The Problem with the YA Genre

I know any time you make sweeping generalizations about any group, there are bound to be exceptions. But there’s been a recent, damn-near unavoidable surge in a very specific type of fiction in both movies and books: one “special” character becomes hero to an unlikely dystopian community.

I don’t know if I can name all of the recent entries we have: Harry Potter arguably sparked the trend, though with the added elements of wizardry (and it’s probably not quite a dystopia… but as I can see it, there’s been some crappy governance in Narnia, or wherever it takes place), followed by Hunger GamesDivergent, The Giver (though this one also preceded all of them), Ender’s Game (also an older novel), and, most recently, The Maze Runner (which I just saw today, as you probably guessed). There are doubtlessly entries that I missed that fall into this category. There are others that are older that probably technically qualify, but which at the time of their writing were not part of a overwhelming trend (such as Star Wars) . But I have noticed a trend in the YA fiction of our current generation. The fact that I generally enjoyed The Maze Runner only made more clear the fact that even well-done versions of this genre exhibit this one trait. So ok, here it is:

They make the general population of characters dumb and unrealistic so that the main character can seem both special AND relatable at the same time.

I had chalked up the bad decisions and baffling attitudes of side characters in past movies as shoddy writing or “because plot.” But after seeing this pattern play out time and again, I’ve come to the realization (I’m slow on the uptake) that this has all been intentional.

This is the quandary facing YA authors: to have a hit, kids need to want to read your book. The best way to get kids to want to read your book is for your book to tell them, “It’s ok that you feel different. You’re not a weirdo. You’re special. You’re the most specialest, in fact.” Because I know, for fact, that I felt like a freak when I was 13. I remember telling people or writing on my Xanga profile that I’m “probably the weirdest person you will meet.” And then I read that same exact statement on hundreds of blog/social network profiles. It’s a strange moment, because you think, “Lexi, you’re not that weird. You’re not like me weird.” But you know what? Everyone’s probably read my profile and thought the same thing (or they thought “Yeah… that chick’s pretty weird.” Because honestly, I walk around talking to myself).

So you have just tons of kids like me and Lexi and Edwin and Eric and Chiann who all think they’re the weirdest one. We’ve all been picked on our entire lives – so clearly it must be because we’re weird, right? And the authors of these books – who knows. Maybe they felt like us and they’re really sympathetic to us. Maybe they just know that kids like us are the ones that read. No matter how it came about, these authors grew up and thought, “Lots of kids think they’re just the weirdest person on the planet. How can I flatter them based on that?” Well, by having your super-awesome, world-saving protagonist go against the grain and finally attain the recognition he/she deserves!!!!

But if society is practically composed of “weird kids,” weird is the norm – thus the quandary: how do you make your protagonist “weird” but do things normal people do?

Aha! I’ve got it!!! NONE of the other characters can do what normal people do!

Let’s take a look at some of the degenerates of society that these movies would have us believe are actually the “normal” ones that weird kids like you and me need to fight against:

1. The “District 1-ers”

The-Hunger-Games-District-Tributes-

I don’t even know the names of the individuals in this group, but they’re more like a single unit anyways, so I’m just going to call them the District 1-ers (although yes, I know District 2-ers are included in this). Their core traits: sadistic, self-centered, self-serving, eager for violence, egotistical alpha-types.

When you’re a shy, quiet book nerd, it’s easy to think that the majority of humanity are all like the bully that stole our lunch money. In fact, it’s pretty much biologically wired into us to dwell on the negative, so we are totally more likely to exaggerate the prevalence of negative qualities during our private musings. And to be clear, those attitudes are presented as the majority, since everyone in the Capitol watches the carnage without an ounce of guilt.

When they really SHOULD feel guilty about their crimes against fashion.

When they really SHOULD feel guilty about their crimes against fashion.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but my general experience with humans during my stay on this planet has been fairly positive. Of course terrible people have and continue to exist. And of course people fall prey more easily than we’d expect to mass hysteria, minority-blaming, and general douche-baggery than anyone would hope. But I dare say that although I recognize that in several countries shitty behavior continues to prevail, I also recognize that those extremes are being progressively stamped out. Enough people in enough countries have come to recognize that institutionalized crimes against humanity are shameful that change is possible, probable – and I believe we’re the majority.

