Female Beauty In Young Adult Literature

 

There’s a strange feminine bonding ritual I was determined not to pass on to my daughter. It is the supposed camaraderie of women criticising their bodies to one another while exchanging diet tips. I made a rule for myself never to expose my children to conversations like these. I’m not immune to moments of discomfort with my body as it ages but I process those thoughts alone and, in the course of following my rule I’ve actually found my own body image has improved. 

Andie Fox

First, a disclaimer because I am not a YA hater: There is a lot of great YA fiction.

Then there’s another kind of YA literature, heavily marketed at adolescent girls. Much of this is extremely popular and widely enjoyed. I’m not disputing that.

I’m talking about a subcategory of indulgent proto-chick-lit, whose main characters are pseudo-kiss-ass girls, but who pedal several scary ideas about Beauty:

Rule 1. Heroines are Beautiful

jen-robinson-boobs-ya

For a definition of Beauty, I am not talking about the kind of beauty which is common to young, healthy people. I mean the capitalised “Beauty” found inside speech marks: the Naomi Wolf sense of the word — that which is held up as a platonic ideal in Western culture, and which only a small number of women can ever achieve.

A modern YA heroine is indeed allowed to look ‘average’, but her lack of Beauty is so often not the case. So often, the character undergoes a makeover. The implicit message of a makeover plot: It’s not okay to remain your original ugly self.

The Makeover Trope and Attempts at Subversion

There is immense, deep-seated appeal for the makeover fantasy. There must be, because a lot of really old fairy tales are based around the makeover plot. Cinderella is the standout example. The Ugly Duckling is a variation on that, written by Hans Christian Andersen. There are many lesser known tales about beautiful princesses hiding out as ordinary folk. Take the princess of “All Fur”, who covers her beauty with soot, is taken into the woods, captured and required to labour hard as a kitchen hand until one night there is a ball at the castle, she washes the soot off and reveals her shining, glowing self. She marries the prince and lives happily ever after.

The Emma Watson remake of Beauty and the Beast attempts to subvert all kinds of problematic tropes but ends up face-planting:

[T]he trope of transformation – girl in rags trussed up in finery by supernatural cupboards or birds or whatnot – is subverted, as Belle finds herself encased in silks, only to liberate herself immediately after a defiant: “I’m not a princess.” However, for the climactic ballroom scene, she is transformed with a pretty dress. So it smacks of that tinny, 1990s inconsistency: rebelliously rejecting frilly conformity one minute, wallowing in it the next. I did, however, like the accent on her bravery, even if her only weapon of any efficacy was a kiss.

The Guardian, Zoe Williams

Makeovers are hardly limited to young adult stories. The basic plot of All Fur was utilised by Julian Fellowes in Downton Abbey, when the riches to rags cousin comes to live at the Abbey and disguises herself as a kitchen hand. When she attracts the interest of someone outside her station, this causes problems. Why did she attract such attention so quickly? Because she’s beautiful, like a princess.

Take Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, a tomboyish, muscular, kick-ass girl. Yet when she gets her makeover scene – right before the hunger games, it turns out she was a Beautiful girl after all, hidden under ordinary garb.

annehathaway_princessdiaries

Glasses don’t make a Beautiful girl any less Beautiful. But in fiction, take off the glasses and reveal a girl’s beauty. Glasses are the fairytale equivalent of soot on the face. The glasses reveal is satirised by Natalie Tran at her youtube Community Channel.

Perhaps more damaging, especially for Beautiful girls, is the idea that beauty is the one real thing you have, and that ‘being’ is more important than ‘doing’. Caitlin Moran summarises her own teenaged self succinctly when she writes:

As it turned out, almost every notion I had on my 13th birthday about my future turned out to be a total waste of my time. When I thought of myself as an adult, all I could imagine was someone thin, and smooth, and calm, to whom things… happened. Some kind of souped-up princess, with a credit card. I didn’t have any notion about self-development, or following my interests, or learning life’s big lessons, or, most importantly, finding out what I was good at, and trying to earn a living from it. I presumed that these were all things that some grown-ups would come along and basically tell me what to do at some point, and that I shouldn’t really worry about them. I didn’t worry about what I was going to do.

What I did worry about, and thought I should work hard at, was what I should be, instead. I thought all my efforts should be concentrated on being fabulous, rather than doing fabulous things. I thought my big tasks were discovering my ‘Love Style’ via questionnaires in Cosmopolitan, assembling a capsule wardrobe, learning how to go from day to night with the application of heels and lipstick, finding a signature perfume, planning when to have a baby, and learning how to be mesmerically sexually proficient – but without getting a reputation as a total slag.

– Catilin Moran, How To Be A Woman

Rule 2. Heroines obsesss over physical insecurities

Heroines are far more likely to worry about their Beauty than about their brains. The more beautiful a heroine, the more insecurities she must harbour. This echoes real life.

