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.”