Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I'm Hot for Your Stereotype

It's a theme week! All this week I'll be posting on matters of romance in young adult fiction. So sit back, invite your favorite fictional love interest, and enjoy! (Okay, yesterday the room was packed with Miss Austen's men. Today you ALL invited Edward? Seriously? No Team Jacob reps? Oh, you, in the back. Hiding. Alrighty then.)

We all know the story. Innocent, straight-laced girl. Hot bad boy with a reputation. He wants her. She wants him to want her. But she's not sure if she should want him. Can she reform him? Can she convince him to give up his dark past for her?? Can we switch gender roles? Let's try!

He watched her across the room as she scowled, slouching in her seat. Her fingers flicked a lighter up and down and up and down across her knuckles. She’d get detention if the teacher saw, but he had a feeling even the teachers were a little scared of her. Rumor had it the Johnson's barn that burned to the ground last year was arson. They said there were motorcycle tracks outside. No one accused her, but everyone suspected.

She looked up, and when their eyes met his heart skipped a beat. He could feel the blush burning his cheeks as he quickly looked down at his desk. She’d caught him staring. She was probably laughing at him now. Did he dare— He looked up. Her intense black eyes were still burning right through him. He felt that stare to his very core.

He’d heard the whispers. He knew she’d slept with nearly half the guys in the school. Older guys, too. Anyone she wanted, she had. How could he ever compete with that? How could he ever measure up to the no-doubt gorgeous guys she’d used and then abandoned? He was nothing compared to her. He may as well have VIRGIN tattooed across his forehead. No way she’d ever stoop to his level, or even notice him.

A rolled up piece of paper landed on his desk and he scrambled to grab it before it rolled off to the floor. Scrawled on it was a simple message: You. Me. Tonight.

He looked up, his heart threatening to beat straight out of his chest. She winked one eye at him, not even cracking a smile, then got up and walked right out of class mid-lecture.

He couldn’t breathe, reading the note over and over again. He knew what she was—how many boys she’d hurt. He knew he shouldn’t meet her, shouldn’t flirt with temptation like that. What would they even talk about? They had nothing in common, no mutual friends. For all he knew, she drank, started bar fights, and burned down barns for pastimes. But the way her muscles rippled under the surface of her bronzed arms—the way her leather jacket fit her shoulders just right—the way she walked into any room like everyone and everything in it were beneath her notice.

He shouldn’t go.

He was going to anyway.


Kinda freaky, isn't it? Why is it that guys with dangerous backgrounds and sexual experience are intimidating and intriguing, but a girl with the same is...well, I'll let you supply your own word.

Do you think it could be done? A story about a girl with a past that didn't address what society's interpretation of that would be or make excuses for her? Where she was dark and mysterious instead of trashy and/or tragic and broken?

Personally I think it'd be insanely hard to pull off. We're coming into any story with too many preconceived cultural notions about feminine sexuality. Still, it's interesting to think about.

And for the love, will you quit picking on the Team Jacob girl?? Not all of us like to make out with slabs of marble! Tomorrow on romance week, I defend the boys. Because really, I like boys!


Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

I think you came pretty close just now to pulling it off. My only thoughts about the girl were that she was fascinating. I'd almost be tempted to make the boy have been with one girl though instead of being a virgin. Or maybe even have him be involved with a girl he likes, but be tempted by the bad girl -- and then see where it went from there. That would give you such beautiful tension about doing the right thing versus the wrong thing. Clearly you can't use the slut with a heart of gold storyline, but there are so many different ways you can go with these characters. I'd LOVE to see this explored. And the way you write, we'd be halfway through the second chapter before we knew what hit us.

Samantha Bennett said...

I want to keep reading this story! It definitely challenges my assumptions, which I like. I don't have answers to your questions, but I like the conversation you're starting.

P.S. Team Jacob all the way.

Lale said...

^^ I agree with the Team Jacob comment. Being hot in both senses is so much better than just being attractive.

I loved this post! It's so true- and a frequent topic of discussion during my rants about fiction!

Mireyah Wolfe said...