We might call this the One Direction brand of beauty. You’re only beautiful when you don’t know you’re beautiful. Knowing it automatically disqualifies one from the category.

Rule 3. Other characters will respond positively to a heroine’s physical beauty

…even if the heroine doesn’t realise she’s Beautiful. Especially if she doesn’t realise she’s Beautiful. So many heroines don’t think they are attractive to others, even when the reactions of others – namely boys – show that others obviously don’t think so.

This is an especially dangerous interplay, because on the surface it doesn’t seem wrong. An optimist might say of such storylines, ‘Well, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s entirely possible that a heroine does not fit the Western Beauty Ideal, and that other characters are responding to her inner beauty instead.’

I’m no optimist, because I don’t think that’s how it’s interpreted by adolescent girls. You see, in their lives, they know damn well it’s the Beautiful girls who do get the attention, and you can’t easily change their minds about this, especially when they go to watch the movie adaptations of stories about ‘average’ looking girls in books.

It’s significant that the movie adaptations of ‘average’ looking characters such as Mia, from The Princess Diaries, are portrayed on the big screen by the Ann Hathaways of this world, and the Hermiones by the Emma Watsons.

CASE STUDIES

This sampling is by no means broad, but I did pick it off a shelf sort of at random – based on the fact that I’d heard of these books before.

NANCY DREW

First, the opening of the All New Nancy Drew, #9 of a series. It is called Secret of the Spa. This is a New York Times Best Selling Series, according to its cover, and was published 2005. I would like to draw your attention to the amount of airspace devoted to Beauty. (Bold, mine.)

“Nancy? Nancy? Earth to Nancy Drew!”

I blinked, snapping out of a daydream as I picked at some lint in my bedroom carpet. “Sorry, Bess,” I said, swallowing a yawn. “What were you saying?”

Bess Marvin, one of my best friends, dipped her nail polish wand into the bottle of pink liquid on the desk in front of her and studied me. She propped one bare foot on the edge of my desk.

“Weren’t you listening to what I just said, Nancy?” she demanded.

My other best friend, George Fayne, smirked and rolled over on my bed. “Poor Nancy had probably passed out from the nail polish fumes.” George waved one hand in front of her face and wrinkled her nose.

Bess rolled her eyes. Even though she and George are cousins, they couldn’t be more different. If Bess is everyone’s idea of the perfect girl, with her blond hair and pretty, feminine dresses, George defines the word tomboy. She keeps her dark hair cropped short — wash-‘n-wear hair, as she calls it — and lives in jeans and sneakers.

I fall somewhere in the middle of the two of them. I’m nowhere near as interested in clothes and makeup as Bess — I’m lucky if I remember to dab on a little lip gloss most days. And I occasionally might even forget to comb my hair before leaving the house. On the other hand I don’t mind doing a little shopping now and then, or putting on a pretty skirt and some makeup for a special date with my boyfriend, Ned.

Somehow, though, despite all our differences, our three-way friendship works. George and I do our best to tolerate Bess’s incurable love of clothes, Bess and I try to look interested when George starts rambling on about the latest computer gadget she wants to buy, and the two of them are always ready to help out with my own favorite hobby — solving mysteries.

What are girl readers to think, when the most important thing about Nancy Drew and her friends is the way they look and dress? I’ve quoted from the opening passage, which is significant, because the underlying message is clear: Nancy Drew may be an intelligent, shrewd detective, an improbable role-model with many talents, but the most important thing you must know — before you know ANYTHING else, is that Nancy Drew is sort of interested in clothes but not enough to make her one of THOSE girls, all beauty an no brains, but not tomboyish enough to make her a proto-Lesbian called George — strangely reminiscent of a character in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series.

On my own bookshelf, I also have one of the 1970s wave of Nancy Drew mysteries. Here is the opening to The Mystery of the Fire Dragon (1973):

“What else does Ned say, Nancy?” Mr Drew asked. He was listening intently to a letter his daughter was reading.

“Ned likes being a college exchange student in Hong Kong, and he has actually learned to speak some Cantonese, Dad!”

“Excellent. That, together with his study of Chinese culture, should make him very valuable in a number of fields,” Mr Drew commented.

Nancy nodded. “He’d like to go into the United States Intelligence Service.” Suddenly her serious mood changed. “Dad, listen to this.” She read, ” ‘Nancy, can’t you find a mystery to solve in this far-off colony, so I might show you around?'”

Mr Drew’s eyes twinkled. “Mystery or no mystery, Nancy, you just might get to Hong Kong sooner than you think!”

“What!” the attractive blue-eyed girl exclaimed. “You mean–?”

