Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Who Are the Real Mean Girls?

I tried to tough out the allergies (the shoulder stopped hurting after one Tylenol) and get some work done yesterday, but it just wasn't working. I hit a scene I knew needed work, but I couldn't concentrate enough to fix it. I did get some brainstorming done on fixing it, but finding the words was something of a challenge. I hope it will be better today.

While I'm on a tear about reading rants, I have another one, as well as a question for other readers, particularly the younger ones -- any teens or recent teens who read young adult books. I've been reading a lot of YA urban fantasy (because I tend to like that more than I like the adult urban fantasy), and in those books, as well as other contemporary YA books, I've noticed a trend that disturbs me, and I'm curious as to how the teen readers see this.

The heroines are generally outsiders, which makes sense because fictional heroes are often outsiders. The people in power who are at the center of things don't have as much to aspire to, so there's less struggle and less of a story there. It also makes sense in YA because the kids who are heavy readers tend not to be the really popular ones. Reading can be seen as "weird," and there's also that whole smart vs. pretty thing, where a girl who reads a lot automatically gets classified as "smart," and that means she can't be pretty, which means she can't be popular. But way too many of the YA heroines I've read lately are as obnoxious and exclusive as "outsiders" as any of the popular kids are toward them, so that they come across to me as rather hypocritical and annoying, even if I was more like the heroines than like the popular kids. It's a bad sign when I catch myself cheering for the cheerleaders who are tormenting the heroine because I figure she probably deserves it.

For instance, the heroine will sneer at the "Abercrombie Zombies" (that phrase seems to come up a lot) while complaining about the popular kids mocking the way she dresses. Ironic much? How is mocking someone for dressing one way any better or worse than mocking someone for dressing another way? There also seems to be a lot of griping about/mocking/dismissing entire large groups of people -- classifying all football players as idiots or all cheerleaders as bimbos, etc. -- while the heroine is complaining about being stereotyped based on which groups she is or isn't in. This tends to come in the opening of the book, the "ordinary world" part of the story where we see how downtrodden the heroine is before she finds out she's magical and special. The heroine will be heading off to school, griping about how she has to go associate with all those Abercrombie Zombies and hating on the cheerleaders and football players. I'd have no problem with seeing reasons for her disliking individuals who behave in certain ways, but I think I'd prefer to see her being picked on or whatever before we get her thoughts complaining about people. It seems like there's a double standard, where if the popular kids make fun of unpopular kids for superficial things, then they're evil, but if the unpopular kids make fun of popular kids for superficial things, then they're right.

As an author, I'd be worried about making blanket statements about entire types of people because it's not safe to assume that no cheerleaders or football players or people who shop at any one particular store will be reading your book. It's okay to have your heroine dislike individual characters for a particular reason, but not all football players have heads full of rocks, not all cheerleaders are bimbos or bitches, and the stores you shop at don't necessarily define your personality, and it's lazy writing to fall back on those stereotypes. Yeah, some kids may feel this way, but I find it harder to relate to or empathize with heroines who have that attitude from the start, especially when it seems like the author is saying that's the right attitude to have. I don't think YA books have to be like Afterschool Specials and teach some preachy lesson, but I also think it's a bad idea for an adult who's writing for young people to actively promote prejudice of any kind. The heroine can dread facing a particular clique because of things they say to her or the way they act around her, and she can dislike individual people, but if she starts out the book griping about classes of people, and especially if she's complaining about them doing exactly the same thing she's doing, then I don't get into the book very easily.

Now, I'm more than twenty years removed from high school, so I'm curious if teen readers feel the same way. Do you read that sort of thing and say, "Amen, sister!" or do you think, "Hypocritical much?"

I think part of the reason I'm sensitive about this is that even though I was the brainy girl who read a lot, I was never tormented by the popular girl cheerleader type who is so demonized in YA books. The girls who bullied me, made fun of me, tried to bring me down, played cruel pranks on me or otherwise gave me the Mean Girls treatment were all other smart girls who saw me as a threat to their own status and who wanted to take me down a peg. I don't know what their reading habits were, but they were all challengers for top of the class or best student status (or thought they were -- many of them were good students who had done well up to that point but who weren't really that smart or capable of independent thought). The cheerleaders may not have included me in things they did or invited me to their parties, but they never made a point of being mean to me. So, in these books when the heroine is a smart girl who's not particularly popular but who comes across as a little bitchy, instead of identifying with her because I was a smart, not particularly popular girl as a teen, I see her as like the people who made my life hell.

At any rate, I prefer to see something a little more complex than "cheerleaders=bad, brainy girls who read=good" in YA fiction. Individual cheerleaders may be ditzy or catty, but I would prefer for the heroine of a book not to write off the entire group as a bunch of bitchy airheads as a way of making herself sound superior, and I definitely don't like it when that's the author's lazy way of telling us that the heroine is superior. If the heroine is classifying the whole group as a bunch of worthless idiots, then by the end of the book at least one of them better prove her wrong so that I can tell the author appreciates the irony. It really irks me when it comes across as just the author's way of making the heroine relatable to the presumably non-popular girls who are likely to be reading the book, and that also comes across as a little patronizing to the target readers, like "I know you're all loser weirdos, but really, that's okay because you can't be both popular and smart."

Which brings me back to the question to any teen or recent teen readers: Do you agree with me, or does this actually make the heroine more relatable to you?

1 comment:

Carradee said...

I definitely agree with you. I was only in public school through 6th grade, but at worst I was only teased. That last year, the popular group actually defended me. (After that, it was home school, tiny private schools, and college, all of which didn't really have bullies, so far as I noticed.)

I was often called a teacher's pet; "Thank you" worked best as a reply to that. Some tried to explain that it was an insult. I asked "Why?" ("Why does that matter?" halts wannabe tormenters almost every time).

However, I did instinctively avoid people who wore new trendy clothes all the time, because they were the type who tended to tease me—and then I was kicking myself for that habit later in the school year when I realized I'd missed out on a lot of time with a nice girl. (I was 12/13; started school at 6.)

So I'm making sure my YA urban fantasy lacks those stereotypes. There are bullies, yes, but they're backdrop, not conflict. The narrator thinks too little of them to care when they try to shove her around.