Children grow up faster and faster nowadays. It’s not a new observation, people have noticed that a long time ago, but it’s always a little jarring to me that I could walk into any large chain clothing store and buy a 12-to-13-years size shirt for myself. Or get a pair of princess slippers that fit me perfectly. Or… you get the general gist.
And it’s not just a physical thing. With pre-school entrance exams, beauty pageants for kindergartners and parents self-publishing their ten-year-old’s poetry, it’s almost as if we’re barely giving kids time to be kids before we pressure them to succeed. (Full disclosure: When I was a pre-teen, my biggest concern was getting this month’s W.I.T.C.H. magazine on the release day.)
I also won’t be the first to point out that those early exams and pageants and other better-better-best competitions are more about the parents than the children. In this day and age, Western society expects people to be perfect, and some parents use their kids to get validation. “See, my child can already request dumplings in four languages!” “My child learnt to read before hir went to preschool, so we bumped zim up a couple of years!” “My child has superpowers and the government pays us to use zim to spy on Cuba!”, etc.
It’s an achievist culture, one that demands that, if you’re not the best, you might as well not try at all. Victory or death. The winner takes it all. Pretty risky way of thinking, given that you are one person on a planet of 8 billion, and the chances of you being the capital-B Best are very, very low. Common sense would dictate that you keep your kid away from that as much as you can.
We on the Lantern have already spoken about the various ways in which this culture is seen in literature: heroes and heroines are not just physically attractive, they’re stop-the-traffic-gorgeous and even supernatural creatures (or jaded multi-billionaires) are smitten with them. Every single one of their actions is perfect and leads to a neat, beautiful ending. They’re something to aspire to. They’re absolutely awesome.
They’re also unrealistic.
Yes, some people are really smart and accomplished and beautiful and they get together with other smart, accomplished and beautiful people, but they’re not nearly as flawless as some books would have us think. Part of the reason why I love “Looking for Alaska” by John Green as much as I do is that it features a manic pixie dream girl and doesn’t idealise her. She’s exciting and bright and untouchable, but she’s also petty and insecure and does shitty things to her loved ones, and the text doesn’t make excuses for her. “Solace of the Road” is focused on a girl, who invents a new, better personality for herself, and then runs herself into the ground trying to hold it together. And “Queen of the Dead”, the second book in Stacey Kade’s “The Ghost and the Goth” trilogy, is basically about Alona and Will hurting each other in every way possible.
We’re human. We make mistakes. And yet YA books don’t seem to acknowledge that. Some authors, in fact, are so preoccupied with making their protagonists perfect they actually take away any kind of responsibility away from them. Much like Anita Blake, who is always forced by circumstances into doing controversial things, the Mary Sues and Gary Stues of YA do all kinds of shitty things without ever facing consequences for their actions, or even being reprimanded by the text. My favourite example is how, after being a jerk to the main heroine for 200 pages of the book, Gabriel Merrick from “Storm” redeems himself by beating up Becca’s abusive ex, and then acts like he’s best buddies with her. Um, yeah, dude, you called her an evil slut, how about apologising for that? Or even acknowledging it? No? Not even a little? Why am I not surprised?
Another thing: A lot of casual YA readers remark on the fact that sex in YA books is… absent. More in-depth readers would also add that it’s problematic. Some books don’t acknowledge sex at all, while others are all about how casual/uncommitted sex is evil and will ruin you forever, but sex in a committed relationship is awesome. Very few books present sexual relationships realistically, or show the participants experiencing complex or conflicting feelings about it. Which, again, is a little unrealistic. Sex isn’t the centre of our lives, nor is it something that doesn’t affect us at all. “Zero” by Tom Leveen makes the bad sex a symptom, and not the cause, of the detriment of a relationship, but it’s a pretty rare example. Most of the time, YA sends the message that sex is only really okay within a loving committed relationship, and everyone who isn’t one hundred percent invested is evil at worst and not-respecting-themselves at best. Again, not much wriggle room in here.
So to sum things up: We heap responsibility on kids and young adults, expecting them to put their self-esteem on the line in some imaginary competition where their chances of winning are one in eight billion, and yet at the same time we don’t give them examples of being held accountable for your actions, or offer them some advice for the times when right and wrong get a little murky.
The result of all the above is a conflicting message, one that leads to a generation of people who are just as driven as adults, but with the maturity of young children. One of the more extreme readings of “Fifty Shades of Gray” (which I mention because of its direct link to Twilight) argues that Ana is too child-like and immature to make an informed decision about sex or give consent, and that the book actually encourages paedophilia. And while we may shake our heads at this interpretation (or just say: “I’m not wasting my time with this” and go install the newest WoW expansion pack), you can see where that person is coming from. Forgetting the number of times that children and childishness are referenced during sexual situations (but if you’d like, go to Jennifer Armintrout’s recaps and start counting) a quick glance at the text shows us just what a sum of conflicting character traits Anastasia Steele is: she’s never held hands with a guy or masturbated, and yet is something of a Chosen One in bed, giving magical healing orgasms like whoa! More at large, the story of 50 shades is basically about a man overcoming a lifetime of abuse and psychological trauma (that even his therapist couldn’t help him with) thanks to a woman who doesn’t know the first thing about relationships.
One might say that “Fifty Shades of Gray” is an extreme example, but it’s not the only one. “Divergent” by Veronica Roth has the protagonist Tris save the day (sort of) by virtue of her own speshul snowflake status. “Eve” hinged on the premise of a girl screwing the system by not screwing the supreme dictator (and no, that’s not nearly as exciting as I make it out to be). In the real world, we have a lot of teen authors hyped to be the next so-and-so, but only one that has the writing chops to actually back it up.
But that’s just literature examples, fiction examples. Surely it has no relevance to the real world, right?
Um, actually… in the real world, we have people like this guy, who basically wants women kicked out of the tree-house because we have cooties. We have products like make-up, high heels and adult dresses marketed towards girls as young as four and reality shows about child beauty queens, which blur the line between dress-up and sexualisation until it’s practically indistinguishable. We have politicians willing to take away the rights of a significant part of the population of their countries, for not being like them (straight, white, male) and not willing to submit to a role of secondary citizens, masking their true motives behind concern trolling and then outward hostility.
At the end of the day, maturity is not something that is measured by your accomplishments or the state of your body. You can argue it’s not something you can measure at all. It’s the balance you strike between being a good friend and looking out for yourself. It’s doing the right thing even if it’s not the best thing for you. It’s accepting that life is going to serve you a lot of shit, and not feeling bad about having not-so-nice feelings about it. It’s a lot of things, and recognising it (or the lack of it) in books is important because, as humans, we aspire to make our fantasies happen. Which ones would you rather make real?