The Empress’ New Clothes: Brave New Heroines in Young Adult Fiction

Reading heroine-driven young adult (YA) fiction, one can't help but wonder why stagnant views of women’s sexuality and societal roles prevail.

After J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter flew his broom right into the hearts of young adult fantasy readers in the late ‘90s, the runway was paved for aspiring fantasy authors to try and earn their wings in this deceptively simple recipe for success. Fantasy and dystopian literature, in both adult and young adult (YA) genres, have traditionally been male-lead and full of testosterone-fueled action with little preoccupation with women other than as objects. Classics such as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia tend to portray strong women only in traditional, feminine roles⎯or as evil sorceresses.

The recent wave of female fantasy authors—Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, L. J. Smith, and Veronica Roth, to name just a few—has repopulated the previously male-dominated battlefields of fantastical realms with female protagonists. In this essay, I will look deeper into this rising tide of romantic urban fantasy in an attempt to discover what—if anything—is new with the new heroine.

In the early ’90s, L. J. Smith published a series of YA vampire novels, known as The Vampire Diaries. The series features Elena Gilbert, a pretty and popular teen girl in a small town in Virginia, who finds herself in a love triangle with vampire brothers Stefan and Damon Salvatore. These sixteenth century Italian noblemen-turned-vampire are heirs to the new, charming, sophisticated vampires first introduced by John Polidori and Bram Stoker (Lord Ruthven and Count Dracula, respectively). and famously transformed by Anne Rice into the creature we see in today’s media.

Rice’s vampires are among the first in their genre to portray complexity and individualism; they are not one-dimensional, evil creatures feeding on humans, but paradoxically amoral, immoral, and moral beings. The Salvatore brothers are very close imitations of Rice’s vampires with Stefan as the brooding, tormented Louis de Pointe du Lac and Damon taking after Lestat de Lioncourt, both central characters in Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles. Smith remains true to the vampire lore as re-imagined by Rice, but adds a new twist: her vampires attend high school and fall in love with a teenage girl.

Book: Twilight Saga

Author: Stephanie Meyer

Publisher: Little, Brown

US Publication Date: 2012-12

Format: Paperback

Length: 2720 pages

Price: $58.99

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/twilightseries_boxart_200.jpg

Many of us mature fantasy readers recognized this teen-girl-meets-vampire-boy pattern from The Vampire Diaries when the swooning Bella Swan, who falls in love with Edward Cullen, a 109-year-old vampire, in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, was the next sensation to stumble into the bedchambers of young and mature readers alike in 2005. Twilight reinvigorated the vampire as a paramour to teen girls, and after Twilight this trope has persisted and branched out to include other mythological characters such as werewolves, angels, demons and fairies.

Most commonly, the events take place in a surreal urban setting: a fantasy world that exists in the midst of and unbeknownst to the mundane world. And they most often include a teenage heroine, special in some way and facing a life-and-death scenario

Meyer revamped the age-old vampire mythology in a manner that has almost nothing to do with the traditional blood-sucking monsters. Tison Pugh explains that typically, vampires embody an eroticized (im)mortality, in which the feeding serves as a blatant allegory of sexuality (Innocence, Heterosexuality, and the Queerness of Children’s Literature, 142). The vampire’s nature is fundamentally conservative—it never stops doing what it does.

While Meyer seems to be responding to mainstream awareness of feminism and the political correctness of empowering female characters, her attempt to reverse male-female roles in the negotiation of sexual activity is very superficial.

Culturally, however, this creature can be highly adaptable: Nina Auerbach proposes that because vampires are immortal, they are free to change endlessly, and because they are always changing, their appeal is dramatically generational (Our Vampires, Ourselves, 5). Pugh specifies that as shifting, yet stable, vampires incarnate cultural fears surrounding both sexuality and death, and so the vampire is a handy choice for a YA author. He points out Meyer’s reliance on the malleable figure of the vampire to mystify her eroticism: vampires are highly eroticized figures of desire and terror who often seduce their victims into joining them in the undead realm.

Meyer inverts this convention with her depiction of Edward, the sexually abstinent vampire who refuses to feed on human blood. (Pugh, 142). She combines this with Rice’s—somewhat dubious—infatuation with youth and beauty: both authors’ vampires are categorically described as very attractive and while a few are turned vampires at an older age, most are perpetually young. This obsession with youth is very pronounced in Bella: she is constantly worrying about becoming older than Edward, which is part of her desire to become a vampire. She is torturing herself with her human inferiority to Edward while she tortures him with her human body.