Team Jacob FTW. *curls up next to personal heater*

It does tricks too! *happy grin*

Candyland said...


I think this kind of thing could be done, carefully. Maybe if we knew how the girl came to be this way...I don't know.

writtenwyrdd said...

I know the bad boy trope works, and I like reading about it, but I also am concerned about perpetuating it in YA fiction. I also think it would be nice if the so-called Bad Boy wasn't always trying to convert the Good Girl to a Bad Girl, or if he weren't portrayed as Bad Boy With A Heart Of Gold whom the Good Girl hopes to change/convert/fix/whatever.

I think it would be awesome if the Bad Boy were trying to fix the Good Girl so that she were truly good and not the secret Bad Girl; or if the Good Girl is trying to make a Bad Boy out of her boyfriend for some reason (perhaps so she can up her coolness or popularity quotient.)

Basically, though, I would just like to see characters written who completely refuse to fall into these stereotypes at all. I read "Into The Wild Nerd Yonder" earlier this year, and I was impressed by the way the author, Julie Halpern, had her characters be real people who aren't all one group, and a main character who didn't fall for the popularity press.

Natalie Whipple said...

What's sadder is that the dude probably wouldn't think twice about going if there was a chance...yeah. He probably wouldn't be worried at all that she was dangerous, unless he was classified as a hard core "wuss."

Anne said...

I see what you mean. My brain is so deeply rooted in stereotypes that even in this blurb it tried flipping roles.

Another question that I have is that if this switch does happen and it becomes a trend would it be a bad influence on the reader? How many YA girls out there would read the bad girl story and want to experience it too? Just a thought.

Kiersten White said...

And it seems to me that so often with the "bad boys", it's not so much a matter of "fixing" them as convincing them that the girl is worth giving up their past for. I think a story with the girl in that role would try to focus more on "fixing" her or figuring out "why" she was like that. We'd be concerned with her origins. Whereas with a guy, it's more like a contest--be the girl who MAKES him decide to be nice.

Or maybe not. Just thinking out loud. And really enjoying your thoughts, too.

And hey for the Team Jacobs! ROCK ON.

Sewicked said...

I love this story so far! Why not have a Bad Girl, although I'm expecting some reason for her to be 'bad' (but then I expect the same of Bad Boys). If he's a real Bad Boy (or she's a real Bad Girl), then there won't be a change. Not realistically.

If you can convince me that he's not all Bad Boy, or that getting involved with her made him take a really hard look at himself and he didn't like what he saw so he decided to change himself; I'll enjoy it and go along for the ride. Many books lose me when they try to convince me "she changed him". I call Bull****.

Examples of a really Bad Boy/Girl behavior: sex w/o protection, hurting people smaller/weaker, murdering someone in cold blood w/o any reason, etc.

Skipping class? Not Good behavior certainly, but can be justified. Riding a motorcycle? Please. My father does that. Having sex? As long as it's consensual (& both parties have to be old enough to have judgment), acceptable, it's up to the parties involved.

Don said...

I've been trying to think of ways to turn that stereotype around lately. And you're right - simply swapping gender pronouns doesn't work.

There are differences in the way guys and girls view relationships and each other, and qualities that make the "nice girl" appealing tend to make for an unappealing "nice guy."

There's a hook in this role reversal, to be sure, but the motivations are nearly so obvious.

Adam Heine said...

That's kind of a trip. What interests me is the guy. What is it about this guy that makes him (a) afraid of this girl and (b) totally infatuated with her?

It probably interests me because I was the guy afraid of girls, but I was never (and would never have been) infatuated with a "bad girl" like that.

Melanie said...

I'd love to read a story like this.

Going too Far by Jennifer Echols is an amazing story whose main character defies the "good girl" stereotype.

Ellen Brickley said...

*Doing my Team Jacob dance, complete with swishy wolf-tail pinned to the back of my jeans*

That's an cool experiment. Your extract worked for me. I enjoyed it and would have read more, but all through it I kept speculating about the girl - what are her motives, why is she like that, in what way is she 'damaged' and can she be 'fixed.' And yet, with ehr male fictional equivalent, I'm just interested in how he is, not how he got there.

