Monday, June 16, 2008

Do teenage boys need books with weak female characters?

Author Ted Bell has a new YA adventure story out now, Nick of Time. He was on Glenn Beck's show talking about books for teenage boys and Beck makes a point of saying that all books out there for teen boys today are emasculating. He is particularly impressed with Bell's book because the boy gets to be the hero (he goes up against pirates, Nazis, etc.) and - here's the kicker - at one point the hero's little sister is in trouble and she tells the bad guys to just wait, her brother is going to come and get her and they will be sorry. (I've embedded the interview behind the cut.)

In Beck's words, it is wonderful that the girl gets saved by the boy and specifically, that she doesn't save him or herself.

That's what he says - how great for boys that the girl does not do any saving.

There are a couple of things that bother me about this discussion (between two adult men without a teenager in sight by the way). First it is that for a boy to feel heroic he must rescue a girl - and the girl also needs to be rescued. I'm sure the sociologists would have a field day over all this but I can't believe that anyone in the 21st century would believe that such antiquated notions of what it means to be a hero have any place in a worthwhile discussion. Save the world - yes! Save the animals, save the environment, save whatever needs saving in your books. But the girl MUST be saved by the boy for the boy to feel powerful? How do these gentlemen think it makes the girl feel to have to wait to be saved? Have they ever thought about that at all?

Here's the problem that Misters Bell and Beck don't give a moment's thought to - sometimes the boy doesn't show up and the girl is all alone. As I wrote last year, remember Dua Khalil, the victim of a so-called "honor killing". This is part of what Joss Whedon had to say about her death:

Because as the girl was on the ground trying to get up, her face nothing but red, the few in the group of more than twenty men who were not busy kicking her and hurling stones at her were filming the event with their camera-phones.

Sometimes the girl is not going to be rescued, sometimes there just aren't any heroes around, and that's why it is so important that we all - male and female - know how to rescue ourselves. That's why no one should have to wait, ever.

Beyond this issuing of rescuing though, I am completely stunned by Beck's assertion that all current books for teenage boys are inferior to those in the past and - I can't believe I'm writing this - emasculating. I am second to none in my hope that more adventurous books for teens will be published (and more mysteries!) but I have read a lot of adventure type books that I am quite confident include strong and heroic boy characters. Just off the top of my head:

Darkside by Tom Becker - werewolves, vamps etc. (sequel due out shortly)
Operation Red Jericho & Operation Typhoon Shore by Joshua Mowll - pirates, mad inventors, etc.
Corbenic by Catherine Fisher - a fight to save the Fisher King
London Calling by Edward Bloor - time travel back to WWII in London
The New Policeman by Kate Thompson - travel to Faerie to save time itself
The Seiki & Judge Ooka series by Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler - a series of murder mysteries set in early 18th century Japan where the hero goes up against all sorts of greedy devious bad guys

And then there are all the wonderful realistic dramas in which boys do some heroic things not in the grand adventure model, but very significant in many other ways:

King of the Pygmies by Jonathon Scott Fuqua
No Castles Here by A.C.E. Bauer
The Blue Helmet by William Bell
Into the Ravine by Richard Scrimger
At the Firefly Gate by Linda Newberry
Knights of the Hill Country by Tim Tharp

I have not read the Percy Jackson series although it seems like it would fit in here as a big adventure and I'm still reading Little Brother by Cory Doctorow and Sunrise in Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers, but in both those cases young men seem to be making heroic decisions. It could be that these two books do not fit into Glenn Beck's moral framework however, as they challenge issues of freedom and patriotism in ways that are beyond the classic vision of unquestioning loyalty to "king and country".

But then again, part of the point of the 21st century is just what it means to be a patriot and beyond that, what it means to be a hero.

Does the boy have to rescue the girl and follow the traditional path to be a true hero in fiction? You tell me - please. I want to know what you think.

EDITED ON JUNE 22nd TO ADD: I want to make clear that this larger discussion is about the interview itself and not the contents of Bell's book. In his book it is a little girl who is saved and he is making a big brother/little sister plot point. It could all be fine for this book but that is not what the two men were discussing in this video. Watch it, and you will see that it is generalizations they were making about being a boy, what it takes to be a man, and why weak female characters are a good thing for boys. Their points, not mine.


