Gina, in the scientific world, when they see that something is happening again and again and again, repeatedly, they don’t call it old hat. They call it a pattern.

John Clarke, The Games, IOC Man

Something that’s bothered me for a while now is the current profligacy in YA culture of Team Boy 1 vs Team Boy 2 fangirling. Beginning with Team Edward vs Team Jacob in the Twilight fandom and expanding rapidly to other series – such as Jace vs Simon and Will vs Jem in Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices respectively, Daniel vs Cam in Lauren Kate’s Fallen, and Dimitri vs Adrian in Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, to name but a few – the phenomenon has arisen as a natural consequence of so many boy-girl-boy love triangles. Despite the fact that I have no objection to shipping, this particular species of team-choosing troubled me, though I had difficulty understanding why. Then I saw it applied to Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy – Team Peeta vs Team Gale – and all of a sudden it hit me that anyone who thought romance and love-triangles were the main event in that series had utterly missed the point. Sure, those elements are present in the story, but they aren’t anywhere near being the bones of it, because The Hunger Games, more than anything else, is about war, survival, politics, propaganda and power. Seeing such a strong, raw narrative reduced to a single vapid argument – which boy is cuter? – made me physically angry.

So, look. People read different books for different reasons. The thing I love about a story are not necessarily the things you love, and vice versa. But riddle me this: are the readers of these series really so excited, so thrilled by the prospect of choosing! between! two! different! boys! that they have to boil entire narratives down to a binary equation based on male physical perfection and, if we’re very lucky, chivalrous behaviour? While feminism most certainly champions the right of women to chose their own partners, it also supports them to choose things besides men, or to postpone the question of partnership in favour of other pursuits – knowledge, for instance. Adventure. Careers. Wild dancing. Fun. Friendship. Travel. Glorious mayhem. And while, as a woman now happily entering her fourth year of marriage, I’d be the last person on Earth to suggest that male companionship is inimical to any of those things, what’s starting to bother me is the comparative dearth of YA stories which aren’t, in some way, shape or form, focussed on Girls Getting Boyfriends, and particularly Hot Immortal Or Magical Boyfriends Whom They Will Love For All Eternity.

Possibly I say this because the prospect of having ended up married to, vampirised by or otherwise magically linked with any of the boys I crushed on and lusted after in high school is a grim and frightening one, even if they had all looked like GQ cover models and been in a position to shower me with riches. (They didn’t, and weren’t.) As a fantasist, I well understand the power of escapism, particularly as relates to romance. But when so many stories aimed at the same audience all trumpet the same message – And Lo! There shall be Two Hot Boys, one of them your Heart’s Intended, the other a vain Pretender who is also hot and with whom you shall have guilty makeouts before settling down with your One True Love – I am inclined to stop viewing the situation as benign and start wondering why, for instance, the heroines in these stories are only ever given a powerful, magical destiny of great importance to the entire world so long as fulfilling it requires male protection, guidance and companionship, and which comes to an end just as soon as they settle their inevitable differences with said swain and start kissing. Notable exceptions to this theme can be found in the works of Tamora Pierce and Scott Westerfeld (for starters), but they’re bucking the trend, not starting one. And that worries me.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk

the Law runneth forwards and back —

For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,

and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

– Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

I’ve been trying to find a clear, clean word or phrase to express myself in this post, sadly without much luck. But what I mean to invoke is something of the danger of mob rule, only applied to narrative and culture. Viz: that the comparative harmlessness of individuals does not prevent them from causing harm en masse. Take any one story with the structure mentioned above, and by itself, there’s no problem. But past a certain point, the numbers begin to tell – and that poses a tricky question. In the case of actual mobs, you’ll frequently find a ringleader, or at least a core set of agitators: belligerent louts who stir up feeling well beyond their ability to contain it. In the case of novels, however, things aren’t so clear cut. Authors tell the stories they want to tell, and even if a number of them choose to write a certain kind of narrative either in isolation or inspired by their fellows, holding any one of them accountable for the total outcome would be like trying to blame an avalanche on a single snowflake. Certainly, we may point at those with the greatest (arguable) influence or expostulate about creative domino effects, but as with the drop that breaks the levee, it is impossible to try and isolate the point at which a cluster of stories became a culture of stories – or, for that matter, to hold one particular narrative accountable for the whole.

By way of demonstration, consider the following two articles: Women in Refrigerators, by Gail Simone, and Who Cares About The Death Of A Gay Superhero, Anyway?, by Perry Moore. Both pieces are concerned – legitimately – with the depowerment, torture and generally horrific abuse leveled at female and gay characters within the comics industry, by way of the comics themselves. Reading through the respective lists, there’s a grim inevitability to the conclusion that something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong. But when it comes to the reactions of creators whose works appear on the list, as Simone puts it in a conversation with Tom Peyer,

Every writer has jumped in with a defense of why they stuck THIS one in the fridge.

