An analysis of YA fantasy tropes — and why they can be harmful.
“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”
Literature helps us to make sense of the world. It gives us an opportunity to explore the differences between humans and their relationships with each other (Pace & Townsend, 1999). Fantasy as a literary genre has been around for a very long time. Its roots lay in ancient mythology and storytelling, and this has oft allowed it to be dismissed as being subversive and providing escapism for young people (Fitzgerald, 2008). The young adult fiction category is one of the most prolific novel classes, with a wide readership the world over. Those who fit into the age category defined as ‘young adult’ are aged 12–18 and are “exploring emotions, spirituality, and possibilities that didn’t enter their frame of reference as children” (Sturm & Michel, 2009). The large readership and dependence on young adult novels to help determine the identity of oneself has led to the unique circumstance wherein ‘young adult fiction’ has essentially become its own genre. Paired with the young adult sub-genre tag, fantasy novels have been astronomically successful. Series such as: The Hunger Games; Harry Potter; The Shadowhunter Chronicles and; Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children have been adapted into films & TV shows, studied in classrooms and critically acclaimed as works important to whole generations. Though fantasy novels are about imagined worlds, these stories have the ability to educate about real-world issues in an accessible way. The Hunger Games alone explores issues of dictatorships in government, wealth inequality, human brutality and sacrifice through love. With over 26 million books sold and nearly $70 million dollars made on the opening day of the first film adaptation (Simmons, 2012), the series has been an undeniable success.
Young adult novels span all the genres and plotlines of conventional fiction but do so with artfully added (depending on the novel) elements of self-discovery and emotion that isn’t present in books written for older audiences. A common convention of the young adult fantasy novel is the idea of the ‘hero’s journey’. These are often physical journeys, (quests, if you will), but they act as vessels through which the protagonist comes to experience emotional growth. The audience is swept up in the chaos of the journey with the protagonist and follows the emotional journey all the same. It’s this tight bond between reader and character that is so integral to the success of young adult novels. Unfortunately, there is an overabundance of male protagonists in the young adult fantasy genre and this has led to an outstanding patriarchal bias in the classic ideal of the ‘hero’s journey’ (Hart, 2014). The hero’s journey is supposed to be an exploration to determine an answer to the question of, ‘who am I?’. For women, this question in life is often obscured by the more pressing societal question, ‘who am I as a woman?’ (Nicholson, 2008). All too often the contributions women have made to history are erased in favour of noting down the success of a man. French philosopher Luce Irigaray calls out to women “that we already have a history, that certain women, despite all the cultural obstacles, have made their mark upon history and all too often have been forgotten by us.” (Irigaray, 1987). When all that young women see in the literature surrounding them is the praises of ‘heroic’ men being sung, how can we expect them to rise up and successfully reach for their own destinies?
The young adult fantasy genre is not exempt from harmful and frustrating literary tropes. Notably popular tropes are found across both popular and less successful series’. One that I find particularly frustrating is the writing of female characters on the basis that they’re accepted only because they’re ‘not like other girls’. The ‘not like other girls’ phenomenon stems from deeply internalised misogyny in female writers and cluelessness (or intended complicity) in their male counterparts. It creates a character who rejects typically feminine stereotypes in fear that they’ll be viewed as vapid or shallow (Lyon, 2019). It suggests that liking traditionally feminine things is bad, encouraging the tearing down of women who do enjoy and engage with these things.
Within the Harry Potter universe, the character of Hermione Granger is written as a strong contender for a ‘not like other girls’ character. She enters the series and it’s noted that she isn’t traditionally attractive (not that it should matter at all because she’s eleven). She is described as having a “bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth” (Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone, p. 105). Through the events of the series, she is eventually ‘tamed’, her intelligence and personality reduced so that she fits more neatly into a female gender stereotype. Made prettier, quieter and less bossy, she is ultimately defined as the wife of Ron, a male lead in the series (Bullinger, 2015). Studies on gender development have proven that children and young people are heavily influenced by what they read because it helps to form core parts of their identity and senses of self (Karniol & Gal-Disegni, 2009). Examples such as this of harmful character archetypes are an obstruction to modern feminism and are damaging to the impressionable readers of these very successful series.
Another example of a harmful literary trope present in young adult fantasy novels is abusive romances portrayed as being passionate and desirable. Young people use the media and resources around them to determine what is and isn’t okay. Nearly 1.5 million high school students across the United States experience physical abuse from a dating partner each year (CDC, 2003). Media such as the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer propagate and promote the idea that abuse in relationships is evidence of love and that relationships involving abusive partners are simply more passionate. Within the story of Twilight, main character Bella is subject to a number of abusive behaviours by her vampirically inclined partner Edward. Unfortunately, his behaviour is dismissed throughout the series as being romantic, passionate and even sexy. Edward demonstrates his physical advantage over Bella by uprooting trees. He stalks her on outings with friends and watches her sleep. He prevents her from seeing a male childhood friend and damages her vehicle to aid in this. He insults her and attempts to hold power and control over her with statements such as, “Bella, please just do this my way, just this once” (Michel, 2011). Portraying abusive relationships in positive lights is dangerous and insensitive. Fantasy novels often involve supernatural characters and when brute-force natured creatures are viewed as seductive, it connotes violence with sex.
In summary, though the genre of YA fantasy is one that has inspired, endeared and sparked creativity in the eyes of its readers for eons, it has fallen victim to a variety of damaging and overused tropes. I believe that by eliminating the above tropes from the genre and ensuring we celebrate the novels that subvert or don’t include them, we can bring YA fantasy back to the genre of wonder that it once was.
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1. The Hunger Games authored by Suzanne Collins. Scholastic Books.
2. Harry Potter authored by J.K. Rowling. Bloomsbury Publishing.
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
3. The Shadowhunter Chronicles authored by Cassandra Clare. Margaret K. McElderry Books.
- The Mortal Instruments
- The Infernal Devices
4. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children authored by Ransom Riggs. Quirk Books.
5. Twilight authored by Stephenie Meyer. Little, Brown and Company.