By Taylor Stevanovski
Young adult fiction began to be recognized as a distinct genre about thirty years ago—thus, it is relatively new in the grand scheme of literature. But even before it fully established itself it existed in a world that considered reading these works a negative influence for teenagers. This attitude characterizes the environment into which young adult novels were born: conservative although oftentimes referred to as forward-thinking, promoting what today would be considered antiquated gender roles. As some of the first novels of the eighteenth century were romances, these characteristics were only more magnified by the presence of a stereotypical virginal damsel in distress: a woman who lacks the capability to fend for herself in a male-dominated world. But with the development of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s and a revitalization of these ideals in the twenty-first century, paired with the birth of the young adult genre as a whole, a new category of romance novels for teenagers arose that embodies female power. Strong female protagonists are popular in young adult literature today, and the ways in which they have changed is monumental.
The first examples of young adult romance developed in the eighteenth century. Novels such as Pamela (1740) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) both serve as pioneers of their genre. While intended for women of all ages and the root of pop culture phenomena due to their mass appeal, these novels featured women protagonists under the age of 20—the primary demographic of young adult novels. Equally as notable as their youth are these women’s defining characteristics: the protagonists are naïve and dependent and they focus on courtship and marriage. Both Pamela and Emily are especially prone to fainting, a quality that encapsulates their aura of constant confusion and despair. And most important of all is the way their appearances are described: Pamela is “the greatest beauty in the county,” so stunning that Mr. B cannot help but abduct her (Richardson 53). Likewise, in The Mysteries of Udolpho the word “beauty” is used not only to describe Emily’s allure but also, on multiple occasions, the landscape, such as when Emily notes “the tranquil beauty of pastoral scenery; among flocks and herds, and slopes tufted with woods of lively verdure and with beautiful shrubs” (Radcliffe 89). These parallel descriptors reduce Emily, and other female leads in similar novels, to a passive role, merely to be observed and admired by their male counterparts.
In fact, words like “tranquil”are often used to describe Emily and Pamela, who are characterized by their virtue and purity. Both women embody the trope of the virginal good girl, innocent and unlearned in the ways of men or love. Almost every reference to Pamela is paired with an indication of her respectability—even the subtitle of the novel (Or Virtue Rewarded) demonstrates the importance of that quality. The novel is littered with synonyms for the virtue that Pamela exhibits; some notable examples include “so innocent and so full of beautiful simplicity” and “For beauty, virtue, prudence, and generosity too, I will tell you, she has more than any lady I ever saw” (Richardson 243, 475). Pamela’s goodness is dependent upon her chastity and docility, and her qualities became hallmarks of the genre at that time. Scholar Linda K. Christian-Smith notes that “the novels are structured around a dominant model of femininity, the ‘good girl,’ who is characterized by filial obedience and adherence to traditional romantic conduct centering around males’ control of interactions” (Christian-Smith). Pamela and The Mysteries of Udolpho, as well as subsequent romances from the same period, revolve around the pursuit of a lovely, pure teenager by an older, more sexually experienced man who prizes her charm and elegance above all. The women represented in these novels exemplify the catalyst of the damsel in distress, a representation that shifted as romance, and subsequently young adult romance, developed.
The novels often considered the first written specifically for younger audiences, and which catalyze the birth of the young adult genre, are Sue Boylston’s Sue Barton books, a seven-novel series about a teenage female protagonist, published between 1936 and 1952 (Walter). Even in the book cover’s summary of the first novel, Sue Barton, Student Nurse, the protagonist is described as a more whole, well-rounded character: she is “direct,” “outspoken,” and educated, with a funny and witty side. The novel and its sequels are written with relaxed, boyish language—the 1955 reprint summary uses words such as “pals,” “scrapes,” and “tumbles” (“Sue Barton Student Nurse”). Still, Sue maintains some qualities of the heroines who came before her: she has a beauty and grace that draws the attention of one of the interns. Boylston continues this narrative throughout the book’s six sequels, highlighting Bill’s proposal to Sue in Sue Barton, Senior Nurse and their marriage in Sue Barton, Superintendent of Nurses. As a series of romance novels, the Sue Barton series has the compulsory element of love, but it also has a more tomboyish, independent protagonist than its predecessors.
Christian-Smith notes that a transition in young adult fiction in the 1960s and 1970s—coincided with second-wave feminism, during which a “strain in gender relations primarily in sexuality”developed (Christian-Smith). Of course, it is important to note that young adult fiction had not yet been acknowledged as a standalone genre, despite the popularity of Sue Boylston’s work, and would not be accepted by bookstores until the mid-1980s. Thus the more popular books written before this time period, like Pamela and its contemporaries, were marketed as romance for all ages. Still, romance novels with teenage protagonists did exist, such as in Beverly Cleary, Betty Cavanna, and Janet Lambert’s work. In broader romance, trends of the ‘60s and ‘70s displayed what Professor Rita C. Hubbard dubs a “tentative female rebellion to male dominance” (Hubbard 113). For example, in Zoa Sherburne’s River At Her Feet, a young adult romance published in 1965, the protagonist’s crush pursues her instead of the prettier, more stereotypically “sophisticated” girls on which the genre typically focuses (Sherburne). This is not an outright dismissal of gender norms, but it does show a subtle shift, which coincides with the political and cultural climate of the time of its publication.
