Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Not Your Mother's YA Novels

As anyone who knows me knows, I became a HUGE worrier once I had Maggie, my 2-year-old--a condition that has only worsened since having Marin five months ago. I worry about their health. I worry about the crazy drivers in our city. I worry about their getting their licenses and maneuvering amidst crazy drivers in the future. I worry about whether they'll be bullied in school, and how we'll handle it. I worry about their pre-college education options not being nurturing or educational enough. I worry about how I'm going to make sure their wonderful little personalities don't get squashed by a teenage social system that's all about conformity. I worry about the day they'll go off to college, without me to protect them. Basically, I worry about keeping them safe, all day, every day.

So, as if I didn't have enough to worry about, along comes feminist icon Naomi Wolf with an article in the New York Times Book Review about the new wave of young adult novels. Basically, Naomi Wolf is horrified by the current state of young adult fiction for girls, and I wanted to know why. So I read her "Wild Things" article online, and I promptly became horrified myself. Which horrified me on a whole other level, as I now suspect I am really, really, truly turning into my mother this time, or Tipper Gore.

In a nutshell, Wolf takes popular YA series like the Gossip Girls, A-List, and Clique books to task for providing poor role models for teenage girls.

But first, let's take a moment to swallow this statement by Wolf for a moment:

"Sex saturates the 'Gossip Girl' books, by Cecily von Ziegesar, which are about 17- and 18-year-old private school girls in Manhattan. This is not the frank sexual exploration found in a Judy Blume novel, but teenage sexuality via Juicy Couture, blasé and entirely commodified."

Wait, wait, wait. Since when did "blase and commodified" sex become part of not just one YA novel, but a whole subgenre? Color me naive, but I always thought most of today's YA novels were as innocent, smart, and celebratory of individuality over the herd as Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries series, or the pre-Forever Judy Blume books of old, or even the Sweet Valley High series.

But I guess we're reaching a turning point in young adult fiction. Of the three aforementioned YA series, Wolf says they "represent a new kind of young adult fiction, and feature a different kind of heroine."

In particular, Wolf says of the Clique novels, "the characters are 12 and 13 years old, but there are no girlish identity crises, no submissiveness to parents or anyone else. These girls are empowered. But they are empowered to hire party planners, humiliate the 'sluts' in their classes ... and draw up a petition calling for the cafeteria ladies serving their lunch to get manicures."

So, they're spoiled, they're mean, they travel and attack in packs--rather than forging their own identities--and they're imperious with people in service positions. And these aren't the anti-heroines, waiting to get their comeupances from a slightly-nerdy-by-virtue-of-her-individuality Princess Mia Thermopolis or Margaret Simon (remember Judy Blume?) or even the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. These ARE the protagonists of the story, according to Wolf. They are the ones readers are asked to identify with, to live vicariously through.

And that brings us back to the sexual content. Color me a prude, but I have always assumed that the books shelved in the young adult section--which I started reading when I was probably about eight or nine--would never earn an R rating if made into a movie. I expect first kisses, silly stories of changing bodies (like Margaret and her friends' attempts at busting (Heh.) out of their AA-cup training bras by doing pec flys in Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.), or maybe a no-and-stop-that moment on a date. But instead, the books are "saturated" with "teenage sexuality" that's not only premature, but generally unsafe. In one Gossip Girls book, a tenth-grader gets it on in a Bergdorf's dressing room with a boy on stolen Viagra. In another A-List book, one high-school-aged girl vows, "No more stealing guys with wedding rings away from their wives just because she could. . . . No more getting wasted at parties and dirty dancing with handsome waiters . . . . No more taking E [ecstacy]."

I mean, GAH! This is the kind of thing my daughters could be reading at NINE? Shocking as it is, it's not necessarily the sexual content that bothers me most. The real problem, as Wolf writes, "is a value system in which meanness rules, parents check out, conformity is everything and stressed-out adult values are presumed to be meaningful to teenagers. The books have a kitsch quality — they package corruption with a cute overlay."

One teen reader on Amazon.com puts it more succinctly: "If you love fashion, celebrities, and all things girly and bitchy, you'll love these books."

