There’s been some heat in YA literary circles over an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The topic involves whether or not YA literature adds value in teaching teenage boys and young men to grow into proper men.
The writer, Sarah Mesle argues that recent young adult novels have failed to serve boys and young men. All we get are bad models. Looking at popular examples like Twilight, we see very brash and careless male role models, and these models don’t exactly appeal or help teenage boys grow and shape their identities.
But in Mesle’s essay, one of the ideas raised was that manhood was supposed to be inherent, that there is this thing called “essential manliness”, and that YA novels should be portraying and supporting it. For instance, Mesle writes: “I actually believe in manhood as something that’s real, that’s inherently different than womanhood, and that is, potentially, awesome.”
On the other hand, author Malinda Lo disagrees and says gender is always constructed, dependent on time perior and culture. She writes that YA fiction can/should offer not one, but multiple affirming paths to shape those identities.
While I do agree with Malinda Lo that YA fiction can and should provide a number of positive role models, I disagree that gender is completely constructed. I believe to a degree that men and women are different essentially and neurologically, while functions and roles can change and evolve.
I remember from psychology classes that our brains are wired differently and men and women think differently based on evolutionary necessity. It’s the whole nature versus nurture deal, and psychology and English majors can argue all day on this.
Practically though, I find value in art and media that supports all kinds of identities. For young men who never knew their fathers, they can find role models in the “art and tradition” of manliness: http://artofmanliness.com/
It’s not so much a prescription and saying all other forms of masculinity is wrong — it’s just a fun, creative way of celebrating traditional values, interests and chivalry. Of course, young women too can learn how to change a tire!
In my own writing, I try to give different role models for teenage boys and girls that are in some ways acceptable, but others not.
I particularly like Alyssa Rosenberg’s thoughts on the Hunger Games:
Much of the books is about how [Katniss] sees two men, Gale Hawthorne and Peeta Mellark, and how their respective strength and anger and caring and tenderness serve them in a tremendously difficult time. I don’t disagree with Mesle that love triangles can come up short for men. She asks: “we’ve neglected to ask the corresponding question: what does it tell young men when Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are the role models available to them? Are these barely-contained monsters really the best we can imagine?”
But in The Hunger Games, Gale and Peeta’s embraces of their differing masculinities—Gale is a hunter and later a military commander and weapons builder, while Peeta is a baker, the son of a privileged family who attempts to share what he has, who is tortured and brainwashed by the Capitol, but with great effort recovers his gentleness—are equally compelling to Katniss at different points in the novels.
Both Gale’s anger and Peeta’s gentless and susceptibility have terrible consequences for Katniss. Neither man nor his version of masculinity is superior, and Katniss chooses between them based on her long-term needs, rather than on the grounds that one kind of manliness is correct.