Are Our Ships Empowering Readers

Before you ask, despite the picture, I am not talking about boats. I’m talking about the characters we’re pairing together, and whether they’re portraying healthy relationships, or whether romance in literature could leave readers feeling inadequate about themselves or their relationships.

I started thinking about this back in university when my housemate and I rewatched Friends. Friends is the TV hit show phenomenon that crowns sitcoms glory days. It was big and, being 90s show, had a ridiculous amount of problems. Crowning these off was the focus on the toxic relationship that formed the heart of the show: Ross and Rachel. We see petty jealousy, manipulation and outright lies all thrown in the comedic light and portrayed as appropriate. But, I hear your cry, that was the 90s. We’ve learnt since then.

But I’d argue that young people are still growing up under the influence of unrealistic and toxic relationships, especially those in YA. And here are a few red flags I’ve seen almost celebrated in YA literature.

The first issue that comes to mind is the superficial, attractive hero trope. He fancies the heroine, sure, but his dry wit, degoatory humour, unrealistic looks and desperate need for character development hardly make him an great person. And fair enough, he often gets that character growth but he’s not the ideal boyfriend before that and shouldn’t be portrayed as such. And, while we’re on the topic, we can’t hold up the ‘not that pretty’ but strong and smart heroine, emphasising that her character is what matters most while making all the men attractive. Because men’s personalities matter too here and women are not that superficial. The brooding, over attractive hero who can’t show emotions and rather takes them out using his dry wit and crazy fight skills isn’t going to empower many male readers.

YA is ripe with love stories. We’ve read it all- the slow burn romance, the friends forever but start to see something new lovers, the enemies that change for each other, even the instantly hitting it off pairings. But have we really seen a break up? Have we seen a character get over someone and find someone new? Because, news flash, you’re first date at 17 is unlikely to be the groom at your wedding several years down the line. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I know real life childhood sweethearts and people who seem pretty happy with their first pancake, but for me and many of my friends that was definitely not the case, and it’s not projected nearly enough in literature. This unhealthy stereotype can lead readers to struggle with breakups, feel inadequate if their first relationship didn’t work out or idealise something that was never there, hardly empowering.

The lack of comfortably single heroines would be my next gripe. How often have we screamed at our protagonist that she has bigger problems than the midly attractive men chasing after her? I like romance as much as the next reader, but so often it just feels forced into a plot where the characters were platonic at best. Unnecessary romances aside, I just don’t think every protagonist, side character and remotely in the novel woman needs pairing off. The portrayals of an unrealistic need for romance and relationships that each character has could lead readers to feel inadequate or unhappy with being single, which is, of course, never the case. There is no need to fixate on relationships so much in novels or in real life: readers and characters need to feel comfortable being single.

The final toxic relationship habit that receives far too much page time that I’m going to discuss is looking around. Zuzana’s remarks about Akiva in Daughter of Smoke and Bone? Scarlett saying she’ll check out the Count while still with Julian in Legendary? That’s just cruel. A relationship shouldn’t ever make you feel second best, or a settle for. Lovers should build each other up and be clear with their feelings, not just date someone in the interim while waiting for Prince Charming, which those crude remarks can leave people feeling. Normalising partners, particularly women, looking around and commenting on attractive male characters with disregard for their partners feelings can encourage readers to disregard others feelings.

There are other, less common, relationship problems splashed across the page throughout YA: Sky being forced to date someone she doesn’t like because she and Zed are Soul Mates in Finding Sky, Agnieszka dating a man literally 100 years older than her or Clary dating her best friend Simon despite having no feelings what so ever in City of Bones. Having only discussed a few issues in this post, I conclude the portrayal of romance in literature should be reassessed, but what do you think? Do you agree? Feel free to drop an opinion in the comments section!

My Unpopular Bookish Opinions

Oh gosh this Top Ten Tuesday topic. I hope I won’t loose too many friends over it but it was so fun to write 😂😳

1. Dog Earing Pages is Fine

That little crease in the top corner of a page that some bookworms flinch at? Yep that’s fine. I mean if you bend them back the other way you can’t even tell so what’s the big deal, anyway?

2. Cracked Spines are Good

I actively encourage cracked Spines in my bookcase. My books look loved and read, not like a bookshop!

3. Love Triangles Suck

I’m sorry popular ya published when I was fifteen but the love triangles were so over done. And not even that great a trope to begin with…

4. Not All Heroes Need Love

I love my ships, I really do, but do all protagonists and side characters have to pair off? Can they be single and happy about it?

5. Love Shouldn’t Last Forever

Again I love my ships, but occasionally I think they should well… Um… Sink? Just a couple. I mean come on, who here is still with their first boyfriend/girlfriend from 17?!

6. Negative Reviews Rule

Not everyone is going to like every book, so authors shouldn’t be offended to receive negative reviews. Also, as a reader I check reviews to see if I will like a book and I appreciate a reviewers honesty.

7. Review what you DNF

Again, I don’t want to waste my time reading a book I don’t like, so appreciate when bloggers straight up tell me why they didn’t like it.

