Category Archives: Hunger Games

The Message on Manhood in Young Adult Novels – Or, What Should We Teach Boys?

Think he’s a good little boy? {PD}

“But as we debate ad nauseam whether, for example, Bella Swan is a dangerous role model for young women, we’ve neglected to ask the corresponding question: what does it tell young men when Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are the role models available to them? Are these barely-contained monsters really the best we can imagine?”

– YA Fiction and the End of Boys, by Sarah Mesle

When I read the above quote, I realized it was a huge question than I’ve never considered. To be upfront and honest here, I’ll admit I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of all books with male protagonists, or even know what the best-sellers in the YA genre are (other than the really major ones like Twilight and The Hunger Games). But I’ve always hated how Twilight teaches young girls that romance will be magical and perfect, and how The Hunger Games allows Katniss to string along two guys forever without ever caring how that makes the guys feel. I’ve always considered what the impact will be on girls, likely because I am a girl. But yes, what do books teach young boys?

Well, my first instinct is to say boys don’t read Twilight because they want to be like Edward. Will boys actually want to become a moody, sparkly boyfriend who tries to keep his girlfriend safe by disabling her truck and not allowing her to go anywhere, all as a result of reading Twilight? Maybe not, but that doesn’t erase the fact that there really is no message for boys about how they should be, just like the only message you can take from it for girls is a really bad one. And stereotypes aside, boys do read, and some even read Twilight. We worry so much about teaching girls to be strong, independent and intelligent, that sometimes we forget to wonder what we are teaching boys.

Part of the problem is, as Sarah Mesle says in the article I quoted above, that it’s difficult to figure out how our society actually thinks men should behave. We have lots of stereotypes, of course: the overgrown child who lives in his parents’ basement, the slacker who plays videogames all day…or the womanizer, the muscle-bound dimwit, the emotionless action-hero. The great thing about literature is that it can examine stereotypes such as these, and subvert them. But replace them with what? Good values for men appear to be not abusing any power advantage their might possess as a result of society structures, and probably not getting too absorbed with their masculinity. Because we are not sure, in contrast to many cultures before us, that masculinity is really a very good value.

So we skirt around the issue, neglect to think about it, and forget to talk about it. But maybe literature is a good place to explore the place of boys and men in our modern world. After all, “how can a boy become a good man, if he doesn’t know what that would mean?”

Like I said above, I am by no means an expert on the YA genre, but let’s take a quick look at a few I have read. I mentioned Twilight already, and I really hope both boys and girls aren’t taking lessons on how to behave from those characters. Masculinity appears to consist of being a tightly controlled monster who is tightly controlling of female characters. Another big hit was The Hunger Games, with two nicely contrasting male characters. In this book, I got the feeling that Suzanne Collins was actually attempting to include a message to boys – that’s it’s okay not to be the big, manly hunter, and that boys who like baking can be useful in tight situations too. For some readers, it seemed to work, considering Peeta is a pretty popular character. I got annoyed at how being a decent guy meant letting a girl walk all over you, but maybe Collins was attempting to show passivity as not being bad either. (I still can’t buy that). And last up is the Harry Potter series, whose popularity seems like eons ago now that all these other book series have cropped up – but hey, it was a major series, and it had a boy as the hero. Harry Potter does have something to say about a boy growing up, and takes an oddly old-fashioned approach to it. He learns to take on responsibility, self-sacrifice and concern for others, not too different from the 19th century heroes Sarah Mesle talks about. But then, the wizarding world is a bit of a throw-back itself. How this journey would play out in the bland world of Privet Drive isn’t really explored.

(All the same, would you count Harry Potter as a good role model for boys? Have you read any YA books lately with an interesting take on “manhood”?)

Sarah Mesle’s argument is, in the end, that the rise of feminism should not mean the end of conversation on what “manhood” is for boys. Because one of the points of feminism was to gain new perspectives on both genders. Now, I have a funny relationship with feminism in general, because I do not agree with everything feminists talk about, but I can agree with this. Both masculinity and femininity can be taken to an extreme, both can be abused. We shouldn’t be afraid of pointing out stereotypes, or criticizing what traditional views of males and females get wrong. But we can’t focus on one side of the conversation only, and instill what we decide are good values in our girls, without setting up some sort of target for the boys to shoot at. And this includes the way writers write for them.