My point is this: Katniss is presented as special and heroic because she generally refuses to kill, especially her friends, even if it means being killed. I argue, though, that most people would refuse to kill their friends. Most people would refuse to kill their enemies. Most people would find it incredibly difficult to kill at all – which would explain why so many soldiers can’t bring themselves to kill even enemies. It’s against our nature, since our nature – by coincidence or by design – is to replicate/spread the genes of our species.

2. All Non-Divergents (although yes, the above picture depicts one self-identified “divergent.”)

guys of divergent

In the world of divergent, everyone fits nicely into one of… a specific number of categories. There’s… a name for people that are altruistic (uh… I think they were “Hippies” or something), people that were smarter than you (Wait! I know this one! “Erudite… brainy lady” – Thanks Flight of the Conchords!), ummm… people… that were…. I don’t know. Katniss- I mean… Beatrice chooses the one that any teenager would choose: the meathead group that does parkour.

But gasp! What makes Beatrice special is that SHE has *double gasp!* MORE THAN ONE QUALITY! She is brave AND smart AND kind. What ever will she do with all these virtues!

Here’s the thing, though: literally everyone in the real world is three-dimensional. I mean honestly, everyone has more than one defining quality, and what those defining qualities are often shift depending on who you ask. Parents would generally say “My kid was the smartest kid ever. He/she learned to talk/walk/hold a crayon so much faster than that other, dumb baby” (unless they’re honest and tell you that you were the dumb baby). A teacher, though? A teacher might say, “Oh, John? Meh.”

Now back to the premise of this rant: side characters are reduced or dumbed down to emphasize the specialness of the protagonist. In Divergent, for example, Miles Teller and the Neo Nazi/Emo Punkster wanna be are both of the Dauntless variety. Meaning that they can’t also be smart or kind or funny or very human in general. They’re ass hats, and they remain so for the duration of the movie because plot – even when their allegiances are proven wrong.

So Tris, like literally the entire audience, has more than one quality, but literally everyone in the audience is made to feel special because if Mr. Fantastic and Good Charlotte are one-dimensional butt-holes then being a fully-fleshed person must be rare!

3. And most recently, The Maze Runner:

mazerunnerpoint

Literally, at one point in the movie, the black leader kid says to the white protagonist kid, “You’re different. You’re curious.”

“HOLY CRAP! I – THE AUDIENCE MEMBER – AM CURIOUS TOO!!! I’M LIKE THOMAS. I’M SPECIAL! THIS MOVIE GETS ME!”
-the response studios hope to elicit

Most characters are simply content to farm or whack at trees while sleeping in hammocks and not at all curious about why they’re obviously in the middle of a man-made puzzle and supplied by an obviously intelligent and present mysterious source. But Thomas – well, Thomas possesses a rare quality amongst you humans: curiosity. Oh, and he’s smarter and more capable than the other characters, too. But, I argue, he’s as smart as the general audience, because he’s solving things that the audience would probably be able to solve (so that we can feel good about ourselves, you see), but they’re just puzzling enough that it’d take a little effort on our part (so that it feels like no one else can make the phenomenal logical leap we just did). This means that really, he’s about average, and everyone else in the movie is a little less than that.

For example, the main d-bag is named Big Dumb Dumb-Face (hey, I didn’t name the characters). BDDF takes every random occurrence to be all “Thomas is bad! I’m a beta male, and he might take my spot!” For example, the first girl ever arrives in the little community, and he actually says, “The second you arrived here, everything started going wrong! *This one bad accident happened* *This other unusual bad thing happened* AND A GIRL ARRIVED!” Meanwhile, Thomas is all, “Whoa, bro. Let’s take a second to think this through…” I motion that most of us would probably say the same thing. (Actually, most of us would probably be all, “Having a girl around is a bad thing?! It’s about time we had someone who could make a proper sandwich!”)

And BDDF continues to live up to his name right up until the end of the movie. He has literally no redeeming quality. Thomas breaks a rule to save his friends (he goes into the maze). BDDF’s first act in the movie was to break a rule (he hurts another “glader.”) Yet Thomas, who was altruistic, must be punished, while sadism is totally fine.

Now, I’ve met meatheads. I will say, though, that in defense of humanity: most people would never follow a meathead. Most people have the common sense to say, “This guy is an idiot. Let’s not listen to him.” or “Hey… he might be bigger and stronger than me… but he’s bigger and stronger than Thomas, and Thomas beat him! Let’s follow Thomas!”

