The more I read, the more I get to do the wonderful thing of comparing what I read. Whether that means I’m comparing the last book of a trilogy to the first two, one book to the rest of what the author has written, or comparing entire genres, comparisons give us a starting place, a jumping-off point to aid in description. “Compared to Book 1, Book 2 is dull.” “Fans of Series X will probably like Series Y.” It’s done all the time.
But one comparison that really struck me the other day was the comparison of male-oriented YA novels to female-oriented YA novels.
Now, I’ll grant you that I’m not comparing all male-oriented YA to all female-oriented YA, and I will state right off the bat that there are exceptions to this rule, as there are exceptions to every rule. But within the books and genres that I have read (speculative, dystopian, fantasy, paranormal), I’ve noticed certain trends that bear discussing.
Female-oriented YA is the one that will have the greater emphasis on love and romance. The world will be falling apart around the characters, but always there’ll be at least one moment of relative calm in which the lead male and female will discuss their growing feelings for each other. The female nearly always experiences strange feelings of attraction to the male romantic interest just upon seeing him for the first time. Upon arriving in a new place, the female protagonist will gravitate toward a new female friend very quickly; rarely is there a decent adjustment period or instance where this friend turns out to be anything but sincere. The story is driven mostly by character-interaction; action will occur, but it’s interspersed with long periods of discussion. The action that does take place often involves running from something, and most of the fighting that’s done is done with magic or other paranormal abilities. Either that, or the main character is saved by one of two options: the main romantic interest comes and rescues her, or a band of outcasts/rebels comes and rescues her.
Male-oriented YA is a bit different. Romance is often involved, but males don’t seem to fall head-over-heels in love as quickly, and while they may take a time-out to discuss their feelings, it tends to be more brief and often gets put on hold for more important issues, like everything falling apart around them. Action scenes are more comment, tension is a higher, and the action usually involves hurting someone or something in a physical fashion, with fists or feet or weapons. The main male will often have a greater adjustment period in a new place than a female would, trusts a bit less readily, and will make friends but often finds reasons to not get too close to those friends.
These differences were really highlighted for me when I read Robison Wells’s Variant. I had forgotten to read the synopsis before starting to read the book, and as soon as I learned, on the first page, that the book was written in the first person and the main character was going to a boarding school, I assumed the protagonist was female. There are that many books with a similar setup out there that assuming such was not a sexist reaction or me trying to impose my preferences for the main character’s sex. Seriously, how many recent YA novels can you think of right now that involve a female protagonist going to a boarding school where the book is written in the first person POV?
Now do a quick tally for the same situation, but with a male protagonist. The list’s a lot shorter, isn’t it?
So with that start, I couldn’t help but get into a comparative mindset while reading. I started wondering how the book would have played out with a female lead instead, if I was following the ‘typical’ pattern. The answer is that it likely would have been quite different. A female lead would have been more likely to play the Medic roll in the paintball wars. A female lead would have also probably managed to use her charms and rhetoric to win over more people for an escape attempt instead of essentially backing them into a corner. The leaders of both rival gangs would likely have become romantic interests, and if the main character’s heart wasn’t captured by somebody else entirely, she would have ended up with Oakland because he’s the bad-boy type. And there would have been many scenes with them getting to know each other, and plenty of scenes with Isaiah trying to convince her to break up with Oakland and stay with him instead.
The main plot points could have stayed the same, the story ending in the same place, but the journey would have been very different.
I am, of course, basing those assumptions on generalizations. But before somebody accuses me of being unfair and sexist, I’d like to point out that my above scenario didn’t come from nowhere. It came from the countless other books lining bookstore and library shelves that have those exact plot points, those exact characterizations, those generalities and tendencies. I just read them; I don’t write them. I could probably, within half an hour, write an outline for a generic paranormal romance that would end up being similar to so many other books and yet still end up getting its share of fans who claim it’s so original and the best book ever. That’s fine, if that’s their thing. But maybe female-oriented YA has become not only so formulaic but also so prolific that it’s time to take a step back and do something new again. Give us some more male-oriented YA. Give us some females kicking butt with their feet instead of with their telekinesis. Give us more cases where the girl’s more interested in escaping a bad situation than how close she is to her pseudo-boyfriend. Give us more situations where the girl gets out of trouble without needing her Tuxedo Mask to throw a rose at the bad guy.
It’s often said that male-oriented novels are inherently sexist because there are just more of them (I don’t agree with that, by the way). Not within YA, I think, especially with the new paranormal/speculative craze that’s still going strong. I seem far more female-oriented books there. But if I may be blunt about it, there are few things more subtly sexist than putting on the facade that females can do anything and then always having them run away from physical conflicts and having to be rescued by their prospective love interest. You tell a girl that she can do anything, be anything, that she could be just like the kickass heroine who changes the world in a book. But then you find ways to avoid making her get her hands dirty, holding her up to a clean ideal and letting her mere presence and personal goals inspire those around her.
That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed reading about Katniss in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. She hated being a figurehead. She hated sitting back and letting everyone else do the fighting for her. She struggled with romantic issues, but she put them aside when the bullets started flying and people around her were dying. And did she ever get her hands dirty! Those books broke molds. They would have broken molds whether or not the protagonist was male or female, honestly, but it seems that they actually have a lot more in common with the typical outline of a male-oriented story. Part of what made it all so interesting is that the main character wasn’t male.
I started this post honestly intended to have an unbiased discussion of the differences between gender-oriented books, and instead it turned into a bit of a diatribe against formulaic writing and negative gender stereotypes. I guess that’s the risk I ran. But I’m not planning to change what I wrote. I think even if I ended up in a different place than I began, my points are still valid.
Opinions? Comments? I’m interested to hear what others have to say on the subject, whether they’ve found the same things or have had an entirely different experience.