Saturday, April 23, 2011

Wings by Aprilynne Pike: A Tractate on Beauty?

by: Katya

I chose to review Wings by Aprilynne Pike a few weeks ago, but after I read it again, I just couldn’t bring myself to care. The book itself is… fine. Not amazing, but certainly entertaining on a mindless, kill-a-few-hours-on-the-plane level. Its premise is original, though in many ways it can’t escape the trappings of the genre. But then I began to think about the thing that makes most people angry – the underlying message on symmetry and goodness – and wondered on the broader topic of beauty.

What’s a more mom thing to say than “Be yourself and everything will be fine”? How about “Beauty is on the inside”?

It’s definitely politically correct, isn’t it? In an era where eating disorders are a tangible affliction (8 million Americans according to DMH), where girls as young as five are made into models, where teens actually undergo plastic surgery; beauty is a hot topic. Common advice in teen magazines, when a girl complains about her body, is that she needs to love herself for who she is – meanwhile, the rest of the magazine is all about showcasing skinny, rich girls who look like they don’t have a care in the world.

Beauty is a dangerous topic when teens are involved. Dare I say, even more dangerous than *gasp* sex?

Well, maybe not more important, but definitely as important. Because we in developed (and developing) countries are all about making sure that teens are happy and well adjusted. We frown and admonish cases of bullying, but only after it’s over. We sympathize with people who contract anorexia and bulimia, and shake our heads at the injustice of life. We do that, just in case our callous behavior doesn’t push someone to strap on a gun and shoot their classmates.

But I digress.

Beauty in YA, as far as women go, is treated in roughly the following manner: The heroine is described as unassuming and plain, but underneath is a heart of gold that the hero always notices. The mean girl is always Barbie-perfect and rich. The hero is always gorgeous, because apparently boys aren’t subjected to the same pressures to look in a certain way that women are (read: The press doesn’t make the same fuss if it’s a guy).

“Wings”, in many ways, is a book about beauty. The main heroine, Laurel, compares herself to models, with her perfect skin and perfect body and perfect hair that doesn’t ever need shampoo. Romantic interest #1 is described being as ripped and tan, even though he’s only fifteen or sixteen. Romantic interest #2 has a face out of a classic painting. And the antagonists are misshapen and ugly.

I wish I were seeing things that aren’t there. I really do. Unfortunately, the message in this book can hardly be called underlying, since it is spelled out for the reader:

“I’ve seen troll babies so badly misshapen that even their ugly mothers wouldn’t keep them. Legs growing out of their heads, necks set sideways into shoulders. It’s a terrible sight. Long, long ago the faeries would try to take them in. But when evolution has given up on you, death is unavoidable. And it’s more than just the physical. The stupider you are—the worse evolution screwed you up—the less symmetrical you are.”


This paragraph is probably the most cited thing from the entire book, and probably what causes the most outrage. And although I see what was meant, I still think that this is a very awkward way of putting it. First of all, because what I think is described here is either a molecular or a genetic disease – it’s something that can happen to humans as well, although not to such a degree. But it’s not an evolutionary glitch and it certainly doesn’t mean that everyone who is not symmetrical is stupid. I think that this is just Tamani’s way of trying to get David into a cock contest, but the idea is still there, and it bothers me.

I recently saw an interview with the author, where she says that she would like to be friends with Tamani, but would, in all probability, be friends with David in real life, because he’s the kind of guy who sees people for who they are and appreciates them for what they are on the inside. Which is... kinda ironic, because at no point did his relationship with Laurel convince me that it was based on anything but physical attraction. Laurel constantly describes him in terms of his physical traits, and her own personality is hardly one that I would call pleasant. In the beginning of the book, she freaks out over a pimple on her back, worries about how hideous it may become, and quietly looks down her nose at people who are less perfect than she is.

I’m not saying that a main character should be all good and compassionate and understanding and beautiful. Of course not! The more flawed characters are, the more human they feel. The problem with “Wings” is that Laurel is selfish and bigoted and judgmental, and the text expects us to be fine with that. We, the readers, are supposed to sympathize with this girl, even though she has done nothing to earn our respect or establish herself as a strong heroine.

And this is where, ultimately, the book lost its appeal for me. I can’t say it made me angry. No, I just can’t bring myself to feel anything for it, because I no longer cared about the characters or what would happen to them. I couldn’t relate, because beauty is not what I center my world around.

I could say that “Wings” is a culmination of an ongoing trend in paranormal YA where the heroine is presented as perfect in spite of her many flaws, but you know what, it’s not the author’s fault that this trend exists. Oh, no. Writers don’t choose which books get popular, the readers do. And this is ultimately what everyone wants to read, what everyone wants to hear:

“Be yourself. As long as you are skinny and beautiful, nothing else matters.”


