Problematic YA Tropes: Damsels in Distress and Toxic Masculinity – Jennifer Austin – Author
Jennifer Austin – Author

Problematic YA Tropes: Damsels in Distress and Toxic Masculinity


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.

Damsels in Distress and Toxic Masculinity

Examples of this are a little harder to put in bullet-form, but here’s a few:

To me, this trope is about putting women in a place of weakness in which they need a man to protect or save them, and also celebrating toxic masculinity. ‘But the guy is defending the girl against toxic masculinity!’ you say. Yeah, but he’s participating in toxic masculinity too. It’s chivalrous and all, but being a Damsel in Distress is still part of the toxic nature of misogyny.

We’re writers. We get to imagine absolutely anything we want. Toxic masculinity, rape, and sexual predators are a part of life and I’m not saying we shouldn’t write about those things. We should, but we need to do it in a responsible manner. Don’t use saving the girl from threat of rape as a way to make the guy ‘not like other guys’. Don’t use the guy defending the girl against sexual heckling as a way to make the guy a feminist. It’s not that those things don’t exist, and if it is an integaral and important part of your novel, then by all means include it.

But think for a second why you’re using it. Sexual predators are part of every world, but is it absolutely essential that it is part of your literary world, or is this just authorial wish-fulfillment? I’m sure we’ve all had fantasies about being saved by a well-built hero, and books are a way for us to experience that just a little bit. But when your MC is part of an everyday contemporary middle American world and the book is not about sexual abuse in any way and the MC can brush the incident off as if it never happened, then you’re using this trope in a problematic way.

Here’s an example I recently read, and I’ll try to be as vague as possible because I don’t like calling out other authors: MC is walking down the street and is heckled by a random man. LI comes out of nowhere (of course he does), chokes the man, is calmed down by MC, and then he whisks MC away to safety. In another part, MC and Bestie get into a confrontation with some guys at a party and the guys make lewd suggestions that they are going to rape/abuse MC and Bestie. Until of course LI swoops in and rescues them, throwing Lewd Guys out of the party. LI is also always swooping in with his car and saving MC from being stranded, too.

So what’s wrong with all of this? Well, for one, why are we reading about a girl who can’t save herself. To me, that’s a little boring. Also, why in this bubble-gum pink world are there so many sexual predators around when the author needs to show the LI in a feminist light? All of these are uses of tropes I talked about in earlier posts: Stereotypes, Perfect LI, Lazy Foils. We’re getting stereotypical and one dimensional descritpions of side characters to act as foils for our illustrious hero. Aren’t there ways to show a man is a feminist without involving sexual predators? Is that all feminsit men are good for is to save us from rape? And why couldn’t precious MC have a can of mace in her purse. And use it!

Not all heroines need to be the strong and angry types. I get the need to write about all kinds of females. But I think it’s even more important to show the ‘weaker’ ones being strong when they need to be. We get that Katniss is always going to fight, but we don’t all see ourselves in Katniss. If we see ourselves in a more feminine and less aggressive character, the need to see that character defend herself against an attacker—whether it’s verbal or physical—is extremely important.

Then there’s the toxic masculinity of physically attacking a person for using words. We all have our own ways of dealing with hecklers, and I’m not saying I wouldn’t want a guy to step in now and then. It’s nice to have an ally. But I do not need him to try to choke the guy. That’s not chivalry, that’s a need for some anger management courses. And it’s okay for your characters to do something ‘wrong’ as long as you call it out in the text. Make sure the reader knows that this person has some issues they need to deal with. Don’t just give reasons either. Like his past trauma ‘made him do it’. Everybody has reasons for what they do, but that doesn’t determine whether the actions are right or wrong.

Another example of toxic masculinity in novels is the guy physically directing the girl’s body in a way she does not want. She tries to walk away, but he grabs her and turns her around, holds her arm in a vice-like grip so she can’t leave, and she knows she’ll have bruises tomorrow. (Swoon! How romantic!)

Um, no.

I’m not a particularly violent person but I’m pretty sure my reaction to any guy laying hands on me when I’m trying to get away because I’m hurt or angry would be a solid right hook. Let me say it loud so everyone can hear me in the back row: THERE IS NOTHING ROMANTIC ABOUT A GUY FORCING A WOMAN TO DO ANYTHING!

Which also goes for the idea of a guy tickling, wrestling, or horsing around with a girl when she has said no (I’m looking at you Handbook). Yeah, I called someone out there. My bad. But I really, really hate this when I see it in books. I realize it’s not triggering or a problem for everyone, and there are instances when a consensual tickle fight is appropriate in a YA novel. It can be done well. But for some victims (in real life), this is how their rape started.

I’m not a rape victim, but I have serious problems with people touching me. Reading scenes like that takes me back to the helplessness and revulsion I felt as a child when adults would do this to me, no matter how many times I said stop. They didn’t understand how upsetting it was because they were ‘just playing’. But it wasn’t just playing to me. It was an egregious violation of my space. It still haunts me.

No means no, people! Let’s make sure our readers know that.

Lastly, I want to talk about the Poor Girl/Rich Guy Trope. This is another one that sets up the guy to ‘save’ the girl. Or even if he isn’t providing her with monetary rescue (with teens, it’s not like they’re getting married and moving into together) she still gets to ride in his expensive car, go on expensive dates, receive expensive gifts, be the envy of every girl because she got him. It’s kind of gross. It’s not fun to feel like a guy has an advantage over you or maybe you owe him because he contributes monetarily more than you do. I’m speaking from experience. And though my husband has never seen our relationship in that kind of light, as an independent woman it was one of the hardest things for me to adjust to. Especially when I stopped working to take care of the kids. I don’t think we want to set-up the narrative that we need a man to ‘save’ us from financial obscurity. I’d much rather show them how to do it themselves.

I think what we need to do as authors is ask ourselves some questions when we write these scenes: Why does my character need to be ‘saved’ right now? Why in this way? Why can’t she save herself? Is this fantasy and wish-fulfillment for me, or am I developing this character in an organic way that makes sense for the story? What am I teaching teens about life and how to react to it in this scene?

You would be astounded by the number of times Chris Evans has saved me in my imagination, but that’s not what I want to write. I want to write about a guy and a girl (or a girl/girl, guy/guy, any combination with enby, etc.) saving each other. I want to portray complex relationships with good and bad moments and not perfect reactions from everybody involved. I want strong girls who cry and weak girls who fight. I want quiet girls who get loud when they need to and loud girls who learn to listen. But most of all I want to show my readers that they don’t have to be perfect, but they can take care of themselves.

Author’s Note: Most of this applies to a female in the position of weakness and the male in a position of power, but it can very easily be applied to other situations switching the roles of the male, the female, or enby person. Though I wrote it strictly as female/weak, male/power, please keep in mind with your writing how changing the roles affects your characters and the narratives you are developing.

Other posts in this series:

Problematic YA Tropes: Stereotypes

Problematic YA Tropes: ‘Not Like Other Girls’ and Perfect LI’s

Problematic YA Tropes: Lazy Foils