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Filed under Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Misc. Books, Twilight

Secret Admirers Don’t Exist

“I have a secret secret admirer. Not only is her identity a secret—but so is the fact that she admires me.”

Jarod Kintz, This Book Title is Invisible

It’s a bit of an awkward admission to make, but every once in a while, I need to give up on a guy more quickly. I think most girls have a tendency to do this – hang onto hope that the guy might actually have an interest in you, even if he’s given you zero sign of it. At some point, you just have to face the central premise of He’s Just Not That Into You. That is, that far too many fairytales, romance novels and chick flicks have trained us to think that maybe, just maybe, the guy has a secret flame for you. Even though he doesn’t show it.

(I don’t recommend that movie, by the way. It’s just barely okay, not to mention the fact it completely subverts the message it pretends to be sending, by ending the way it does.)

But really, does anything show better how rarely romantic fiction matches up with reality? (I wrote about this before). Worse yet, if we don’t realize it’s not reality, we’ll trick ourselves into thinking in unhealthy ways. Sometimes, in fiction, ridiculous situations are necessary because they make a good plot. But you can’t let them raise expectations – and I don’t just mean expectations that a tall, dark and handsome stranger will drop out of the sky and declare he is in love with you.

So, take the Hunger Games. I had no idea this book was so focused on romance, given the fact it appears to be about kids forced to act as gladiators and kill each other, but it is. Apparently, for eleven years Peeta was in love with Katniss and never said anything to her. This makes a very good plot! Katniss finds out she’s in the ring, ready to kill a guy who is apparently devoted to her, and she actually figures out a way to play this angle to her advantage. Then the author makes the tried-and-true move of adding in another guy waiting for her back home, and makes the situation a genuine love triangle. Very good plot! Bear any resemblance to reality? Not really. If Peeta didn’t have the guts to say anything to Katniss before, how did he suddenly get the nerve to say something in front of millions of people on national television?

Okay, so Hunger Games fans might jump on me here and say it makes perfect sense. But my point is, people read that and start to hope that guy they’ve never talked to might secretly have a crush on them back! You know, they were just to shy to say so! In this case, I’d like to present the character of Romeo as a counter-example. Strange, but I’m going to use Romeo and Juliet as an example of more-realistic fiction for once. Romeo starts off the play as a secret admirer of Rosalie, but can’t work up the nerve to talk to her. He just can’t. All he can do is moon from afar. And then he meets Juliet, forgets about Rosalie completely, and never does talk to her in the end. Yes, I’m saying I think it’s far more likely the guy will meet someone else he actually can talk to, before devoting himself to secret admiration for years on end.

To pick another work of literature as an example, let me bring up Mansfield Park again. In Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford makes the mistake of trying to make Fanny Price fall in love with him, and instead falls in love with her! Oh, the drama! Don’t we all wish that jerk who’s been breaking all the hearts of the women around us would fall in love with us, just so we have the chance to teach them a lesson? Fanny is, of course, far too modest to realize Henry Crawford has fallen for her, which is the only reason she doesn’t notice he has, because everyone else around her does. She is completely blindsided when he tells her how her feels (and he is completely blindsided that she doesn’t feel the same way – their relationship is an interesting subversion of the Pride-and-Prejudice-plot). But really, unless you are far more modest than Fanny, you’d probably catch on faster than her. But if you think that jerk really doesn’t like you, you’re probably right. Don’t hope he’s trying to disguise a mad attraction.

What? Am I being a spoilsport here? Am I ignoring the fact that guys sometimes do need time to work up the nerve to say something? No, let me clarify. I mean if he’s never given you any sign of interest, you just gotta face reality, no matter what fiction might try to tell you. He might need time to work up his nerve, but if he takes eleven years, he’s not working up his nerve. He’s probably not even thinking of working up his nerve.

Therefore: secret admirers might exist, but not for long. They either say something or move along. 🙂

There you have it – another reason why fiction and real life differ. Agree or disagree?

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Filed under Hunger Games, Jane Austen, Misc. Books, True Romance