Sometimes A Guy Can’t Win

By John Gilstrap

I’m no expert in young adult fiction, but over the past ten years or so, I’ve consumed more of it than I ever did when I was a young adult. (I don’t think that “young at heart” counts in this context.)

I’m an avid Harry Potter fan—in fact, I already bought my tickets for the July 15 opening. I love the concept of the boy wizard who has no idea who he is, but even more than that, I love the interaction of the characters. They seem very real to me. They’re not the best-written books in the world (J.K. Rowling loves adverbs enough to create brand new ones on the fly), but that doesn’t matter because the stories are so compelling. The characters are so compelling.

There’s no doubt in reading the Potter books that it’s Harry’s story. Still, the secondary characters really sing. Hermione Granger is among my favorites. Smarter than any of the boys, she has a strong moral center, and she’s willing to fight for what she believes. Cupid delivers her a few tough blows along the way, but never once does she go to that self-destructive place that seems popular in other YA stories I’ve consumed recently. She never ties her self-actualization to the whims of a jerk.

Then there’s Bella of the Twilight series—whiner in chief. Never mind that she has no interest in Jacob, the guy who actually loves her and treats her like, well, a human being. Never mind that Edward is constantly pushing Bella away. Let’s concentrate for a moment on the fact that Bella has to die to be with the one she loves. Yeah, I know, dying is part of the construct of the whole vampire craze, but in the second of the Twilight stories (or, at least the second movie I watched), Bella sees self destruction—multiple suicide attempts—as the only way for Edward to pay attention to her.

If you’ve read this blog for any time at all, you know that I am 100% against censorship in all of its forms, but is this really the message with which American girls bond so thoroughly? Is there a purer form of narcissism than the gambit of “If you don’t pay attention to me, I’ll hurt myself”? How is this remotely empowering to young girls?

When did it become cool for girls to hand their emotional future over to some guy who treats her like crap?

Most recently, I read the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy, in which young Katniss Everdeen (a girl) has to fight 23 other teens to the death in a contest that is televised as a sporting event. The Hunger Games is the new Big Thing in YA fiction. Having read and enjoyed Battle Royale—a Japanese version of a story that is strikingly similar—I thought I’d give Katniss and her adventures a whirl. It’s actually a pretty good book.

Katniss is no Bella. She can thread a needle with a bow and arrow at 50 yards, and she doesn’t take crap off anybody. As luck would have it, one of her opponents in the games is Peeta, a boy her age who fell in love with her at first sight back when they were both six or seven years old.


Peeta repeatedly saves Katniss’s life at the risk of his own, and he announces his love for her on national television, but she pays little attention because her heart belongs to another guy. It’s the conceit of the story that Katniss suspects that he’s merely using professed love as a strategy, but in the author’s hand, Katniss just comes off as obtuse at best, moronic at worst.


I know it’s all fiction, but for these stories to resonate as they have, there has to be some element of universal truth. Is this really how the adolescent female mind is wired? Do good guys have any chance at all—and in this case I mean that literally, as in guys who are good to others?

Okay, don’t answer that. Good guys are doomed—at least among adolescents and certainly in YA fiction. The romance of the “bad boy” is at least as old as the printing press. Certainly, as far back as my own high school days, really hot girls have always been drawn to the guys who treat them like crap. The good news is that like everything else about adolescence, most people outgrow the roles they play as teenagers and ultimately get their heads straight.

During that transitional time though, when the out-growing is underway, I hope there are some strong parental hands on the tiller.

When all is said and done, though, Hermione will have been a lot more help creating well-balanced young ladies than Bella ever was.

15 thoughts on “Sometimes A Guy Can’t Win

  1. Funny, I was recently thinking about just this sort of topic. Recently I ran into a couple of people from my youth that apparently didn’t have that parental guide. One guy was still walking around Fairbanks, on foot (it’s a pretty spread out town) dressed in the same black leather and chains we all thought were Johnny Rotten cool…in 1982.