Conclusion

I don’t know if this type of pandering is exactly “harmful” – but it certainly seems damaging to me to teach people that everyone else is a moron because there can only be one special person in the world, saving the day. In reality, it’s groups of people to make change over a number of days.

Now, I mentioned Star Wars earlier, and it’s true: countless movies have a “one” or “special” person. Heck, The Lego Movie specifically parodied that trope. But not all movies try to convince you that qualities you share with literally 80% of the general population are what make you special.

Luke Skywalker, for example, wasn’t “the chosen one” because he cared about his friends and was nice and optimistic and had just enough personality that we could like him but just little enough that we could still project onto him. He was “the chosen one” because though he was otherwise normal and unassuming, he legitimately had a quality others aren’t born with: the Force was with him. Also, he could bullseye womp rats in his T-16, and they aren’t much bigger than 2 meters. Nor did Luke Skywalker ever save the day alone. A lot of times, he wasn’t even the commander. And enough times, Han Solor or Leia did just as much or even pulled more weight.

Or in Ender’s Game; Ender wasn’t special for being like everyone in the audience. He was legitimately depicted as being smarter than you or me. And even he didn’t do it all alone. He had Bean, Petra, and the Indian kid to help him out.

All I’m saying is, telling people that being smart or having common sense or caring about your friends is rare will only serve to make the young and impressionable think that they’re right and, more importantly, everyone else is wrong. Because every one else is normal, and normal just isn’t the guy or girl that will save the day.

On X-Men: Days of Future Past

My fellow comic book buddy, whom you might know as Muscle Milk, and I have differing perspectives on what makes a good movie. His focus: Did I have a good time? Did enough things explode? Was I constantly entertained? Was there a hot girl?

My focus tends to be: What did this say to me? Was it consistent? Did the characters develop through the course of the movie? Then, depending on the genre: was it funny enough? Was it dramatic enough? Did Godzilla eat enough people?

It’s the rare occasion when these two standards intersect on one movie – especially a comic book adaptation. I actually feel, though, that the latest X-Men entry didn’t fare too badly. Beware, because the following contains spoilers.

Admittedly, I am the first to say that I’m getting a little tired of all the Wolverine entries. Yes, he’s a cool tough guy and that’s always fun. But believe it or not, there are plenty of other cool butt kickers in the X-Men universe. Let’s try exploring some of them before Hugh Jackman gets too old and tired and then the whole X-Men franchise crumbles beneath his adamantium claws.

However, if we go back to the questions ahead:

Did I have a good time? Yes. The movie was pretty quick-paced and I felt it didn’t spend overly-long drawing out points that we already know and have ingrained in our collective cultural subconscious. We did not need to be re-introduced to the fact that Wolverine is a tough guy bad-ass. Just look at that haircut and facial hair! We know the Xavier-Magneto dynamic, so they didn’t re-tread that too much beyond what felt natural. And plus, Patrick Stewart is objectively wonderful. So there’s that.

Did enough things explode? Aka, was there enough action. Yes. Although, we were subjected to Wolverine bone-claws again. Ick. But I mean, watching the opening with the younger generation of X-Men, headed by Bobby, fight off the Sentinels was pretty awesome.

Was I constantly entertained? Yes. As mentioned, the movie kicks off with pretty great battles against the sentinels, demonstrating what a threat they are. We get some drama between young Charles and Eric. Mystique is actually pretty entertaining throughout – despite how I felt about her portrayal in the previous movie (they took the mystique out of her). It’s partially heist, partially action, all comic book. It’s definitely entertaining.

Did it have a hot girl? Take your pick. Jennifer Lawrence. Bingbing Fan (aka Blink aka the Asian chick with Portal powers). Even Famke Janssen made an appearance (of course).

Down to my criteria:

What did this say to me? There are a few areas to focus on. I really liked the treatment of Xavier, for example. What Prof. X said to his younger self was a thought to ponder on: young Charles wasn’t afraid of feeling other people’s emotions. He was afraid that it would make him confront his own. There’s a lot to be said of that even for we non-mutants. For example, are people with hurtful biases able to sympathize with those over whom they’re casting judgment? Or are they afraid to because once they do, it will cause them to confront themselves and their own wrong-doing? Would it cause their entire value system to collapse? How about focusing on Eric and Raven: are people born villains? Will changing events of their past keep them from pursuing a villainous future? And that ties right along with destiny, namely: will time always auto-correct its course so that no matter what “pebbles” are thrown into its stream, the current remains unchanged? (The movie says no).

