You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You: Feminism and the YA Romance

sermonby Rachel Lieberman

I write YA, and I often ask myself, “Does my writing promote good messages to teen girls?”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Stories that preach = BIG FAT NO. Making your story a mouthpiece for your beliefs is never a good idea.

This is not your job.

BUT that doesn’t mean that you’re never allowed to wonder who’s going to read your stories, and what those readers will get out of their experiences.

For my graduate lecture, I took a look at how feminist and post-feminist literary theory can help us look at YA literature and decide for ourselves what messages we want to send. Feminism is, at its core, the belief in equal rights for all genders, but of course there are many definitions and variations among those definitions. The question of choice (who gets to choose, and what they should choose) is sometimes a point of contention among critics.

20120104060816!Twilight_book_coverI think that one of the reasons so many critics find fault with Twilight and novels like it is because Bella’s choices may be her own, but they are consistently at odds with the choices we want our girls to make. When we show characters who consistently choose dangerous, controlling partners, our fear is that young adult readers will also choose dangerous, controlling partners.

I don’t think this is an invalid concern, but my intention isn’t to debate or argue it. That’s for another time, another post. My intention is to say, that if you’re a YA writer and this is something you are thinking about, there are ways to develop a good feminist story without making it preachy or propaganda. I’ll share some methods that I found useful and talked about in my lecture.

1. What does your main character want? If it’s just a relationship, consider that in real life, a desire for a relationship is usually a symptom of a deeper desire for something else, like security or acknowledgment. Consider what other forces might be at work, and you’ll avoid creating shallow characters whose problems can be solved by a significant other.

2. Make sure your character stays active. Find places in the story that force her to act, that take away her safety net and test her. This is true of practically any story, but in YA romances, it’s especially important. She doesn’t need to be a hero, but she shouldn’t rely on her love interest too much.

3. Pay attention to your character’s love interest. Speaking of the love interest, don’t forget to pay attention to him! Or her. What does he want? Does he act in a way that harms the main character, and if so, are there negative consequences? If your character has to choose between two love interests (very common these days), is the choice made too easy (by having one character turn out to be a jerk)?

4. Romance novel vs. novel with romantic elements. A romance novel is a little different than a novel with romantic elements. A romance novel’s plot is dependent on the relationship between two characters, so if you want to write a story with feminist undertones, you might choose the other path.

5. Why do your characters get together? Think about the reasons your characters are together. Is it because they find each other so attractive? Or do they share a deep, mutual connection? The more you develop the relationship, and the reasons for it, the more likely you are to connect with readers.

6. The moral of the story. All of these factors combined puts you in a better position to control the final factor: the moral of the story. Once you’ve finished a draft, it might be a good idea to take a look around. What’s happened to the characters? Who’s alive? What have they had to sacrifice? Your character’s rewards and punishments reveal a lot about your story’s message. Is it the message you want?

There are, of course, many more factors than these six that you will need to pay attention to in order to write a great novel. But this is a place to start if your aim is to write a story with romantic elements that will both appeal to teen readers and give them characters and situations they can look up to.

Rachel LiebermanRachel Lieberman works in higher education and writes YA. Her short fiction has appeared in Opium, Awkward, Emprise Review, and others. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Tampa.

Visit Rachel’s blog: A Reputation in Digital Form: The Writerly Musings of Rachel Lieberman

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @LiebermanRachel

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22 thoughts on “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You: Feminism and the YA Romance

  1. Characters like Bella and Anastasia really upset me. It’s like teens of today don’t understand how women in the 50-80s had to fight for respect and equal job opportunities. They think it’s now their right to choose to not work and want a man take care of them. I know teens will learn the ugly truth about men and love as they get older, but I find myself repulsed by many heroines (and writers) of today’s YA for propagating the fantasy that being dependent on someone else is a good thing.

  2. Wow. Excellent post (and I plan to purchase your lecture). I gave serious consideration to this issue as I wrote my WIP. I wanted to include romance, but didn’t want the book to be all about that. I wanted my heroine to yearn to be strong and capable, something I want for my nieces and the other teens in my life. And I want my nieces to read this post!

  3. Rachel’s lecture on this topic was fabulous! I’ve been having a lot of discussions with writer friends about social responsibility and art. This post has aligned nicely with what’s been on my mind!

  4. I was trying to write a novel that might turn out to be YA with a female protagonist and one of the issues that I was running into was that people seemed to take issue with the fact that there was no love interest or love story. In fact they kept pegging male characters as the emerging love interest. Do you think that in today’s world YA pretty much has to have a love interest?

    • Justin – I think you need to be true to your character. If your female protagonist isn’t interested in your side characters, she isn’t interested. You can’t force her to have a relationship! It will feel false and your reader will feel that. However, if she happens to take a liking to someone (and maybe she does, you’ve got to listen to her and what she wants), that’s different. Your readers might be picking up on signals that your character is dropping for you. It’s also possible your readers are projecting. Trust your writer instincts! You know your character better than anyone else.

    • Hi Justin! I would say definitely not. Yes, you’re going to see the vast majority of YA novels today have some sort of romance, but if you’re true to your character, the audience will respond. I will say I’ve met young readers who say, “If it doesn’t have a romance, I don’t want to read it,” but I’m willing to bet that if they read a good, solid YA with a well-developed female protagonist, they would be so absorbed in the story they wouldn’t even care if there was a love interest. Don’t feel that you have to cave to pressure. Your readers will probably react more negatively to a forced love story than they would to no love story at all.

      BUUUUUUT, that’s not to say you won’t encounter agents and editors who say the opposite of me, so I don’t want to steer you in this direction of thinking my advice is the only advice. I’ve attempted, in the past, to write YA without romance, and I often find myself adding one. Not because I’m caving to pressure but because the characters you’re writing about are at ages where the hormones are flying, so it’s not crazy to think that some guy or girl might catch their eye.

      As you can see, I have come to a not-at-all firm conclusion about this topic.

      • Justin — while I believe that you DO NOT have to have a romance in order to have a successful YA book, I have heard Editors say exactly the opposite. But I think it really depends on your story. If you have a story that is interesting and compelling without a romance… well, interesting and compelling is going to win. Right?

      • Peter, that’s a much more succinct, probably better answer than mine. I find myself wondering sometimes if thinking about this so much is in some ways limiting, but not thinking about it is very difficult for me! Hence, why I share it with the world :-)

    • Hi Cynthia! It’s actually been suggested to me that a romance cannot, by its definition, be a feminist text. But I don’t know that I necessarily agree, because “feminism” itself is such a loaded term, so to say that there is no such thing as a feminist romance is saying that there is a strict definition of feminism that everyone has agreed upon.

      I think it’s entirely possible that a YA romance can be feminist, but I also understand why some might disagree, and I think it comes down to the audience, especially for YA. It’s an audience that may be questioning its position in society a lot more, and therefore the values behind the romance might have a more profound impact. So, say Twilight had been written for an older audience with older characters, but other than that it was the same (and no, I’m not talking 50 Shades of Grey). Would it have the same reaction from the public or its readers? I’d argue no. It resonates with teens because it speaks to something they want, and it gets a reaction from us older people because we’re worried about what they want. I think readers tend to see more feminist value in adult romances because they are marketed as an escape for readers, rather than as a potential “promise” that things might turn out a certain way. But I’m not comfortable saying that there is no such thing as a YA feminist romance novel, because I feel like that would be saying I have examined the subject from every possible angle, and since a 45 minute lecture and 600 word blog post can only contain so much theory, I can’t say that I have.

      There’s a great quote by Peggy Orenstein from Cinderella Ate My Daughter that I used in my lecture, but not this post, where she talks about the fact that one of the reasons Bella as a character (and characters like her) appeals to so many readers is because she isn’t perfect or gorgeous, but she gets the guy everyone wants. She shows that you don’t have to be a long-legged beauty with flawless complexion to be desirable. In that sense, I’d say that Twilight could actually be a feminist romance novel, but in my lecture I moved it more towards the post-feminist side of things.

      I hope that all makes sense! :-)

  5. Thank you for your thoughtful response! It seems that, if it’s not possible, we need to find a way to do it. First love is a quintessential adolescent right of passage, after all, and that’s the kind of story we tell. I wonder, too, if it’s in how we define not only feminism but romance as a genre. I don’t think of books with romantic subplots as romance novels.

    To me, it’s all about the central question. If it’s: “how do the leads get together romantically?” that’s a romance novel. If it’s anything else, it isn’t. And it’s possible to write a love story that isn’t a genre romance.

    That said, I’d be interested in a list of feminist romance genre YA books, if anyone has suggestions.

    As a side note, I’ve noticed that books by women with romantic subplots tend to be labeled romances whereas books by men with romantic subplots don’t. But that’s probably a topic for another day.

    • I remember back when anything YA was just labeled that in the bookstore. Nowadays in my average Barnes and Noble I see three shelves where YA books might be placed: Young Adult, Fantasy & Adventure (or Science Fiction, can’t recall at the moment), and Paranormal Romance. The third one shocks me the most, just because I find it baffling that there are so many novels that somehow fit this bill. Some of the books on that shelf are great (yours for example, and I’m not just saying that!), but it’s just striking to me that it’s become a category that’s considered separate from fantasy and science-fiction. And I am very willing to bet that 99% of the books on those shelves are written by women, and that the fantasy and science fiction shelves are more equally divided, gender-wise. Someone should do a study, if there isn’t one already.

    • I actually think there are lots of feminist genre romances; Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels is a great starting point for recommendations and funny critiques of more problematic aspects that show up in the genre. And here are a couple of recentish pieces I think are smart on same:

      http://www.theawl.com/2012/02/romance-novels
      http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/03/beyond-bodice-rippers-how-romance-novels-came-to-embrace-feminism/274094/

  6. These are excellent writing tips. I’m a little confused, though–none of them seem distinctly feminist to me. They just feel like common-sense story development. It makes me wonder what I’m missing…again…

  7. I’m glad that someone is noticing this other than myself as I read books. I find it especially disturbing the picture that some writers paint to show what “true love” looks like especially when it involves the male protagonist making all the calls. To add to that, it feels as if this perfect romance idea is propagated to a point that as a young adult who begins to date you have to break the image of this perfect story book man and love story. Thank you for addressing this is such a great way!

  8. This design is steller! You certainly know how to keep a reader amused.

    Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well,
    almost…HaHa!) Excellent job. I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it.

    Too cool!

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