Friday, March 11, 2011

Prisoners, Sex, and Double Standards

A few weeks ago, I started watching Prisoner, otherwise known as Prisoner: Cell Block H in America and the UK. Australians, I give you permission to laugh. Believe me, if a foreigner started gushing over Days of Our Lives or As The World Turns, I'd be somewhat amused. I see you asking: what relevance does an Australian soap opera have to American YA literature? To that I say everything.

An undercurrent of sexism lies in American entertainment. It's on tv, it's in music, and recently it's found a way into YA literature. I'm not talking about sexism against women; that's been covered by my fellow bloggers. I'm talking about sexism against men.

In recent YA novels, teenage boys aren't treated fairly. For years, women have been against objectifying their bodies, but now they're doing the same to men. It's become difficult to pick up a book that doesn't have a handsome sculpted Adonis as the heroine's designated love interest.

Women have spoken against being treated like nothing but pretty shallow girls that need to be taken care of. When the same treatment is given to men, nothing is said. Is this because boys don't read YA or perhaps sexism against men isn't acknowledged in a male-oriented society.

Other times, male characters are made weak and docile in order to make the female lead seem strong. Bringing someone down in order to pull yourself up isn't feminist; it's wrong.

This is what I call double standards.

It's when a women screams sexism against a man writing a sexy female character who is seen as disgusting and slutty, then turns around and writes every male character in her book as being obsessed with sex.

It's when men are seen as stupid oafs in order to make women seem smarter.

It's when books like The Color Purple, that portray nearly all men as being abusive and/or rapists, are touted as symbols of feminism.

Then we have a trend that stretches back as far as the 80's. I'm sure some of you have seen 16 Candles, Pretty in Pink, and The Breakfast Club. What's something all of those movies have in common—besides Molly Ringwald and The Brat Pack? Our heroine never gets with the nerd. 

(I refrain from saying, the nerd never gets the girl because remember, neither men nor women are something to be won. We don't live in caves anymore.)

The heroine gets with either the handsome bad boy or the handsome rich boy; never the intelligent average guy. Seeing a problem?

Now, with the advent of books like Twilight and Fallen, we're faced with the same problem all over again. While our heroines are quite plain and average, their love interest must always be handsome and rich. Usually, he's a sexist jerk and he enjoys putting the heroine down on many occasions.

What happens to our intelligent, nice, somewhat nerdy/geeky boy? He's usually shoved to the side or acknowledges that the heroine wants a handsome, rich jerk. Remember Ducky?

The nice, intelligent boy is never attractive. At best, he's cute, like a little brother. Or, if the nice, intelligent boy is actually attractive, it's soon discovered that he is evil and has an alternative motive. Don't believe me?

Hush, Hush: Patch Cipriano is an attractive sexist jerk that frequently terrorizes Nora Gray. Elliot Saunders is an attractive nice guy that is initially open and friendly to Nora. While Nora is suspicious of both, we find out that Elliot is evil. He soon starts displaying controlling behavior and Patch must save her. Because nice guys are never actually nice guys.

Fallen: Daniel Grigori is a jerk that flips Luce Price off the first time he sees her. He continues to emotionally abuse her throughout the novel. Cameron Briel is a nice guy that tries to show Luce a good time. She frequently brushes him off and treats him like dirt. Both boys are equally attractive. It's soon discovered that Cameron is evil and Daniel is good.

Evermore: Damon Auguste is a jerk that frequently ignores Ever Bloom to fawn over her arch-enemy, Stacia. He is condescending and treats her like a child. He also refuses to get a divorce so that he and Ever can truly be together. Jude is a nice guy that helps Ever whenever he can. It's soon discovered that he is her soul-mate. Ever, however, is suspicious of him and soon stabs him in the back with a knife, believing him to be evil.

These are examples from three very popular books that have spent weeks on the New York Times Bestselling List. What do they teach boys? If you're attractive and nice to a girl, you must have alternative motives. The average nice guys are treated just the same. Kody Keplinger discusses double standards on her blog, but they're apparent in her work as well.

Twilight: Edward Cullen is a jerk to Bella Swan. He treats her like a child. Jacob Black treats her like an equal, but she doesn't like him as much as she likes Edward. When Jacob becomes attractive and muscular, he turns into a sexist jerk. Apparently, a nice guy can't handle good looks.

City of Bones: Jace Wayland is an attractive sexy jerk. He treats Clary like a dumb child. Simon Lewis is her cute best friend who has loved her for years. She chooses to date Jace in favor of Simon, even though she once thought Jace was her brother.

Blue Bloods: Jack Force is a rich jerk who has ignored Schuyler Van Allen for years. Suddenly, they are in-love, but he continues to lead her on. He goes back and forth between Schuyler and Mimi, his fiance, who is also Schuyler's arch-enemy. Oliver Hazard-Perry is her cute best-friend that has liked Schuyler for years. She preforms the sacred kiss on Oliver, bonding them together for eternity. Oliver cannot love anyone except for her, as she has literally prevented him from moving on. She chooses to marry Jack, ignoring the feelings that Oliver has for her.