Doret said...

I am okay with the author wanting the boy to save the day and his sister. Though he didn't have to make the girl weak to do it, even the strong must be saved every once in a while. Just wait my brothers on the way. WTF, I'd rather the sister be tied and gagged then to make that statement. Beck says when is the last time the boy saved the girl and not the other way around. I think its a point of boys and girls being strong enough to save each other. A boy's heroism is not based on who he saves but how he conducts himself on the journey. I still plan on reading Nick of Time, to see what all the buzz is about.

Alex Bledsoe said...

I think there's a generational disconnect here, both from Mr. Beck and the author. They're locked into their own antiquated gender roles ("boy" and "girl"), while the literature for teens has moved essentially beyond that into the formerly-adults-only realm of characters who happen to be male or female. Now it doesn't matter if a "boy" saves a "girl" or vice-versa, just that one character helps another. Today's teen readers understand that, and aren't threatened by it. Only the fogies rage about such things.

Holly said...

I feel old remembering the Girls to the Rescue series. :) Seriously, though, those comments are kind of disturbing.

Anonymous said...

If a girl is feisty enough to say "you just wait" + ANYTHING to a creepy Nazi doctor, the last words out of her mouth are going to be "my brother will save me!"--unless she's like five and her brother is sixteen. I don't have a problem with a boy saving a girl, but the way it's presented in the interview makes me growl.

Where are these "emasculating" books he's talking about? Has the interviewer even read a YA/MG book in the last 40 years?

david elzey said...

I've never put much stock in Beck and the ideas or values he tends to promote, but this past semester while I was working up an essay on boys voices in YA I discovered that the idea of the boy rescuing and protecting girls is still very much in fashion.

The books I looked at in my essay were Pfeffer's the dead and the gone, Crutcher's Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, and Shusterman's Unwind. All three are told from a teen boy's perspective, and they represent a complete scale of boys rescuing the girls in their lives. Like I said, I was looking for what made a boy's voice "authentic" but found I couldn't ignore the protectorate theme in them enough to stay on the original topic.

Draw from this what you will: the boy who devotes his entire book/life to protecting his weaker sisters is Alex Morales in Pfeffer's the dead and the gone. Alex's family is deeply Catholic and that's a good part of the character's values in the story but it's also a book (wait for it, I'm about to stir the pot) written by a woman.

As for that previously mentioned "generational disconnect" I'd be surprised if Beck read anything as a kid, but the titles Bell mentions were published in 1886 and 1922, respectively. If that's all that was available to these men when they were boys then the situation wasn't much better than now, and in fact it might have been worse.

Unknown said...

To be fair, I don't think Du'a and most girls/women like her can physically save themselves from such a horrid outcome. They are usually outnumbered by the males in their families. And most men are simply physically stronger than most women. Plus, there are more physically violent men than there are physically violent women.

Others need to step up in these situations.

Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
"Reclaiming Honor in Jordan"

Kimberly/lectitans said...

I'm okay with a brother saving a sister. I think a sibling saving another sibling, regardless of sex or gender, is the best. Because of how I feel about my siblings, mainly.

Aside from the visceral objections I have to the discussion here - most of which don't really deserve to be posted in a comment, as they are things like, "What? No!" - my problem with the entire conversation is the sweeping declarations accompanied by a complete lack of examples. Titles of some of these "emasculating" books would be nice. Saying "There are no great storytellers anymore" makes me fume.

I completely feel that Percy Jackson is an excellent example of a great modern male hero, with problems that I think really speak to kids of the now. What these men appear to me to want is for there to be more books like they read as kids, except written for today's kids. While certainly all of the problems of their youth have not gone away, there are new ones that boys need books to address all the time.

I can't imagine that most modern boys would feel like the protagonist were unheroic if he hadn't rescued a girl by the end of the thing. I think there are a great many different things that make a hero. (And if you go back to the really ancient stories, rescuing a girl was never a big part of it. That's a later development, really. Well, okay, Perseus rescued Andromeda but rescuing women was kind of his bag.)

