There’s been a lot of hoopla lately on gender divides in YA, particularly boy books vs. girl books. And I want to throw my hat into the ring, though the issue is so complex and difficult to boil down to an essence that is both realistic and constructive, that I wrote this post twice. I’m still not sure I have it, and that I haven’t written some statements that are overly simplistic, or wrong. I apologize in advance for anything particularly obtuse.
I am a rabid feminist, but I am also a realist. So I believe the best way to have a fruitful conversation generally is to admit and face the realities of gender (particularly socialized gender norms), and then challenge and break them down.
There are myriad issues in publishing, and particularly YA publishing, that illustrate and reflect the larger problems in our culture: sexism, gender essentialism, rape culture, misogyny, etc. It’s important to have conversations about this as often as possible, challenge assumptions, and fight the good fight. So it doesn’t help at all is to pretend there aren’t “girl” books (or girl YA) and “boy” books (boy YA). Yeah, yeah–in a perfect world there would just be BOOKS! but that isn’t how reality, or marketing, works.
Men and women often-but of course not always-have different entertainment preferences. The types of stories they enjoy consuming and how those stories are told are different. Though admittedly there is a bit of a chicken/egg situation—Hollywood or Big Publisher says “women like romance!” and they produce said stories and market the hell out of them—to women—and then these things do well, and Hollywood/Big Publisher says “see, women like romance!” But do women flock to romance because it is marketed heavily to them–and there aren’t many options for women that aren’t romance? Or because women genuinely have a preference for these stories? Ditto men and action movies. (though men have a much wider range of movie options available to them)
I believe, as in most things, that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Marketing does play a role in shaping consumer behavior, but the media also responds to consumer needs and trends. Speaking generally, I have observed this gender divide in storytelling, specifically where it comes to YA books:
- Women often gravitate towards stories, starring female protagonists (but they can equally read a boy protag), with romance, emotional character arcs/focus on relationships (all kinds, not just romance), happy endings (usually fulfillment of the romantic promise). Basically Twilight, any YA contemporary, etc… romantic comedies, family dramas.*
- Men (boy readers) largely gravitate almost exclusively towards male protagonists, and they seek stories with action, fast moving plots, and adventure stories. Heroes journeys. Not necessarily an absence of romance, but “guy gets the girl” subplots.
Of course, this does not mean that women don’t like adventure and action, or exclusively read schmoopy romance. Or that men can’t read a female protagonist in a romance plot… though they are far less likely to, which is part of the problem (I’ll get to that). And I say to you, man reading this post that reads all kinds of YA, including girl books!–here, have a cookie. I’m not talking about you.
While it is reductive to say that women like romance, men like action, to deny that women like romance would be obtuse. Look at sales of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, and the entire chick lit genre boom—women like romance and “girl gets the guy” stories. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that women like reading romance—often when the boy book/girl book discussion comes up, typically “feminine” interests get thrown under the bus. And that just hurts everyone.
That fact that society denigrates the feminine (helloooo misogyny) contributes to the divide of boy books/girl books and the whole “boys won’t read” so-called crisis. Women comprise of the majority of readers, and most YA is marketed to them, and yet genres that are largely written by women and star female protagonists-and feature romance-are often derided, not taken seriously (see: chick lit–UGH that label!), and don’t perform as well as books by men, featuring boys, and written as “boy books.” See: male dominance on the NYT best sellers list for YA.
Male stories and perspectives are considered “universal.” Female stories and perspectives are a niche. They are for women. They are feminine. And so we have boys that won’t read “girl books” – ie books featuring girls (and also often romance plots). And because they won’t read books featuring girls, because they need a “protagonist they can relate to” (ie: a boy), we get boy books and girl books. And the gender divide widens. It’s a girl book—make the cover pink and put a cute girl on the cover! It’s a boy book—give it a gender neutral cover and nominate it for serious writing awards! Boys are reluctant readers! Let’s only recommend books with male protagonists and no romance! (I have seen this in multiple reluctant reader panels & discussions. Usually, but not always, the authors are also male.)
