Does YA have a Gender Trope Problem?

Trope: the word itself sounds like some creeping troll or gargoyle perched on the lip of a gargantuan mansion, but in reality, the meaning of the word is far more underwhelming than rep it gets of the phonetic-associations we may imagine. Simply put, and taking it back to high school grammar, a trope is something you see frequently in a piece of literature – a theme, motif, archetype, you name it, it’s a trope.

Individual genres tend to cultivate their own peculiar breed of tropes and YA is no different. Some are pretty run of the mill, some clichéd, and some so odd and specific that you can feel the tween love plot unfurling just reading over them. But one in particular has been a topic of contentious debate: YA’s female-centric fiction armed with fem dominated protagonists. Whether the theme means three cheers for feminism, or a disparity that needs to be addressed, there’s more than one side to the issue.

The stats

According to 2014 research from Book Horn, roughly 60% of YA lit aimed at 12-18 year old have female protagonists. A bit lower on the measuring stick, in the 9-12 range, the same stats don’t hold true. In the latter range, only 36% of YA books center on female characters. The reasons may be manifold but part of the disparity is likely due to ‘cooties’-infested tween logic that boys are less inclined to read about girls than girls are to read about boys. This trope seems to have a sticky quality in the genre – think Hunger Games and other butt-kicking fems – and is a clear commonality in much of today’s YA books.

Gendered protagonist, ungendered world

Many YA reads with female protagonists, however, don’t live in the presupposed female-centric world. The aforementioned Hunger Games showcases a world of violence and virtue, not clichéd ‘girly’ fluff and frill. Others, like continued tops sellers The Fault in Our Stars and Thirteen Reasons Why, portray female characters that walk a literary landscape quite different from Hunger Game’s dystopic totalitarian-driven society, but nonetheless relatable to male and female readers alike. They grapple with ‘real world’ issues – mental health, young love, high school.

Of course, there’s still the insular worlds of The Clique and the likes, but overwhelmingly, despite the veil that a female protagonists brings a female world, the one we see through their eyes is anything but.


Calling for a new male presence

However, some still worry about addressing each gender equally. In 2011 the New York Times began calling for the genre to better engage a male audience by using less female protagonists. A call for more men is a rather subdued argument in today’s day an age, but perhaps a valid one in the scope of YA’s large list of female characters. Also, it may be even more valid when we get down to the meat of what’s really being asked for.

The plea comes from acknowledgement of the disparity between young male and female readership stats: Girls are reading more than boys, plain and simple. As a way to give male numbers a boost, introducing more male protagonists may be the answer. But, as the Times suggests, it’s not the testosterone muscled type they need, it’s the contemplative ‘real world’ type that admits empathy and emotion.

Teacher and author Jon Scieszka writes on his site that boys “don’t feel comfortable exploring the emotions and feelings found in fiction. . . . Boys don’t have enough positive male role models for literacy.” A greater influx of not just male characters, but protagonists that gut destructive and limiting notions of male-hood may be a step towards producing “the kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives.”

Image courtesy of NY Times

Fiction in flux

However, the answer may not be simply introducing more un-gendered literary worlds or more ‘real’ male protagonists. Today’s top selling YA reads suggest a trend, instead, towards dual male-female protagonists. From The Fault in Our Stars to Paper Towns to Looking for Alaska, the influx of dual (or near dual) protagonists has mitigated some gender banter and subdued some folks advocating against a dominant male or female voice in YA.

Offering dual-protagonists, or at least a flip flop between gender voices brings a lot more to the table than a single voice often can. It engages male and female readers alike and, potentially, can offer a helping hand in increasing male readership. Ultimately, increasing readership boils down to the something-for-everyone idea: Nothing engages readers more than relatable characters that stretch something familiar to the reader’s life, to the bigger stakes, gains, and takeaways of fiction. A protagonist’s ability to relate and simultaneously defy what a reader has experienced is key to engagement and keeping gender clichés at bay.

Thoughts on the matter? Share with us in the comments!

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