    Likewise with a high school friend whose lifestyle and personality don’t seem to have changed in the slightest in nearly 30 years. I am of the opinion that these are examples of what can happen to someone who chose the wrong role models as a kid, or refused to grow out of that childish teen thinking and face the real world.

    If we write heroes and heroines to aspire to, be in YA or Adult thrillers or whatever, we do more than just entertain. We are shaping a generation of readers.

  2. I could never get over Hermione ending up with Ron though – for some reason that just never clicked with me and I felt like she was settling for someone less intelligent than her…I have to admit I consumed the first twilight book like it was luscious chocolate but as the series progressed Bella’s behavior did worry me and I agree she isn’t the role model I would like for a teen girl. I loved the Hunger Games though and thought it was a great trilogy. I just finished Divergent, the first in a new trilogy and I think it was just as good as Hunger Games. For me YA books let me relive my inner 16 year old! I say bring on the angst! But that doesn’t mean I don’t act like a parent when it comes to guiding my boys and their reading choices. They are loving Harry Potter at the moment and I hope that they continue to enjoy books that portray girls as smart, brave and not merely for vampires.

  3. Nice post, John. It bothers me when girls or women are portrayed as mindless or spineless, needing a man to save them or be responsible for their happiness. Like you, I love the YA genre, but nothing stops me faster than a gutless, wish washy heroine who repeatedly ignores her own inner strength or acts like an idiot in a harmful way when it comes to boys. Teens can make mistakes and show poor judgment, but when they continually show the same destructive qualities through the book, with no journey toward self-discovery, then I think this sends the wrong message. My YA or adult editors would never let that fly, even if I wrote that way. I made up my mind a long time ago, the women in my stories were going to be strong and self-reliant. If I have any legacy in my writing, it will be that.

    Thanks for your post, John.

  4. There’s a trope in romance fiction about the “taming” of the “bad boy” (or the “brooding, silent type.” Or the “wounded hunk.”) That’s the “empowering” element that is at work, I believe.

    Also, the “bad boy” is more “exciting.” You know the girl will end up with Cary Grant and not Ralph Bellamy, etc.

    But when this translates into the real world, trouble. How many of those high school bad boys ever develop? They reach their peak in 12th grade. They end up like the uncle character in Napoleon Dynamite, selling products door to door while reliving their football glory days.

    And how many of them are ever really “tamed” by the women who actually marry them?

    I have this fantasy about Rose and Jack from Titanic. He survived, and we see them a couple of years later, married. Jack is still gambling and painting and hitting the sauce. He’s developed a gut. Rose finally explodes, “Get off your can and go get a job, will you? And if you ever get into another poker game, I’m going to rip your lungs out!”

  5. I’ll never forget the summer evening I was strolling down a NY dock along the Jones Beach area when this young,overweight, bearded guy in a lounge chair yells to his perky wife who is about to step off her boat, “Yo, bit**, get me a beer!”

    I thought, if I were she, I’d be taking the rubber off the mallet! But, no, she reached into the cooler. So, John, I’m right there with you in wondering if these angsty, self-absorbed bella-types are a bad example for our young ladies.

    I remember my YA years, sitting under trees watching the boys play softball in the street, or grouping up to play ring-a-levio on bicycles. Back then, vampires were ugly, aged scary dudes. Am I that old??

  6. I’m a very strong woman who fell in love with a cocky bad boy as a teenager. We married after 7 years. I never tried to change him, he just sort of evolved into a wonderfully responsible man, husband & father.

    I think many teenaged girls seek drama and excitement & the furthest thing from their father & generally, the bad boy fits the bill. That girl will either dump him when she can no longer tolerate his attitude or accept him for who he is regardless of whether she can change him or not.

  7. Speaking of YA and other youth fiction, I’m a fan of Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Bookish, determined, and dedicated to those she loves, she’s a heroine to make us proud. And I love Hermione. As for Hunger Games, and Twilight, even as a big girl, I’m not a fan of gladiator flicks or vamps. And bad boy heroes never did it for me. I liked the guys with brains…you know, like Clark Kent and Captain Kirk.

