Sunday, July 29, 2012

Money Money Money - the place of wealth in YA.


I hate to start yet another book post with ’50 Shades of Grey’, especially since it’s ridiculously high sales numbers in the UK leave both the leader of the opposition and myself incredibly depressed, but since it’s ‘Twilight’ fan-fiction and ‘Twilight’ is YA, the loophole works in my favour.

The fantasy male is nothing new in any sort of fiction. It’s certainly nothing new in YA. The figure depicted throughout the seemingly countless paranormal romances that still dominate the market, much to my surprise, may vary in the details but each hero is essentially made from the same mould: ridiculously handsome, aloof to the point of being a jerk, varying degrees of mysterious and personality, and in possession of much wealth.
To go back to clichés, let’s take Edward Cullen as our first example, since ‘Twilight’ was the template for so many bestsellers of the past few years. While the series was never chock full of plot or true character crises, much is made of the perfect peace of the Cullen family’s life, and one of the things that keeps them living in this lifestyle is their wealth. They never ever have to worry about bills, debt or the troubles that accompany them. Money serves as a very convenient plot device as well, allowing the characters to jet off around the world without worrying about cost. Bella is lavished with gifts by Edward, including a car, without so much as a second thought, and while Bella shows discomfort with such extravagant displays, it’s evident to the reader that this is one of the key elements behind the perfect life she seeks with Edward. True love may be what they fight for (and I’ll leave my rant on the series’ romance elements for another day) but the Cullen clan’s wealth is the icing on the cake. She need never work if she doesn’t want to, nor does she need to provide for her family (insert joke about Jacob doing that for her here).

Of course, being fan-fiction, ’50 Shades of Grey’ places a much bigger emphasis on Christian/Edward’s mind-boggling wealth (a billionaire before 30? Are we sure the vampires are less realistic?) with its numerous over-the-top buying of gifts for Anastacia/Bella, helicopter flights and generally obnoxious displays of wealth. This isn’t limited to sparkle-motion: Damon from Alyson Noel’s Immortals series is incredibly wealthy and happy to let heroine Ever see it as he woos her. Melissa de la Cruz’s Blue Bloods series centres on vampire-angel socialites with money to spare. From ‘The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer’ to ‘The Goddess Test’ and countless other YAs I haven’t even begun to mention, money is unavoidable. Of course it is, this is the society we live in. I haven’t even started on the plethora of romance novels that feature billionaire Greeks with yachts who seduce the shy but beautiful maid into a life of decadence and 24 hour sex on silk sheets.
As someone who recently graduated from university and is trawling the employment market during some of the most difficult economic times my country has ever experienced (see my twitter feed for further anger relating to this), money is on my mind a lot, as it is for most people. In the realm of the romantic fantasy, it’s practically programmed into the formula for the happy ever after to include that level of financial security. Love may be all you need but weddings and mortgage payments don’t come as part of the deal.

It’s also an easy trope to fall back on in literary terms. Bella never would have been able to save Edward from the most convoluted and overdramatic suicide attempt ever conceived if the Cullens hadn’t had unlimited financial resources to jet halfway across the globe. A blank cheque is something of a ‘get out of jail free’ card for authors. It allows for big plot developments with relative ease in a way that was only previously dealt with through dismissals of magic. The ability to skip the more humdrum elements of real life, such as jobs and bills, is made all the easier and leaves more room for romantic staring matches.

I must admit that my own politics play into my asking this question. I’ve made no secret of my left leanings and my less than clean language choices in relation to my current government. Frankly, I’m a little sick of this worshipping of the rich, even more so in YA. When a significant portion of the mainstream bestselling YA market is dedicated not only to obsessive dedication to questionable romances, but to the deifying of wealth over respect, it raises many questions. I think for many authors it feels like a natural progression of the typical idea of perfection (which I also find staggeringly boring): rich, beautiful, mysterious, bouncy hair and utterly devoted to you. It’s also easier, as I have mentioned, on a plotting scale. It’s a natural progression from the age old tales of princes and princesses, which has seen a resurgence in the past couple of years thanks to the Will & Kate Royal Wedding. The fairy-tale sheen still calls for an unnatural focus on wealth.

Of course, it’s not fair to lay one’s focus solely on YA for this matter. Turn on your TV, pick up a newspaper or one of the countless magazines aimed at both men and women, listen to music or hit a letter on Google. We love things. Things we can covet, buy, sell and update for the newer model. It’s a capitalist system so of course this is what we do. I like to buy things, especially books and theatre tickets, but to have wealth inextricably tied to happiness is a sad but inevitable marker of our system. Want to be happy? Buy these shoes or those earrings, or even better, get your boyfriend to buy them for you. Nothing says equality in a relationship quite like the man having sole control over the expenses.

I’m not saying we need to tear down the system (yes, I am), or demand an influx of socialist based YA where the kick-ass smart girl dumps the vampire because he’s a tool of the conservative society that selfishly feeds on the lower classes, then goes to join CND and falls for a feminist union worker (actually yes, I want this very badly). However, maybe it is time that we take a step back a re-evaluate what our teenage media depicts as necessary tools for one’s happiness, and maybe find some new plot devices. Maybe when the economy picks up we’ll all decide to read and write about socialist vampires and Marxist love triangles. Too much to hope for?

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