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Beyond "Twilight": The mixed, messy and moralizing messages of Young Adult Lit

BitchStory By Judy Park

I have never really read much young-adult fiction, particularly paranormal YA fiction about werewolves, vampires, and the like. I didn't even finish the Harry Potter series until a few months ago (and of course it changed my life forever). I was 21. I do admit I had a quick Twilight phase before I broke it off few hundred pages in, only because I was so embarrassed and eventually, bored. I was reading it for the cheap thrills, the suspension of reality, and the momentary feeling of being that young teen girl swooning over a handsome, magical being. So it surprises me just how much this genre has exploded in recent years. I mean, I was a part of this demographic a few years ago, and I don't recognize half the titles of the best-selling YA books that seem to be ubiquitous now.

The Spring 2013 issue of Bitch Magazine is the Pulp issue (think ~mystery~thriller~supernatural~). One of the articles, "Paranormal Boyfriends, Purity Myths, and Practical Virgins: the literature of losing it," tackles the popularity of this genre and its repercussions, outlining the various ways in which young-adult novels approach, problematize, or encourage romantic and sexual relationships. Other than offering titillating sex scenes for the readers, often these books are the first and only sources of information about sex and relationships teens have during their formative years.

The writers look at two categories of books written for teen girls: The more popular paranormal subgenre, i.e. Twilight; and the more "realistic" but not as wildly popular titles, i.e. Anatomy of a Boyfriend.

The paranormal novels tend to equate virginity with "moral superiority," having the female protagonists wait for their sexual saviors who will fulfill and love them completely, and they will live happily ever after. We've all heard this before, and a prime example the authors note is Bella and Edward in the Twilight series. Though tempted, Bella abstains from sex until she weds Edward, at which point they get their freak on. But as the authors make clear,

"being abstinent in these books is not empowering for female characters; instead, it's a consequence of decisions enforced by their male counterparts."

It feeds on the age-old storyline that those who wait will have the greatest prize in the end [and those who do make their rounds...well, they're sluts who don't need a story written about them.]

The more "realistic" YA novels address the complexities of relationships and sexuality, sending more sex-positive messages about experimenting without putting virginity (and sex) on a pedestal. In the book Anatomy of a Boyfriend, the main character Dominique seems to have more agency: Her relationship with Wes isn't perfect, but she works through it, makes mistakes along the way, and ultimately ends it. [It's important to keep in mind that though the YA "realistic" subgenre attempts to make sex and romance more, well, realistic, they stick to straight relationships and exclude a good chunk of the population.]

In reviewing the novel Lost It, the authors point out a distinguishing lesson of more realistic YA romantic fiction:

"Having sex doesn't fundamentally change who you are. Sex doesn't have to mean forever, and characters learn how to move on when teen relationships don't work out."

When I was reading that first Twilight book, I had a better sense of who I was than I did at age thirteen, so I understood that Bella's dependence on Edward was overrated and annoying; the idea that the book could have shaped my preteen values and outlook is downright frightening. I shudder to think that the relationships and sexual encounters presented in these books serve as guides for the millions of girls who continue to absorb them.

Most Bitch articles aren't online, so if you want to read the whole article, you'll have to buy the Pulp issue (totally worth it). Or better yet, subscribe and support this great magazine. Read the blog as well.

Judy Park is an intern at Trixie Films while she takes a short break from Brown University.