This change in young female protagonists from the late twentieth century continued into the early twenty-first century, but with the disappearance of the weak, innocent heroine new complications arose. Female protagonists possess other self-destructive characteristics, including a dangerous obsession with the hero. While older romances from the eighteenth century featured an elusive, demure woman who was chased relentlessly by an undeniably attractive man, the tables turn in more recent novels. Professor Cheryl L. Dickson explains that young adult romances often give an “unrealistic portrayal of intimacy development”: a (still usually pure) young woman falls in love at first sight and spends the entirety of the novel in pursuit of a male love interest (Dickson). The most commercially successful example of this behavior is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga (2005-2008). In the series, a young Bella Swan falls in love with a 104-year-old vampire and spends all four books obsessing over him, putting herself in harm’s way to be with him. In the second book, New Moon, Bella insists that she cannot live without Edward, and she races motorcycles, jumps off cliffs, and gambles with death in order to feel close to him. In the fourth and final novel, Breaking Dawn, Bella nearly kills herself becoming a vampire so she can be with Edward forever. In New Moon, Bella gushes, “There was just one thing that I had to believe to be able to live—I had to know that he existed. That was all. Everything else I could endure. So long as he existed” (Meyer 116). Bella’s infatuation with Edward is an example of the types of behavior common to young adult romance, and they illustrate the very real, potentially dangerous perspectives that these books offer their teenage readers. Professor Andrea Taylor goes so far as to say that the Twilight saga focuses on “an adolescent romantic relationship that appears in many ways masochistic” (Taylor 32). Bella relies on Edward’s protection, embraces the pain he causes her, and essentially worships him despite the negative impact it has on her. Despite these negative messages, the series won praise from many corners and sold astronomically well: Meyer earned $40 million in book sales in 2010 alone, and the throngs of eager Twilight fans inspired the creation of five Twilight movies from 2008-2012 (Pomerantz).
Similarly at odds with the development of the strong female protagonist were the messages of female sexuality embedded in other novels of the early 2000s. Young adult series Gossip Girl, Clique, and A-List (published between 2002 and 2008) depict a different but equally troubling ideal of romance. The ensemble casts of all three series are luxuriously wealthy, flaunting brand name wardrobes and dangling designer handbags off perfectly manicured fingers. Zoey Dean’s 2007 novel How to Teach Filthy Rich Girls explains the underlying message of all these books when it states, “You look hot. The straight men will want you, the gay men will want beauty tips, and the women will want to scratch your eyes out. If that isn’t the stuff of fairy tales, I don’t know what is” (Dean 52). Even though it is said in jest, this dialogue characterizes the broader messages of the series. The appeal of all of these characters, from alpha Massie Block of The Clique to socialite queen bee Blair Waldorf of Gossip Girl, is primarily their beauty and wealth. This only perpetuates an objectification and idolization of women’s bodies for their sexual appeal—for example, Blair dangles sex in front of her boyfriend like bait. Scholar Ellen Riordan writes, “Patriarchal society is structured in such a way that women and girls seek male approval, focus on their beauty, and act passively” (Riordan 291). These girls’ main goals are popularity, the hottest boyfriend, and the latest trends. Gossip Girl illustrates a perfect example of these male-dominated values: in the opening novel of the series, bad boy Chuck Bass attempts to rape a freshman at a party. Instead of being shunned and punished, he is rewarded with a relationship with the beautiful, unobtainable Blair Waldorf—and even more disturbing, in the television adaption of the series he is considered the show’s undisputed heartthrob. These novels, often dismissed as guilty pleasure reads, demonstrate the persistence of idealized images of women in romance, in which the heroines are not in need of rescuing but rather willing, encouraging participants in the male characters’ misogynistic behavior.
Most female protagonists in twenty-first century YA fiction fall shy of the extremes illustrated in Gossip Girl and the like. A trope of the quiet, more independent woman takes its place, one who has hobbies and passions outside of boys and beauty. However, a quality most of these books have maintained from the early days of Pamela and The Mysteries of Udolpho is that of the virginal, sexually inexperienced heroine—a theme that takes center stage in books such as My Life Next Door (2012) and P.S. I Still Love You (2015). A distinction important to note, though, is that this topic is not addressed with an emphasis on purity, as in earlier works. Rather, it is present because it is a relevant part of teenagers’ lives, and it is discussed frankly and realistically. Samantha, the spirited female lead in My Life Next Door, muses about the expectations of her first sexual encounter with Jase: “In movies, it’s all beautifully choreographed, set to an increasingly dramatic soundtrack” (Fitzpatrick 307). While protagonists of young adult fiction often are virgins, as were the protagonists of older romances, their loss of virginity is not treated as shameful or lacking virtue. It is embraced as the decision of a strong woman addressing her relationship as she sees fit.