On one level, Twilight appears to present us with an unconventional love story between a human teenage girl and a century-old sparkling vampire boy Edward, perpetually stuck in a seventeen-year-old body. A hundred-year-old man’s attraction to a teenage girl is different, yes, but perhaps not in the way Meyer intended. “There isn’t much that’s traditional about you and me,” Bella says to Edward, in blatant denial about their relationship’s nature (Meyer, Eclipse, 451). She is utterly controlled by Edward, and her only desire is to be turned into a vampire and be Edward’s wife for all eternity: from very early on in the novel she does everything in her power to get Edward to take her body and soul. They are stuck, as Pugh agrees, in a masochistic cycle of abstinence, where they take pleasure in each other’s unfulfilled desires (Pugh, 142).

Lydia Kokkola, a children’s literature scholar, accurately points out that while Meyer seems to be responding to mainstream awareness of feminism and the political correctness of empowering female characters, her attempt to reverse male-female roles in the negotiation of sexual activity is very superficial. Meyer resorts to the femme fatale stereotype, suggesting that a sexually empowered adolescent girl is a danger to herself and her society. In addition to that, the series as a whole—New Moon in particular—glorifies female submissiveness and glorifies self-abusive behavior as a result of true love.

Kokkola notes that despite Internet discussions showing that these elements have been noted and criticized by readers of all ages, their undeniable appeal to a large number of readers indicates that Meyer has identified a common desire (Kokkola, “Virtuous Vampires and Voluptuous Vamps: Romance Conventions Reconsidered in Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ Series”, 179). Indeed, abstinence is portrayed across the board of YA fantasy romances.

Book: Vampire Academy Box Set 1-6

Author: Richelle Mead

Publisher: Razorbill

US Publication Date: 2013-12

Format: Hardcover

Length: 2784 pages

Price: $60.94

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/v/vampireacademy_boxset_200.jpg

In Twilight’s wake came Vampire Academy (2007), the first novel in a series of six by prolific fantasy author Richelle Mead, and this series seems to follow the pattern established in The Vampire Diaries and Twilight: all novels have a female lead, and comprise best-selling young adult novel series about vampires.

But Mead’s Rosemarie “Rose” Hathaway is not a human damsel-in-distress who falls in love with a vampire. She is a tough-as-nails, half-vampire, half-human dhampir, a bodyguard in training, and Mead’s universe is a well-researched one with vampire races from old Russian and Romanian folktales: Moroi, the living, mortal vampires that are a seemingly benevolent race procreating like humans do; dhampirs, who are half human-half Moroi, and whose traditional role is to serve as bodyguards to the physically weak Moroi; and Strigoi, the evil, undead vampires who prey on all living creatures but Moroi in particular. Mead’s use of the vampire proves its transferrable nature as a character: she has mixed-and-matched the vampire lore to suit her purposes, and manages to create a racial triangle—or quadrangle if one counts humans—of codependence that serves as a foil to the interpersonal relationships between her characters.

Where Rice introduces the reader to vampires through a human being turned into one, and Smith and Meyer take the more traditional approach of the protagonist being as oblivious to the “other” as the reader, in Vampire Academy the reader is given full access to the vampire world hidden from humans. The Moroi society does not interact with humans beyond necessity—feeding—and this complete, parallel society functioning by its own rules is part of the appeal of Vampire Academy. This approach gives Mead more freedom than her colleagues have, since she is not obligated to dwell on the disparity between what we know of the human society and what she is about to tell us of her fantasy society. We as readers can just suspend our disbelief and enjoy the ride.

Unlike Twilight, Vampire Academy has no immediately obvious hang-ups with having to abstain. Rose is very sexual, and when she falls for her instructor Dimitri, a dhampir seven years her senior, she goes after him. Dimitri does his best to resist his attraction, due to the destructive consequences their relationship would have on so many lives: they are both destined to be guardians for Lissa, a Moroi princess and Rose’s best friend, and as such they cannot be lovers, because that would be a conflict of interest. This dilemma, together with the more obvious moral issue of Dimitri being Rose’s instructor, is the core of the series.

* * *

Above image: Lily Collins as Clary Fray in City of Bones (2013)

Not Every Young Adult Novel is Preoccupied With the Bloodsucking Undead

Here the ugly trope mentioned earlier raises its head again: adolescent female sexuality is dangerous. And once they do consummate their love, Dimitri is almost immediately captured in battle and turned into a Strigoi, an evil undead vampire. He is essentially brought down by Rose’s vagina and loses his soul as a result of not being able to resist Rose’s body.

