Problematic YA Tropes: Damsels in Distress and Toxic Masculinity

Megara

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:

  • Guy defending girl against heckling and/or sexual advances
  • Guy’s excessive aggression (in order to ‘save’ girl) not called out as problematic
  • Guy that directs a girl’s body in a manner she does not want to go
    • Forces her to turn around to face him
    • Grabs her hand/arm so she can’t leave
  • ‘Playful’ tickling or horsing around that the girl says she doesn’t want and he doesn’t stop
  • Stalking, scaring, hurting, smothering, grabbing roughly
  • Poor Girl/Rich Guy Trope

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

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13 thoughts on “Problematic YA Tropes: Damsels in Distress and Toxic Masculinity

  1. Pingback: Problematic YA Tropes: Lazy Foils | Jennifer Austin – Author

  2. Pingback: Problematic YA Tropes: ‘Not Like Other Girls’ and Perfect LI’s | Jennifer Austin – Author

  3. Pingback: Problematic YA Tropes: Stereotypes | Jennifer Austin – Author

    • Agree on all of this! I see the Rich Guy/Poor Girl trope more in Romances, but I see it subtley in YA too. The poor girl in school dates the rich jock in Contemporaries, the poor girl catches the eye of the Prince in Fantasy. It’s not as prevalent as other YA tropes, but it definitely occurs.

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  4. I feel like a lot of women are confused. They say they hate the alpha male role in romance novels but are the first ones to read shades of Grey. I particularly like reading about the manly alpha male that grabs the damsel and makes her feel week and desired. I know a lot of women feel the same way but won’t admit it becAuse more and more we are told to behave like men. So what if the man has money? That makes things more interesting. A gorgeous rich alpha male that adores me… love it.

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    • Do you actually know women who have said they dislike the alpha male trope but then read Shades of Grey? Because I think that is an assumption. MANY women do enjoy the alpha male trope, and will gladly and openly read stories with those in them. As the Romance writing industry has proven time and time again. The success of Shades demonstrates this, but it also demonstrates a lack of understanding about BDSM culture as well as abusive relationships. But that is all somewhat beside the point as I am very specifically talking about how we portray males and females in Young Adult literature. And it goes well beyond the Alpha male trope. You can have an alpha male who isn’t abusive. You can have an alpha male who is sensitive and understands the needs of others. I think the understanding of what constitutes an alpha male is flawed to begin with. We all have different tastes, and if you enjoy reading stories about weak females and strong men, that’s your choice. It’s not my cup of tea. At least not anymore. There was a time in my life when I would read those stories. They can still be a fun escape at times. But they are definitely not something I want to write nor aspire to in real life. And I think YA authors can do better than contributing to the narrative that women should be weak and men should be strong. It contributes to the toxic culture in this society in the first place that leads to men like Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and the rape culture of demeaning the women who speak out. I for one will do all I can to write better, deeper characters. That doesn’t mean that my characters won’t make mistakes and exhibit problematic behavior, but it means that I will call out that behavior on the page to add to the narrative that people are flawed but they can learn, grow and do better. Escaping into a fantasy world where a rich man adores you is fine, but if it’s the only narrative, or the most prevalent narrative, then we are setting girls up for a lifetime of disappointment and telling them they should be quiet and meek. And as for the idea that “women are expected to be more like men”, I reject that entire notion. It is rooted in the idea that there are very certain characteristics that women should be and characteristics that men should be. We are all people, and we can be however we are or feel most comfortable. Placing us in boxes of who we should act like is what limits so many people from reaching their potential as decent human beings. If you, or any other person, happily fits into the boxes designed for you by the patriarchy as to what a woman should be, that is perfectly fine. You are happy. But those social strictures do not work for many, many people and I won’t foist them onto teens. For many teens they need to see that not all people are the same but are still human and worthy of empathy. Other teens find themselves feeling different than the roles society dictates to them and they need to see them selves in literature and understand that it is okay to be who they are and not be ashamed.

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      • First of all there’s no such thing as rape culture in the United States. Rape culture is in Middle East, Africa and other places where feminists don’t like to explore. I am not getting into politics either because obviously I do not share the same opinion as you . And do not try to insult me trying to say that I am in a box that is closed by men because that is so not true. I am a very educated and independent woman and I have never “obeyed” a man in my life. Although I wish I had a father that I could have obeyed. I feel like you are trying to push a problem that doesn’t exist. I have never read a book where the female was 100% weak and powerless. If such books exist then there may not be many around. There are though lots of feminist groups and articles and books trying to convince girls and women that they are victims of a Patriarchal society in the US and western Europe. I just don’t understand how you think that teenage girls are being dictated to be submissive in romance novels when teenage women are growing up to be the most independent and successful women of all times. I think society now more than ever understand women’s feelings way more than they understand boys and men. Boys nowadays are constantly shamed just for being boys. And man, especially white man, are attacked for being just that. That’s very sad because it causes a tremendous imbalance in society.

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  5. I am actually writing an article about it and of course I don’t expect you to read it although I do read articles that go against my beliefs and I like to comment on them to show some appreciation for the writer and express my opinions.

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    • First, don’t try to shame me in to reading your article. I read plenty of information that goes against my ideas and beliefs. It’s how I’m able to intelligently evaluate information and determine what I will believe (based on fact) and what supports a belief I want to hold but has no verifiable evidence and is therefore suspect. And base don everything you have written in these comments I have no interest in subjecting myself to material based neither in fact nor in truth. There are so many problems and misconceptions in your statements I neither have the time nor the energy to bother unpacking it all. And I do not show appreciation to writers for their time if they are printing lies, half-truths and problematic premises. So no, I will not be reading your article. Neither will I show appreciation for words that harm our society.

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  6. What a funny post! Had me laughing out loud, thank you, Jennifer! I have to agree. I am a big reader and one of the reasons I shy away from YA books is because of their profound ability to reinforce what I believed were dying stereotypes (which isn’t to say other genres like Sci-Fi or Historical Fiction are any better). I do feel like this type of topic must be talked about, so thank you for creating an avenue for conversation! Onto the next post 😀

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    • Thank you, but I encourage you to try YA again because there are many, many wonderful and well-written YA books out there. Though these stereotypes do exist in YA (and all age groups) I have read so many profound and moving YAs that I’d hate for you to give up on the age group all together. What genres or kinds of books do you like? I can recommend some excellent books if you like! Let me know!

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