Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Book Musings: YA Heroines as Accidental Role Models

Years ago, I read an article where Brittney Spears was critisized for being a bad role model. My husband and I had a long-winded debate about this one. I didn't see how Spears could be criticized when she'd never positioned herself to be a role model; she positioned herself to be a performer and entertainer. My husband, who is a junior high teacher and oh-so-very-wise about the workings of the teenage brain, disagreed. His point was that even though Spears didn't necessarily set out to be role models, by default she became an icon adored and emulated by teen girls across our country. Spears was (is?), in effect, an "accidental role model."

This anecdote brings me to today's Book Musings topic: YA Heroines as Accidental Role Models.

Love and romance has become a prominent feature in YA books over the past few years. The more I read, the more I wonder what sort of effect these stories have on teen readers.

I have come across at least 2 YA books in the past year where one of the love interests was a rapist and/or murderer. These are both books I would not let my daughter read, because I feel the main characters are bad role models. I would never, ever be okay with my daughter dating a rapist, and I do not want her reading about girls who find men like this attractive.

Another thing I see a lot in YA books are boys who mysteriously show up in a girl's house without knocking. They invite themselves in, show up in the girl's bedroom, etc. In my world, boy-I-just-met who shows up in my bedrom = stalker / creepoid. AKA, boy that needs a restraining order. In the fantasy world of fictional romance, I can see how it would be totally romantic for a sexy guy to just show up in your house uninvited. In the real world, boys who do this are creepy.

I even read an Amazon review by a parent who decided to censor a book that featured a teen heorine who never wanted to get married and never wanted to have children. This parent did not feel this heroine was appropriate for the teen readers in her life.

So what do you guys think about YA heorines as accidental role models for teens? Do you think teens are influenced by the characters they read about? If you're a parent, do you censor what your teens read?

(I'm purposely not mentioning any actual books in this post. It is not my intent to single out authors for criticism. My intent is to generate thoughtful discussion on a topic I am interested in.)

19 comments:

  1. I hate to say, but I kind of agree with your husband on the whole Britney Spears issue. As for heroines in YA, I completely agree with you on that. I've been seeing a trend of creepy men/boys getting their way in love and relationships. I don't necessarily agree with the parent censoring that YA book. Not everyone has to be married and have children to have a happy life. Another thing I've noticed in growing YA trends is the female lead character not really becoming monogamous in relationships. Lots of times I noticed the female lead already involved with someone, and someone else comes along that they are attracted to and they either want to kiss them or actually have kissed them. What happened to staying faithful in a relationship? Sorry, I'm kind of rambling on, but you brought up a lot of excellent points :)

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    1. @ Felicia -- you're right about the monogomy thing! Especially with the trend for love triangles. Great point, I hadn't even considered that!

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  2. I have to say I take the other side. While I certainly see some content (the very extreme and things like gratuitous violence, etc) needing to be censored, I don't think we should censor our kids lives to death. I think it would depend on context, and that is what's great about books. They are a great way for teens to explore the world- a world which is often a mad mix of grey and never black and white- in a safe ( ie fictional) setting. Now I don't know what the context of the books was that you mentioned- for example, was the rapist wrongfully accused? Mentally ill? Did the murderer commit accidental manslaughter? kill in self defense? commit a crime as a youth and ardently repent? Of course I don't mean to defend real crimes- but I think it does illustrate where these types of stories could potentially foster a more open thought process, possibly encouraging our kids not to instant.y judge a person or situation without first considering every angle. Or perhaps teach them that every being on this earth is capable and deserving of love?
    Or maybe its just junk;) But food for thought.
    And thenof course there is the fantasy aspect- in which case even adult books are ridiculous if you take them literally/out of context. This is a thought provoking topic:)

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    1. @ Kaye -- you bring up some great points here. Life is never black and white, although it would be so much simpler if it was! Thanks for your thoughtful feedback, I appreciate it!

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  3. Great discussion, Camille. I find myself, more and more, putting on the mom hat when I read YA. I don't want to censor my kids, but I also don't want my daughter swooning (someday, shes only 4) over completely bad guys, either. I think we are often more accepting of what we read/watch/or see in celebrities than we are in real life.

    I'm a very accepting, free spirit. I believe, basically, in live and let live. But I do want to make sure my kids grow up knowing what is safe and healthy for them. Being a parent is TOUGH. *sigh*

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    1. I get anxious when I see girls swooning over guys like Elliott in Masque of the Red Death or Warner in Shatter Me. I've been guilty of it myself, but I'm really careful now.
      I get that these are broken, bad boys, and some deserve a shot at redemption, but what happens to the heroine in the meantime?

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    2. @ Andrea - I have a 4 year old too! And that's part of what's been going through my brain a lot as a I read YA. I never would have given some of this stuff a second thought before I was a mom. It's tough to figure out! I think books are such a great way to learn about life and perspectives. Then again, the YA books written when I was a kid (AKA Babysitter's Club) is nothing like the YA being written today.

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  4. I find it fascinating that books, movies, and TV tend to skew our view of the real world. Nothing in real life is ever like it is in the movies etc. Kinda makes team life disappointing. ;-)

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  5. You probably shouldn't have brought this topic up with me! I have grappled with this issue for almost the whole time that I've gotten back into reading YA books. I think I have one foot in both camps. I think some people become role models out of sheer coincidence. These are the people who have near death experiences or are heroes during a crisis. They found themselves in a terrible situation and had the guts to survive. Then there are celebrities who, let's face it, have gone out of their way to obtain fame. I think these people are the ones your husband was talking about. People like Britney want fame and know for certain they are role models or at least that many fans are influenced by their behaviour. Otherwise, why would companies spend millions of dollars on them through endorsements?