Not every young adult novel is preoccupied with the bloodsucking undead. The mid-aughts also saw the reanimation of the dystopian genre when Katniss Everdeen volunteered as tribute in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (2008). This brave heroine was a hunter, a lone warrior, and a figurehead for rebellion, and was immediately pitted against Bella as a feminist icon, breaking all norms for young female characters in a role most often reserved for male heroes. Collins’s gritty trilogy outstripped all its competitors and solidified the genre as the latest publishing phenomenon in a post-Potter, post-Twilight market (Basu, Broad & Hintz, Eds., Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults. Brave New Teenagers).

Book: Hunger Games Trilogy

Author: Suzanne Collins

Publisher: Scholastic

US Publication Date: 2014-06

Format: Softcover

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/h/hungergamestrilogy_boxart_200.jpg

Basu et al. note that YA dystopias have become the next big thing in this market that has realized the extraordinary success that a YA franchise can have. With its capacity to warn and frighten, dystopian writing engages with urgent global concerns such as liberty, self-determination, looming environmental catastrophes, and the increasingly fragile boundaries between the self and technology.

YA dystopias, as Basu et al. agree, are simultaneously marked with two seemingly contradictory writing traditions: educate and escape. This dulce et utile (“please and instruct”) concept that leads to a clear moral message offers a kind of training manual on how to overcome the dilemma at hand. For all their didacticism, YA dystopias also indulge in the very different impulse⎯escape from social conventions. Both elements have value individually and in conjunction: they speak to the possibility that adolescents can simultaneously fit themselves to better meet society’s demands while shaping society to better reflect their own desires and goals. While the dystopias certainly offer the aforementioned possibilities, they do so with big responsibilities that can get overlooked.

Instead of becoming a revolutionary literary icon, Katniss is used as a stealth vehicle to slip patriarchal values past the feminist radar.

Katniss shows the readers that it is possible for one person—a teenager—to change the world through individual acts of bravery, and offers a lesson in the importance of social justice through the juxtaposition of the rich Capitol and the poor, oppressed Districts. Katniss is instrumental in starting the rebellion, assuring the reader that even a young person can have a lasting impact, and she sets an example of selflessness and sacrificing oneself for the greater good.

The Hunger Games’ Panem is a bleak world, but compared to the young readers’ world of midterms and SATs (not to mention the adult world of mortgages and 401Ks), the physicality and toughness with which Katniss can tackle her immediate problems seem enticing. If we are to assume, then, that the combination of escape and didactics is offering real-life applications, what is Katniss offering?

She seems to be portraying a break from the social norms for women with her masculine garb and hunting skills, and her apparent disinterest in romance. Her personality leans towards an isolated, brave role that is usually reserved for men, but both friends and enemies are constantly wrestling her out of her chosen way of life. Katniss is being pushed to take on a role of innocent girl head-over-heels in love, a sexy warrior, a wife and a mother, none of which she has any real interest in. She wants to protect her sister and be left alone, but she ends up exploited and domesticated. Instead of becoming a revolutionary literary icon, she is used as a stealth vehicle to slip patriarchal values past the feminist radar.

The Hunger Games got company in 2011 when, following the last installment in the trilogy, Mockingjay (2010), a novel called Divergent (first novel in a trilogy) by Veronica Roth was published. In this heir apparent to The Hunger Games, sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior is growing up in a post-apocalyptic society divided into five different factions, each upholding one unique virtue above all others. Every year, the sixteen-year-olds are required to take an aptitude test and then choose the faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives.

Unsurprisingly, Beatrice chooses the flashy and daring Dauntless, changes her name to Tris, and jumps onto the train that carries her off to her new home, away from her parents. Divergent has been characterized as a carbon copy of The Hunger Games, and it does little to dispute such claims. Tris is a watered-down version of Katniss, who in a far less hopeless landscape is more interested in her blossoming romance with a tall, dark, and handsome suitor, Four/Tobias, than she is in larger issues.

Divergent, however, is exceptional in a way that none of the aforementioned YA novels are: despite the heavy focus on romance in the first novel, the saga lacks the love triangle so characteristic to YA fiction. Tris and Four have their share of drama, but their discord comes from their ideologies and personalities, not from an external suitor or a larger-than-life obstacle like, say, one of them being a vampire.

