Thursday, February 11, 2010

Gender in YA

Who knows how often this has been blogged about, but I know #genderinYA is ravenously discussing it, so I thought I'd chime in with what a blog post can do that I won't be able to convey as well through Twitter.

As a female writer, technically still a teenager (age 19), I read books that appeal to me. I do not care if they are male or female protagonists. Most of my books, however, have female protagonists, simply because I read a lot of YA, and YA is mostly dominated by female progtags, perhaps because female writers dominate YA. And there is nothing wrong with this, and I do not understand why people are making such a big deal out of it. If guys want to write about guys, that's fine. If they do not want to write YA, that is fine as well. If guys want to write about girls, then cool. If girls want to write about guys, then cool as well. But as a reader, I am not bothered at all by the lack of male protagonists. I would not be bothered by the lack of female protagonists. When I read a novel, I don't really take the gender of the character into consideration. I judge the character based on how well-developed he or she is; not gender.

While it is true that boys read less than girls, probably because females dominate YA, I think we need to change this attitude. I do not think the answer to getting boys to read more is by having writers write male protags. To me,there is something sexist about this ideology, one in which women have for years been struggling to get rid of.

Writing used to be dominated by men, so there were tons of male protags. Now that it's dominated by women, with female protags, there's suddenly a problem in trying to get boys to read. And perhaps this has to do with cultural attitudes more than anything else.

My fiance Jeff does not care if a book has male or female protagonists. He read The Gemma Doyle trilogy and enjoyed it. And this is something because he's a huge John Grisham fan. But if Jeff can enjoy novels with female protagonists, then I do not see why other boys cannot. I don't think boys are born shunning books with female protagonists. They don't just start reading, thinking 'Gross! I'm never going to read a book with a girl main character!' Seriously, I think it has something to do with culture, and we need to change this.

I'm also of the opinion that true readers, true lovers of literature, wouldn't care about gender. So perhaps it's not just the fact that there are more female characters in literature. But whatever it is, the answer IS NOT to force oneself to write books with male protags, or to even advocate that writers need to write books with male protags for YA.

Yes, it's disturbing that there are dramatically less boys reading than girls, but it's even more disturbing that boys seem to have this inherent attitude about not reading books with female protags. This is supposed to be a culture devoid of sexism (ideally), and we're trying to figure out, yet again, something that involves more women than men. I'm willing to bet that if YA were dominated by men, no one would make a fuss about it, simply because it's been that way for most of human history. But now that it's becoming increasingly dominated by women (or is), there's a problem.

I don't know how boys are being raised in this culture, but someone out there keeps telling them what they can and can't like, and it's bothersome. Male protagonists are great, because guys can relate to them more, but I think it's healthy for a guy to see how a girl thinks. I mean, let's be frank, guys seem to have a harder time learning about we females than we do about them, and reading about a female makes that world a little bit easier. It's also healthy for a girl to see how a guy thinks.

I remember reading in Nathan Bransford's blog about gender in YA. One poster proclaimed that males want to read different things from females, which perhaps might be true, and said poster even admitted to being stereotypical before posting a lot of stereotypical male things: things being blown up, sex, drunkenness, implying there are no consequences to any of these. But, as I've said before, I don't think writing about these things is the answer, as it's only perpetuating male stereotypes, and let's be frank, those aren't positive things, and it actually makes me as a female question the intelligence of males. As a female reader, I like reading books with intelligent, curious characters, and that includes both male and female. I would think guys would want their sex shown in a positive light as well, unless they think getting drunk or having wild, promiscuous sex is somehow a positive thing.

In my new WIP, my main character is male, but that's not because of the lack of males in YA. I've written from a male perspective before, I've even had a short story published from a male perspective, and am currently subbing another with a male perspective. I just think this WIP calls for a male perspective. Whenever I come up with an idea, I don't really think hard about the gender of my character. I just choose a gender that fits naturally with the story, avoiding bias and sexism and stereotypes and all that.

Continuing on, there's apparently still a problem with, even if a female writer writes from a male perspective, boys apparently still don't want to read it, although they'll read male authors with male characters. I am not going to remain unbiased with this. That is just plain sexism, and though I may be insensitive for saying so, I think our culture needs to change this attitude. Seriously, like fast. There are boys out there who do read books with female protags or by female authors, but they're a small bunch.

Well, after all this said, what can we as writers do about it? We shouldn't have to do anything about it. It's society that needs to help boys change their views. Women writers shouldn't have to shape their writing around the desires of boys. No one should really have to shape their writing around anyone's desires.


david elzey said...

the gender of the protagonist is not the issue - boys will read about boys or girls so long as the character interests them.

the question about gender in YA has more to do with the expectations of the readers, and the thorniness the topic engenders (as witnessed in the twitter chat #genderinYA).

some recent research i've done for my MFA on what boys are drawn toward in their reading has lead me to post that information in sections on my own blog.

as i see it, the problem with boys not reading has nothing to do with the gender of the author and everything to do with authors not delivering what boys want from their reading. boys and girls are different (we have to agree on that point at the very least) and, for whatever reason, they want different things from books.

now there's still the whole problem with whether or not the culture drives the expectation, or vice versa, but in YA at least the reason buys often jump to adult books is because they aren't finding what they're looking for elsewhere.

Amber said...

I have noticed that when guys do read, they do read a lot of adult books. But my question is this: do these adult books have male protagonists? Do they read books with female protagonists. I don't have the answer. However, from what I've seen, the books mostly have male protagonists. And if the latter is true, I really want to know why.

david elzey said...

what these adult books with male protagonists have are characters they can relate to, or in some way answer the burning questions they have about what it means to be a guy. not always, but as a rule.

as a reviewer i see a LOT of YA with male protagonists that doesn't satisy me as a reader, and my wanting to understand why is what drove my research.

yes, boys will read about girls, and about love, but the characters have to ring absolutely true to them or they're out of there. holden caufield is the voice of every boy reader when he talks about his disdain for phonies. and what i have seen are a lot of unrealistic male portraials in YA.

also, anecdotally, i've had some boys tell me they don't like happy or uplifting endings tacked on, which runs counter to a HUGE movement in YA that insists YA must have a hopeful ending.

i think the answers are out there, but too many writers are too busy defending what they write to the point where they don't feel that they need to consider the audience. for many i have talked to it's "i write they story i have to tell" which isn't necessarily the story a boy wants to read.