I read Young Adult books. I know. It started with the Hunger Games, which is completely legit. I moved into Divergent and they made that into movies [now TV movies, sorry Shailene Woodley] so that was ok. Then suddenly I was purchasing anything that was YA and written as a series and set in a different world and had a female protagonist that goes on adventures. Many of these books are not really that good. But I have my reasons for reading them, reasons connected to what a student once wrote on a class evaluation: “everything we talk about in class is negative.” I teach social sciences, so we analyze society. Society often sucks. Even when we talk about cool things like America’s Next Top Model, I make them identify and explain how the show perpetuates racist and neoliberal ideologies. I know. But media awareness is an important skill. You can love what you love but you must always love with your eyes open.
Anyway, I read Young Adult fantasy series books because sometimes you just can’t read more about Aleppo and the prison industrial complex. Sometimes you just gotta’ read about a 17 year old girl with like magic powers or whatever. This is embarrassing but not really my point. Let me get to my point. Right after this next paragraph.
Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series is one I read. This is a very popular series but Maas is writing for a YA audience (and I guess some college professors too) so the characters can do immature things, and also there are plot holes sometimes, and there is a lot of crying. Lots of people cry. Oh and everyone has magic. And everyone is beautiful. And everyone is either 18 or 500 years old. I just read the newest book, Empire of Storms, because that’s what I do. Everything blew up at the end and I was so pissed that I actually went online to check reviews and see if other readers felt the same.
Here’s where I look like an asshole and the future looks a little brighter. Judging from the profile pictures, I’d wager most of the reviews I read were by teen girls and young women. Were they pissed at the ending like me? Nah, they were pissed at the lack of racial and sexual diversity, and the derisive sexual content. I know.
“This book has no diversity whatsoever. Every single main character is straight and white af [as fuck]. SJM [Sarah J. Maas] has like 50 pov characters between her two series, you’d think some of them would be a little different right? Right? Wrong” (Kimi).
Many criticisms were about how almost all the characters in this book were described as white people. Reviewers had iterations on this basic point: if the author could create a world with witches and fairies and magic, why couldn’t she describe like five of her bazillion main characters as something other than “golden” skinned? Excellent point, young reviewers. Double points for the phrase “straight and white af.”
“in her previous books we’ve seen only one woman of color and no gay or lesbian person. Whether the publisher insisted or she herself decided to show ’em all, but EoS [Empire of Storms] is full of queers. And all of them are dead or unimportant and shows up only in one or two sentences. Plus the only bi character romances a woman. So what was that? ‘I have gays and lesbians! Fuck off!’ scream? Diversity for the sake of diversity is a mock. If you don’t feel like developing queer-relationships than stay away from this theme” (Katerina).
Many reviewers noted how only a few marginal characters had queer sexual identities or desires, and only one main character declares a bi-sexual identity but then is specifically put into a heterosexual romance. Double points to this reviewer for shredding fake liberalism: the inclusion of queer characters as a nod to diverse representation but without treating their relationship stories as valuable as heterosexual pairings. Visibility does not necessarily mean progressiveness. Very excellent point, young reviewers.
“I’m not against these [sex] scenes, but also didn’t need them. They didn’t really fit the tone and even felt a bit forced into the story in several places. I actually wish the page time had been spent elsewhere. (So basically, YES, you can skip them and it won’t affect anything). If the sexual content is what’s stopping you from reading this story, the pages in the US hardcover to skip are…” (Cait).
Overwhelmingly, reviewers said the harlequin romance-esque love scenes simply got in the way of the storytelling. I’m still working through why so many books written for a young female audience have these sex scenes, but it’s clearly connected to how the media so often handles young women’s bodies and desires. In our society, young women are told that they should long for the objectifying sexual attentions of men. Of course, young women are punished for being sexual (that includes reading sex scenes), but there is an overarching cultural ideology that says young women want to be sexy and desired because they know these qualities will transform them into socially powerful adults. So I suspect these harlequin romance-esque sex scenes are encoded into young women’s literature because media producers assume their readership identifies with the female protagonists, and thus will want the female protagonists to be highly sexually desired by men, and thus powerful women.
The sex scenes were not “rape romancey” or otherwise sexually humiliating (although I have problems with certain gross verbs and adjectives Maas uses). Many reviewers simply noted that that they added little to the plot and could the author use that space to work more on character development and battle scenes? Double points to this reviewer for actually including the page numbers of the scenes so people can just skip over them.
I spend about three months in my Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies class teaching college students how to do this exact type of critical work, and also why it’s important to practice apprehending the complexities of a given social situation, to hone the tools necessary to make educated, layered evaluations. Students can still love America’s Next Top Model, but they never get to watch it again without awareness.
I don’t want to imply that I thought teens and young adults couldn’t come up with these criticisms, only that I was surprised by the sharpness and ease with which so many hit these points in otherwise generally positive book reviews. That is, that they were able to love what they loved but with their eyes open to critical issues of race, sexual orientation, and sexual representation. 2016 was a hard year, and no doubt 2017 will get harder. But my faith in the future has moved up a notch.