If you haven't read Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, it's worth checking out. He doesn't quite subvert this stereotype but he does have a good boy fall for a bad(-ish) girl.

Kiersten White said...

Ha, quit encouraging me, guys! I'm not ready to write from a boy POV. But suddenly I got this glimpse of a scene. The girl isn't mean (like a lot of girls in her position are written), just indifferent. She genuinely doesn't care what's going on around her, and it's terrifying to high schoolers, lol. But I think his infatuation with her began when he saw her do something genuinely sweet when no one was looking. Then he went from being scared/intimidated to intrigued. So maybe the story wouldn't be about "saving" her, but rather about the boy trying to actually connect with her, which is something no one else has been able to do.

Good thing I don't a) write contemporary or b) have time.

Natalie Whipple said...

Hehe, I can see your wheels turning, Kierst! This is so going to end up in a book somewhere, somehow.

I can't wait.

Abby Stevens said...

*Doing my Team Jacob dance, complete with swishy wolf-tail pinned to the back of my jeans*

@ Ellen, omgoodness! Love it!

And yeah... Jacob FTW.

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Sounds like a great challenge. You could be a trailblazer and you have a great start. Go for it!

Kiersten White said...

Oh! Just thought of an example.

Markus Zusak's I Am the Messenger has a girl character who is very promiscuous, and the much less experienced main character is very much in love with her and doesn't care about her past. Of course, there's a "reason", but it was still done well without passing any sort of judgment on her.

Stephanie Perkins said...

*My* Edward is the prettiest.

Meg Cabot had something similar in her Mediator series — the narrator was a tough, kick butt, leather jacket wearing kinda girl. But she wasn't sexually experienced. (Though more so than her ghostly boyfriend.)

Rachel Cohn's CC (Gingerbread series) is tough and hard and sexually experienced, though she's still feminine, whereas this reads more masculine.

And Sarah Dessen has several tough female narrators. Probably the closest match to this idea is in This Lullaby. (Love. That. Book.)

Sara Zarr wrote a GREAT novel about girls who have a reputation (unfairly) that they can't shake — Story of a Girl. But boys in that story were NOT falling at her feet! Quite the opposite.

Melissa Marr . . . doesn't one of her characters have a reputation (also unfairly) and is pretty tough (though actually quite vulnerable, which is how those male characters always end up being)? My mind is drawing a blank. Is it the girl in Ink Exchange?

Alaska in Looking for Alaska was a bad girl with more experience than Pudge. (As is Margo in Paper Towns, who is similar to Alaska but with one Very Important Difference.) Similar but not quite the same was Kira in The Amazing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl. And on the extreme creepy end is another Barry Lyga book, Boy Toy where the female character was DEFINITELY the aggressor . . . but she was a teacher.

I think, if we look harder, we'll find this type of girl show up more often in books written by men! I've seen a number of girls like this in graphic novels (also written by men), especially DC's canceled Minx line, but they've always rang false with me. Which is why Minx was a flop!

Hmm. What else, what else? I always find this topic fascinating! I'd love to see a book that was closer to what you have here — with that *fear* element — but written by a woman.

Liz Czukas said...

Just a thought. Most of the time the "bad boy" has a dark past, too. Always a reason--child abuse, drunk parents, dead parent, some reason that he's wise beyond his years. So, yes, although we support and like the bad boy etic, we always want a reason for their badness.

Still, a fabulous gender flipping exercise. Reminds me of the writing prompt in Stephen King's On Writing. An idea that still tickles at my brain to this day.

Thanks for continued fabulousness.

- Liz

Lynsey Newton said...

EXCELLENT post Kiersten and I was hooked reading your exercpt. This has got to be in a book. You've really got me thinking and I'd love to write or read something from a shy, nerdy boy point of view. Do it Kiersten and then add me to the ARC list please ;)

ps...TEAM JACOB!!!!!!!!!

Kelly Bryson said...

*cough, cough* Edward *cough, cough*

Um, Jacob was totally manipulative.