Erin said...

This is why I love the Harry Potter series. Hermione. She is SUCH an aid to Harry, she takes part in a huge amount of the action, BUT HARRY IS STILL THE HERO. Just because she's capable doesn't mean Harry can't be, too.

Colleen said...

Thanks for all your comments!

Yes, it is fine for one sibling to save another but the focus that the brother must be the one to save the sister - that it is indeed necessary for boys to read books where the boy is the hero in this way - is really frustrating to me. This suggests that it is somehow more important for boys to have this sort of literature than girls to have the reverse (where the girl is the hero) or even further, that it is somehow wrong for boys to read books in which the male character is saved by the female character (which as Erin points out does happen in Harry Potter and that didn't bug the kids reading it at all).

I'm okay with a book written where the boy saves the day as much as a book written where a girl saves the day. The issue though is that in this interview it is presented as if boys NEED books where the boy always saves the day - and pointedly where he rescues the girl. This is somehow critical to male development. That is what really disturbs me.

And yes, I know that I used an extreme example of a young woman in trouble but I did that on purpose - I wanted to show that our reality (and this has always been reality we just ignored it for centuries) is that waiting for a hero is not a way to survive; it's often a way to get dead. So how helpful is it to present literature where the boy comes in to save the girl as what authors (and readers) should aspire to? It's beyond fantasy - it's something that has never been true or helpful in any regard.

Boys need books with brave characters and so do girls. What a wonderful world we would be in if they could learn to see the value in each gender. (Again - one of the good things about Harry Potter and also His Dark Materials.)

Anonymous said...

Now that is just ridiculous. I hate it when people who haven't read a genre enough make generalizations.
Such as not taking things on a character-by-character basis. Or by assuming that all the ground that's been taken in having strong female characters (to make up with an almost complete lack of) is movement in the wrong direction. I'm really sorry if you're that threatened by strong female characters. Unfortuntely, no one informed me that it's a one-or-the-other equation. Can't both characters be strong? Who says one has to always be saving the other?

I would, however, point out one very simple point: you're just as capable of reading Treasure Island now as ever. If you're so confident literature is in decline, please stick with your classics. Books don't have expiration dates.
Now excuse the rest of us while we get on with our 21st century.

Anonymous said...

Be your own hero.

Gender should not matter.

Save yourself, save others, save the world, but don't wait to be saved BY others.

Some of my favorite relevant quotes:

"You said you'd save me, but I don't want to be saved." - Shea Seger, Wastin' the Rain (song)

"It's very hard, rescuing yourself." - Sara Lewis Holmes, Letters from Rapunzel

"Miraculously, the girl survived." - Christopher Golden, The Gathering Dark

Colleen said...

Little Willow, you rock!

"Save yourself" indeed.

Sarah Rettger said...

Serafina and Little Willow, you both made my night.

Colleen, your piece on Dua Khalil and knowing how to fight back really struck a nerve, because I just finished reading Zoe's Tale, where being willing to fight (but making it a choice) is a major theme.

BTW, I'd love to see some teenage boy thoughts on that book. From my (neither teenage nor male) perspective, at least, Zoe is such a kickass and smartass heroine that she might do something to break down the perception that boys will stay away from girl-narrated books - and if they do, they'll miss a lot of great lines.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Such a fantastic discussion. Colleen said: " this interview it is presented as if boys NEED books where the boy always saves the day - and pointedly where he rescues the girl. This is somehow critical to male development. That is what really disturbs me."

It disturbs me, too. If boys read only books where the male protagonist saves the day, and they grow up to turn out like Glenn Beck--then we're really in trouble! :D Great comments from everyone. I'm posting a link right now!

Andrew Karre said...

"... I can't believe that anyone in the 21st century would believe that such antiquated notions of what it means to be a hero have any place in a worthwhile discussion."

Who said anything about the 21st century? See Beck's and Bell's comments about Robert Lewis Stevenson's TREASURE ISLAND (which they "had" growing up, and apparently we do not. Perhaps the ACLU has suppressed it?). Clearly, Beck and Bell are 150 years old, and just a little grouchy.

