YA Fiction And Breaking Down Gender Roles

By Lindsey Capritta

It’s been no secret that the hot new trend is Young Adult literature. It’s also no secret that media is very influential over our society, especially over those darn youths. Media has been responsible for changing attitudes within society over and over again. One of the reasons media has so much power over people’s opinions is through its use of representation. And YA is just the most recent showcasing of that.

Young Adult novels tend to promote very real values within a very unreal world. Similarly, literature allows a more in-depth look at a character, through tools like first-person narrative, which allows us to think alongside a character and understand their outlooks. We identify with them. Interestingly, many of the protagonists in YA fiction are female, which is usually only typical when something is promoted specifically for girls. In general, things targeted towards women are considered to be “just for women,” while things targeted towards men are considered acceptable for everyone to enjoy. But with so many children of both genders reading these novels, they can be opened up to a new viewpoint, one that’s much more equal and accepting. With such a large, successful avenue for representing females, large audiences are given stories that actively go against sexism and traditional gender roles.

“Harry Potter” is one of the most successful items in recent pop culture and was basically the beginning of this trend. One of the main themes of the books is equality. The series portrays this through ethnicities, mainly Pureblood and Muggle-born. The series does not, however, make a big deal about gender or sexism. Few things in the Wizarding World are presented as for a single gender. Even sports like Quidditch are for both genders. Hogwarts is a co-educational school and has been that way since it foundedby two men and two women. Wizards and witches seem to have been on equal terms for centuries. While the muggle world developed traditional gender roles, the wizarding world had magic, which seems to have equalized the sexes much earlier. I mean, who is going to claim that a woman isn’t capable when she can hex boogers to fly out of your nose and attack you?

While the main lead is male, the series has many heroic female characters, especially our heroine, Hermione. Hermione is noted, above all, for her intellect and bravery. Having a female character included in the main story, and being kept around mainly for her brains, is a positive influence for young readers as they view Hermione as equal to her two male friends. While she does hook up with Ron, she and Harry are genuinely platonic and deeply care about each other regardless of any attraction. Harry appreciates her for who she is and so does the reader.

One of the more examined female characters of late is Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is, in many ways, the typical YA heroine; she is smart, capable, has a special skill (archery), and two boys chasing after her. But Katniss’s personality is wildly different from the norm as she is also cold, aloof, and grim. Katniss has grown up in a very harsh world and has adjusted. In fact, Katniss’s defining character trait could be her ability to adapt and survive. Her harsh personality, and the harsh decisions and actions she makes, are made accessible to the reader through the use of first person narrative. By seeing everything from Katniss’s POV we understand her logic, not as a woman, but simply as a person. Katniss does well in the Hunger Games, but it’s not until Katniss pretends to love Peeta that she wins over the theatrical Capitol audience she needs to appeal to. The Capitol can be seen as a metaphor of our mainstream society. The media and society put pressures on women to behave a certain way, to be feminine. The Capitol puts this same pressure on Katniss, who is forced to play along just to stay alive. The reader, who has come to know Katniss quite well through her narrative, feels as frustrated as she does since we know the real Katniss and that she is much stronger and complex than the act. A young reader, particularly a male, can see the pressure placed on women to be something other than their true selves. They realize how conformity can be harmful to a person’s identity.

Hermione and Katniss, the two most popular female characters in the YA genre, break all sorts of rules previously thrust upon female characters. Neither conform to the traditional feminine roles presented for them and are not mocked for it; instead both use their skills to become leaders. Both are strong and resourceful, Hermione through her intellect and Katniss through her survival instincts, yet are also complex and have flaws as well, allowing the reader to experience a true, rounded character that they can view and learn from. Although their genders are not completely incidental to their character, they are not all that is important to understanding them. And that’s exactly what readers are doing, understanding them.

IMG_0062Lindsey is a Valley Girl imagining herself a Brontë heroine (sadly, she is not witty enough to come up with that line herself). She is currently an undergrad and thus has little going on in her life other than schoolwork, procrastinating schoolwork and crying over schoolwork. She manages to survive thanks to her love of books, TV and movies, which she not-so-subtly uses as a vessel for escapism. Lindsey reads constantly, be it fiction or history, which she loves to study. Lindsey adores musicals and theater in general and attempts to pattern her everyday dialogue after Amy Sherman-Palladino shows. Lindsey loves Bob’s Burgers because Louise is an accurate portrayal of her as a child.

View Comment (1)
  • I really appreciate your perspective and agree that Katniss’ story successfully makes readers question their assumptions about conformity. That’s why Team Peeta/ Team Gale is so very annoying.

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