Author’s Note: I started writing a post about YA Tropes that I found problematic, but the list grew so long I decided to dedicate a short post to each topic. Also, I am a YA author and I love reading and writing this age group. But because I love it so much, I think we writers can do better by our readers. Hence why I’m calling out a few of these problematic tropes. Here goes:
Tropes in YA novels are commonplace, and calling them a trope doesn’t necessarily mean they are inherently bad. Sometimes they serve a purpose and are accompanied by nuanced and in-depth writing that nullifies potential harm. But when you read as many YA books as I do (120+ last year) you really begin to see those repeated tropes as an endless parade of boring. Even worse, there are many that do actual harm to readers.
You might recognize a stereotype when it looks like this:
- Mean cheerleader/jock/rich person who has it all
- Sassy Black or Latina friend
- Flamboyant & effeminate gay male
- Butch & masculine lesbian
- All females besides MC or LI are catty, slutty, & bitchy
- All males except MC or LI are jerks, sexual predators, or Neanderthals
- “Not like other girls”
- Dark-skinned aggressor
- White savior
- Greedy Jewish person
- Muslim terrorist
- The long suffering but always sweet and thankful person with a disability (i.e. Inspiration Porn)
I could go on and on about stereotypes. This list is just a taster. There’s everything from blonde stereotypes to redheads, Jewish to Muslim, jock to geek, city to country, and on and on. My personal pet peeve is the mean cheerleader. This is probably because I was a cheerleader, and I was neither bitchy, catty, nor slutty. Yes, I know people like this do exist, but I see it so often in Contemporary YA the minute that bitchy blonde rears her oh-so-perfect head I roll my eyes and let out an audible sigh.
I think what annoys me most is that it’s lazy writing. The author wants to convey a character in as few words as possible with pre-built connotations (i.e. stereotypes). Because we all understand stereotypes. An author doesn’t have to show us a character if they can select from a predetermined set of options that we’re all programmed to get. Voila! One or two words and we know everything we ever need to know about this villain or side character. They aren’t important enough for the author to develop them beyond the stereotype, so they aren’t important enough for the reader to care. They can be humiliated, rejected, hurt, abandoned and they’re just a stereotype, so who cares?
Maybe when this is just the “mean cheerleader” trope it does little harm (besides irritating me) but when we’re talking about people with marginalized identities, then things get a little nastier. I was judged by complete strangers because I was a cheerleader, so these written stereotypes only reinforce those opinions before they know me. No problem, I only had to deal with that while in uniform (we’re talking 25 years ago btw). But what about a marginalized person who can’t take off their identity? How does that affect them now?
I’d like to think that as writers we already understand that racial, gender, religious, disability, and sexual orientation stereotypes (among others) are offensive and problematic. I’m not going to go over all of that in this post. Partly because as a white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied person it’s not my place to discuss. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, I suggest you do more research. I’ll leave some links at the bottom. And don’t write characters unlike yourself until you’ve done so.
I think we can do better, though. I’m kind of over the cookie-cutter, two dimensional villains and side characters I see in some novels. Dig deeper. Not because cheerleaders will feel hurt that you’re giving them a bad name (I think we can take it), but because as writers it’s our job to work as hard as we can to do no harm and to give all our characters nuance and depth.
9 Ways YA Authors Can Stand Up to Stereotypes About Young Women by Meredith Turits on Bustle
Why Stereotypes are Bad Even When They’re ‘Good’ by Oliver Burkeman on The Guardian
Stereotypes & Tropes Navigation on Writing with Color: This is a veritable treasure trove of information on writing (or trying not to write) stereotypes relating to ethnicity and other factors
Other posts in this series: