Apparently, if I want to be published and appeal to boy audiences, my main character either needs to be a pumped-up superhero who is sarcastic and aggressive, or he needs to be a slacker who doesn’t like school and shirks responsibility.
From a study out of UMass (less than a mile from where I live, yet strangely I have to read about it from the BBC) it appears the aggressive superhero and the apathetic slacker are the two primary “role models” boys are presented with in popular culture.
Really, it took a university study to learn this?
Those of you who have read my book reviews already know that I find the superhero in fiction, particularly in middle grade and YA, to be the most turgid of premises. No matter how you dress it up, the fantasy of human with extraordinary abilities coming to terms the awesome responsibility they have to protect the world has moved into the realm of the obscene through overuse. And I still maintain that there are few boys who go to the library (and fewer who go to bookstores) requesting a superhero narrative; they may spot one on the shelf while browsing, and cannot resist its candy-colored allure, but it’s still a stand-in for the patriarchy and moral superiority that is a particular American disease, and it is not a story they go seeking out. I have yet to hear of a kid ask for a recommendation for a superhero novel.
The flip side of the hero coin is the loser. The slacker has grown from its humble roots as a counter-culture figure, evolved from beatniks and hippies, into an arrogant and sarcastic cynic with few redeeming qualities and dialog that real slackers wish they were quick enough to come up with. These cultural wastrels have the outward appearance of personality coming from the deliberately studied position of the outsider. There is little the modern slacker in literature can achieve that hasn’t already been played sixty-plus years ago, though they do make better comic foils. I suspect the appeal in these characters is that readers can take heart that, by comparison, they aren’t so cynical or apathetic after all. Or maybe these stories are primers for how to grow your own slacker personality.
So what’s wrong with stories about kids who aren’t slackers or don’t have superpowers? I posed a version of this question over the weekend, to adults, and was given the stock answer “Who’d want to read about that?” Within that question-that-answers-the-question is the key to the problem: it is the failure of the imagination to see that satisfying stories can told without having to rely on these false cultural polarities. If adults (and particularly adult writers) cannot see the possibilities or value in stories about real people, then that cultural bankruptcy is passed down to younger generation who, in turn, see only two possibilities for their future, the two role models that have come to dominate popular culture.
Ladies, what does it look like over on the pink side of the fence? I haven’t run across a similar story concerning the predominant role models for girls out there, but I’m assuming the virgin-whore axis has been replaced.
Or has it?