Apparently, there is no middle ground. Either men are all sex-obsessed pigs, nice guys that will never get with the girl, or handsome sexy jerks. Are you seeing a problem? 

For years, women have been either sluts or sacred virgins. There was no in-between. Now they're perpetrating the same sexism they fought against.

How is it healthy to tell a teenage boy that being nice will get you nowhere? How is it right to say that intelligence = ugliness/evil and handsome = ignorant jerk? How can you praise books that say attractive nice guys are evil?

What does Cell Block H have to do with this? In that show, many of the men and women are very sexist. But the show itself isn't sexist. In fact, it mocks sexism by proving the sexist characters wrong. Keep in mind that this show was made in the late 70's, but somehow it manages to treat both sexes equally. 

The women say things like, “All men are idiots,” or “What can you expect from a man?” Yet they manage to show men and women in an equal light by making sure that the character's opinions are different from the show's opinions.

The Boondocks features many sexist and racist characters, but the show openly mocks racism and sexism. Why is it so hard for YA literature to do this?

Instead, we're treated to lines like, “Guys only want one thing.”

For some guys, this might be true. But for many it isn't. And the characters that think this way are never proven wrong. This isn't a bad romantic comedy. This is YA literature, made for teenagers!

I'm left wondering if I should give up on YA. This is what we're praising, forty years after the women's rights movement.

Next Friday, we're discussing adultery in YA. Tomorrow, the Duck will continue the discussion on sexism and double standards, focusing on teen author, Alexandra Adornetto.


  1. This is a beautiful post, Cory! It's unfortunate that this is an issue not too many people address. It's not just that it affects the self-image of teen boys (who aren't exactly the target audience for these books), it's also that it affects how teen girls perceive their relationships with boys, and the kind of boys they ought to date.

  2. Hmm. A very thought-provoking post. Sometimes I get so caught up in ranting about the heroines in all these books that I often forget that the love interests offer as much fodder for my rants! I just hope my own young adult offerings will not cater to these recent double standards. I want all my characters to be the best they can be even with their flaws. A character isn't supposed to be judged as 'being better' because of another character's actions and flaws; each character should be judged by his/her actions and choices. Thus, I have to say that many heroines and heroes are failing these days.

    That's why I love The Hunger Games trilogy. Even though Peeta as a love interest/hero wasn't as strong as Katniss when it came to games of survival and endurance, he was a lot more emotionally secure than she was. Both Katniss and Peeta had their flaws, but somehow they seemed to make each other better individuals. THAT should be the aim when writing a romance in YA literature: the girl and boy should help each other grow and become greater than they were.

    Instead, we're left mostly with romances that have the characters getting worse and worse with their egos, selfishness, and inane actions. Stop with the shallowness and stereotypes, please!

  3. I agree with Jillian, this is a VERY thought provoking post. Wow, it turns out that all of these garbage YA books are sexist in BOTH ways. And I'll be looking out for that post on adultery in YA.

  4. Wow. I actually thought something pretty similar not long ago while reading Poison Study. After being pleasantly surprised at the heroin's love interest, I realised it was a real shame that the love interest was always so obvious because of his physical attributes and the instant physical attraction between the characters. I'm actually looking for YA books where the attraction is *not* instant. I never made the connection with sexism. You have a very good point.
    It felt really nice not to know. It's not like it was impossible to guess, but I wasn't *sure* and it was really refreshing :) Have you read it? Do you know of any other YA books like that?

  5. So true, Cory. I'm really surprised nobody has noticed this before - the fact that a love interest needn't any more character traits than being handsome and rich.

    I'm wondering, are you guys planning on writing a post on the appeal of the bad boy in YA? If not, may I volunteer to write one? This is the best I can do to recommend myself.

    Once more, kudos for writing this. I can't wait for the next one!

  6. Lamia, I can recommend to you a few books that are like that:

    -The Darkest Powers trilogy by Kelley Armstrong (The Summong, The Awakening, The Reckoning)
    -Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore
    -All of Melina Marchetta's books (Looking for Alibrandi, Saving Francesca, Jellicoe Road, and Finnikin of the Rock)

  7. @Lamia: I've read the Study series and I was kind of saddened when I figured out that Valek would be her designated love interest. I was kind of rooting for the other guy, the one with the limp, just because you never see the disabled/minority/average guy get with the girl. It's sad.

    Thanks for all the support guys, you're all awesome.

  8. I'm not sure I'd say perpetrating the same sexism because for one thing, sexism as it pertains to women is a lot more foundational than it will ever be for men.

    But that's not actually my main observation, which is: I think the authors who write these characters, who are all simplified to the point of being flattened stereotypes, are themselves victims of a profit-driven entertainment culture that aims to cater to the lowest common denominator in order to maximize profit. I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately. People may know real people aren't like what they read in books but I'm not sure they all know that fictional characters can come in full-color HD as well as poorly animated black and white.

  9. Thank you so much for you recommendations, Jillian! I will investigate these immediately. Very excited :)