Before Nancy could finish the question, the telephone rang and she went to answer it.

“Aunt Eloise!” Nancy cried out. “How super to hear from you! Are you in New York?”

“Yes, right in my apartment. I want you to rush here. A most peculiar thing has happened. A real mystery for you to solve.”

The young blonde detective was intrigued and could hardly wait to get the details from her aunt.

As you can see, it was important in 1973 that Nancy Drew was ‘attractive’. We can’t have a YA heroine who isn’t attracive – not in 1973 and not now.

In 1973, it was also significant that Nancy Drew’s hair was blonde and that she had blue eyes, and I do believe race relations have improved since then. (A bit. Thanks to Oprah et al.)

But has feminism done its job? I don’t think so. In the 1973 version, the book opens at least with a functional conversation between Nancy and her father. The reader is plunged straight into the action of the story, which suggests the story itself — what Nancy does, rather than what she looks like — will be the most important thing about her.

In the 2005 version, Nancy’s main concern is how she looks for her boyfriend: “I don’t mind doing a little shopping now and then, or putting on a pretty skirt and some makeup for a special date with my boyfriend, Ned.’

I find that sentence pretty offensive, myself, especially in a best selling story published 2005. I prefer that the 1970s version opens with a conversation between Nancy and her father. Perhaps more girls had great relationships with their fathers back in the 1970s. I do wonder.

Just in case I picked an especially bad example from the All New Nancy Drew Series, I picked another at random. This one is called Mardi Gras Masquerade, published 2008, and it opens like this:

“Ow!” I shrieked. “You’re killing me!”

“Chill out, Nancy.” My friend Bess Marvin tugged at the zipper on the back of my dress. “Now, hold your breath.”

I sucked in my stomach. Bess gave one last yank, and the zipper slid up without pinching any more skin.

Exhaling a sigh of relief, I turned toward the full-length mirror in the corner of my bedroom.

“Okay,” I said, surveying my reflection. “That was worth it. This dress is totally amazing.”

Bess came over and stood beside me. “We could both pass for Mardi Gras queens,” she said with a smile.

Blech. The not-so-sub subtext reads: It doesn’t matter how brilliant a girl is at solving mysteries, women must suffer to look good. Even if she exudes the natural beauty of youth, she must suck in her stomach and put on a pretty dress. Only then may she look in the mirror and be pleased with what she sees.

And what about that last line? Is that a wink-wink to any adult readers, hinting at some sort of lesbian relationship between Nancy and her friend? Is the ghost writer of this series a man, by any chance? I’m seeing a flamboyant gay queen, myself, who fancies he identifies with adolescent girls.

Related: Nancy Drew/Hitchcock inspired photos from Bookshelves of Doom

Nancy Drew was obviously important. But is it because there were no better books for Hilary Clinton?

THE PRINCESS DIARIES BY MEG CABOT

This time I give excerpts, all from the first few pages:

Page 1 I’m practically the biggest freak in the entire school. I mean let’s face it: I’m five foot nine, flat-chested and a freshman. How much more of a freak could I be?

P3 The truth is, when he’s away from Lana and all his jock friends, Josh is a totally different person. The kind of person who doesn’t care if a girl is flat-chested or wears size eight shoes.

[Here we have the first mention of our protagonist’s major insecurities. Ok. Fine. I accept that this is to help ordinary teenage girls identify with Mia. After all, every girl has to have something physically wrong with her. It’s a Western Beauty rule.]

P4 [on a to-do list] Number ten: measure chest

P5 …then Lana Weinberger made that sound she always makes and leaned over to me so that all her blonde hair swished onto my desk. I got hit by this giant wave of perfume and then Lana hissed in this really mean voice… I don’t understand what Josh Richter sees in her. I mean yeah, she’s pretty. But she’s so mean. Doesn’t she notice?

[Here we go, is this the set-up of the classic beautiful but nasty character? Please, please tell me it’s not. Because beautiful girls who KNOW they’re beautiful have to be nasty, right? That’s another rule about Beautiful girls in YA chick lit. If they’re too Beautiful — and know it — then they are mean.]

Still on p5: Today I noticed that Mr Gianini’s nostrils stick out. A LOT. Why would you want to go out with a guy whose nostrils stick out so much?

[Of course, when girls are encouraged to spend so much time obsessing over their own looks, they’re not going to turn off their criticism when judging other people, including their teachers and mothers’ boyfriends.]

Okay, I haven’t read on. I find this a little painful, to be honest but to give this hugely popular series the benefit of the doubt, I assume some sort of character arc takes place throughout this novel, and that by the end of it, the Princess is feeling far more secure about her own looks. So I skip to the next book in the series and open it up.

