It’s SO EASY to complain about the newly emerging genre of “young adult romance” that has hit the bookshelves like a ten pound hammer ever since the release of books like Twilight and TV shows like “Vampire Diaries.” As a literature major at a university, it’s all too tempting to whine and complain about the awful writing that has taken over the most prominent displays at Barnes & Noble where at one time truly interesting fiction once existed. Sure, I can see the temptation for those who are fans of young adult romance: most of the books that follow in the footsteps of Twilight are exciting and low-key kinky without being 50 Shades of Gray.
For the many fans I see of the genre and its rapid expansion in society’s literary market in general, I also see an overwhelming distaste for it. Feminists, Christians, conservatives, concerned parents are just a few groups who (generally speaking) have spoken out against this new trend in literature.
Tara Isabella Burton wrote an article called “‘Ghost Stories: The ubiquitous anti-feminism of young adult romances.” She takes on a feminist critique of the genre as a whole, making reference to Twilight. Essentially, she uses feminist criticism to explore the trappings of this genre, and to argue its negative impact on young girls. Feminist ideological criticism questions the motivations of both the authors as well as audiences who buy their books, paying particular attention to the ways in which patriarchal values dictate what we value and what we allow to become popular.
What Burton sees when she looks at these young adult romance novels when viewed through a feminist lens is a genre that diminishes a female’s value because it encourages worth based solely on how desirable a female is to the opposite sex. She writes,
romantic desirability is the proof of, and the reward for, individual worth
Having written a young adult romance novel or two in her time, Burton acknowledges that from a feminist perspective, there is the possibility of viewing these young adult romances as somewhat empowering for women, since they often put the female heroine in a position of independence and power, with men falling at her feet. However, she reiterates the fact that it is usually male attention that ends up “informing character development” so in fact, what could potentially be an empowering discourse ends up being once again an instance of identity determined by the male gaze.
What these young adult romance novels tend to assume, is that a woman’s worth revolves around the amount of approval she receives from men around her – that a story is only interesting if it depicts a desirable female receiving desperately wanted male attention. In fact, all these stories do is perpetuate the idea that a girl must be lusted after by men in order to feel attractive or wanted or valuable. This is further cemented in young adult novels like Twilight where the heroine (Bella Swan) isn’t given many defining characteristics other than an uncanny desirability…her character isn’t fully developed. All the reader knows is that men want her.
What Burton and many feminists wonder is how society can get away with sending this message to girls? A young, impressionable readership is liable to believe exactly what these young adult romance novels tell them, which is that worth is determined by how many guys “like” you. Burton’s argument is convincing and highly relevant, and she uses a feminist lens to critique this literary movement in a way that definitely makes me think twice about encouraging girls to give in to reading books like these that emphasize desirability over shared interests or individual worth as the key to successful relationships. The saddest part is that popular literature tends to reveal the morals and values of the culture that produces it. With that thought I can’t help but cringe when I realize that Burton’s argument, at its core, is attempting to reveal through its language the fact that the need for a feminist lens still exists because literature continues to be written that dis-empowers women and depicts them as objects of male objectification and lust.