YA Fiction and the End of Boys

By Sarah MesleNovember 8, 2012

YA Fiction and the End of Boys

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton

WHEN I WAS PREGNANT the first time, I hoped I would have a girl. I know, obviously, that it’s hard to be a girl (the grim realities of Not Having it All, slut shaming, Todd Akin, etc.) but it seemed that parenting a girl, as a task, offered an appealing kind of clarity. You teach a daughter to be a strong, brave woman. But what, I wondered, do you teach a son? “Don’t get too full of yourself,” was about the best I could come up with.

I remember that quandary every time I read an essay about gender in Young Adult literature (which, since I teach it, is often). I see, in the ongoing conversation about Bella and Katniss, our culture pondering whether YA novels support the strong daughters we all want to raise. But as we debate ad nauseam whether, for example, Bella Swan is a dangerous role model for young women, we’ve neglected to ask the corresponding question: what does it tell young men when Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are the role models available to them? Are these barely-contained monsters really the best we can imagine?

The contemporary uncertainty towards young men snaps into focus when we compare recent texts to their literary ancestors — nineteenth-century novels for young readers. Hope Leslie, Jo's Boys, Northwood, The Lamplighter: these novels heralded the end of boyhood as a happy ending, the beginning of a triumphant journey into a powerful manhood. But today’s YA boys approach their manhood with trepidation. And they should. The adult men who populate YA fictional worlds are often careless, corrupt, incompetent — sometimes even cruel — and only rarely kind.

Why is it that in YA literature — a genre generated entirely to describe the transition to adulthood — there is so much fear and ambivalence surrounding manhood? When I read contemporary young adult novels, I see them asking over and over again a fascinating question, a question both for boys and for the stories describing them: are there any good men? And how can a boy become a good man, if he doesn’t know what that would mean?


When looking at boyhood’s end in contemporary YA fiction, there’s an obvious place to start: The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton’s iconic novel. The Outsiders is true to its title. Hinton’s central character, Ponyboy, is not only an outsider by virtue of caste (he’s lower class, a “greaser” in the novel’s terms) but also, because of his unusual academic success, an outsider from his caste. There’s a vague sense in his gang that Ponyboy is going to “make it”; that he’s destined to get some of the power greasers are always denied. But no one knows exactly what “making it” would look like. In the Outsiders, and for Ponyboy in particular, “manhood” isn’t so much a status to attain — it’s a problem to solve.

YA lit wasn’t always this way. Against Ponyboy, consider George Shelby, the boy hero of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe’s novel isn’t “for young readers,” in the conventional sense, but nevertheless the nineteenth century’s most famous novel of social reform hinges on a frame narrative describing a young boy, George, growing into a man. In the novel’s beginning, George is appalled when his father sells Tom to a slave trader, and George learns over the course of the novel that he can’t stand idly by while others suffer. George has social privilege — wealth, status, authority, masculine energy — and he gains moral clarity. Bringing all these together in the novel’s last chapters, George takes charge, imposes his will, and changes the world: he frees his slaves. In other words, Stowe’s novel implies that slavery ends, in at least one little corner of the world, because George mans up.

Despite Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s famed attention to the power of womanly feelings — and to the dangerous drives of men like Simon Legree — Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s story illustrates how manhood, done right, can be a good thing. In fact, it’s precisely because manhood done wrongly can be so dangerous that George’s heroism becomes so valuable in the novel’s world. While Ponyboy sees masculine authority as a travesty to be rewritten, George sees it as a treasure to be reclaimed. So Stowe ends her book with the end of boyhood, and leaves her reader to imagine a future when all such boys rightfully assume their status as moral, leading men. And we see this pattern repeat in novel after novel — in Little Women, The Wide, Wide World, Ida May, Marcus Warland, The Garies and their Friends — the list could go on — as the right boys become the right kind of men.

It’s not that contemporary YA boys don’t become the right kind of men, too;  it’s just that the “right kind” of man looks totally different in modern stories — more like Ponyboy than George Shelby. Whether lacking stable role models, ridiculed by their more powerful peers, or disconnected because of class, Miles in John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Gideon in Sarah Miller’s Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn, and Sean in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races all approach the end of boyhood with varying degrees of concern. And the manhood they do find doesn’t typically come through taking leadership over the world around them, like it does for George. With the conventional outlets of masculine power populated by men who are usually either dangerous, doofuses, or both, Miles, Gideon, and Sean can’t assume the mantel of manhood. Instead, each finds a happy ending to the extent that he fashions, whole cloth, as it were, an individuality outside of male privilege.

