Friday, January 20, 2006

The True Love of Pure Desire

Amy Garvey has a post up at Romancing the Blog about her love for teen books. In it she asks:

There’s something incredibly pure about the romance in YA, and I don’t just mean sexually...In a YA book, it boils down to a smile, a phone call, a kiss – that one sparkly, head rush of a moment when The Guy proves that he likes the heroine.

Is that anti-feminist? Is a guy’s approval the thing to wish for, rather than your own?
I wrote a hasty comment in response to her question, but since this is something I've been meaning to talk about anyway, I'm going to expand on it more here.

It is anti-feminist (and self-destructive) to wish for a guy's approval rather than your own, but I don't think that's the dynamic that's really going on in most teen novels. Our most popular books for teen girls at moment are Valiant, Rebel Angels, Twilight, Red is for Remembrance, Avalon High, and, unfortunately, The It Girl and other Gossip Girl type books. I haven't read the last group, but from what I hear boys are treated like everything else: as a commodity. I have read all but the Magic series and the Meg Cabot's new book from the first group though, and I can tell you that the characters in them couldn't be less concerned with male approval, even though they may sometimes use it as a means to an end, or care about a the approval of certain boys.

In these books, boys are not just a source of validation. In fact, this often isn't even their main function. It isn't the male gaze that these girls long for; they're the ones looking at boys in sexual ways. Acceptance is seen as the golden ticket the girls need to gain entry to the next adventure, it's not a goal in and of itself. What the characters really care about is sex - and friendship. The purity that Amy talks about isn't just the absence of "grown-up problems" it's the focus on the girls' own sexual and emotional desires. Especially when it comes to sex, teen books are almost unique in that girls' desire is their own, - they discovered it, they found it. It wasn't shown or given to them by someone else - as often happens in Romance novels. Our main character may not understand her new treasure, and may even be frightened of and overwhelmed by it, but she is eager to explore it, share it, and enjoy it.

Teen novels are one of the few places where girls are not always forced to suppress their own desire or subvert their own sexuality at the demands of parents and the male gaze. Almost everywhere else girls are told both that they have no sexual desire of their own (unlike those horn-dog teenage boys) and that their sexuality is the source of a plethora of modern problems in todays society (sex on TV usually means women looking sexy, not men).

Amy hints at this when she includes "career conflicts" as one of those "grown-up problems." The girls in these books are rarely asked to put others wants above their own. When they are asked to do so (as they are in Twilight and Rebel Angels) it becomes not only a major source of conflict, but a major plot point. Unlike in real life, where their very desires are often treated with derision if not outright skepticism, the girls in these books pretty much always win the argument in the end. The few times they don't, it either means the problem went away or that more books are forthcoming.

As I've mentioned before, I get asked quite often about what's in all these books with sexy covers and I'm never quite sure what to say. The obvious answer is "not much" since even the steamiest rarely do more than hint at anything besides kissing. The real answer is "a lot more than most music videos, TV shows or movies" because girls sexuality - so often treated with scorn - is celebrated, and girl's sexual desires - which is normally discussed with silence - is often the focus of the story. In that sense, teen novels seem to be to some of the most feminist bits of mass media aimed at teen girls being produced today.

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