Of late I’ve been reading a lot of romance novels, in the young adult realm but also the sort of book traditionally targeted to underwhelmed housewives who’ve never had an orgasm with another person in their lives. I believe in honoring what women want and find appealing but at the same time, I think it’s hugely important to objectively evaluate the nature of what women are socially conditioned to want and find sexually appealing. I’ve been snapchatting the pictures to my friends because the content of the novels is appalling and maybe I’m far too feministTM to enjoy them, but I’m utterly disturbed by what young women are being told to find attractive. Perhaps it’s my abject lack of social conditioning but I don’t like romance novels and how they treat their subjects, and I especially don’t like young adult romance novels that talk down to their readers and even when attempting to be progressive, end up alienating portions of their audience in ways that are so easily avoidable.
Another trend I’ve been seeing in YA literature that makes me extremely uncomfortable, for lack of better terminology, is the treatment girls who are wanted. That phrase doesn’t truly capture the biting annoyingness of the sentiment behind it but there’s this whole trope of novel, ranging from Judy Blume’s “Summer Sisters” written in the 1970s to “Ugly Girls” by Lindsay Hunter and “All our Pretty Songs” by Sarah McCarry which are modern day adaptations of the age old story. They’re indubitably told from the POV of the “normal” self-insert who is best friends (or sisters) with this beautiful, vibrant shell of a girl because nobody can write her POV since she supposedly doesn’t exist. It’s not that the trope itself is inherently terrible and I don’t believe this was the intent of the narrative initially, but the crux of the impression I took from the novels is that the “beautiful, vibrant, wild” best friend doesn’t deserve to live because she’s beautiful and wild and most of all, wanted. The best friend always dies, or ends up raped and destroyed, a shell of what she once was because she attained that prime attribute associated with femininity, approval from the male gaze, and she wrecked it by being a bitch and not being properly thankful of it. Men eat her alive, not as a statement for what men do to women but what women do to themselves by wanting to be loved and desired as both a sexual being and as a human being, and being brave enough to seek it. And it makes me angry.
“Relatability” is a deathtrap because by forcing relatability, you alienate people. Write for yourself, write for people like you, and demand empathy of your readers because the beautiful thing about human beings is that they are capable of real empathy. Reading literature is an active exercise in seeing the perspective of those who aren’t us, and it’s downright embarrassing that so much of young adult literature and other literature targeted to women is focused on forcing women down into some arbitrary distinction of what is normal and ends up cutting out the nuance and beauty of all that we can be. We don’t have to be scared of anything outside the norm because the norm isn’t predestined; human beings create it and enforce it. Beautiful women and ugly women, contemplative women and impulsive women, brave women and frightened women, we’re all women and we all deserve to be heard and not fetishized or metaphorically pointed and laughed at.
“Icy-Manic Hyper-Repressive Benzodiazepine-Heroine” was somebody’s description of Betty Draper from Mad Men and it really resonated with me because at this point I do not know who I am apart from who I’ve created myself to be, similar to Betty Draper, to Blair Waldorf, Cersei Lannister. The vulnerable bitch who is on enough drugs (wine counts) to be a drug mule even if she’s far too classy to descend to that level, who is a full and complete person worthy of your attention and respect despite supposed unlikability. I am everything I was told to be and at the same time, everything we’ve been taught to condemn in women and women of color.
Recently, I said to a girl who hates me: “I can be you. Can you be me?” I am not your girl next door- I’m the girl you die for, and that in itself is not sin enough to be condemned to death. It reeks of jealousy, of bitter entrenched resentment that a girl who is wanted dares to crave more than base desire, and moreover, it isn’t fair, it’s just simply not fair. The girl who is written about isn’t supposed to write her own story; she’s not supposed to exist beyond the scope of other’s imaginations because she supposedly doesn’t exist. But I’m that girl. I was either supposed to die a violent death at 17 or be saturated so much by the world and by other people’s perceptions of what women ought to be, but I wasn’t supposed to end up the person I am today. Not fully together or the ideal of existence, but for the most part, alive and still interesting in that disgusting way that makes men want me, and still pretty and small and vivacious, and desirable. But I am alive, and I’m going to stay alive, if only to make other people irrationally angry and viscerally uncomfortable. Is that unlikable? Well that’s too bad.