That important business taken care of, what about The Secret Year?

It's told from a guy's perspective about how his rich-almost girlfriend used him. She was more the 'bad influence' character, imo. Neither of them were angels, but I thought the guy was more sympathetic.

Kiersten White said...

Steph to the rescue! For the record, any of you who ever have questions about YA lit, you'd be hard pressed to find someone more well- and widely-read than the lovely and ridiculously talented Ms Perkins.

I like hearing when this is done and done well. I've been reading far too many virginal-girl-meets-dangerous-boy books lately, and it's starting to irk.

Steph, the book you're thinking IS Ink Exchange, with the MC Leslie. But she acted much harder than she really was thanks to some really horrific abuse and trauma.

Anyway, all of this isn't to say that I write "hard" stuff. I don't. Which would be a problem to me ever writing a story like this, since I haven't come up against the sex issue in any of my books yet.

While we're on the topic, any male authors you've read that wrote a really freaking awesome girl POV? How about women that nailed a boy POV? I haven't been brave enough to try a boy POV.

Marsha Sigman said...

This is really good! It makes you think about your character's motives, and also recognize those same tired stereotypes!lol

I thought the girl was really interesting until her muscles rippled under her bronze skin and then I was creeped out just a little.

Stephanie Perkins said...

Aw, shucks. :) Thank you. This really just does happen to be one of those subjects I'm interested in.

Honestly, Natalie Whipple did a STELLAR job writing from a male perspective in Relax, I'm a Ninja. I certainly don't have the bravery to try it either, and she pulled it off brilliantly.

L.K. (Lisa) Madigan did a pitch-perfect job writing from a male perspective with Flash Burnout. And K.L. Going did a great job a few years ago with Saint Iggy.

And, of course, J.K. Rowling wins this prize every time.

(Side note: This is rapidly approaching another subject that fascinates/bothers me, which is female novelists being encouraged to initial their names, which sadly, is still totally necessary — I ran across blatant sexual discrimination while working in bookstores and libraries on a weekly basis. ARGH.)

Several other fantasy authors have pulled this off beautifully. It seems to happen more frequently in fantasy, I think.

Now . . . the other side is trickier. It's far less common, and usually when I DO read one, I don't feel a connection to it. The major exception was Michael Cunningham's The Hours, of which I am still astounded was written by a man. Over and over, I asked myself, "How does he know?"

As for YA and MG, The Book Thief *almost* counts, but Liesel isn't the narrator. L.A. Meyer's (A male with initials writing about a girl! Interesting reversal!) Bloody Jack series is fantastic, but the heroine is NOT girly. I enjoy the series, but I don't think it fits this bill.

Hmm. I know I'm forgetting something — there's always something, usually multiple somethings! — but yeah. Drawing a blank. I'll keep thinking.

(Another side note: I can always tell when a cinematic script about a girl is actually written by a woman. Seriously. There's a reason why so many women connected with Juno and Lost in Translation.)

Kiersten White said...

I thought Ian McEwan's girl POVs in ATONEMENT were dead on.

Marsha--He he. Tried to think how they always describe the bad boys, and it's ALWAYS arm muscles. And pecs. And hair. And eyes. These things a hot bad boy makes, apparently.

Stephanie Perkins said...

Atonement! Yes!!

(Still struggling to come up with a YA version of this. I *know* these books exist. They have to.)

Kristan said...

Crap, lol, I think you pulled this off too. I didn't think of her as a slut, I just thought she was interesting. Not your usual YA fiction love interest.

Oy, maybe all this cookie dough is affecting my brain...

Lani Woodland said...

I liked your beginning. The double standard is interesting. It also made me wander as I read if everything he heard about her was true. If you decided to write the story I'd read it. :)Oh and I once threw an I Love Jacob Party. Nerdy but true.

Anthony said...

This is a great post and I feel I should comment, but I am still coming to grips you posted the words "feminine sexuality" in your blog.

I'll come back after I've cleaned my glasses.

Shannon Whitney Messenger said...