Book: Divergent

Author: Veronica Roth

Publisher: Katherine Tegen

US Publication Date: 2011-04

Format: Hardcover

Length: 487

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/d/divergent_roth_bookcover_200.jpg

Roth’s way of presenting a young adult relationship is very realistic and has tremendous educational value. She presents Tris and Four as equals—even if their relationship is somewhat unhealthy⎯and lets the reader see how the couple manages and mismanages conflict. In light of that, it is a shame that Roth undermines this by having Tris increasingly lean towards martyrdom in the way she gravitates towards self-sacrifice, finally giving her life for the sake of saving her community.

There is one more YA saga relevant to the discussion at hand: the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, which follows the story of fifteen-year-old Clary Fray. The first novel, City of Bones (2007), escorts us to a supernatural world through Clary as she stumbles upon a fight between angelical nephilim (half angels, half humans), the Shadowhunters, and a demon at a New York nightclub. She discovers her heritage as a Shadowhunter and falls in love with a brooding youngster called Jace, who is haunted by a dark past. Originally a trilogy, Clare expanded Mortal Instruments to a six-novel series, and the finale was published in May 2014.

If there ever was a comprehensive fantasy, this is it, for Mortal Instruments has it all. In addition to the nephilim, we get vampires, angels, demons, fairies, witches and warlocks, and werewolves—all very loyal to their respective lore. What makes this series intriguing is not its originality in terms of plot development or heroine character: Clary is an initially oblivious human who gradually becomes aware of her special abilities, all the while wrapped in a love triangle in a post-war fantasy realm preparing for another big battle. Clare has made her series interesting with a commendable effort to steer away from the pervasive cisgendered heteronormativity so typical to YA.

Clary’s love interest, Jace, turns out to be her brother—although this turns out to be a misunderstanding—but they are still unable to stay away from each other. The incest taboo is one of the strongest in Western society, and one very rarely seen in YA, unless as an abusive act. Clare’s take on forbidden love is intriguing, since she combines this blooming romance with jealousy from not only Clary’s other suitor, Simon, but also from Alec, Jace’s best friend. Alec is secretly in love with Jace, and this is not acceptable in the Shadowhunter world.

When an 800-year-old warlock, Magnus, falls in love with Alec, the game board is set for any number of real-life scenarios a young adult reader may face. This educational value combined with the escape of a fantastical universe offers a chance to take solace in the characters’ similarity to one’s own situation and to learn acceptance for people who are different, but the fantasy setting allows for distance to things that are hard to handle in real life: when characters are human-like but not human, the reader does not have to make direct associations to her/his own life, but the humanity makes it possible to draw parallels where they fit and feel comfortable.

If there ever was a comprehensive fantasy,Mortal Instruments is it.

What Mortal Instruments lacks in literary eloquence it makes up for in diversity of sexuality, a surprisingly rare feat in YA fantasy. It seems fair to assume that a setting like a vampire society or a dystopian universe would allow for a more free exploration of sexuality, but instead there is an almost unbreakable assumption of cisgender identity and heterosexual romance. In general, says Pugh, most children’s literature endorses heterosexuality through its invisible presence as the default sexual identity (Pugh, 1-2).

In all but one of the series discussed in this essay, all main characters are heterosexual, and never does homosexuality even come to question, with the exception of a brief mention in Allegiant (365), the last installment in the Divergent trilogy, where two minor male characters are revealed to be gay, and an even more vague allusion to a girl called Lynn having a crush on another Dauntless initiate in Insurgent (512).

Everything Should Be Open for Exploration

Out of thousands of pages in dozens of novels, fewer than ten non-heterosexual characters is a warped ratio⎯too quiet and insufficient. Perhaps it is the educational aspect of children’s literature, including YA literature, which holds authors back from exploring their characters’ sexuality beyond the monogamous heterosexuality they invariably portray. Since YA literature categorically gets critiqued for the values and role models they provide, it may very well be that the authors hold back from the any traits that are too deviant, either due to fear of criticism or publishers reluctance to accept manuscripts that are too controversial—it is ultimately a game of sales figures.

In some cases, like Meyer’s, I suspect⎯and Kokkola agrees—the author is simply pushing her own values, but others seem to have the desire to write characters that are not so mainstream. They just seem to lack the courage to have their main characters be anything but heterosexual and relatively chaste—perhaps due to fear of public opinion and subsequent sales figures, or lack of confidence in their ability to create an authentic character that breaks the norm. Even Clare, in her bold choice of a homosexual central character, leaves the door open for demonizing or dismissing homosexuality through the male paramour’s preternatural species and high age.