Gee, because I WANT my daughters to behave like Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan.

Girls have enough pressure on them to conform when they're in school--to become or at least aspire to become "mean girls" who define others by their material possessions, looks, and ability to blend in with the crowd or to embrace a sexuality beyond their years. Do they really need that kind of pressure coming from their reading material, too? When both your peers AND your books are setting up these kinds of role models, does that make transforming into a Prada-wearing, venom-spitting sheep that much easier? Middle school is painful enough without the mean girls making fun of you from the pages of your favorite books, too. Why don't we all just go throw up our lunch, too, while we're at it?

Some responses to Wolf's essay basically told her to lighten up. I guess I need to lighten up, too, because as a feminist and a mother who wants to grow strong girls, brave girls, kind girls, anything-is-possible girls, I don't think this is the dominant model we want to be setting out for anyone--parents included. (This is, after all, the kind of thinking that leads to whacked out mothers trying to poison the head cheerleader to get their daughter a spot on the squad.) I don't believe in censorship, but I do believe in empowering my girls and teaching them to be kind, to stand up for what they believe in, to follow their hearts' desires and not what others tell them they should follow. If my girls want to be Mathletes, by God, they should feel empowered enough to be Mathletes regardless of what the dance squad thinks.

So, what to do? For me, I'll be sure to carefully watch what Maggie and Marin read at eight and nine, since apparently, this is now an issue. And when they're old enough to think more critically about what they're reading, perhaps instead of snatching the books away and making them that much more attractive, I'll simply read along with them and see if we can't have some interesting discussions about why the girls on the A-List secretly suck.

I might even have to advocate for a labeling system. I think I've officially turned tragically unhip, no "am I?" about it.

Currently listening to: Pink's "Stupid Girls"
OK, I've calmed down, and I'm not really going to advocate for a labeling system. Anything that dissuades Wal-Mart from stocking a certain kind of book is pretty much censorship, given the retail giant's stranglehold on just about every kind of market there is. It's just something else to worry about as my daughters get older....


Anonymous said...

This comment concerns your February 11 post on "The Whole World Is Not Waiting For Jessica Alba"

I think that Jessica Alba would be great as a Wonder Woman. She is definately my favorite actress, and as for Nearly Naked Girl, the Wonder Woman costume doesnt entirely look like Totally Covered Up Superhero to me. I do think she can act- thats why she's an ACTress. As for all those costumes you were talking about, in Fantastic Four it's not like she was the only one wearing that costume-what about the three other characters? And in Into the Blue, all she wore was a t-shirt and denim shorts, or a scuba diving outfit (which is Not At All Close To Naked At All) and sometimes, I think she was in a bikini. Which is..no different from today's world? Considering she was FANTASTIC in Fantastic Four, I think that since she has played a "superhero" before, she would be great as Wonder Woman.
Thanks, and bye.

Tracy Montoya said...

Thanks for stopping by, Laura. Honestly, I think there are plenty of actresses whose acting talents are quite dubious. However, since you obviously feel strongly about Jessica Alba, I'm going to be respectful and refrain from ranting about her again. If she gets cast as Wonder Woman, perhaps she'll prove me wrong. Currently, however, I still would much rather see Charisma Carpenter in the role.

Troy said...

Jessica Alba would be a HORRIFYING Wonder Woman. She emotes like a potato. I'm sure she is a very nice person, but I hardly believe her as an AMAZON. A stripper in Sin City however? Yes.

To be fair, Paris Hilton can also considered an ACTress, but would you like see her attempt to wear the cuffs?

My vote goes to either Charisma Carpenter or Anne Hathaway: actresses who can act and make me believe they are the Amazon goddess.

Tracy Montoya said...

::snort:: Troy, you crack me up.

Anne Hathaway was who I was trying to remember when I responded to Laura's post last night. She would be awesome, as would Charisma.

laura said...

I think the idea of Anything-is-possible Girls would be great in a book. There's one to steal....

Tracy Montoya said...

Laura, that's a cute idea, actually!

BTW, you win a free book--either from my backlist (www.tracymontoya.com--click on BOOKS) or my donation-to-the-library box. Email me and let me know what you'd like!

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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