise much of it and its silliness – especially when adults begin to admire it (Harry Potter, Twilight). We also place wildly high expectations upon it. Young people, who have been instructed in the ways of the world, are now on a long quest to discover themselves. We expect their reading to help them discover positive role models and continue learning about life. We fear the irresistible pulp fare and the impact it might have. The form is further complicated by sex; YA is generally seen as a creative haven for young women, therefore feminist concerns are always applied.
In recent years, these concerns have led to a cacophonous roar against problematically popular protagonists. It started with one Bella Swan, a girl so swept up in lust and love with her sparkly vampire boyfriend that she let it run her life. Her saga is so fervently polarizing that the world was quickly split in two – the Twi-hards gushing undying adoration and the Twi-nots condemning her. Just as the roar began to subside, Hannah Horvath arrived, Lena Dunham’s identity-confused heroine in Girls (admittedly a bit outside YA, but invoking a similar spirit due to Hannah’s immaturity). Once again the lines were drawn to define two camps – the fans who instantly related to Hannah’s idiosyncratic life and the detractors who believe she “and her friends are a bunch of racist fucking untalented hipster assholes.”
These heroines haven’t just invoked stern criticism; they’ve courted downright damnation. Their problematic, imperfect selves have hit an apparent soft-spot in the media psyche with their mere existence. Two aspects seem to be at play. First and foremost, these are young women bearing the weight of historically shallow female characterizations that feminism is trying to fight against. Secondly, they’re uber-awkward characters that bite their thumb at the struggling heroines who always manage to be at least partially idyllic. (Think Rory Gilmore and her financial hardships matched with top-notch smarts and an uncanny ability to flawlessly banter, or Katniss Everdeen who must play in The Hunger Games, but is inhumanly skilled at archery and wildly charismatic.)
The whole brouhaha reminds me of my own youth. For years I had free literary reign. My parents loved that I loved reading and let me amass a small mountain of first children’s reads and then young adult fare. But then I discovered Fear Street, and subsequently, Christopher Pike. Horror/crime/mystery/otherworldly menaces were my literary crack. I began to love vampires and the vamp/werewolf drama that came long before Twilight – L.J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries (an entirely different beast than the show and the current sequels).
Presumably due to fears that I’d turn into a deranged killer or occult conspiracy theorist, my intake started to be highly regulated. My beloved pulp was restricted and mandatorily peppered with classics that bored my escapist-yearning self to tears, as well as fictional tales set during historical circumstances. (Of course, the Sunflower series of romantic histories led me directly into the arms of Danielle Steele, which wasn’t exactly a great literary leap forward. [Damn you, Message from Nam.])
However, even restricted, there was a freedom in my fandom. No one was mocking my love of Stefan Salvatore, or the absolutely ridiculous things Elena would do for her love. My whims and heroines weren’t repeatedly labeled moronic, and I loved my novel escapes. Incidentally, I grew up to be an English grad who spends much of her time writing about feminist issues in film and loving essays by Henry Miller and authors like Joan Didion, Graham Greene, and Voltaire – a far cry from vampires, murderers, and ghosts.
While my parents’ concern was understandable, what I took out of the books wasn’t a critical reading of the text, but the parts that resonated. I read all of Agatha Christie’s work, but all that sticks out is the charisma of Tuppence Beresford and how an old spinster (Miss Marple) could live a wildly entertaining life on her own. I remember the best heroines and little of the questionable material and questionable literary merit (of which there was much), because that’s what I was subconsciously drawn to and looking for.
As I once wrote about Twilight: “Reading The Twilight Saga is like revisiting your old diaries rife with catty rants and condemnations, emotional explosions and angst, where what was once live-or-die is now embarrassingly hormonal. Bella is an unencumbered look into an adolescent mind that’s not over-polished.” No, she’s not a stellar role model young girls should model themselves after – in any way. She’s too introverted, too easily swept into romance, too disinterested in the world that exists for her outside of Edward. But she’s is relatable.