Book: City of Bones (Mortal Instruments Book 1)

Author: Cassandra Clare

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry

US Publication Date: 2007-03

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 496

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/c/cityofbones_bookart_200.jpg

From Elena to Clary, all the heroines I have presented are virgins and all have just one sexual partner during their narratives. These children are shown killing and witnessing death and torture, but sexuality is apparently the biggest taboo. And all the characters end up in a domesticated, heterosexual state in the end, no matter the realm they inhabit; even Rose, our most unfeminine, half-vampire bodyguard ends up in a relationship with her über-masculine beau, Dimitri. The only one of these young women who does not end up as a wife or a mother is Tris. She dies before she can assume her adult heterosexual role.

With the unwavering heterosexuality, another problematic tendency arises from these narratives. All the young heroines are constantly shown sacrificing themselves for the greater good, a trope that has lingered in media portrayal of women despite all the strides taken towards equality. The sacrifices our female leads make are multifaceted but pervasive, and they invariably engage in self-harming behavior to fulfill their roles as young women.

Certainly, male protagonists make their share of sacrifices, but I claim there is a distinct difference between genders. It seems that male sacrifice tends to get underlined as extraordinary, whereas female characters’ sacrifices are expected and brushed over. It’s a woman’s lot. Katniss sacrifices her hopes and dreams and her agency first for her sister, then her people, and finally her boyfriend, Peeta. Tris never ceases to idealize her selfless values she inherited from her Abnegation family, and she sacrifices so much in such escalating speed that she becomes self-destructive. Bella never shows any desire besides wanting to become a vampire and stay with Edward eternally, and she gets her wish. She becomes a wife and a mother, sacrificing her youth, autonomy, friends and family, education, and her life, both earthly and heavenly, for her man.

All the young heroines are constantly shown sacrificing themselves for the greater good, a trope that has lingered in media portrayal of women despite all the strides taken towards equality.

Rose is the only one of the heroines in this cast of characters who has real choices, and she makes her choices without coercion. She is not, however, without her tendencies towards self-harming behavior with her impulsive, explosive nature, and her willingness to take on her best friend’s problems. We have yet to see what will become of Clary, but so far she has had her share of volunteering for suicide missions and taking off on one-woman quests she is completely untrained and unprepared for.

So why is the uniform portrayal of decidedly heterosexual, virginal women harming themselves and sacrificing their individuality for the sake of a larger benefit so problematic? After all, is not one of the makings of a hero/ine the willingness to sacrifice?

I do not see selflessness as a problem on its own, nor do I demand that all characters be completely fluid and free in their sexuality. What is dangerous, however, is the didactic nature of YA fantasy, with which comes a great responsibility. As the genre stands now, it is perpetuating women as destined for heterosexual domesticity or martyrdom, and when this is delivered in a seemingly new packaging of fighters like Katniss and Rose, it becomes harder to detect the underlying suggestions of outdated yet unwavering moral expectations for women.

There are a few YA novels that do depict more character variety—Ash (2009) by Malinda Lo and Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) (2004) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, to name just two, but the ones that make it to the bestseller lists are invariably lukewarm in their tackling of female stereotypes. Like Lydia Kokkola, I am forced to ask why fantasy novels depicting values closer to my beliefs do not make for equally compelling reading, and why do these stagnant views of women’s sexuality and societal roles prevail in YA fantasy, where everything should be open for exploration?

Works Cited

Auerbach, Nina. Our Vampires, Ourselves. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2012. 5. Print.

Clare, Cassandra. City of Bones. New York: M.K. McElderry, 2007. Print.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008. Print.

Kokkola, Lydia. “Virtuous Vampires and Voluptuous Vamps: Romance Conventions Reconsidered in Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ Series.” Children’s Literature in Education (2011) 42:165-179. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.

Mead, Richelle. Vampire Academy. New York: Razorbill, 2007. Print.

Meyer, Stephenie. Eclipse. New York: Little, Brown, 2007. Print.

– – – Twilight. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.

“Forms of Dystopian Imaging.” Introduction. Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults. Brave New Teenagers. Eds. Balaka Basu, Katherine R. Broad, and Carrie Hintz. London: Routledge, 2012. N. pag. Kindle.

Pugh, Tison. Innocence, Heterosexuality, and the Queerness of Children’s Literature. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Roth, Veronica. Allegiant. New York: Katherine Tegen, 2013. Kindle.

– – – Divergent. New York: Katherine Tegen, 2011. Print.

– – – Insurgent. New York: Katherine Tegen, 2012. Kindle.

Katja Huru is a native of Finland. She graduated with a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Degree from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She is also a contributing editor for Palaver, UNCW’s interdisciplinary journal housed in the Graduate Liberal Studies department. Katja’s main area of research interest is fantasy literature from a gender studies point of view.