Morality in YA
Last week, I read Those Girls by Lauren Saft. I thought it was brilliant, but I know a lot of people had mixed feelings about the book so I went and read some reviews. I'm always curious about why people have differing opinions on books I adore and what I found didn't surprise me.A lot of the one-star reviews talked about the sexual violence and awful behavior on behalf of the girls - not the sex and drugs and alcohol, but instead their lack of ability to stand up to guys and recognize when they didn't consent, as well as their continuous slut-shaming. I completely understood why reviewers took offense to those things. But honestly? It happens every day, and keeping that from books or refusing to read books because they portray those things makes no sense to me.One thing that also blew me away about Those Girls was the discussion of rape - how Mollie's reluctance to have sex with her boyfriend was rape because she didn't want to, and how I didn't even consider that before reading blog posts on the subject. How blurry lines seem to me, a girl who should be aware of these things, in context in my regular life or in the lives of teens around me. I've already encountered some tricky situations dealing with racism, sexual violence, etc,. with people I have positive feelings towards and it's honestly hard to reconcile the idea of someone holding a hateful opinion with my image of them as a person I enjoy knowing and being around. I think YA should continue to convey those issues like in Those Girls - in the way that most teenagers encounter them.Those books don't condone any behavior that they convey. If all books did, we'd be in trouble. I was relatively quiet on the Andrew Smith issue because I wasn't educated on the topic at the time and never want to feed any flame - as well as with similar issues that condemn books for sexist attitudes they contained. (I tend to agree with this post on the subject - I don't understand boys, I don't pretend to, and I don't see anything wrong with Andrew Smith claiming he doesn't understand girls enough to write them well.)I've seen so many reviewers in the past year putting books on Goodreads shelves titled "will-never-read" or similarly-titled shelves (a common practice that made me largely avoid Goodreads for a while because I don't like seeing mean gifs and toxicity being encouraged even if they're in favor of positively-oriented causes.)But I don't agree with it because I think we deserve to give readers some transparency, some honesty, saying that these attitudes and screwed up ideas of right and wrong exist. I think we have an unfortunate habit of only writing these morally correct, lovely, accepting main characters and while I love to read them and I would love to be CONSIDERED one of them, I know so many people - many of which are teens like myself - who don't fit within those roles.
I have a few questions to readers and writers in general:
Do we want all our narrators to have well-developed moral codes? Is that realistic to teens or people?
Do we want to use these books to teach and reinforce specific values to teenagers?
A lot of wonderful people I know often say sexist, racist, offensive things and it absolutely bothers me. I immediately correct them or tell them why that isn't okay. I know so many people who confuse me because I think of them in a positive light then hear vile things come out of their mouths that challenge my impression of them as a good person. It's part of a struggle I'll always have with relationships with those around me, and one that most others deal with too. (And I'm not saying I'm morally perfect - I mess up or say something hateful and I'm glad when people call me out on it because it forces me to look at my comment and adapt.) But does it make it any less prevalent in the hallways, or in the conversations I hear around me? Absolutely not. I still can't help but hear it.
I will continue to tell people when their words and/or actions are offensive and make me uncomfortable, but that doesn't make the existence of those personalities or statements any less real. Diluting that in YA and condemning books with flat or sexist characters - not necessarily main characters - doesn't further the cause of creating a world with tolerance, one without that kind of toxic or harmful thought.
I remember reading Paper Towns and the narrator's friend referred to girls as "honey bunnies". Furthermore, after that character detail was introduced, the protagonist mentioned that he kept correcting his friend and telling him that it sounded sexist rather than cool, and that was accepted as a character flaw.
I just think books lose honesty if every book has to always contain characters that are morally correct (in whatever definition that may be) and live up to our standards. I always encourage flawed characters - but I'm tired of those "flaws" being restricted to specific actions.
Here's what I'd love to see: a book with a person who may have sexist or offensive ideas who finds his or her actions CHALLENGED and undergoes a personal struggle to overcome their hateful attitude.
It confuses me because I see us all rally over Banned Books Week, whose whole unadulterated purpose is to expose us to diverse points of view and ideas that have been restricted to us in the past. We're aiming to authentically (or artistically) portray the multitude of personalities and issues that surround us that are frankly cringe-worthy. How is this any different?
I've seen this so often in the past few years: books conforming to have narrators who are beautiful, accepting people. I love that. I aim to be one of those people. But I would also love to see more characters that I don't agree with - I'd love to read about people who say and do awful things because those people exist. People get angry about books being banned for sexual content or violence with the argument that it exists and we need to continue to have elements of transparency in our fiction because people learn through these books.
Instead of shooting down that contain books with sexist/racist characters, I think we should allow those books to exist and talk about why it's wrong. How could somebody think that way? How could someone hold such prejudice? We need to talk about horrors like Charleston and those poisonous ideologies behind those atrocities - and recognizing those toxicities among people we know in other contexts. Ignoring it doesn't help. Putting it on a "never-will-read" shelf doesn't help. Here's what helps: conversation. That's been the whole foundation for We Need Diverse Books, a brilliant movement within publishing.
I love our YA community and how many people are warm, kind souls with well-developed moral backbones within it. But we're trying to portray teenagers and I, as a teenager, am constantly working to clarify my sense of right and wrong. Why do we only have morally correct narrators?
Some of the books that have meant the most to me over the years feature flawed, mean narrators that I grew to understand but also disagree with. In the end, it was rewarding to see their character arcs and to see their hateful prejudices challenged in ways that led them to develop. Before I Fall, Speechless, Cracked Up to Be. I think it's important that those narrators exist in the way that people do - sometimes with the morals or actions that disgust us. I think it's important that we see those characters changed, that we see those characters challenged, because that carries over to real life a whole lot more successfully than morally-perfect narrators with blank-slate kindness do.
Speaking as a teenager, some books like that have given me the confidence to confront behaviors and ideas I view as wholly wrong in real life - opportunities I likely would have shied away from if I hadn't been given the confidence by fictional situations that only existed because authors had the courage to write morally screwed-up characters.
This is a pretty open discussion for me. While I'd love to see more characters who are confused on their moral codes - and more acceptance of books that contain dialogue or actions that we don't agree with or may rightfully label as hateful (in recognition that it doesn't mean the author necessarily condones those beliefs)- I understand many opinions arguing against those types of books existing.
I'd love to welcome any discussion in my comments or Twitter (but please don't be rude or mean towards me about my opinion - I'm a person, same as you. And I find it terrible that I actually have to write that as a disclaimer, but it happens. #KeepYAKind, y'all.)