    I've bemoaned the terrible choices made by many heroines in books (as you well know!) but I am hoping in my heart that what makes these books so attractive is that they're so obviously fantasy. It still takes a certain kind of person to become obsessive about these books and tropes but I really do hope the masses see it for what it is. Pure fantasy. I love The Hunger Games and Vampire Academy and fancy myself a heroine but in reality if I were ever put in that situation I would freak out and run away. Similarly, it's all sexy to read about a gorgeous guy jumping through your window at night because even the most imaginative book is still a book and we know it's made up. It's all a fantasy. If there was even the slightest hint that it could be a true story reality hits and what was so sexy becomes terrifying. Compare watching say, Dexter with something on the crime channel. I would hope that people can see the difference.

    I do think teens are influenced by the books that they read but no more so than other influences in their lives like their parents, friends and television. At the end of the day if the individual already has their head screwed on the right way a terrible YA role model isn't going to do that much damage.

    If I ever have children I won't sensor what they read/watch after a certain age (I'm not sure what that age is yet. My parents let me watch Terminator what I was five and I turned out okay). YA heroines can be just as much a precautionary tale as they are role models. I'll just try to influence which is which with my kids :)

    PS. Sorry I've hijacked your comments section!

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    1. Hey Lan! You are right, in the end is IS entertainment, and it IS labeled fiction. Still, I do worry about some of the female tropes being perpetuated out there. I think becoming a parent has really changed my view of media in general. I actually go out of my way to find non-Princess movies and shows for my daughter to watch. I don't want her to grow up with the impression that being a grown up female is all about marrying a prince and living happily ever after. Not that there is anything wrong with getting married (I've been married 11 years and I wouldn't have it any other way) but I think princess movies present a distorted view on the whole thing. I love Dora the Explorer because she wears fancy princess dresses but goes on adventures and helps friends.

      Oh, and thanks for reminding me about the Vampire Academy -- I keep meaning to pick those up!

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  6. New follower and I love what you have to say! I really adore your blog and wanted you to be recognized for it. I nominated you for the Liebster Award, so please come over and claim it.

    About your post, I couldn't agree with you more. But it just ins't in books. I always grow so frustrated how females in general media-stand points can be a bit misleading and hurtful to the generation that is growing up with them. Some girls grow up feeling anything but skinny is as horrible as any sin in any religion. Some are being shown the only way to be happy is to be in a romantic relationship and girls can't be happy with themselves as an individual. (To be fair, boys can receive very similar Role-Models.) Books can highlight the bad-boys and urge for the damsel in distress role.

    However, I also don't think it is just simply the book or the media. Like Yan above, I see these things as pure entertainment. Much like video-games and violent movies aren't always going to be the trigger. Not every girl will want the man in prison, overlooking his terrible deeds due to a book. I see those "negative" types of YA Heroines and Heroes as nothing more than guilty-pleasures. Somewhere in a lot of women, we want to swoon over a dark, dangerous man without any consequence. The book is just a fun escape and should always be carefully considered when it comes to inspiration.

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    1. @ Paige -- thanks for stopping by! You are so right on the "skinny" thing. Skinny body images are slammed continuously in front of females of all ages! Maybe a lot of all this goes into how we educate our kids and talk to them about images perpetuated by the media.

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  7. Such an interesting concept. I've never been really fussed. I was a thinking teen, so I picked up early enough that books are just books and not necessarily prime examples for real life decisions.

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  8. I agree with your husband -- like it or not, people who are in the spotlight, in national and international news, become role models. I don't think censoring books for kids is necessarily the way to go, but I think there should be a discussion about why a character chooses to act a certain way in a book/movie/tv show, and what your child would do if put in a similar situation.

    My dad used to tell us that everyone serves as a role model -- some good, some bad. Part of growing up is being able to identify those negative role models when we see them.

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  9. I'm not a parent, so right now, I truly can't see ever censoring anything from a child. BUT I might feel different about it when/if I become one. Then again, I used to read Stephen King as a pre-teen and see nothing wrong with it. LOL!

    Anyone can serve as a role model, but I do think kids are generally smart and will know a good role model from a bad one.

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  10. There is really no control over the heroines of a teen. If it wasn't a book, a pop star, or a movie star, it will be the bad girl in school. If anything, books give a platform to show why there is a price for being a hero.

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  11. This is an excellent subject to discuss! I'm very torn. I think as a parent I see things differently and I tend to lean toward the fact that I don't want my kid reading about something like a rapist love interest. On the other hand, I don't want them to be censored, to have the chance to read a variety and reach their own conclusions and to see different sides of things. But yeah... it's hard to know. I'm careful about what my kids watch on TV. My hubby thinks PG-13 is all good but my kids are 4 and 8, not 13. So I'm not really okay with that and we tend to work it out on a case by case deal.
    I think that the things they see and hear at school are actually probably much worse then books or movies, so maybe it's all pointless anyway. I'll be careful about age appropriate reading material, but not TOO careful.

    Oh, and I just read Cherie's comment and I actually read WAY inappropriate stuff from 3rd grade on. And I was a very sheltered child since we didn't have TV or anything. I wasn't allowed to go to friends houses to play either. So I read and that was the ONE thing I wasn't really monitored on and so I just read anything and everything I could. And I don't think it really did any damage to me or made me see things in a bad way.

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  12. I always thought it was a bit creepy when Edward just showed up in Bella's bedroom in Twilight (and also confessed to watching her while she slept!). I definitely think some teens are influenced by what they read, while others are intelligent enough to know that something is just a story. I'm not a parent yet, so I don't know what I'll do one day about "censoring" what my children read. I'd like to think I wouldn't have to "ban" them from reading anything, but on the other hand, I'm sure there'll be stuff that isn't at all appropriate for them! *sigh* I don't know yet...

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