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
Length: 2720 pages
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.
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
US Publication Date: 2013-12
Length: 2784 pages
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)