“Was it consistent?” didn’t fare as well. By and large it’s pretty solid – especially for a summer blockbuster. But it’s afflicted by the same plot hole as pretty much every movie that ever uses time travel to fix a present-world problem: why, if you could transport a person back in time to any point in time, would you only give them a matter of days (or hours) to fix a huge, time-changing problem? Now, the reason from a story-telling stand-point is obvious. The movie needs tension to be exciting. But there’s not even some convenient deus ex-machina to explain why Wolverine was given so little time. They don’t really explain it at all – they comment as little as possible on it, in fact.

On to power problems, such as Blink’s. The Sentinels are shown to have adaptive power to compensate for the powers of the mutant they’re fighting, rendering them almost indestructible when fighting one mutant long enough. Blink alone seems to offer them an upper-hand: she opens portals left and right so that the Sentinels cannot anticipate who will attack them. For a brief moment of time, though, whoever is on the other side of a portal is vulnerable to attack. At one point, she’s not quick enough closing a portal and gets stabbed through the chest – the portal immediately closes and severs that portion of the Sentinel off. So… her portals can literally slice through Sentinels. While it’s awesome watching the portals being used by her teammates, wouldn’t it be more effective to open portals around the Sentinels and slice them in half?

Or Mystique’s powers. While Mystique traditionally has been an ass-kicker with the power to look like anyone, the movie implies that it’s more than just that: she adopts their traits on a biological level – it’s what gives the Sentinels their adaptive power. So wouldn’t that mean that while she looks like Wolverine, she’d heal like Wolverine? Look like Charles, become a telepath like Charles? While I’d have been satisfied if they’d explained that the Sentinel’s abilities come from scientists tweaking Mystique’s genetic code, the movie implies that it’s already inherent.

Then, of course, there’s Kitty Pryde. When, exactly, did she gain the power to send people’s minds through time to inhabit their past bodies? She’s not a telepath. She can’t do it to herself. And it’s not exactly molecular phasing.

From a story-telling perspective, they also had to retcon the past movies by making old Prof. Xavier give his spiel about how Raven was a cherished childhood friend – though if you watched the first trilogy, there’s no evidence of that. The Sentinels already had working prototypes in the 70s, but did not attack the X-Men until well over 40 years later. Magneto sends Wolverine back to help himself out – and yet young Eric has no interest in knowing how his future self would correct his… er… present past. Or the fact that a mutant killing some random scientist motivates the government to begin plans to exterminate mutants – but not a group of mutants breaking into and out of the Pentagon. Nor a mutant literally lifting a football stadium, encompassing the White House, and threatening to kill the president and his cabinet – the fact that Mystique saved him does little to fix the fact that something so tremendous happened. And Charles decides to trust Eric to go free, despite his willingness to kill friend and comrade. And somehow old Xavier is still in his own body… inexplicably. So consistency wasn’t DoFP’s strong suit – but it wasn’t so glaring that it detracted from my enjoyment.

If we move on to whether or not the characters develop, in this case I’d go back to yes – although Wolverine is still obsessed with Jean and there’s no mention of Mariko. But young Charles transforms dramatically, and Mystique is swayed by her old friend to become a hero to the president rather than villain – although her true allegiance doesn’t seem to be changed. In the end, Wolverine took up a lot of screen-time, but plot-wise, he was really a bystander (or perhaps prompter) in a story about Charles, Eric and Raven – which was welcomed.

And as for whether or not it fulfilled my expectations of the genre, it did. It had, as mentioned previously, explosions, cool fight scenes, excellent graphics, and an ounce of drama.

Overall, I’d give the movie 4/5 stars.

Not too Super

Tonight, I will be watching Man of Steel for the first time since it was out in theaters. While it was an honest disappointment to me the first time I saw it (didn’t like Clark, or really even Lois although I like Amy Adams, Jonathan Kent’s death was… laughable, it was too “artsy” and long in some parts, Clark’s reckless abandon), there were enough good points that I hope a second watch will improve it (the fight scenes, every Kryptonian that wasn’t Clark).

Basically, half the movie is Clark with this expression on his face.

What did you think about Man of Steel. What do you think about the casting, etc., going on for the sequel?