Feminism and Young Adult Literature

By Sierra Stern

I read a lot of young adult fiction, and I feel comfortable saying that because I’m totally secure in my intelligence. Affectionately shortened to YA, young adult fiction is a reflection of the ever-changing youth culture of our world. In recent years, there’s been a shift in the genre that favors inclusion. There have never been more books available for teenagers that place female, queer, and minority characters at the forefront, and the landscape of literature is expanding to be far more inclusive. That being said, the YA genre remains a breeding ground for harmful tropes and some of its very building blocks directly butt heads with fundamental feminist ideals. Is this a glorified book review? Maybe. Let’s dive in.

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Personally, when I’m reading trashy YA fiction, I’m not looking for the perfect feminist manifesto. There are some times when teenage life just barely passes the Bechdel Test, and I don’t think literature should dance around some of the fundamental truths of human existence. Sometimes we say the wrong things. Sometimes we don’t always do what’s best for society, for women. Being a good feminist is hard, and being the perfect feminist is impossible. Writers have to balance realism with whatever social agenda they want to project, and any obvious imbalance will result in an end product that is either too preachy or too bleak to be enjoyed. But what constitutes balance? How can we tell when the scales are dipped too far to one side?

You may have seen the 2018 coming-of-age dramedy Love, Simon, a feel-good film adaptation to Becky Albertalli’s book Simon Vs. the Homosapien’s Agenda. Both the book and movie detail the coming-out journey of Simon Spier, a high school sophomore keeping up an email correspondence with “Blue”, an anonymous classmate that he’s come to fall in love with. Thanks to these works, Becky Albertalli, a former child psychologist, has become known as a pioneer in inclusive YA literature, but even she isn’t exempt from falling into the pitfalls of political incorrectness. Another of her books, The Upside of Unrequited follows Molly Peskin-Suso, a girl that’s had dozens of crushes but can’t bring herself to act on any of them. Albertalli uses her psychologist experience to craft an authentic and diverse family dynamic for the Peskin-Suso’s. Molly and her twin Cass’s parents are an interracial lesbian couple, but these two descriptors don’t come across in the story as mashed together to meet an unspoken diversity quota. They’re just facts that form the fabric of Molly’s life, affecting her in realistic and natural ways. Point Albertalli. 

I didn’t realize people had a problem with this book until I was browsing Goodreads (I have no excuse for this/I lead a boring life) and decided to look at the reviews for TUoU. It has 3.99 stars. A two-star review liked 750 times criticizes the novel for being another retelling of the same old story. They summarize it like this: “The protagonist - Molly - is a self-proclaimed "fat girl" who always has crushes but never dates and/or kisses guys because she fears rejection. The story arc follows her journey to gaining self-confidence, which here occurs when her latest crush reciprocates her feelings. Is this a good message? Because, honestly, it makes me cringe.” I didn’t really interpret the book this way. Molly doesn’t think she’s worthless or ugly or undeserving of love. Her central question, rather, is “Why not me?” Even if Molly did think poorly of herself until she finds love (spoiler alert: she does), where’s the lie in that? It’s not a pretty reality, but self-worth is often tied to external validation. Molly even says, “But I spend a lot of time thinking about love and kissing and boyfriends and all the other stuff feminists aren’t supposed to care about. And I am a feminist. But I don’t know. I’m seventeen, and I just want to know what it feels like to kiss someone.” By acknowledging that Molly’s voice, actions, and perspective are imperfect, I think TUoU can still be considered feminist, or at least not anti-feminist.

Modern fiction has progressed in leaps and bounds. Less and less present is the saturation of manic pixie dream girls (female characters who "exist solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures,'' an archetype defined by film critic Nathan Rabin) and “everywomen” white protagonists. If politics have a place in any form of entertainment, it’s books, and I think that authors will only become more adept at seamlessly weaving feminist ideas into literature.