Today the strong YA female protagonist is praised as the newest trend. A simple Google search displays thousands of links to articles recommending book lists with “inspirational protagonists,”“girl power,”and “badass heroines.” As scholar Samantha Genegel summarizes, “the female characters nowadays are much more self-controlling…the stories can focus on the development of the female protagonist as a successful woman and simultaneously a romantic being”(Genegel 15). Authors have taken this trend to heart and write book after book about teenagers that can wield swords, intimidate men, and embrace a liberal perspective of feminism. But these qualities are not always necessary to exemplify a truly strong female lead. Book blogger Kaitlin Hillerich complains, “Why are we limiting ‘strong’heroines to girls who are physically strong and can fight as well as the guys?” She goes on to explain, “Strength comes in many different forms…we need more diversity in what makes a girl strong”(Hillerich). Authors seem to be so careful to stay away from the weak girl trope that they have shifted far the other way. Many of their heroines reject any form of femininity, often just to prove a point. This sends out the message that more stereotypically feminine women cannot be independent or fierce. Authors who recognize the inaccuracy of dependent heroines like Pamela tend to overcorrect and craft the badass girl who embodies a clichéd physically strong female protagonist, which is not a requirement for a powerful woman.
The manifestation of the more realistic strong female character shines through in Atia Abawi’s 2014 young adult historical romance The Secret Sky. Fatima defies her family’s traditions simply by falling in love, and she must fight both for her life and what she believes is right in a gripping, often violent story. The words of her love interest’s father embody what she must fight for: “This is not a world where you can do whatever you want…You cannot dream of something and think you can have that in reality” (Abawi). Not only does Fatima struggle against obstacles created because of her gender—some of the same obstacles that earlier romance writers accepted when creating their heroines—but she showcases a powerful, poignant coming-of-age story about independence. Thus, Fatima demonstrates the female lead that modern YA authors are striving to create: a teenager with a life, a personality, and a dream separate from her boyfriend and the barriers she may face, one who learns and grows and changes throughout the course of the novel, and through that growth comes into who she is—a journey that the hero mimics as well.
Even today there are tropes in which the stereotypically air-headed cheerleader archetype is pitted against the less popular, more intelligent protagonist. But while these characters are still changing, it is undeniable that the heroine has evolved from the fainting Pamela to the type of girl embodied by Fatima: a character that mirrors the individualistic, powerful woman that girls aspire to become. The female protagonist type changed monumentally from the first young adult novels of the 1700s to the bestsellers that top the New York Times bestseller lists today. Female protagonists have shifted from weeping puddles of despair to role models, a change that augurs well for teen and adult readers of YA romance.
Abawi, Atia. The Secret Sky. Philomel Books, 2014.
Christian-Smith, Linda K. “Gender, Popular Culture, and Curriculum: Adolescent Romance Novels as Gender Text.” Curriculum Inquiry 17, no. 4 (1987): 365-406.
Dean, Zoey. How to Teach Filthy Rich Girls. Warner Books, 2007.
Dickson, Cheryl L. “A Psychological Perspective of Teen Romances in Young Adult Literature.” The ALAN Review 28, no. 3 (Spring 2001).
Fitzpatrick, Huntley. My Life Next Door. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2012.
Genegel, Samantha. “Girl on Fire: The Role of Female Protagonists and the Romance Genre in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction.” Master’s thesis, Leiden University, 2014.
Hillerich, Kaitlin. “Your Heroine Doesn’t Have to “Kick Ass” to Be Strong.” Ink and Quill. April 22, 2015.
Hubbard, Rita C. “Relationship Styles in Popular Romance Novels, 1950 to 1983.” Communication Quarterly 33, no. 2 (1985): 113-25.
Meyer, Stephenie. New Moon. Little, Brown, 2006.
Pomerantz, Dorothy. “Looking At ‘Twilight’ By The Numbers.” Forbes. November 16, 2012. Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. G.G & J. Robinson, 1794.
Richardson, Samuel. Pamela, Or, Virtue Rewarded. Rivington & Osborn, 1740.
Riordan, Ellen. “Commodified Agents and Empowered Girls: Consuming and Producing Feminism.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 25, no. 3 (July 1, 2001): 279-97. Sherburne, Zoa. River At Her Feet. Morrow, 1965.
“Sue Barton Student Nurse.” Amazon. 2008.
Taylor, Anthea. “‘The Urge towards Love Is an Urge towards (un)death’: Romance, Masochistic Desire and Postfeminism in the Twilight Novels.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 15, no. 1 (October 6, 2011): 31-46.
Walter, Virginia A. “Reviewed Work: From Romance to Realism: Fifty Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature by Michael Cart.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 67, no. 1 (January 1997): 79-81.