Here’s what I find:

THE PRINCESS DIARIES TAKE TWO

P1 [The very first paragraph includes a beauty judgment:] OK. So I was just in the kitchen, eating cereal – you know, the usual Monday morning routine – when my mom comes out of the bathroom with this funny look on her face. I mean she was all pale and her hair was sticking out and she had on her terry cloth robe instead of her kimono which usually means she’s premenstrual.

So I was all, ‘Mom, you want some aspirin? Because no offence but you look like you could use some.’

[While I have had a bit to do with teenage girls and recognise the sarcastic voice, I am tiring of it a little. In general. Hell, no wonder our girls are so proficient at it! It’s already a bad idea, the way our society is set up, to stick a whole lot of teenagers of the same age together in a year group and have them spend all day in each other’s company, making each other more homogeneous. It is surely a truism that when you’re surrounded by a certain culture all day, you tend to absorb the ideas purported by that culture. When adolescent girls are constantly bombarded with Beauty talk, is it any wonder that neurosis over their looks is taken as a universal given during the teenage years? It is not for YA authors to write didactic sap and get preachy. Yet I wonder, where exactly does author responsibility begin and end? I’m talking here about the responsibility to send affirming messages, rather than simply milking the widespread insecurities of readers, as a cheap — and very effective — means of creating instant reader identification.]

P2: [Another list, this time of her biggest problems:] I am the tallest girl in the freshman class. I am also the least endowed in the chest area. (Number seven is: I don’t have a boyfriend.)

[I’m sorry, but in the scheme of things these are not big problems. While I can see, from my adult perspective, the white middle-class irony of this, I’m not altogether convinced it’s HELPFUL, including such things in a list of massive problems. On the other hand, Beauty is so important in our culture (Western culture, and every country affected by the West) that for girls with small breasts, indeed, this insecurity is felt keenly.]

P4: I can’t help staring at Mr G and wondering what my new baby brother or sister is going to look like. My mom is totally hot, like Carmen Sandiego, only without the trenchcoat – further proof that I am a biological anomaly, since I inherited neither my mother’s thick curly black hair nor her C-cup. So there’s nothing to worry about there.

[Still rambling on about looks. Have you noticed we’re still on page four? This book has wide margins, by the way, and the sheer amount of space spent on criticising looks – both her own and those of others – is worrisome. And typical of YA fiction aimed solely at girls.]

But Mr G, I just don’t know. Not that Mr G isn’t good looking. I guess. I mean, he’s tall and has all his hair (score one for Mr G, since my dad’s bald as a parking meter). But what is with his nostrils? I totally can’t figure it out. They are just so… big.

I sincerely hope the kid gets my mom’s nostrils and Mr G’s ability to divide fractions in his head.’

[Finally, the scrutiny of looks comes to a temporary end. Next chapter.]

P7 [Description of self.] Sex: Haven’t had it yet. Ha ha, just kidding Mrs Spears! Ostensibly female but lack of breast size lends disturbing androgeny. Description: Five foot nine. Short mouse brown hair. (new blonde highlights) grey eyes, size eight shoe.

[‘ostensibly female’… There is nothing in here to reassure any small-breasted girl reading this book that actually, owning small mammaries does not make her any less of a woman. Can someone who has read this entire series kindly let me know if there is EVER any clarification of this point? I believe the male equivalent is worrying about penis size? Yet I don’t see endless rambling in YA fiction about that sort of insecurity. Boys, unlike girls, are not having it shoved in their faces when they pick up a popular YA novel. For boys, novels — as opposed to the screen — are one welcome respite from the world where Beauty is all. What about our girls?]

So should I read on? Princess Mia is hardly an example of a strong female character, though I have heard her described as such. She is positively neurotic about two things – her lack of breasts and her height. At what point should this character stop reflecting the real-life neuroses of teenage girls, because all this emphasis on looks is actually INFLUENCING the young female audience? I remember this time in my life. I know how obsessed girls get over their looks, and how scathing they can be of other people’s.

If this is what they’re reading, then no wonder.

THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS BY ANN BRASHARES

sisterhood-traveling-pants

(How much did Levis pay for that product placement?)

The first chapter consists entirely of a group of teenage girls trying on jeans, obsessing about the size of their backsides and being magically transformed by a pair of pants.

Here are some excerpts:

Carmen glanced at the structured canvas bag splayed wantonly in the middle of her bed. Suddenly she wished she had all-new underwear. Her best satin pair was sprouting tiny ropes of elastic from the waistband.

[How terrible for her.]

“Don’t you think you should try [the jeans] on?” Lena asked practically. “If they fit Carmen, they aren’t going to fit you.”

Carmen and Tibby both glared at Lena, not sure who should take more offence.

[Does this sort of interaction in books reflect real life cattiness, or does it encourage it? I think it’s a matter of balance, and I believe the balance in this particular YA fiction goes too far. Do teenage girls themselves not tire of this constant bitchiness in books?]

Tibby had narrow hips and long legs for her small frame. The pants fell below her waist, hugging her hips intimately. They revealed a white strip of flat stomach, a nice inny belly button.

[We get a run-down of the ‘physical highlights’ of each character in this first chapter, in the same way pay-TV makeover programs such as What Not To Wear’ go out of their way to highlight ‘positive’ features and ‘minimise’ negative ones. The message here is that ‘All bodies are beautiful.’ But what’s the other message? That the cut of the jeans performs some sort of magic trick, all in aid of making the girls look more like that one Western Beauty Standard. Can anyone else not see the irony in this message? Note how the phrase ‘a nice inny belly button’ is not simply a reflection of this character’s attributes – the author may as well say ‘inny belly buttons are more beautiful than outty ones’, thereby influencing the Beauty ethos in Western culture. Why not just stay out of it?]

I wonder if the lives of these characters are going to change because the pants make them look better. Nothing can make me read on.

Then I picked up Knocked Out By My Nunga-Nungas, where we’re on to page two before the first application of mascara and dissing of an ‘unattractive’ (lesbian) PE teacher.

Etcetera, etcetera.

TWILIGHT

I can hardly talk about influential YA heroines without a passing mention of Isabella Swan.

These days it’s hardly worth making a distinction between a ‘character as portrayed in a popular novel’ and the ‘actress who plays her on the screen’. However, I won’t make any comments about Kristin Stewart, apart from to say that she is obviously inoffensive to the eye.

In the books, Stephanie Meyer goes out of her way to stress that Bella does not consider herself attractive. Of course she doesn’t. There’s no better way to create reader identification with teenage girls than by creating a main character who is insecure about her looks. Girls are cultured into finding something wrong with our bodies. It’s a rule. The more closely a girl fits society’s image of Beauty, the more effort she must go to in order to deny it. Say it often enough, and beautiful girls — in real life, as well as in Twilight — actually don’t see the Beauty that they do have.

This is a great shame.

Is it possible for a YA heroine to be at least ambivalent about her own appearance, by not really mentioning it at all?

Is it possible to write a YA heroine in which other characters respond to her brains, her wit, kindness or cunning, in the same way that other characters respond to Harry Potter; to the boy characters portrayed in Paul Jennings, Andy Griffiths and Morris Gleitzman’s books, and any number of mystery/detective novels aimed at YA boys, in which little to no mention is made of their looks?

Then we’ve got another subcategory of YA novels which do, indeed, follow the lives of teens who are not even close to the Western model of Beauty. In this case, the hero(ine) is not a beautiful character, but there’s hardly any question why: The theme requires it. The message in the best of these is that you can lead a full and rewarding life, including boyfriends and girlfriends, no matter what you look like.

I’m talking about:

  • Cookie by Jacqueline Wilson, in which the heroine is overweight. The main story is about how how Cookie and her mother might escape her father, but weight is hardly a non-issue, as it might be in an ideal world where YA Beauty were less important.
  • The DUFF by Kody Keplinger (in which DUFF stands for ‘Designated Ugly Fat Friend’)
  • Uglies by Scott Westerfield
  • Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan, discussed very intelligently (as ever) on Radio New Zealand by the wonderful Kate de Goldi.
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I would love my daughter to be reading books in which Beauty is a non-issue, but unless there is a shift in YA publishing  in the next ten years, I’ll be steering her towards books such as above.

I have met parents who would have been happy if their daughters were reading anything at all, including Dolly and Girlfriend magazines. I’ve met girls who read nothing but this kind of thing, and novelised versions of it, and I do think YA literature is influential in forming girls’ self-image, along with the combined influence of peers, parents, teachers, advertisements, TV series, movies, magazines and everything else that makes up this thing called Culture.

I do think adults need to look carefully at the books being marketed to the YA girls in our lives. It would be easy to gift an All New Nancy Drew and assume a strong, if old-fashioned, role model.

I don’t think that YA proto-chick-lit is quite the same as chick-lit aimed at 20-something women. Grown women are able to see the spoofy nature of female insecurities in a way that adolescent girls cannot. I’m not having a go at chick lit here. There are plenty of others who’ll do that.

It’s not just proto-chicklit fiction which does this, anyway. Take a horror story – sort of Twilight, but from when I was at school:

She had bought a new bathing suit for the party. To compete with Clair, however, she should have purchased breast implants.

[This may be thought in jest, but unfortunately it goes unchallenged.]

She couldn’t wait to see the rest of that hard body. She was already investigating types of contraceptives…But there was still that big question – when Bill asked her out. When was that going to be?

[This girl is one of the ‘tough’ characters in the story, who’s not afraid to snub her nose at authority. She knows she wants sex, and will even organise contraception, but she still has to wait for the boy to ask her out.]

– Christopher Pike, The Party (1988)

Girls are particularly vulnerable to the idea that Beauty is All, which is pedalled, sometimes overtly, more often covertly, in much of the literature milking their dollar, in the same way those Dolly magazines milk them, exploiting their insecurities, stroking their egos with one hand and slapping them down with the other.

Related Links

Talking about how fat we all are contributes to eating disorders.

Here in Australia, eating disorders are at an all time high. 2 % of the population will have an eating disorder at some point. 90% are women. Also in Canada, apparently. Even in India, among upper-class girls.

2 to 5 percent of college students are Bulimic. The ratio of females to males is 10:1.

The “Alternative” Female Actress, and why Hollywood has so few of them

Do Parents Teach Girls To Worry?

Anxiety Gender Gap: Girls don’t start out more anxious than boys but they usually end up that way.

Sexism In Publishing: It’s about more than just numbers.

Glamour vs Greatness – two books compared, one for boys, one for girls.

16 Books Celebrating Smart Girls from Story Snoops

Aerie, the lingerie brand of American Eagle, increased its sales by 26 percent in the last quarter of 2015 primarily on the strength of its“#AerieReal” campaign, which eschews Photoshop and employs models of a slightly larger size — and is described as “empowering” as if by legal mandate. Dove, the Patient Zero of empowerment marketing, has lifted its sales to the tune of $1.5 billion with its “#RealBeauty” campaign, cooked up by executives who noticed that few women like to call themselves beautiful and saw in that tragic modesty a great opportunity to raise the profile of the Dove brand.

— How Empowerment Became Something For Women To Buy

The Problem Novel: A constructed, artificial society?

“The Problem Novel” is a dismissive term for a realistic young adult story which focuses solely on the worst aspects of life: murder, eating disorder, discrimination, imprisonment, rape, drug abuse and similar.

The following draws heavily from Lecture 03 of Fiction For Young Adults, delivered by Prof David Beagley at La Trobe University. Lectures are available on iTunes U.

A Brief History Of The Problem Novel

Little Women is sometimes regarded as the first teen novel. A group of girls try to live their lives as normal. But it’s the middle of the American civil war. Their father is away and they are desperate for his return.

In this vain we have light mysteries such as those by Enid Blyton, The Three Investigators, Nancy Drew and so on. Those stories are cosy. The children return to their normal lives after they have neatly solved the mystery at hand.

The problem novel developed after this. Instead of living a normal, everyday life, the unusual, the danger, the disruption IS the normal situation. Ironically (given that these are called ‘problem novels’, rather than solving the problem of poverty or whatever the dramatic element is, the characters must simply learn to cope with their situation and survive through it. The protagonist is the victim. In other stories for children, the protagonist tends to help the victim.

The mid 1960s marked a guide change in the world as well as in children’s literature. The 1970s and 1980s gave rise to problem novels, in which the world flowed in to fiction. These are about death, loss and trauma, which test a child’s ability to cope. They focus on rites of passage.

The (Modern) Problem Novel can probably be traced to something like My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel in 1969, which is about teenage pregnancy. (The title comes from the health counsellor who tells the girls that to derail a boy from sex is to encourage him to eat a hamburger instead.) The subgenre of problem novels about pregnancy are called ‘Preggers Novels’. We also have A Girl Like Me by Jeannette Eyerly, published 1966, or Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones by AnnHead, published 1967. The formula for a preggers novel:

  • Worry. Am I pregnant? Oh no, I might be pregnant!
  • Discovery. Oh my god. I’m actually pregnant.
  • Revelation. Young woman tells her boyfriend/parents.
  • What do I do now? There are three alternatives: abortion, keep the baby, adoption.

The authors of these 1960s preggers novels approved the last option. It’s interesting, therefore, that a liberal minded writer like Diablo Cody followed the 1960s preggers novel script when she wrote Juno, which screened in 2007. That said, Juno is far more progressive in its attitudes. That’s because the Preggers Novel continued to evolve throughout the 1990s. The books themselves were better written and eventually we even started to see some preggers novels written from the point of view of the young fathers, e.g. The First Part Last by Angela Johnson, 2003.

The 1976 book Open The Doors was the first novel about sex which was not aimed at an adult audience. This book was difficult to get hold of (either because librarians didn’t want it on the shelves or because it was always on loan).

I Came Back To Show You I Could Fly (1990) deals with another unmarried teenage pregnancy but in this case the girl is a drug addict as well.

At the moment in YA fiction some storylines are reminiscent of the Problem Novel, but without quite the same intensity. There are currently many books which deal with:

  • sexual abuse
  • physical abuse
  • school gun massacres, prompted by the Columbine High School shooting
  • alienation in general
  • overturning bullies

Sleeping Dogs by Sonja Harnett, Tiff and the Trout… in all of these books the key character is the victim.

