There’s been a lot of talk lately on diversity (or lack thereof) in books. And while this is an important topic to address, it started me thinking about something just as perplexing. The portrayal of girls and boys in books.
I’ve been listening to GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn, and she has a passage in her book where Amy describes her “fake” self, the woman she pretended to be for two years, just to keep up the facade to her husband that she was “the cool girl”. Flynn lists all these ridiculous things girls (and then, women) do to impress and keep a guy, things we’ve all done in order to make ourselves appear to be the coolest of the cool, the one he wants to be with forever because no one could be cooler. Things like drinking as hard as the guys, watching football for hours and screaming foul-mouthed at the TV when a play goes wrong, buying the skimpy bikini and wearing it around while doing housework, like it’s the best thing ever. But as Amy realizes, it gets to be too much work to keep up the charade, and once the “real” woman emerges, problems begin. It’s like men really believe all the fakery and are angry when the woman is “only” someone who goes to work each day, raises their children, keeps the house running and in order, and manages to have a shower once in a while.
So where do we get this idea that we have to be someone else, that we have to impress a guy and be “the cool girl”? And where do guys get the idea that girls need to be this way? It’s easy to blame the media, the images presented in magazines of the flawless skinned, tall, blond, perfect girl. We’ve been hearing about that for years. But it goes further than visual images. Let’s talk about how girls (and boys) are presented in books. Is it any different?
When Suzanne Collins came out with THE HUNGER GAMES, there was plenty of talk about how she wrote such a strong female character, one who goes on to change her society because of her unwavering values. And hey, the girl hunts! That’s gotta be cool, right? Of course it is. But there are still plenty of references to how she looks, how she is “transformed” into someone more beautiful and socially acceptable for the games by a team of stylists. When Jennifer Lawrence was cast in the role for the movie version, there was a lot of talk about how they were using a “real” girl, a role model for girls who need to see fewer stick-thin actresses and more reflections of themselves. It was a start. But it’s a deeper problem, I think.
While girls are written with these strange expectations, boys, for the most part, are written as carbon copies of some ideal image as well. If you’ve ever read a YA book, you’ll know that a lot of the love interests are tall, handsome, intelligent, flawless boys—-boys that don’t really exist much in real life. Even the sidekicks or the secondary boy characters are either wickedly funny or have some special talent that makes them stand out. But have you ever driven by a high school or talked with actual teen boys? Most of them don’t look like that perfect guy. There are lumpy boys, and boys who are too tall for their bodies, and boys who have bad skin, and boys who haven’t quite figured out the whole hair thing yet, and boys who are so small they keep to the corners. In reality, teenage boys are just like teenage girls: flawed individuals who are just trying to keep from looking ridiculous most of the time. Are we too blind to see this, or are we ignoring it?
So why do we write such perfect girls and boys in books? Why can’t we write characters that are real and honest and imperfect? Books often show us a piece of ourselves and make us think about things in a different way. Books can also be intended to take us out of ourselves and let us experience something we might never experience in real life. If we write a girl who is dumpy, only average in school, works at the local Dairy Queen, knits in her spare time and has very little luck with boys, but also has some great friends, and parents who support her, and dreams of being something great by working hard….if we wrote that girl, wouldn’t that be good enough? Why not? It’s what we are in real life, isn’t it? So why isn’t that good enough?
It might be, if the story was good enough. Maybe we tend to write these flawless girls (and boys) with extraordinary talents and superpowers who live in amazing circumstances because we don’t write well enough to create something amazing without all of those crutches to fall back on. Maybe we need to work harder on our craft as writers to develop stories that don’t need supermodels and guys with expensive cars to keep us interested. Just a thought, and one I’m thinking about as I begin my next book.
What do you think?
This is something I believe we all need to work harder on, in order to be a positive change for the next generation. Until books (like all other media) actually reflect the average regular boy and girl, we’ll continue to raise kids who are superficial, bored, uninspired, and have no self-worth. While we’re thinking about more diversity in books, how about pondering more reality as well?