I was told recently that being concerned about how we write men in literature when women have it much worse meant that I have misplaced priorities. Here is my elegant dissertation on why that’s a steamy load of poo. First and foremost, the two are the same priority. The issue is not boys versus girls, it is gender roles and societal expectations, which is a single coin. Insisting that it’s about tails landing down and not about heads landing up is as logical as it is helpful. Secondly, it reinforces the divide rather than repairing it.
I recently encountered an article bemoaning the poor treatment of men in YA fantasy. The thesis, sadly buried amidst a great deal of rubbish, was that impossible masculine ideals can be harmful to the self-esteem of young men. While this is reasonable, the author provided only two examples, neither of which were used well, and then went on to suggest that young women were NOT faced with such pressures, soundly blowing her own point to smithereens.
The argument reminded me of a graphic that flittered around the internet some time ago protesting a feminist double-standard. It depicted He-Man and Barbie, and claimed that feminists protested the unrealistic body type of a Barbie for girls, but that they were okay with the impossibly muscular He-Man for boys. (below)
The first fault of both the article and the graphic is that they fail to recognize why the female archetype gets more attention, and why it is more insidious. To put it simply, if a boy tries to be like He-Man, he will try to be strong, athletic, and confident. If a girl tries to be like Barbie, she will avoid exertion, starve herself thin, and try to act demure and submissive at all times. Both archetypes reinforce a gender dichotomy in which men must be strong and overpowering, and women must be weak and overpowered.
The second fault of both the article and the graphic is that they create an us versus them standoff. Those darn feminists, the graphic implies, don’t care about the troubles we men face. In truth, the creator of the image is actually making a feminist point. True feminists DO have a problem with the gendered pressures facing boys, both because it sets up a society that subjugates women, and because young boys can suffer greatly as a result of these pressures. Teen suicide rates, as we have seen, are over four times higher in boys than girls in the US.
The article tries to claim that young men have it worse when it comes to unrealistic characters in YA. She makes it a competition, boys vs. girls. This is a fight she can’t win, and one not worth fighting to begin with. Even in the examples she provided, both kinds of gender stereotypes are present, and the male characters still have the power roles. In Twilight, for example, Edward Cullen is the brooding Beast, Bella his submissive Belle. Strong & weak gendered ideals are a tale as old as time. Contrary to the article’s claim, men simply do not face aesthetic pressures to the same degree that women do, and the physical ideals men are pushed toward are less oppressive. The ignorance of the claim does not, however, mean that men do not face unrealistic ideals, or that a lack of variety in literature is not a problem.
Before completely discarding her article as ridiculous, which is easy to do, it’s worth pushing past the poorly justified rant to look at the kernel of truth. There are an abundance of supernaturally attractive male figures in YA romance (and in the media in general), which can lead young men to feel insecure and unattractive. This is true. To dismiss this in favor of the argument, yeah, but women have it worse, is not a healthy form of discourse. To use an extreme analogy, one should never dismiss the holocaust of the Jewish people because the genocide of Native Americans resulted in more deaths. Both were unfathomable atrocities. Its not a competition. To claim that one group does not have a right to their grievance is callously dismissive and does nothing to improve the issue on either side. All it does, in this case, is create the incorrect impression that feminists care only about girls, leading to ignorant internet memes (see above).
In the end, I left the article with at least one worthwhile scrap of wisdom (although it took multiple readings and one incredibly frustrating attempt at a respectful discussion on twitter). What I took away, aside from “avoid weighty topics in 140 characters or less,” was this: Conscientious fantasy authors would do well to include a wider variety of body types, both to improve the messages bombarding teens today, and to improve their writing. It’s not about boys versus girls, it’s about being good, moral contributors to the world of YA literature.
Your leading character is the eyes through which your audience sees the world, so what perspective are you asking readers to assume? I write a female narrator in a YA fantasy novel, so the article spoke directly to me. I think a lot about what kind of person she is and who she might become, but now I plan on keeping an even closer eye on the men in her life, too. This is a priority to me as as a feminist, as a father, and as a writer, and I don’t believe it is misplaced at all.