All this does is reinforce to boys, our reluctant readers (why are they reluctant? Hmmm.) that women’s stories aren’t for them. That romance is Not A Thing They Should Read. That there is no worth in putting themselves into the shoes of a female protagonist, and empathizing with them. Male perspective is universal. Female perspective isn’t worth reading.
So that is to say, we must both acknowledge and respect the divide in reading preferences, and actively fight against them. Admittedly, I do not enjoy most so-called boy books. I don’t like breakneck action and adventure at the expense of deep character study, emotional arcs and, yes, romance**. I don’t like too much romance, either, so a lot of so-called girl books don’t appeal to me (paranormal romance just isn’t my thing), but I’ll take a female protagonist with some UST any day. (that’s unresolved sexual tension for the non-fandomy)
Boy books and girl books are a real thing, and from a marketing perspective it does make sense for publishers to market them the way they do—women gravitate towards certain colors, fonts and motifs in covers (for better or for worse—even I fall for girls in dresses covers), and men equally gravitate towards certain cover elements (ie: the ones we call gender neutral, sigh). So a publisher trying to sell a book to a particular group is smart to market the way they do. That is accepting the reality.
But I’ve seen plenty of YA books (mostly with female protagonists) that got the girl book marketing push when they COULD have been marketed more broadly, and that’s where the gender book divide is divisive. That is where we should fight the good fight, because a shift in marketing could help turn the tide and get so-called girl books into the hands of boys, and get them reading—and empathizing with—female voices. I think we’d have far fewer reluctant boy readers if they realized there was a whole world out there of titles that simply aren’t being marketed to them–or that they’ve rejected because, eww, girl book.
And coming back to the chicken/egg of “women like romance so we buy/market romance to them!” situation. As a women who prefers the romance to take a backseat to other plot elements (but still be present), I want to see publishers buying more YA books that don’t revolve around boys and kissing. They shouldn’t stop publishing those books (again: let’s not denigrate the “feminine” or shit on any one genre!), but it seems like every YA book out there has insta-love, or a love triangle, or “if I can’t be with him I’ll die!” A robust stable of YA titles with yummy hooks, complex characters and solid plots—and romance as a subplot, not major plot—that are marketed to men and women would help to break down the boy book/girl book divide. And not just books that do this with male protagonists (plenty books like this already exist, but they’re considered boy books). There have been some great titles in recent years that have gotten everyone reading, not just boys—The Hunger Games, Divergent. We need more!
*I really hate being this reductive, and might be completely wrong. I’ve just noticed these motifs in books that tend to appeal to a majority female reading audience. I’m definitely not saying this is all women like to read. Women, like men, are people (shocking!!!), with broad interests. But I’ve certainly noticed in myself, and I have definitely been socialized with certain gender norms, that I like relationships, emotional conflict and less action/adventure in my books. That said, I freaking love action movies. ANYWAY.
**I want to mention that there are plenty of amazing books that I would probably term “boy books” in that they’d be great recs for reluctant boy readers, that have action and adventure AND deep emotional arcs and romantic pay-off. I don’t mean to be that jackass that makes grand, sweeping statements about boy books, assuming that action/adventure and emotional arcs are mutually exclusive. I just have noticed that I often find the stories I want in so-called “girl books,” and less so in so-called “boy books.” And as an adult, I prefer stories featuring female protagonists, mostly because after a lifetime of reading upper middle class male perspectives and being told these stories are universal and yet seeing nothing of myself in them, god dammit, I like reading books by women, starring women. It’s nice.
However, one example that springs to mind is Dan Wells’s Partials series, which I actually recommended to a random boy in the YA section recently. It has a female protag but is focuses on forward action and adventure but has a lovely arc for the main character and fabulous romantic payoff in book two. But there’s not much romance in it and the girl protag is fairly gender neutral, all things considered, so it would appeal to many male readers. Really, I’d call this a gender neutral, just good book.