This is what Sheila Egoff was referring to in 1980 when she wrote her article The Problem Novel.

Criticism Of The Problem Novel

Egoff is not a fan of this style of story. In her essay she has a go at the very formulaic way these novels have become a construction industry, in a way. She identified several key elements in this type of YA book. She argues that:

  • These stories are not well written, pumped out because they are sensational.
  • Most feature a shocking ‘rite of passage’ which changes the character from a carefree child to a careworn adult. There is some specific thing which causes a change.
  • Therefore, these books focus on externals, and how things look to others – oh dear, I’ve been thrown out of society. S.E. Hinton’s book The Outsiders: ‘’Oh dear, there’s been a stabbing! I must run away!”
  • The protagonist is laden with grievances and anxieties, focusing on the alienation from the adult world, to which he or she is usually very hostile. The narrative is almost always in the first person, and its confessional tone is rigorously self-centred.
  • This focuses on a childlike concern about ‘me’. These are all very egocentric books.
  • The biggest problem in all of these novels are adults, who rarely if ever offer a loving, constructive solution.
  • These books have to almost outdo each other by becoming more and more sensational.
  • Writing style: Trite, stereotypical, patronising, presuming the readership cannot understand the real problems, wanting only the sensational aspects of the real problem.

To be clear, Egoff does not have a problem with such problems being dealt with. There are two quite separate issues we need to consider when evaluating a YA novel with grim subject matter:

  1. Are the topics appropriate for the readership of the books?
  2. Are the books actually well-written?

Other authors and critics have weighed in on The Problem Novel. Below are some quotes:

There is a plethora of very fine children’s books that mainly portray the writers’ disappointments, phobias and depressions, tales of punishment, injustice and loneliness. But one thing he always owes his readers is a happy ending, some kind of happy ending. Or a way left open for the child to spin the tale further.

– Tove Jansson

I remember thinking how refreshing it would be to read a book about young people who enjoyed life, did well at school, had happy relations with their parents, and neither became nor made anybody pregnant. But fictionally, I suppose, that would be a dull life.

– John Rowe Townsend

I agree that children need to be — and usually want very much to be — taught right from wrong. But I believe that realistic fiction for children is one of the very hardest media in which to do it … You get ‘problem books’. The problem of drugs, of divorce, of race prejudice … and so on — as if evil were a problem, something that can be solved, that has an answer, like a problem in fifth grad arithmetic. If you want the answer, you just look at the back of the book. That is escapism, that posing evil as a ‘problem’…

But what, then, is the naturalistic writer for children to do? Can he present the child with evil as an insoluble problem … To give the child a picture of … gas chambers … or famines or the cruelties of a psychotic patient, and say, ‘Well, baby, this is how it is, what are you going to make of it’ — that is surely unethical. If you suggest that there is a ‘solution’ to these monstrous facts, you are lying to the child. If you insist that there isn’t, you are overwhelming him with a load he’s not strong enough yet to carry.

– Ursula Le Guin

Pretending that there are no choices to be made — reading only books, for example, which are cheery and safe and nice — is a prescription for disaster for the young. Submitting to censorship is to enter [a] a seductive world … where there are no bad words and no bad deeds. But it is also the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted. And that is the most dangerous world of all.

– Lois Lowry, when The Giver caused controversy

Although there is still much hand-writing about Problem Novels, the trend is largely over. You know what put an end to it? They got more and more sensational until Daniel Pinkwater couldn’t resist writing a parody called Young Adult Novel in 1982. In fact, the era of The Problem Novel only lasted about a decade, mostly in the 1970s. The main body of YA literature continued to grow during and after this time in scope, material and diversity of topic.

Examples Of Problem Novels

Martin Waddell (Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?) also wrote The Beat Of The Drum, set in Belfast at the height of the troubles. The protagonist is faced with the problem of whether he should become the leader of the annual parade after someone is injured. Will I, or won’t I? Will I take sides in blame? Will I just leave? This is quite a confronting book, first written under the name of Katherine Sefton. There is some suggestion that he needed to do that because he’s a Northern Irishman himself, and might have been seen to be taking sides.

Once, Then and Now – three stories following a boy Felix through the second world war and the Holocaust.

Looking for X by Deborah Ellis is largely set in a single night where a girl is desperately trying to find an old homeless woman who can help her family, because her younger siblings are autistic. The family is trying to stay together.

Pervana is set in Afghanistan. Pervana is the name of a girl, whose father goes missing. This means her mother can’t leave the house, so Pervana has to dress as a boy. There are two sequels.

