Though my thoughts on this have now now been unproductively percolating, like an increasingly viscous pot of coffee, for an entire two days, I did want to make sure I responded to Ruth Graham’s Slate piece on Christian YA novels, which argues, “If you look past the Bible-study scenes, young-adult novels from evangelical authors and publishers are offering their young Christian readers a surprisingly empowering guide to adolescence,” concluding that “Amid all of this piety…are explicitly positive—even feminist—messages like positive body image, hard work, and the importance of not settling for just any guy—that present a grounded alternative to the Gossip Girl landscape.”
Those familiar with my reading history will not be surprised to see I disagree, and not only because I think reducing literature to a tool for lifting the self-esteem of strangers must be the most maddening crime to have been visited on authors in this century.
My point of greatest disagreement with Graham runs along the question of morality. This to some extent is my fault, as I used the word myself when I told Graham that I think we live in a very moral era. Graham — not without reason — uses this to wonder if Christian YA not only embraces our moral era but is in some part the cause of it.
I don’t know if that’s true — possibly — but I brought up the word “moral” as an explicit pejorative, and maybe I should have said “uptight,” which is what I really meant. (And by uptight, I really mean that, in the Ice Castles of my youth, the heroine could happily have sex with her boyfriend and an older newscaster, and now no one can do that anymore. I can dig up some other examples if you need them.) Because, while you can find a number of YA novels from L’Engle to Blume to Paterson that struggle with religion, morality and, for lack of a better word, what we can call the soul, contemporary Christian fiction doesn’t explore morality so much as define it. And in this, it’s worse than Gossip Girl, because while that series revels in its tarty vacuity, Christian fiction is equally sex-, boy- and status-obsessed, but it cloaks these concerns in an aura of uplift.
I’m just going to go through some of Graham’s examples and conclusions and sketch out my disagreements therewith, as it is BROILING and I’m not sure integrating my reactions coherently is a suit in my deck at this juncture. Which is to say, I think I say “bespeaks” 18 times below — I’m sorry:
In the newest books, old-fashioned values are embraced for newfangled reasons. Modesty is endorsed, not because of shame, but because of self-respect and practicality: Protagonist DJ in Spring Breakdown opts for a one-piece swimsuit over a teensy bikini because, “I like to swim. And I like to move around.” Besides, another character reflects later, “Sometimes subtle is sexy.”
I’m all for the moving around part, but I must say, the need to smugly defend suiting up for maximum movement at all indicates a different underlying imperative. (Unlike this pack of whores near this body of water, I, really and truly, not only like to move around but have conveniently accomplished this while not looking like a whore. You whores should try it sometime.) The second comment truly nails it. Yes, sure, subtle is sexy. But wait — if we’re being moral, aren’t we not supposed to be focused on BEING SEXY? And if we are, for God’s sake, let’s not hamstring ourselves with one-pieces.
Work matters, too…Protagonists spend a lot of time contemplating “God’s plan” in their lives, a message that reinforces long-term goals. Cindy Martinusen-Coloma’s sensitively written 2009 novel, Beautiful, features a high-schooler who hopes to go into international law. When her father tells her that her parents worry about seeing her head off to a war zone someday, she replies, “I’ll tell Mom it’s what God wants me to do.”
Okay. Call me a bad person, that just sounds to me like she’s going to lie.
Even in matters of the heart, these Christian books are encouraging girls to have personal agency. Take Candace Thompson, the protagonist of Debbie Viguié’s 2008 novel The Summer of Cotton Candy. “We’re not kids forever,” she tells her summer fling, discouraged by his aimlessness. “I may not know what I want to do with my life yet, but I know I want to do something. … Sooner or later you have to take responsibility for your own life, and I’m trying. What are you doing?” When he asks what this means, her answer is “I want a guy who values the same things I do”—a pretty excellent guideline for teens of any religious background.
I think it’s fine not to want to date a big lox — Um, I want a guy who gets off the couch — but wanting a guy who values the same things as you do, at that age, bespeaks a certain parochiality that mistakes certainty for knowledge. Engaging with people with conflicting values is one of the joys, privileges and challenges of adulthood, ones you miss when you shack up with someone who agrees with you on every point. What the hell do you know, anyway? You’re a teenager. Talk to Mr. Aimless in 5 years — you’ll probably see him differently.
…the larger takeaway from the Christian books is not that girls should imagine themselves as subservient wives, but that they should prepare themselves for adulthood. Certainly heroine Candace Thompson sees marriage as her ultimate goal when she is choosing a boyfriend. But she also wants someone “who valued what she did, would take her seriously, would help her grow as a person, and would love and respect her.” That’s not a girl preparing for a life as a doormat; it’s a girl learning about the importance of emotional strength. It’s a girl who refuses to settle for a so-so boy who is not on track to be a good man. As far as girlish escapism goes, it’s better than holding out for a Prada purse.
In this sentence may lie the seed of a future nightmare, but I’ll strike out anyway and say, I hope to hell my daughter, as a teenager, is dreaming of Prada purses, not respectful husbands. Of course dreaming of a Prada purse is silly — but what are your teen years for if not to be vain, unrealistic, impractical, self-obsessed, and silly? (I STILL would love a Prada purse.) And while a purse may be a craven, gold-digging goal, it’s a goal in support of one’s self, ultimately enriching and enjoyable — one in which you desire, not one in which you worry if you are being correctly desired.
It’s also a goal without enormous consequences. “Emotional strength,” shmength — ask a married lady: a husband, good or not, is not ultimately a vehicle for validating one’s respectability but a whole other human, a project, a partnership. Yes: if you compare the values behind wanting a respectful husband and wanting a purse, of course, a nice husband wins. But in both cases, when you’re a teenager, an object of desire is but a representation of an aspect of self — and as a talisman, a purse is more appropriate than a person. It’s far more escapist — and disempowering — to pretend that’s not so.
I don’t think Christian YA should be snatched out of girls’ hands any more than I do copies of Twilight, but let us accept its bubble-gum nature, acknowledge that its stabs at modest sexiness, moral ambition, co-conscious exploration and marital liberation are as unrealistic as the dream of Prada — and as unlikely to give a girl pleasure. In short, it’s hard enough to be a teenage girl without object lessons around swimwear. Let’s help them get through it in one piece.