Let’s start with toxic girl archetypes. Pretty much every YA book that has female characters has one of these in it. I think one of the most popular is “not like other girls.” These are the characters that are special because they’re different from all of the other girls. Except, usually there is nothing special about them. They think they’re better than everyone else because they don’t wear makeup or they read books. Another popular one is mean girls. There’s almost always a group of girls that is rich, perfect, gorgeous, “slutty,” and mean to the main character. Another popular one is slut-shaming. A lot of YA books love to call people sluts for literally anything related to anything sexual, even just kissing or hugging a boy. These archetypes tell young girls that they can be better than others if they don’t like what’s popular, that they can stand taller if they walk over other women, that it’s wrong to explore sexuality. They instill toxic and negative thought processes.
There are plenty of toxic boy character types too. The most prevalent, and dangerous, is “the bad boy.” These are the guys that are dark, mysterious, usually violent. Many of them are seen as the hero of the story even if they are a douchebag. Seeing characters like this in media make girls want love like this, love that they’re frightened in. It’s a very dangerous trope. It makes girls want to pick the damaged, dangerous man in hopes they can change him. Picking love like this on purpose leads to violent, toxic relationships. And often leads to abuse. Why are so many male characters written this way? It’s a vicious circle of people writing men the way they think they should act or how they’ve seen them act. So the next generation, of boys and girls, read these books and learn that’s what masculinity looks like. So then they write it that way too. So it creates this lack of healthy masculinity to look up to and perpetuates the notion that bad boys are the be all end all.
While any toxic trait is a bad thing for teens to read about, I think toxic relationships are probably the worst. A lot of YA books depict abusive relationships, emotional or physical, and it makes teens think that’s the norm. Did you know that Bella and Edward meet 15 criteria for an abusive relationship? Who else was introduced to the YA world and teen relationships through that series at a young age? That was the first YA movie series I watched and book series I read, at 11 years old. Books like Twilight romanticize controlling, manipulative behavior. They romanticize pursuing the dangerous guy that could hurt you (literally Bella is more into Edward after she finds out he’s a vampire that could kill her). Domestic violence is a very serious and prevalent problem for women and taking in media that romanticizes it at a young age only worsens the chance of that.
Some domestic violence statistics, in case you are unaware. 21% of all violent victimizations are domestic violence. 76% of domestic violence is against women. Nearly 25% of women experience physical assault by a partner in adulthood. 22% of high school girls and 32% of college women have experienced physical assault. And that’s just physical abuse. Intimate partner violence can consist of emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, or economic abuse.
Another thing YA books teach about relationships is that teen love lasts. Not every book, but many of them, have a happy ending of the teens staying together, whether it’s through high school, through college, or even a time jump to the future. Yes, some young love does last. But a lot of it doesn’t. And showing teens all these “epic love stories” that last forever sets a bad example and a bad goal. It causes teens to stay in relationships thinking it’ll get better, that it’ll last. Not every love lasts, at any age, so this idea of “forever love” can do more harm than the entertainment it provides.
YA books can be very beneficial for teens. YA books about real world topics allow the readers to experience both sides of life and learn to cope. They address real pain, and tell kids they’re not alone. Whether it’s a book explicitly about a dark topic (experiencing abuse or rape) or a book that explores a dark topic in a very fictional way (think The Hunger Games and its message about our government), teens can learn a lot.
Many parents want to protect their privileged kids from learning about the dark parts of our world. But what about the kids who aren’t privileged? 1 in 5 kids in the US live in poverty. 1 in 3 teens report relationship violence. Homelessness is a very real risk for queer and trans youth. 44% of rape victims are under the age of 18. If there were no books, or other media, about these topics, the teens who live these lives would feel alone. They would suffer in silence and not know how to get help.
YA books allow people to look at and examine topics they’d normally avoid. There are a lot of topics that are uncomfortable to talk about, to think about. But reading about them in a fictional setting can inform you while you think you’re just being entertained. Books can open your eyes to things you’ve never thought about before. Maybe you’ve never noticed how messed up our society is but then you read a book like The Hunger Games, and you can compare our world to theirs and then you have a revelation. Maybe you’re in an abusive relationship, but you think it’s normal, until you read a book about relationship abuse and realize the love you have is not normal and not safe. You may think it’s a no brainer to realize something is wrong, but a lot of people need that push because they’re uninformed. And there’s nothing wrong with that and no one is at fault for not having been taught something yet. Everything you know, you learned from somewhere, whether it was a real life lesson or learned from somewhere else. Wouldn’t it be easier to learn hard things without having to experience that heartache, that pain?
YA books can be an escape from life’s stress. Maybe your only life stressor is schoolwork, and you read books that are fantasy or sci-fi, people dealing with war and death, and it puts your stress into perspective. Not in a way that diminishes it, but it allows you to cope with it. Parents think a lot of YA books are too “dark” for their children to read. But what about the books we read in school? Do they think they’re any less dark just because they’re classics? Romeo and Juliet is literally about teens that kill themselves because of love. Yeah, there’s the whole message about feuding sides and love not war whatever, but as a teen, all I got from it was they killed themselves because of love. I’ve read plenty of YA books that were way more meaningful and actually got their message across.
The message to take home: YA isn’t inherently bad. These books can be good and help people. But the kind of YA books and how they address issues is what matters for how they will affect teens. Teens need to learn about dangerous and dark topics, but they should not learn about them in a way that romanticizes them (i.e. romance books romanticizing domestic abuse).