The Heaven Shop by Deborah Ellis

Tiff and the Trout is an interesting study of family dynamics dealing with divorce. Tiff has to decide between her mother and her father. The father is a quiet teacher, the mother is an active social figure who wants The Gold Coast. Dad wants the mountains. Set in a small town a bit like Mount Beauty of Victoria. The mountains and the sea symbolise the two extremes in the family.

Helicopter Man by Elizabeth Fenchem won the younger reader’s book of the year award, unusual because it deals with an adult theme of schizophrenia.

Dear Miffy some years ago shocked John Marsden’s readership when it first came out. This time, unlike previous ones, it’s not a teenage girl dealing with problems but a boy, and has sex, drugs, strong language.

 

Academic Reading

Sheila Egoff’s set of books called Only Connect which she edited over several decades. Rather than just being an updating of the previous editions each one is really a completely new text (which should probably have different names). See The Problem Novel. This is quite hard to get now.

Pam Harvey, Australian Journal of Teacher Education 2010, Bibliotherapy used by welfare teams in secondary colleges is a very different way of looking at the role these problem novels play for the readers. Who constructs the meaning? The author, fixed in the text, or is it totally the interpretation of the reader?

Hawks looks at Sonja Hartnett’s The Midnight Zoo, looking at the environment and the writing style.

Maureen Nighman from South Australia looks at the selection of texts by adult mediators (parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers) from ACCESS Realism in young people’s reading: the line between selection and censorship. At what point can kids choose for themselves?

Pattee, A. S. (2004). Disturbing the peace: The function of young adult literature and the case of Catherine Atkins’ When Jeff comes home Children’s Literature in Education, 35 , 241–255. Pattee looks at a novel which came out about 1999 called When Jeff Comes Home by Catherine Atkins, a very confronting story. Pattee highlights the criteria by which so many of these adult mediators make these choices, about what is or is not appropriate for child readers.

What’s Going On inside of Me? Emergent Female Sexuality and Identity Formation in Young Adult Literature by Evelyn Baldwin talks about sexual assault.

 

Realism Is Requisite

(See the Realism lecture from Genres in Children’s Literature.)

The characters in a so-called Problem Novel are people you could meet in real life, set in a place you might visit (even if the place isn’t actually real). There are no magic or supernatural elements. These settings will quite often directly influence the plot. The plot is often driven by the situation of those characters – how the character approaches, faces and makes choices. The key characters develop as a result of those choices.

Even stories set in other worlds, of fantasy, must begin with the probable, then later moves into something disrupting that. Even a movie like Shrek starts with the mundane, everyday world before moving into fantasy/adventure.

 

What is the point of The Problem Novel?

YA Violence and Abuse Problems – a Goodreads List

Best Teen Books About Real Problems – a Goodreads List

Sheila Egoff would argue that most Problem Novels are simply trying to achieve sensationalism as a marketing tool.

Patty’s article about When Jeff Comes Home (Disturbing the peace…) makes a similar argument to that of Egoff. It’s not only a stereotype of the story but of the YA as well. A template defines the reader as this standard teenager.

When Jeff Comes Home is told in the first person (surprise, surprise!) about a 16-year-old boy who has been held prisoner after being kidnapped at a bus station by a sexual sadist, kept as a sex toy for three years. This is not an uncommon story – there have been several cases of it, particularly in Europe over the past few years. The American Library Association immediately put it on a best book list, which raised a lot of hackles.

Harvey argues that these stories give young readers coming from an unfamiliar environment strategies to understand and deal with all these nasty things.

Patti quotes Michael Cart – The Problem Novel is an exercise in iconoclasm, taboo busting, shibboleth shattering. (Iconoclasm refers to the tackling of the boundaries. A shibboleth is a password at the boundary.) The problem is, in order to be realist, there is the implication that these taboo topics are normal – that it is normal to be kidnapped, to become pregnant while very young, to be abused.

Does Problem Literature create the stereotype, or does it reflect the reality? As each book pushes a boundary, the next ones have to go further. Where are the boundaries and how do we define them?

 

Bibliotherapy

Bibliotherapy is used by welfare teams in secondary colleges in Australia. ‘We read to know that we are not alone’ is from C.S. Lewis. The aim of bibliotherapy is to elicit change in the attitude or behaviour of the reader. The prescribed book is deliberately aiming to change the reader in a cognitive way, to the reader’s benefit. There are no bones made about its intention. The aim is for the reader to have a physical/emotional reaction to something fictional. When it becomes too confronting simply shut the book, returning to it when you’re ready. Literature is thought to serve a purpose – it implies that there is somebody who knows better than you do and that they have the right and the tools to make that change that needs to be made. So what is the difference between bibliotherapy and propaganda?

This is a contentious issue, because it rests upon a premise that this time of life is a particularly dangerous and destructive period.