I totally agree with Stephanie about The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl and Goth Girl Rising. Barry always describes it as a screwed up love story, and it is, but Fanboy is your basic good boy comic geek (okay, with a few deeper issues) and Goth Girl is DARK. It's not a perfect fit, but it's close.

And I think the argument could even be made that the Hunger Games/Catching Fire fits. I mean, Peeta is pretty much the quintessential good boy, and Katniss is, well, Katniss.

Even Enna Burning by Shannon Hale works. Finn is sweet and heroic and Enna is kind of angry and well, she sets a lot of fires.

Great post! I'm loving this week. :)

Melissa said...

I think you did just pull it off. Maybe thats just me.

Sangu said...

I think that's a brilliant point. Boys can pull of mysterious when they're dangerous and sexually experienced, but girls end up with nicknames like 'tramp'. You rarely see a YA book about a boy-who's-considered-trampy or a sexually-liberated-yet-respected-for-it-girl, do you?

lora96 said...

Love love this topic. I did a gender reversal of Cinderella for my grad class last year and wow did it get a response. I had a blast writing it and every single MALE reader loved it and, with zero exceptions, all the female readers labeled my hero a "wimp." Um, how terrible is this double standard that it isn't even the patriarchy upholding it???

Jade said...

It wouldn't work because teenage boys are always up for it. If she was into it, they would hook up in chap 2 and it would be all over!

Personally, I'd love to see it done well.

Caroline Grace: said...

This is perfection.

And, as a steadfast Jacob fan, I would never (consider the word "never" italicized and emphasized ((why CAN'T I italicize? Seriously flawed system comment system, blospot..)) ) ever hide in the back. Huzzah for non-marblesque werewolves!

storyqueen said...

I have to agree that I found the girl mysterious and compelling....and that there was probably so much buzz about her that nobody would know what was true and what was false.

But my heart was stolen by the boy who sits in class wondering if a girl was getting into bar fights and burning down barns.

I think there ARE boys like him out there...boys who are intimidated by girls...boys who dream romantic thoughts....

I just automatically loved him! (Am I the only one?)


Adam Heine said...

@Caroline Grace: Blogspot's comment system may be flawed, but you can italicize using HTML tags :-)

Elizabeth Briggs said...

Great post. I also thought of Margo from Paper Towns while reading this, maybe because of the main character's infatuation with her mystery.

I think the equivalent character for women is often the "manic pixie dream girl" although she is more cute and quirky than bad girl.

I'd love to see more books/movies/tv shows with bad girls!

Zachary Grimm said...

That. was. BRILLIANT, Kiersten! Like many others, I am VERY intrigued by this woman you write about. I love it when writers toy with assumptions. Wonderful! :)

Anthony said...

I love your posts so far this week. I love them very much. I print them out and sleep with them under my pillow. And…

Whoops, that was bad.

Anyway, I emphatically assert the queen on non-stereotypical gender conflict is Courtney Summers with Cracked Up to Be and Some Girls Are. While I fully admit to having a YA Writer’s Crush on poor Ms. Summers, her novels have a very sneaky exploration of gender roles and worth checking out.

The issue at hand you so cheerfully illuminated is stereotypes. Not only is the girl crush on bad boy a stereotype, if we meta this, the YA Author writing on this is itself another stereotype. Is YA fantasy and dystopian fiction popular because it gives the author an agreed upon license to write the YA Girl outside traditional cultural bounds?

I ponder these things in between sips of scotch and letting the dog out to pee.

But I digress. Feminine sexuality is a field of landmines because what’s out there is usually a representation of life as depicted by TV and movies, rather than an honest portrayal of how things are. I’ve gone nine rounds (and run away screaming) in conversations with YA writers about this subject. I knew teen girls who were sexually active and went on to lead normal lives, had fun in high school (both in and out of bed), and are current contributing members of society.

But that’s not conflict, so the stereotypes are portrayed in perpetuity.