8. Movies Don’t Always have to Follow the Books

I know, I know, readers are always going to prefer the book. It’s what we do. But I get some things won’t work on the big screen given time, budget or plot purposes and I’m ok with them missing out the odd plot point or character development. I’m just happy they made the movie.

9. Throne of Glass was Cliché

An unpopular opinion in and of itself, but this book is so popular I feel bad not liking it. It even has the ‘let go of a breath I didn’t know I was holding’ line, I’m sorry SJM fans but I am not in your ranks.

10. Soul Mates? Nah

And we’re back to love again. A lot of bookworms eat up this trope, which is fine and I don’t judge, but really it’s not for me.

11. I don’t like Swearing in Books

And a cheeky 11 because I’m just that unpopular. I know some writes think it’s the only way they can express themselves but to some readers it’s just offensive, and you don’t know who’s going to pick up your book. Also it takes me out the story completely, I don’t know why.

Lets Compare Note

There you have it! 11 unpopular bookish opinions. What’s your most unpopular opinion? Do you share any of mine? Do you have a list of your own? Would love to hear from you in the comments!

STEM Representation in Literature

Media is full of negative conations about women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths)- they can only do biology, men are better, the STEM character is the least attractive and clearly undatable. I struggle to find female STEM role models in media, and finding positive female STEM role models? Yeah, nearly impossible.

For my A Level years I went to a single sex school. It was the first year my school ran computing A Level and I was the only pupil doing it. I was super worried I’d be the first and last to do the subject, that there’d be no interest once I left. I ran coding classes for different levels: two in the senior school, one in the junior school, slowly and surely getting more girls into the computing room at lunch. You wouldn’t believe my joy when a girl in a younger year at school messaged me on Facebook a few years ago saying she’d taken computer science at the same university I had. That there’d been three doing computing A Level in her year. I couldn’t believe I’d actually made a difference.

But can the literature change the gender imbalance in computing? I’d say yes, it definitely did for me. My first real role model was probably Violet Baudelaire. Orphan, inventer and heroine of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Before I could even tie my shoelaces I was trying to tie my bob haircut up with string, to no avail, like her. In my eyes she was the epitome of cool: she used wacky inventions to save the day, she was the one her brother turned to when they were in a tight spot, she was everything ten year old me wanted to be.

Wanting to be an inventor like Violet changed my career path. I got an old excise book and drew pictures of inventions I planned to make one day. I tried to become a computer guru and became semi established with this title in year seven. I remember one particularly taxing ask by my aging English teacher: to get a digital version of a picture a girl had printed out for homework up on the projector. Sadly my ICT skills didn’t stretch to plucking search terms out of students’ heads and I failed to produce the image, a few Google Image searches later. Nevertheless, it will be no surprise to any of my teachers that I became a computer scientist. It always appeared to be on the cards.

Until it didn’t. At fourteen I went to a new school and suddenly computing wasn’t a subject. We learnt about Word and PowerPoint and ‘cool’ subjects became Art and History. It wasn’t just school that changed for me- it was media too. Violet was stuck in my past and my role models became Katniss and Tris. Computer science was restricted to The Big Bang Theory where it was ridiculed, because what kid wants to grow up to be like Leonard, at best? It didn’t look like the future, or the way to solve problems, it became another reason to laugh at the sad nerd in the corner.

I still had a love of engineering, a gutteral sense that it was for me, but I’ve no doubt I wouldn’t have questioned my decision, my place and right to take the subject, if I’d still been reading about Violet, kicking Olaf’s butt and saving her siblings with her mad inventions. And I wouldn’t have even consider computing if it wasn’t for characters like her. The interest she drummed in me meant my dad offered to teach me how to write my first computer program when he saw me reading a massive copy of “Programming for Dummies” that I’d gotten out the library.

Katniss and Tris, they taught a teenage me that women can do anything. But does literature tell kids that they can be anything?

Literature definitely has before. Take Hermione from Harry Potter. How many girls grew up under her fantastic influence, showing young women that brains is a form of strength. Characters that confront rather than conform to negative stereotypes can make a big difference. Or at least, they did for me.

I know not every novel can be about a female engineer, and wouldn’t want them all to be. If a debut is about a lawyer, or a warrior, or a writer or even a frog, then that’s fine. But there could be some small changes. A character gets advice from a wizened old professor at one point? Why can’t they be a woman. There’s a side character who happens to be in STEM? Make them strong. Attractive. Not that nerd with glasses and low self esteem. And there should never be demeaning and derogatory jokes about women in STEM (and yes, I have genuinely seen this in modern literature). Five minutes of laughter isn’t worth the terrible stereotype being instilled in young audiences.

I don’t have any statistics on whether media makes a difference to young people’s career paths. I don’t know how to magically change the public’s perception of women in STEM, I don’t even know if it’ll ever be a social norm for women to take STEM subjects. But I can’t help that think that maybe, just maybe, making it a fictional social norm could be a good place to start?