I never understand this fake nostalgia for the books of their youth that weren't even "of their youth" and haven't disappeared regardless.

Interestingly, Glenn Beck is only 44 years old. In the prime of his adolescent reading, he could have had THE CHOCOLATE WAR, I AM THE CHEESE, etc. Not exactly the paragons of male heroism he imagines himself weened on.

Brian Farrey said...

Here's the thing: Glenn Beck has never read a YA book. It's that simple. I seriously doubt he read NICK OF TIME; more likely someone on his staff skimmed it and gave him a list of vile talking points.

As Colleen points out, the issue isn't that the boy saves the girl, it's that Beck asserts this MUST happen, otherwise the boy is emasculated. My first reaction was total disgust. Of course, then I realized that Beck is just one of those repugnant pundits who will say anything shocking just to anger people he doesn't like (ie anyone who doesn't think women should be barefoot and pregnant). So, really, it's more sad than anything.

The "how do we get boys to read" question, which has always been around, has been getting more attention of late. There are progressive answers, like the creation of Guys Lit Wire which seeks to highlight books that may be of special interest. But I'm concerned over the other burgeoning response, the one coming from the testosterone-dripping fingers of James Patterson (who blurbs NICK OF TIME quite effusively) and his ilk who think the solution lies in writing about more explosions and hand-to-hand combat. I wonder: do we think boys respond best to these primal scenes or are some elements WANTING boys to respond to these elements?

It's hard to say. I know some young male readers who, if the book doesn't read like an action movie unfolds, they're not interested. But I also know readers who want a bit more (sadly, I do think they're in the minority).

Back to Beck: yes, I echo what others have said. Pray, roll out a list of these books that seek to emasculate boys (odds are, he counts Harry Potter in this lot because Hermione got his butt out of a sling a few times).

For another laugh, check out this transcript of Beck's interview with Stephenie Meyer.

Rebekah Ruth said...

"Everything a boy wants in a book"?

Obviously, I can't speak for the entirety of the male sex (mostly because I'm not a member of the male sex), but all of my good friends who are like more than pictures of falling nazis in their literature.
For example, one of my best friends has cited both To Kill a Mockingbird and The Little Prince as two of his favorites.
They also seem to assume that only boys are big on action, adventures, nazis and pirates. Which also isn't true.

Also, read the conversation with Stephanie Meyer. What do you wager he only liked it be it was told from the point of view of such a weak female character?

Saints and Spinners said...

Beck's words bring to mind Madonna's quote about how she felt compelled to write children's books because the current ones out there were "vapid" and "vacant." Like the others, I would be interested in finding out what books he read that he felt were emasculating, and get some perspective on why he said what he did.

A.S. King said...

If these two heroes are so into men saving women, I want to know what women-centered charities they support. Are they donating to help the millions of American battered women and girls? (They can go to if they'd like some ideas on how to be REAL heroes.)

This is just two myopic guys spewing negative garbage to get other myopic, negative people to buy a book. To me, it's a shame (and in Madonna's case, too) they couldn't sell the book on its own merits, rather than weakly aim and fire at an entire branch of literature they apparently know little about.

Vaguely putting down others' hard work in order to toot your own horn doesn't seem very heroic or masculine to me.

A Paperback Writer said...

This is a superb post. I am impressed.
If teenage boys "needed" to read about weak female characters being saved by strong, handsome males (sounds like an Errol Flynn movie, doesn't it?), then they'd all be reading the Twilight series. But they aren't. I have as yet to see one of my junior high school boys read Twilight. (The girls do -- all the time, and we talk about it a lot.)
It used to be that I rarely saw boys reading books with female protagonists, but my 7th grade "tough guys" like Stuart Hill's Cry of the Icemark and Murdock's Dairy Queen (yea for football!) just fine. These are ordinary boys who are more interested in a good story and good characters than whether or not the hero's gender is the same as their own.
Now, if a boy really needs a male protagonist, I think Joe Donnelly's Jack Flint and the Redthorn Sword (soon to be available in the US) is a GREAT choice. Jack has to do some saving (of both a guy and a girl), but he also has to be saved (by both men, a boy, and and girl) more than once, as the story is packed with peril. The characters are believable, and it does show that anyone can get in a place where they need help -- gender is not the issue in rescuing.
Whew. I've said a lot. But this was a great post.