And the thing is, they’re not entirely wrong to defend their work, particularly if the aim is to counter the suggestion, however reasonable in the big picture, that they’re contributing to a wider, negative culture. Context is everything in both narrative and real life, and while the accusation is never that these creators deliberately set out to discriminate against gay and female characters, the unavoidable implication is that they should have known better than to add to the sum total of those stories which, en masse, do exactly that. And if the listmakers can identify the trend so thoroughly – if, despite all the individual qualifications, protests and contextualisations of the authors, these problems can still be said to exist – then the onus, however disconnected from the work of any one individual, nonetheless falls to those individuals, in their role as cultural creators, to acknowledge the problem; to do better next time; perhaps even to apologise. This last is a particular sticking point. By and large, human beings tend not to volunteer apologies for things they perceive to be the fault of other people, for the simple reason that apology connotes guilt, and how can we feel guilty – or rather, why should we – if we’re not the ones at fault? But while we might argue over who broke a vase, the vase itself is still broken, and will remain so, its shards ground into the carpet, until someone decides to clean it up.

In the end, it all comes down to individual preference and a willingness to change. I love a bit of romance with my stories, but when I look at the culture being created around true love in YA, it’s not something I want to be a part of. Even though I could explain, with eloquence and conviction, why the perennial woman in the freezer belongs in certain of my plots, having looked at it this way around, I don’t want her there. And so I go back to the drawing board and ask myself, how else can I write this story?

And the whole world answers: let me tell you.

  1. Andrew Kozma says:

    Well articulated and disturbing. I hadn’t thought about this as a trend or a cultural mob, but perhaps that’s because my own novels (well, manuscripts) are concerned with male MCs and single (and perhaps serial) relationships rather than triangles.

    Thanks for putting this out there.

  2. Alex says:

    Whenever I write I think about my high school years and my various crushes. There’s no way I’d want to be with any of them now (especially not forever in a vampire relationship). However, back when I was that age I would have loved to had the clear choice of two boys. How easy it would make the difficult years of confusion, low self-esteem, and rapid changes on all levels.

    With my raging hormones in control, if my lovelife had been reduced to a binary selection I would have felt that the rest of my life was under control.

    • fozmeadows says:

      It’s an interesting retrospective, truly. But I think that’s the imposition of who I am – we are – now: knowing that even though a binary selection might have felt cleaner, simpler at the time is not the same as believing things would have worked out that way, even if such a choice had been on offer.

      • Alex says:

        I think if the option had honestly been given me, I would have rejected it, mainly because my practical side would have kicked in. I would have made a choice, hoping that it would last a lifetime but secretly praying that it wouldn’t make it through high school. I knew there was so much to sample out there that one-true-love at seventeen was more of a prison than heaven. 😉

  3. Oh, I don’t know, I like Teams because I really grok people picking favourites – I remember at sixteen I was nuts about LJ Smith books, waaaaaay back before Twilight was a sparkly gleam in Stephenie Meyers’s eye, and I always had a Boy I Wanted Her To Be With.

    Two hot boys around, fine by me, though making anything too common a trope is generally inadvisable. But you should have the girl interested and invested about other stuff – like your example of the Hunger Games. Katniss is way more concerned about the mess she’s in than her romantic troubles, as you say. Readers being more into the love dilemma in Hunger Games isn’t the same as writers killing off the ladies: this isn’t an inherently harmful thing, or anything that Collins has done.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I agree that having the girl interested and invested in other stuff is a good idea; I also agree that the behaviour of readers is not synonymous with the intentions of authors. Collins isn’t at fault. And I certainly have moments of “but she should be with That Guy!” (or “he should be with That Girl!”) while reading various of my favourite stories. I suppose what I was trying to get at, at least in part, was a sense of negative sexual fixation.

      So, for instance: if there was a culture of male YA authors writing girl-girl-boy love triangles where female physical perfection was emphasised over everything else as the reason for the attraction, where the guy was allowed to waver constantly between both girls, and where a male fanbase was constantly talking about which actress should play the girls in the film and getting very publicly passionate about Which Girl Was Hotter, then I think a lot of people would be viewing that as problematic. Because it’s the other way around, though, nobody is much concerned. And… I don’t know. Using gender reversal as an example is not an exact science, but hopefully that makes sense.

  4. […] it distracts from the basic premise of the book: this is one I was clued into by Foz Meadows, when she wrote that teenagers reading YA fiction with a DLT as a background arc often get caught […]

  5. […] one, though, cos I think it’s been a bit hijacked.  Another thing that Foz Meadows explained in her short but excellent post on DLTs is that “to boil entire narratives down to a binary equation” severely undermines any […]

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