  1. Ah, Wings.

    It was the first book I read for the Sparkle Project and for the most part it was typical, fluffy, badly written but readable tosh. But when I got to the bit you cited above I was so angry. It reeked of ableism to me, not to mention how insulting it was for Pike to say out loud that if you're ugly and misshapen you're automatically stupid & not worth being loved. The trolls had no other defining characteristics other than being ugly and stupid. No real motivation, no character, no real background to speak of, they're just ugly and stupid and that's enough for them to be baddies.

    I know that wasn't what Pike was going for, few human beings are that cruel, but it just emphasies the lazy categorisation that's plagued YA - beauty = good and not pretty = bad, except in the cases of female antagonists, who will most likely be very beautiful and bitchy in the most stereotypical manner possible, with a side order of slut-shaming. For these books to keep pushing beauty as the be-all and end-all of a person's worth is horrible, especially when we've got enough fuckery going on with teenagers, eating disorders, horrible self images, photo-shopping, size 00s and the like. Maybe Pike should have thought of all this stuff before she let Stephenie Meyer pass her manuscript on to Jodi Reamer.

  2. Well put on the trends - it's not that we LIKE feeling pressure to follow the formula, but the fact is that that's what selling. And this blog is an exception - put out a book that doesn't follow it, and you'll get a lot of blog/goodreads reviews complaining that it doesn't follow the trends well enough. Sometimes I feel like most of the reviews I get aren't so much readers reviewing my books as cliques commenting on whether my outfit is up to date. You can put out a book that goes against formula and appeals to a significant niche, but is that niche going to pick it up when everyone else has given it 1 star for not pushing the buttons they want pushed?

    You see the same thing in movies - women aren't supposed to be THAT funny or confident, etc. There's no way to defend it, but the sad fact is that if you want your project to sell really well, the best advice is generally to stick the formula. Niche markets are harder and harder to find in YA these days. This stuff frustrates me to end.

  3. Wings. Wings. Wings.
    I keep seeing this one everywhere - isn't Miley Cyrus in a movie for this one or something? - and can't help but just gag at the cover. Too fluffy for me, it seems. I've read excerpts and excerpts but just haven't been able to find it's redeeming qualities.
    Is it actually THAT beauty-centered? How can they send something like that out to the public where young women will be reading that? I get the author has the right to publish anything she wants - morals aren't always taken into consideration - but the editor and such must have picked up on the fact that this author is pretty much screaming, 'Be bulimic! It's okay to have plastic surgery! Hate your chipped tooth, get it changed! It's not okay to have zits at 16!"
    I find that ridiculous.
    Oh, and great post!

  4. Yes, sadly everything you say rings true. Being an older woman, 44 years old, I feel the effects of society, especially men, doting on skinny, young and beautiful. The media is the worst culprit to exploit this. As you age it's difficult not to feel marginally depressed ever time you glance at your face in the mirror. It sure would be a different world if we all had to wear a mask.

  5. Yeah, that is sad. But I, as a reader, notice a good book when I read one, as my fellow torch bearers. I think that's a good sign, and that's why we try to promote good books out here. Perhaps it's time that we form a clique as well - I really don't think that when you go against trends, you're a voice in a desert.

  6. I think the reason why this book sells is because that up to the point where the above quote happens, it's actually pretty inoffensive. Cute, even. Maybe Tamani would merit a few cringes, but he's nowhere near as bad as Do-you-sleep-naked-Patch.

    The thing is that the publishing industry is like any other industry out there. Crudely put, it responds to demand. Twilight generated a new wave of customers who demand a certain product, and Wings fits the bill. It has a potential to sell, ergo, it gets published.

    Huh... and here I was thinking my degree won't come in handy.

  7. Have you read "The Equality Illusion" by Kat Banyard? I read it a little after 'Wings' and it was what prompted me to take this perspective in the review. The first chapter is dedicated to the effects to women's self-esteem and health caused by the popular notion that women must be skinny and beautiful. It's definitely insightful.

  8. Wings is probably my least favorite YA ever. I think it encompasses everything that's worst about the category--Pike's publishing story is full of nepotism; her prose is clunky; her themes anti-feminist, dysfunctional, disordered and heavy handed. She calls reviewers haters, too. I don't begrudge her success, but I just don't think her books are any good by any measure.

    I started to read the sequel once, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. And not just because panning the first book lead to the biggest goodreads drama I've ever engaged in.

  9. It's actually worse than you might suspect. The main character eats in a way that can only be called disordered, but the other characters laugh it off. I hate to link to my own review, but there are some choice quotes in it, here.

  10. No, I've not read that particular book. I'm going to go look it up, it sounds like something I'd get a lot out of . Thanks!

    I'm just tired of feeling so inadequate a woman as I age. I still want to feel beautiful, but its impossible to compete with the way our media displays women in magazines and such. I'm unable to look like that any more.

  11. The cult of beauty is not a personal problem - it's a malady of our society. The fact that the way women are treated is directly linked to our beauty (which in turn is a measurement of our abilities to reproduce) is not our fault. We're not the ones who instigated it, so why should we feel pressured to abide to it?