Thus (and I am coming to my point, because anything you see the word ‘thus’ that’s a good expectation that I’m going to say what I should have said a hundred words ago), I believe the YA writer can have her portrayal of real life that explores non-stereotypical feminine sexuality, as a thematic. That’s just who the character is, and has little bearing on the plot and conflict. Rather, it is part of her characterization, leaving the reader to assume that while her sexuality may shape her decisions and is part of her character, that’s not the main story.

It would take a delicate touch. More importantly, it would take both a high degree of empathy for both genders and knowledge of how things really are, rather than how things are portrayed.

You could totally pull that off, Kiersten. Send me the link to your contemporary YA on Amazon after you sell it. Okay? Thanks!

Snazel said...

I'm getting here late to the party, but I wanted to say that I really loved the excerpt you posted, and the larger plot sketch you, uh, sketched. (That description started well!)

I actually started thinking about this idea myself when I was, uh, role-playing a couple of superheros. :D Because I am a girl with a fast temper and a fondness for shiny things like knives, my supers tended to end up VERY ready to defend themselves, and in a couple cases quite happy to look for fights. I got so into this mindset that it was actually a shock to go back to normal reading when people like my Nessy were suddenly seen as insane and promiscuous, which was therefore evil.

This is rambling, but I really liked your excerpt, with the exception of the arm muscle description. :D

patdwhite said...

wow, lots of great comments and ideas here.

In a younger way (no virginity questions involved) I think that Hunger Games has a bit of this. Katniss is a bit rough (mostly through necessity) and has the interest of 2 guys. Gale is her hunting partner and appears tough and indifferent like she is (but apparently does like her more than a friend), and Peeta who is gentler on the outside and is quite attracted to Katniss.

I think you should go for it, heck, whats another book in the works for a talented little bug like you!

Madeleine said...

Brilliant post! I think that the stereotypes you used are well, overused, because they're stereotypes and all. ;D I think this post is very similar to your last in that it kind of sends across the message of "Why do we find these guys/gals wonderful, anyway? They're freaks to who we would not give the light of day in reality!"

I'm "over" TWILIGHT now, but I'll be the team Jacob girl!

writtenwyrdd said...

What if the boy sees the indifferent girl doing both good and bad? I think that would be even more intriguing, because she becomes a puzzle to solve or a challenge. He might not be in it to get to know her better or because he finds her attractive; he could just be in it and that stuff happens as he pries into the whys and wherefores, trying to figure otu what makes her tick.

jessjordan said...

bahahahaha couldn't stop giggling! You're right. That was pretty ... creepy. BUT ... it wasn't necessarily super creepy to me b/c of the girl, but more so b/c of the guy. Maybe it's wrong, but I don't think I could take listening to a guy mooning over a bad girl like that.

(go ahead, admit it: YOU'RE the team Jacob girl, right? Right?)

BookChic said...

I love this series, and I actually really enjoyed that little excerpt you did! I kinda want to read more; it'd be interesting to read from that perspective.

Also, while I haven't read the books yet (DON'T HURT ME!), I have seen the first movie and based on that alone, I am a Team Jacob fanboy. So whoever the Team Jacob girl is, you're not alone!!

Annie said...

Well, without reading the comments, I'd say it's freaky hard because of guys' and girls' motives. Girls tend to love the thought of "fixing" a guy. Dangerous in real life, but it definitely still holds appeal. Guys do not suffer from this. On the other hand guys like being the "one and only" to a girl. The biggest, the baddest, the best. In essence, they abhor competition when it comes to their position in a girl's eyes. Guys just wouldn't be motivated to try to prove to one girl that they're better than the 100 other guys she's slept with and still keep it meaningful. They're way too insecure sexually for that. Or something. But at any rate, I don't see trying to get the 'bad girl' as a motive for a 'good guy.' A bad guy, sure. Then they can each use each other with little waste or consequences. But not the good guy.

However, what your post did make me think of is the relationship that Angelina Jolie and Ryan Phillippe play in Playing by Heart." It's not exactly what you're describing, but there are elements of it. Ryan does a fabulous job opposite her, as well, I thought. I'd watch the movie just for the two of them (there are 3 other relationship stories going throughout the movie, so the movie isn't really "about" them).