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Elizabeth Vail Headshot

The Legacy of Katniss, or, Why We Should Stop 'Protecting' Manhood and Teach Boys to Embrace the Heroine

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BOYS READING GIRLS
AP

Katniss Everdeen has a lot to answer for. Thanks to books like Twilight and The Hunger Games, the rapidly-expanding YA genre has experienced an increase in books with female protagonists -- particularly in the subgenre of science fiction and dystopian YA, which often place these young women in the traditionally male position of warriors, adventurers and world-savers.

However, with that progression comes corresponding reaction -- from articles like Sarah Mesle's "YA Fiction and the End of Boys" from the Los Angeles Review of Books to Robert Lipsyte's "Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?" from the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

The article, however, that sparked my particular indignation came from a post on the YA publisher Strange Chemistry's website. Written by author A.E. Rought, it was called "Top Ten Tropes in YA." And here is number two on her list:

2. The protagonist is female. Let's face it, the majority of lead characters in YA are girls. This is one trope [where] I actively seek the opposite. I love guy POV books.

First of all, that very statement, that the use of female protagonists is an overused literary device, is ridiculous. Last time I checked, half the population on earth is female. So saying "having a female protagonist" is a trope is on par with saying "having a human protagonist" is a trope, or "having a protagonist who inhales oxygen and ingests organic matter to live" is a trope.

Now, beyond the silliness of that author's comment lies the deeper connotations of her argument.

The thing is, literary tropes are chosen and used by authors for a reason -- because they're effective (sometimes too much and too cheaply, which is when they become cliches). So labeling "masculinity-impaired" protagonists as a trope suggests that authors only write books with female protagonists when they have a specific reason for their femininity. Not because they could be an interesting character on their own, but because their gender plays a role in the story.

Look at Katniss from The Hunger Games. Her gender plays little to no role in the story itself. If she'd been written as a strapping male warrior named Katner, would the ultimate story have changed? Nope. However, despite the fact that her gender isn't important to the storyline, lots of readers, critics, and bloggers tend to make a huge deal about the fact that she's a girl.

And why is that? Because despite the fact that it's 2012, being white, male, and straight is still seen by some as the default in art and literature. Any significant deviation from the default -- writing a female, gay person, or person of color as a protagonist -- invites questions as to why that deviation was made. Clearly you must have chosen to have a female protagonist, or an Asian protagonist, or a gay protagonist, for a specific plot-related reason because if you didn't, why not just make them a white dude and get a larger audience?

Of course, with the influx of more books centered around female protagonists, you'll get people like A.E. Rought or the writers mentioned above whining and moping about the dearth of good male role models and male points of view. Poor A.E. Rought, forced -- forced, I say! -- to "actively avoid" books with female protagonists because, ugh, they are just everywhere. There is no escape.

Yes, boy readers are so disadvantaged. It's not like the last 400 years of English-language literature are chock full of boy heroes. Who's David Copperfield? Huckleberry who? Tom Jones is that Vegas singer, right?

And as everyone knows, boys and girls are so fundamentally, intrinsically different that it's simply impossible for a person of one gender to empathize with and relate to a character of an opposite gender.

Wait, what were women doing during those last 400 years of English language literature? Oh, right. Sewing, or something. Baking pies, maybe? Scones? I'm pretty sure babies and suffrage and delightfully large hats feature in there somewhere.

The fact is, women have been reading, enjoying, and relating to books with male protagonists for centuries without our femininity being "threatened," and yet the idea of a boy having to read a book with a female protagonist (or at least one that hasn't been handily rendered gender neutral by the glossy label of "classic literature" like To Kill a Mockingbird) is seen as too much for their boy brains to take.

Again -- male protagonists are seen as the default, and thus provide acceptable reading for all genders. Books about girls are seen as being "for girls," with the intrinsic femininity of such stories inevitably drowning out any other worthwhile lesson, theme, or idea a boy could possibly derive from them.

As a woman and a reader, it's hard not to feel indignant when books with female protagonists are categorized entirely by the main character's gender while books with male protagonists are seen as universal. Why is Katniss' femininity more important to her narrative than Harry Potter's masculinity is to his?

The response to this increase in female-centric stories shouldn't necessarily be to call for more male-centric stories to "protect" manhood. Perhaps the response should to be change the marketing and social depiction of such female-driven stories to focus more on their storytelling and less on their gender. I'll be the first to admit that the prevalence of YA cover art depicting girls in flowing prom dresses is doing neither side of this argument any favors.

Maybe it's time to actively encourage boys to pick up and read about a heroine, and maybe absorb some understanding of the female experience. Reading is supposed to expand one's horizons. It's supposed to enable people to experience lives and cultures and people they would otherwise never get to -- and maybe even discover that the people who live those lives aren't so very different.