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:

  • 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

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

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.

‘Not Like Other Girls’ and Perfect LI’s

There are a list of tropes that can be encompassed in or are related to the heading above. Examples:

  • Hot Mary Sue’s who do no wrong
  • She doesn’t know she’s gorgeous but she is; also One Good Makeover Will Change Your Life
  • Never saw a guy/girl so beautiful
  • Sweet Special Snowflake attracts the player who gives up their loose ways for SSS
  • Guy dumps his catty/slutty/bitchy girlfriend for SSS
  • Girl dumps her jerk/sexual predator/Neanderthal boyfriend for SSS
  • ‘Strong and powerful’ LI’s who always tell the girl she’s gorgeous
  • ‘Not Like Other Girls’

Let’s start with the ‘Not Like Other Girls’: Why is this so problematic? It’s a way to describe a character as not having traditional feminine characteristics (especially when those characteristics are possessive, mean and catty). But it also implies not so subtly that in order to be deemed worthy a female must reject traditionally feminine characteristics and be more like a man. It’s sexist. And it’s damaging to females (and males) in many ways.

The idea that to in order be more worthy, a female must be more like a man, is a concept that’s been around for a while. A long while. Even though woman throughout history have been placed in a delicate box of femininity (especially that delicate flower of white femininity) there has always been that insidious idea that to be worthy you must be more like a man (intelligent, rough, methodical, less emotional) yet women were also thought to be less if they exhibited those characteristics. It was an endless cycle that you couldn’t be worthy if you weren’t like a man, but if you were a woman who acted like a man you weren’t worthy either. There was no winning.

The NLOG narrative pits females against each other. It’s usually accompanied by catty/slutty/bitchy antagonists or ex-girlfriends (see Problematic YA Tropes: Stereotypes). It teaches females to want to deviate from traditional female roles (which is okay) but not under the auspice that they need to change in order to be accepted, that only girls who don’t like to shop, hate pink, and play sports are worthy of respect. But it also implies that ‘other girls’, as in girls who do like traditional female pursuits, are catty/slutty/bitchy. So don’t like make-up or you might be like ‘those girls’.

And as far as beautiful people and Sweet Special Snowflakes, let’s be real. Some of this is wish-fulfillment on the part of the author. No love interest is without flaws. In fact, no main character should be without flaws. Make things messy, make things real, make the conflict feel like it could happen to your reader. Wish-fulfillment and fantasy are great, especially since reading is an escape, but I personally could do with a little less of LI’s who always, every date, remember to tell you how pretty you are, take your hand, tuck the hair behind your ear. Every experience is different of course, but I can say for certain that I never dated a guy like this in high school.

I guess what I’m saying here is that while many of these tropes aren’t inherently harmful, especially if we see them once in awhile, they can become boring and potentially harmful if seen too much. Plus, it’s more of that lazy writing I talked about in my Stereotypes post. Make your characters less stereotypical, hold back on that authorial wish-fulfillment just a tad, and think about what message you’re sending to your readers.

More reading because I know you want it:

Not Like Other Girls on

The “Not Like Other Girls” Trope on Women’s Comedy (I think her post was better than mine, so be sure to read it!)

3 Signs Your Story’s Characters Are Too Perfect by Suzannah Windsor Freeman on Write It Sideways

Should the “Special Snowflake” Trope be Retired and Left 20,000 Leagues Underground or Is It Still Fun? by Cait on Paper Fury (Read this one for sure! If only for the laughs and good times!)

Other Posts in this Series:

Problematic YA Tropes: Stereotypes

Problematic Tropes: Lazy Foils

Problematic YA Tropes: Damsels in Distress and Toxic Masculinity

Post #32: Accurate Representation

Diversity Puzzle

I have talked several times and shared posts about needing diversity in children’s literature, and as before, I will state that this applies to more than just books. We need it in movies and our schools, music and history education, on the news and in our everyday lives. So though it may seem like I harp on one topic that doesn’t really apply to non-writers, it truly does. It applies to the books you buy for your kids, the movies they see, and who they see in important positions like teacher, principal, mayor, policeman, senator, president.

But another important aspect to needing diversity in our lives so that we see people and not “other”, is accurate representation. Though stereotypes can be found in real life, using stereotypes in our forms of media, and only stereotypes, is as damaging as no representation at all.

Please read the following post by Jessie Devine, a fellow writer, in which he discusses this topic.

Jessie Devine: Accurate Representation

*New readers may wonder why I’m sharing these posts and why they’re numbered. Here’s a link to my post I’m Giving Up HATE, PREJUDICE and INDIFFERENCE for Lent.

And here are my latest 5 posts in the series:
Post #27: When no gender fits: A quest to be just a person
Post #28: DeRay McKesson: Tackling Racism in the Black Lives Matter Movement
Post #29: Never assume that you’re magically free of prejudice . . .
Post #30: Intersectionality
Post #31: Almost Asian (But Not Quite)

*Please remember to leave the sites I post clean. We are here to learn, not debate. Even if you disagree, we need to learn that just because we have an opinion, doesn’t mean we need to share it all the time.*