This pattern repeats in contemporary YA books focusing on girls. Just as readers know to like Miles, Gideon, and Sean because those characters are suspicious of male authority, girl characters choose boys for the same reasons. In Veronica Roth’s Insurgent series and Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone — both bestsellers this summer — the attractive romantic partner shows his moral worth by refusing the social power that’s offered him. And while Ellen in Wide, Wide World displays her nascent womanly wisdom by choosing the morally and socially powerful John — realizing she shouldn’t have to choose one quality over the other — heroines of these contemporary novels show their wisdom by opting for the outsider. Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone smartly emphasizes this moral pressure: the heroine’s attraction to a power-hungry suitor makes her feel actually guilty.

If books like these reward boys who give up men’s social power, more provocative still are books that imagine erasing men’s physical power. That’s the case in David Levithan’s just-released Every Day, which tells the story of A, a spirit who wakes every day in a different body: sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl, sometimes trans, sometimes this race or that. Levithan, known for his suggestive work about queer sexuality, uses his central conceit to artfully suggest the complexity of gender and embodiment. But even so, Every Day is haunted by a negative idea of manhood. When A falls in love with a girl, Rhiannon, he does so while inhabiting the body of Rhiannon’s crass, emotionally manipulative boyfriend. The novel’s antagonist, the character who offers A the ability to kill a host body’s spirit and thereby stay with Rhiannon forever, is coded male too. And what these experiences teach A is that being the kind of partner this beautiful, sensitive girl deserves means not being a man. At least, not being her man. It means finding a sweet, artsy, outsider for Rhiannon, and A heading off into a future perpetually separated from ownership of the body’s strength — the ultimate sacrifice of male power.


It’s clear in the real world that men, particularly white men, enjoy all or most of the social privileges they’ve always had. But YA literature shows us that in our cultural imaginary, morality has branched off from male social authority. Why would this be? It’s certainly not because manhood itself, or any norm of gender, was more stable in the nineteenth century than it is today. Peter Coviello, a scholar whose work has focused on masculinity and sexuality in the nineteenth century, notes in an email interview that it was a period of social upheaval. The daily experience of gender expectations — where you worked, where you lived — were dramatically changing. It’s precisely because of this, Coviello says, that people sought to use older “barricades of male social privilege, like whiteness and middle-class propriety, to shore up a newly precarious sense of masculinity.” In other words, it wasn’t that nineteenth-century Americans believed, in a way we now don’t, that manhood was a necessarily benevolent force. It’s just that people still believed it could be.

When I was describing the way nineteenth-century YA novels express a faith in manhood to a friend, he laughed. “Now we know better,” he said. It was a joke that captured something essential to where we are now, so suspicious of manhood in all its manifestations. In the most cynical YA novels, I see a similar sort of dark humor — for instance, in M.T. Anderson’s award-winning Feed, a dystopia with such a devastating view of manhood that it makes a wry joke out of a cruel boy named Link who, it turns out, was cloned from Abraham Lincoln’s recovered DNA. And there’s a part of me that shares that cynicism. But the bigger part is angered, frustrated. I don’t want to live in a world that believes, as Feed does, that only place to find a good man is in a long forgotten past.

If there seems to be lurking, here, a hint of strange and reactionary gender politics, let me remedy that problem by making my strange gender politics completely explicit: I actually believe in manhood as something that’s real, that’s inherently different than womanhood, and that is, potentially, awesome. And I don’t find a belief in manhood to be reactionary or antifeminist — indeed, to blame the distrust of men on feminism would be wildly wrong, a cruel characterization of an optimistic movement. What feminism has made possible is an ability to have hope for new ways of integrating gender into the world. And I refuse to conflate a critique of the way male power is sometimes — even often — abused with a sweeping dismissal of manhood itself. This is the gift, I guess, of reading a lot of nineteenth century novels: that I think that strength and compassion can be linked, that leadership is a responsibility, that privilege doesn’t need to be apologize for if it is generously used.

I realize this argument might be a little surprising for someone like me to make — that is, someone schooled in the kind of gender theory that makes it difficult to treat something like “manhood” as a thing, rather than a construction, an idea, and, even, a bad and dangerous idea. But there is the world we desire, and then there is this world we are in, a world where I find myself raising two sons, the older of whom is beginning to wonder what his nascent manhood means. In this world we are in, I want to help my sons imagine their manhood as essential to their best selves, not as a threat to it. What I am hoping for is books that guide them as they learn to be inside their manhood, rather than always on the outs.


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LARB Contributor

Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.


With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.


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