Bella isn’t completely devoid as some Twi-nots describe her. She’s a sarcastic girl who escapes into classic novels and caring for her parents because she feels out of step with the world – so clumsy and accident-prone that she feels like an alien in her own body – an extreme manifestation of the awkwardness of the teen body. She likes a cute boy, obsesses on his minute qualities, and is so thrown by his adoration that she doesn’t trust it. The novels are her inner monologue, essentially her “diary” of romantic teenage obsession.
There’s a truth to Bella. She might make terrible choices, but they ring true for many young women – as evidenced by the books’ wild popularity, the many fan-centric accounts, and by my own remembrances of teen life. Bella’s depression in New Moon is often cited as one of the most damning aspects to her personality, which certainly throws her out of the running for strong role model, but also points to a very real phenomenon. Kids get depressed by circumstances adults find ridiculous. Many need counseling, medication, and other forms of aid to hopefully get through it, if they don’t decide to take their lives instead. If we consider how fervently we’d mourn, hurt, or obsess over something in our teens that was ultimately inconsequential, we can’t deny that losing a boyfriend who had saved your life, multiple times, would be traumatic.
As a role model, the condemnation fits. As a teen girl with wildly fluctuating hormones, who is trying to find her place in the world, the condemnation becomes problematic. By condemning her, what are we saying to the massive group of young women who relate to her? Twi-hards feel a very visceral attachment to the novels, a result of what many describe as Stephenie Meyer’s uncanny ability to invoke the essence of young desire. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a part of this vitriolic backlash that stems from embarrassment – a disinterest in recognizing (or admitting) how ridiculous we all were during our YA limbo.
Girls’ Hannah certainly plucks at the awkward, embarrassing parts of life. Lena Dunham unabashedly reveals every perk and flaw to Hannah. She’s a goddess of stupid actions, a young woman wildly self-absorbed to the point that she doesn’t see other people’s problems. She expects her parents to support her, and when they refuse, she doesn’t take the responsibility upon herself, she shunts it over to her best friend. She chases after seemingly unavailable men, jumps from job to job, and has an uncanny ability to assert ridiculous beliefs. Dunham’s primary focus seems to be Hannah’s flaws – both literal and perceived.
She acts as a kindred soul to some, and a mirror of bad qualities to others, as Jill York wrote for Nerve:
“I still don't like Hannah Horvath, and I certainly don't like that I see so many of my own negative qualities in her, but I like that she and her cohorts force me to see them. And I think that's why Girls has resonated so strongly with us spoiled, lazy types: it takes these uglier truths about ourselves and how the rest of the world sees us and it spits them back in our faces, leaving us to think about whether we'll choose to stay on the Dark Side or take our first steps toward the light.”
Are, perhaps, flaws and stupidity just as relevant to young adults as heroes and role models? Some may relate to a piece, as York does, because they recognize their own inadequacies. Questionable characters become warning signs for the audience’s personal failures, which may or may not inspire improvement. Other audiences might be adolescents in that messy limbo who relate to the uber-emotional turmoil of a sparkly, fantastical modern fairy tale – flaws attract flaws.
The above focuses on young heroines, but the idea applies universally. Though often framed by heroic means, comics consistently pluck at inadequacies and trauma raised by bullies and angst. Before the superhero renaissance, comics were obsessive pulp that thrived because the audience could relate and subsequently escape into fantasy. Even The Dark Knight Rises takes a Twilight turn (though much more skillfully crafted) with overwrought romance-induced depression.
On a theoretical level, I think of the fear I invoked with my teenage book collection, of how many teens have already written about how they’ve moved beyond Twilight, and I think the mechanical definition leads to a bigger truth: Popular Young Adult fare reveals the “Dark Side” of both adolescence and adulthood – the questionable and problematic worlds that ultimately appeal to the youth, and the fear that such portrayals invoke in the adults, because as one old pop song asserted: “children are our future; teach them well and let them lead the way.”