Nov 12, 2012
YA Fiction and the Many Possibilities of Manhood
I’ve been thinking about Mesle’s essay for several days now, and trying to consider it in the context of the broader discourse about YA, which includes Meghan Cox Gurdon’s infamous Wall Street Journal essay on “dark YA” as well as countless ruminations on “boy books” (pro, against, whether they exist at all).
In the LARB essay, Mesle writes:
“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?”
Although Mesle’s essay purports to be interrogating the changing nature of manhood as expressed in contemporary YA fiction, it also slips very easily into the mainstream discourse on YA, which is much more about adult anxiety over contemporary adolescence2 than it is about the YA texts themselves.
In the recent past, this adult anxiety over adolescence has been expressed by critiquing other forms of popular culture: video games, rock music, television and movies. These critiques all tended to focus on controlling the adolescent experience. Rock music is too sexy so teens shouldn’t watch Elvis gyrating! Video games turn teenagers into murderers so they shouldn’t be allowed to play them! TV is too crass and it turns girls into sluts so they shouldn’t be allowed to watch it!Some of the discourse on YA fiction is similar, especially the more conservative commentary on book ratings and book challenges. But a lot of the discourse on YA fiction, especially in the era of Twilight, has been about gender, particularly whether YA fiction provides good role models for girls and boys. In a way, this discourse is an attempt to control gender in a culture and time when gender is becoming increasingly fluid.
Human beings are notoriously resistant to change, so it’s not surprising that as gender — something that was long believed to be completely stable — changes, there is such widespread anxiety about it. Narratives about adolescence lend themselves particularly well to drawing out this anxiety. During adolescence, teens not only have to deal with the de-stabilizing, often alienating confusion of understanding their own changing bodies, they have to deal with cultural and familial pressures about “manhood” and “womanhood.”
Basically, much of the discourse on YA reveals a deep-seated and widespread anxiety on the part of adults about gender as it is experienced in adolescence and by adolescents. This is totally fascinating to me, and it is at the crux of Mesle’s essay.
Mesle writes: “I actually believe in manhood as something that’s real, that’s inherently different than womanhood, and that is, potentially, awesome.” She goes on to clarify: “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.”
I might be misunderstanding her, but after several reads of this essay, I think Mesle is arguing that “manhood” is not socially constructed. I think Mesle is saying that “manhood” is “real” and “a thing” — meaning, it is something like an immutable identity.
While this may be something that is arguable in literary theory3, my first reaction was … wait. “Manhood” is absolutely constructed. “Manhood” varies depending on culture. What it means to be a man in the contemporary United States is different from what it means in, say, Mexico. But it doesn’t vary only according to culture; it varies within culture according to class and race. It even varies according to time periods. There is no one constant definition of “manhood,” and there never was. “Manhood” is always and has always been contingent.
What’s interesting and wonderful in contemporary YA — across genres, from realistic to fantasy and sci-fi — is that “manhood”4 reveals its contingency so clearly. And I don’t think this should be surprising. Male characters in today’s YA novels are in the midst of their transition from boyhood to manhood, and these characters are being written in a world that has been transformed in many ways by feminism.
Mesle herself notes, “What feminism has made possible is an ability to have hope for new ways of integrating gender into the world.” To which I say: Yes! Exactly. It’s this possibility that is incorporated into much of today’s YA fiction.
And yet Mesle somewhat paradoxically expresses what I interpret as nostalgia for a particularly American vision of manhood, rooted in the white upper class of the nineteenth century. That’s fine, as far as personal preference goes. But I find a desire to return to that kind of manhood to be incredibly limiting.
Today’s boys — in the real world and in YA novels — are coming of age in a world in which they thankfully have the option to be more than only one kind of man. I’m going to bet that even in the nineteenth century, not all boys wanted to grow up to become “moral, leading men” — nor could they. Morality and leadership were constrained by race and class.
I know that many people find the idea of a world in which gender is flexible to be frightening. It does indeed destabilize a lot of things that we may have been taught when we grew up. In a world with so much change going on — environmentally, politically, culturally — I’m not surprised that many people might be nostalgic for a vanished past of strong men who became honorable leaders. I just hope that people can remember that this vanished past was largely mythical, and it was firmly based on inequality.
Race and class have not been erased today, but they are more fluid than they were in the nineteenth century. That means that manhood, too, is more fluid today, and I believe that is far from frightening. It’s liberating.
Finally, a word about my own situation and potential biases. I write young adult fiction, and all of my books so far have had queer girls as main characters. It might seem completely irrelevant for me to have an opinion on manhood, but I see manhood as inextricably entwined with womanhood. I want more flexibility all around. All of my books have included male characters, several of them teens who are figuring out how to become men. Like Mesle, I too believe that manhood could be “potentially, awesome.” I just think that it’s more awesome when there’s more than one kind of manhood possible.
- Let me say here: I don’t know if Mesle wrote the title to her essay. I don’t think her essay is about “the end of boys” at all, but “the end of nineteenth-century notions of manhood within certain contemporary YA texts.” [↩]
- Particularly white, middle-class, American adolescence [↩]
- And honestly I don’t know; I was not an English major. [↩]
- And womanhood, but I’m focusing on Mesle’s essay here. [↩]