Colleen said...

Andrew I had the same thought. They are actually reissuing the old Classic Comics Illustrated again and I got "Last of the Mohicans" for my son as it is a sentimental favorite. Heck, we just finished reading "The Wind in the Willows". If Beck & Bell love their classics so much, they really aren't that hard to find.

And A.S. King I also wondered about what Beck is doing to really help women in trouble. But I don't think actual helping is what he's talking about...he just likes the idea of being a hero, not the nuts and bolts hard work of being one.

And yes, this is just another example of adults deciding what boys need not realizing that there are TONS of different boys out there who are interested in all sorts of different books. I am certain that part of the appeal for Harry Potter is that he is the hero (just as that was equally part of the appeal of Buffy); but that is not the only part of those stories and neither one is written so the strength of a main character is dependent upon the weakness of another.

If I ever wondered just why we needed this site, that interview proves many of my worst fears.

brnh said...

I clicked over from Bookshelves of Doom. There was a book that hit conservative Christian bookstands several years back (5-7?) called Wild at Heart by John Eldredge that put forth this "save the weak girl" argument. Sure it's an antiquated view maybe, but it's alive and kicking in certain corners of the world.

Anonymous said...

I too got here from Bookshelves of Doom. I wrote a post about this but I found myself getting more and more irritated. I find it so frustrating that so often when YA lit, or children's lit makes the news it is often surround by myth, bad press, and ignorance. When I first read your post and viewed the video I was able to shrug it off as being apparent that Beck obviously had no experience with YA lit. But the more I listened to and watched the video the more I got irritated. Most of the commenters have posted what I also noticed in the clip so my post is a rehash - but I am chiming in with a "me too".

Anonymous said...

So wait, what happens if a boy rescues another boy? Does the reader's head explode?

Colleen said...

Thank you - that was my biggest laugh in this whole discussion!

Unknown said...

Lol gay

DianeRChen Kelly said...

I wanted to post a comment, but it soon turned into an entire blog post. I hope you will go check it out at SLJ's Practically Paradise

It just seemed that everyone was discussing the video and not the book. Katie is not a weak character. She does playact, but always keeps her head. She is feisty. Towards the end she actually sticks her tongue out at the U-boat captain with the Luger an inch from her nose. Her only fear was for her friend Hobbes.

Colleen said...

That's true Diane, we are discussing the comment and not the book. I don't think many (or any) of us have read the book but we weren't bashing the book at all - I think that is clear from my post. The book is not the issue here, it is the discussion between Beck and Bell on YA literature for teenage boys and the Beck's point about boys needing to be the hero that we have responded to.

TheHQforHQ said...

I haven't read all the comments, but a few seem to have said what I'm getting at--just to add my two bits. I think the original blog post missed the boat. Beck's point wasn't that the boy needed to save the girl to feel heroic, nor need them to be weak. It's simply that it's nice to have a new book out there where a boy is allowed to be a hero of whatever nature. Let a boy save a girl every once in awhile. It's also good for girls to see this because having only situations that show they have to be the strong ones all the time can lead to problems, as well--as we saw in older generations where the reverse was the case.

And indeed, I would say the trend in the industry, as well as some other industries, does lead toward the girls having to be the hero. And too often to the case of a need for weak men--this is awful too.

True too, Beck did make a sweeping generalization that kind of bugged. The Harry Potter reference was approp.

It actually kind of bugs more that so many people would jump to the immediate conclusion that Beck meant men had to save weak women. It's like you're looking for him to say something that he had not in the least said. Who in such a public position would say or mean something so utterly assinine? Give the guy some credit and don't jump to conclusions. Or maybe you're still living in a black and white world yourself.

MarkLWilliams said...

As someone ostensibly labeled a "boy writer," I can't conceive of wanting to write books with weak female characters.

What a completely insipid world for my male characters to inhabit!