Who Will Save You? Boundaries, Rescue and the Role of Adults in the Lives of Teens in YA Lit
Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! Eventually I will tell you what titles I am talking about and why and you will be minorly spoiled. Not details of individual plots, but a general sense of what happens. Read on after the jump understanding that. Consider that your spoiler alert.
The Set Up
The last three books I have read had an interesting underlying rhythm to them. It goes something like this: A girl is in some type of a dangerous situation (abuse at home, in the witness protection plan) when a boy falls for them and tries to pursue them. Even though the girl says no, saying it puts her (or the boy) in danger, the boy continues to pressure the girl (not for sex, just for a relationship). She gives in but tries to hide it. The situation escalates. Then, the boy saves her. I want to talk about this for a moment. There are two issues that I think are worth discussion in these titles.
First, the disclaimers
Each of the books I am talking about are, in their own right, actually very well written and good reads. I enjoyed them all and was very satisfied. I recommend them. Highly actually. In fact I would, or have, given each title 4 out of 5 stars or higher.
The books in question?
A Brief Synopsis of Each Title
Note! Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! I will try to have this conversation at spoiler free as possible. But honestly, don’t read on if you haven’t read the books.
Flawed is about a girl who has a very abusive home life. She begins a relationship with her brother’s best friend that puts her in incredible danger. He tries to save her.
Eleanor and Park is a beautiful love story. Eleanor also has a very abusive home life. Her relationship with Park puts her in increased incredible danger. He tries to save her.
The Rules for Disappearing is about Meg, who is not really Meg. She is in the witness protection program. Ethan wants to be in a relationship with her but she keeps pushing him away, in part to save herself but also to protect him. He tries to save her.
Issue 1: The But I Really, Really Want to Be With You Argument and I Promise It Will Be Okay
In each of these book, the girl in question clearly says to the boy in question at some point that she DOES NOT want to be in a relationship with them. They clearly state, in most cases, that they CAN NOT be in a relationship with the boy because there is danger to them. Instead of respecting those wishes, the boy persists, he pursues, he pressures her, he assures her that no really, it will be okay. Even though they have no real understanding of what the problem is, they disregard the girls fear and feelings and words.
It’s important to note here that in each instance, the boy in question does seem to genuinely like the girl and they basically develop meaningful, substantive relationships, although those relationships come with a lot of secrets and angst and push and pull because of the outside circumstances. So I’m not saying that the boys in question are in any way abusive. I’m just not sure that it is okay to continue to pressure a girl into a relationship when she has not only said no, please leave me alone, but when she has said that she can’t because IT WOULD PUT HER IN DANGER. Now obviously, it shouldn’t put her in danger, and that is definitely part of the issue. But shouldn’t these boys be respecting the things that these girls are saying, and the boundaries that they are trying to establish? If no means no, then it should mean no here too, right? Not just in sex, but in respecting all of another person’s boundaries. Isn’t consent about more than just sexual boundaries, but about respecting people’s wishes? And if we are teaching and talking about consent in any meaningful way, shouldn’t this be part of the discussion?
Finding Joy in the Midst of Chaos
And yet, in each instance, in truth the girl really does want to pursue a relationship with these boys – it just really is a serious threat to their situation. The relationships are satisfying to their souls and emotional well being. The relationships (and the boys) help them find a sense of self and peace. But they don’t make them safe, at all. The thing is, when we are in true relationships, they can help us find that sense of center. Does a girl need a man to feel whole, happy? No. But can we find bliss and happiness in romantic relationships? Clearly, yes.
The romance in Eleanor and Park is one of the most organic, beautiful relationships I have ever read on the page. It builds slowly, authentically. It moves you. Park accepts this truly difficult girl for who she is- wild carrot top hair, emotional swings, and all. In many ways, he, out of all 3 characters, is in fact the one who most clearly understands the situation she is in and respects those boundaries (somewhat) by not coming to her home. Eleanor and Park truly captures that desperation of teenage love, the ache to simply be near a person, the longing to spend all night on the phone so you can just hear their voice, the way the rest of the world can disappear when you make eye contact, those secret, knowing looks across the classroom. I was not prepared for how beautiful this book was, or how heartbreaking Eleanor’s home life would be.
I liked Ethan, the young man in The Rules for Disappearing. I liked Sam, the young man in Flawed. I just felt really conflicted when each of them continued to press, to push, to insist when our heroine asked them not to. I wanted them to respect that, to respect her wishes, and to let her come to them if, or when, she was ready.
Issue 2: Who Will Save My Soul?
In each of our titles, the boy ends up running in – often literally – to save the girl. To give credit where credit is due, in 2 out of the 3 cases the girl actually does initially attempt to save themselves with a half-cocked plan (born out of desperation). But it is the boy who jumps in and saves the day. In one of the titles there is an actual sense that the boy is saying, “really, that was your plan?”
While this is not intrinsically bad, girls in these types of situations often do need some type of outside help and intervention. I simply just wish that sometimes the girl could save herself, and possibly with the help of a positive adult role model. And truthfully, in the end, there are some positive adults in each of these titles. But I wish sometimes that protoganists would go to a school counselor, teacher or trusted adult and that they would get help that way to let teens in crisis know that they can, in fact, get real help and save themselves. And overall, I think we need more positive representations of good adults and positive adult/teen interactions in teen novels.
Ironically, in two recent titles (Period 8 by Chris Crutcher and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick), the main protagonists (both male) do seek the help of a trusted teacher and I felt that in both cases, the teacher overstepped their legal bounds and put themselves at risk. And in the case of Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, it ends up being in many ways truly ineffective and meaningless. Although it is interesting that in the case of a male main character they ask for help but in the case of a female main character they are, in the end, “saved” by the romantic male lead. Interpret that how you will.
But in the interest of full and complete analysis, I am reminded of Rotters by Daniel Kraus. In this book, a troubled teen boy does not turn to any adults for help and does in fact try to take care of his own problems, though in very unconventional ways. Every single adult, from CPS to teachers, basically fails this young man.
As an adult who works with teens, I read a book on two levels. On the first level, I read for the pure enjoyment of it. On the second level, I read and analyze what messages are repeatedly being sent to teen readers. With each individual title it is not really an issue, but when you look at them collectively we seem to be repeatedly saying to teen readers: boys keep pursuing, girls you need rescuing.
I think we are also reinforcing the notion that adults are the bad guys, that you can’t reach out to them in a crisis, that they won’t come through for you in meaningful ways. And while this is sometimes true, I would like to see the message better balanced with some more caring adults who help teens, especially teen girls, save themselves in ya lit.
So now it is your turn, can you give me examples where the girl really and truly saves herself? And how do we talk to teens about respecting other people’s wishes and personal boundaries? Also, it would be really nice if you didn’t flame me. Thanks.
Edited 5/17/2013 to include Tweet from Pauline Holdworth
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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