“Special” protagonists in YA Fiction
A few weeks ago, a post did the rounds on Tumblr, declaring that the reblogger was “not like other girls.” The idea that “girly” is negative is so pervasive that many young women feel compelled to assert their worth by pointing out that they don’t fit those assumptions, rather than challenging the existence of that bias in the first place.
In young adult fiction, a genre that is mostly written by women for young women, I have found far too many examples of the “not like other girls” syndrome. Usually, this is part of a romance — the guy is attracted to her because she’s “special,” because she’s not like the other shallow, superficial girls he encounters every day. The stories work as a kind of wish fulfilment: girls who don’t fit in, or who see themselves as plain or unremarkable or “weird,” are considered superior, are more desirable, and so are more worthwhile than girls who are more “girly” or stereotypical. But in creating a relatable protagonist, one who doesn’t feel pretty or popular or special, these books often feed into sexist ideas about women, suggesting that “normal” women are not worth much, and a girl must be “different” or “extraordinary” to count.
As with many problematic things, I first noticed it in Twilight. Bella Swan is a cipher of a character, with very few personality traits or interests of her own, but Edward Cullen falls for her because she’s “different” (although how a bland highschooler is different from anyone else he met in his 100+ year life is unclear). And not just Edward Cullen. Pretty much every guy in the books (who isn’t taken or related to her) is desperate to take her out. Because she’s not like other girls. Although she eventually meets some more developed female characters, the “normal” or “non-vampire” women in the books can be summed up by Lauren, the shallow, superficial girl who resents all the attention that Bella gets, and who Bella despises for no apparent reason.
And then I picked up Michelle Hodkin’s The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer. In theory, this is a haunting psychological thriller, with romance thrown in for a bit of spice. I’ve read half of it so far, and the novel pits “special” Mara Dyer against every other female character ever. Her dad is caring and supportive; her mom is overbearing, oversensitive and annoying. She makes friends with a kind guy at school; the only named female classmate is a stereotypical “rich bitch” popular girl who is out to sabotage Mara’s life because a boy she liked looked at Mara one time. Even when the police appear, there’s a reasonable, kind male officer, and a unsympathetic, whiny female officer. And among all this, we have the sexy, womanizing Noah, famous for pursuing (and then ditching) every girl in school. Literally. Literally every girl in school has allowed herself to be “used” (from the book’s perspective) by Noah, their reputations permanently ruined. But Mara… Mara is different. He wants to date Mara. Because Mara is special. Because, as he himself says, she’s “not like other girls.” Because she’s not whorish and superficial. Like all other girls are.
Yet the worth of these “special” girls is still entirely defined by the male gaze. Their “difference” matters because they are desirable to their extremely attractive, extremely rich, more than a little stalkery crushes. Other girls, who are superficial and slutty and dare to follow the tropes of sexual desirability, are actually undesirable, and so worthless and worthy of disdain. But the “special” protagonists (who are usually just really bland versions of a normal human being, rather than the walking stereotypes who surround them) are desirable, and so are worthwhile.
And that message sticks. It sticks, and it builds on internalized sexism that is already promoted everywhere you look. Instead of providing self-affirming literature for teens, it affirms a culture where “girls” are inferior, where a woman must be “special” or “different” to be worthwhile, and where all value comes from the right kind of sexual desirability.