  8. To answer your question – yes, both Hermione-types and Bella-types of girls exist. Different types of teenage boys exist – moronic jerks, introspective future English majors. Why is it so hard to believe that young women have self-image problems and look to a man to get attention. I mean, isn’t that half the point of all clothes marked to teenage girls – to get boys to notice them?

    I have never read the Twilight series, never will, and not even Wisconsin has enough cheese to go with all of Bella’s whine. Hermione is an incredible character and I have known girls like her. However, I have also known Bellas. I volunteer in my state women’s prison once a month and it is full of Bellas.

    Despite my abhorrence for all things Twilight (except Lautner’s abs), these books have hooked a lot of non-readers. As a YA librarian I am grateful for that. The good news is that they go on to read other things, and a lot of the other options end with much more positive messages – ones where the superficial, whine queen learns something and starts becoming much more a Hermione.

  9. Oh, and Katniss is a completely different story. When your daily focus is to not let your family starve and each year you face possibly being dragged off to a gruesome televised death, you probably don’t have much time to think about boys. No wonder the poor girl is confused!

  10. I want to think that it’s the age range. My daughter was 14 when I saw this pattern of her being “starry-eyed” over bad boys. It worried me then, but she wasn’t allowed out of my sight until she was 16. She’ll be 17 in July and she has the most thoughtful, sweet and polite young man for a boyfriend. I thought “Thank the LORD her eyes opened up!”

    She loved the Harry Potter stories, but she doesn’t seem to care about that vampire stuff. As for YA books, she prefers stories about the guy getting an illness and the girl standing by his side type thing. Or the preppy girl having a school project with the gothic girl and they discover that they have a lot in common.

  11. Nolajazz is right. And James Bell is right about the taming bad boys plot arc, that is a standard plot arc.

    Oh, and I wonder why Bella likes Edward? Maybe because he’s rich, drives super fast, kick ass cars, is tough as nails, can kill anyone to save Bella, no problem, and has the potential to turn Bella into a vampire, thus making her supermodel hot for eternity.

    God I wonder why Bella likes Edward more???

  12. I dunno. It seems things get muddled and hypocritical fast when talking about this kind of stuff. Many movies/books have presented worse “role models” for girls and gotten no derision for it. I seem to remember that Shrek pretty much kidnapped Fiona, but no one said anything about that. And I don’t understand why everyone’s worried girls will copy Bella, but no one’s worried boys will copy Jacob and Edward. You say girls, but actually lots of boys go for partners who treat them like crap, as Jacob goes for Bella. Is no one worried about the boys? Are they somehow smart enough to know right from wrong without good role models, and the girls are not? I kind of wish people would drop the whole role model for girls thing. Why encourage them to be like someone else at all? Just encourage them to be themselves and to behave morally.

  13. Interesting comments, folks. Lots to ponder…
    I think the thing with Bella is she just knows that Edward is her true love, her soulmate. And nothing, not Jake with his misguided hero complex, nor vast tribes of killing vampires, not even Edward himself with his noble reservations of taking her soul, (he only submits to changing her to save her life in the end) -None of that will stop Bella from what she knows is her destiny.
    I just don’t get how resolution like that in a girl is a bad thing.
    Problem is, Hollywood makes Bella out to be wishy-washy…Meyer’s novels clearly tell her story as a girl who sees what she wants, and literally stops at nothing to achieve it.
    Is she a role model?
    Nah – Bella’s just a hopelessly romantic fictional character that arcs into a goregeous, immortal, eighteen-year-old ass-kicking, married Mother who gets to live happily forever after in the fairy-tale world that she chooses. With her less-than-icky Vampire husband, who adores her.
    That’s just my take (and I’m very fickle about my Vampires).
    Whenever a young girl tells me she’s “Team Jacob”, I tell them they need to read the books. Which sometimes they do…
    And that’s the coolest thing about the Twilight Saga – it gets people reading, using their imagination, and having incredible conversations about what’s what.

Comments are closed.