If You Can't Beat'em, Join 'em: Using the Romance Series to Confront Gender Stereotypes
I drool over young adult literature. When I see a new book by Chris Crutcher or Cynthia Voigt, I snatch it off the store shelf and buy it. When I see an advertisement that announces that Gary Paulsen or Sue Ellen Bridgers or Walter Dean Myers has a new book out, I call up my local bookstore and order it. When I go to the fall convention of the National Conference of Teachers of English, I bring only one extra suitcase so I won't overdo it at the book exhibits and buy more books than I can carry to the airplane.
Because I know the field of young adult literature well and know how much good writing there is in this field and because I have over 800 novels in my classroom that I happily share with my students, it pains me when students ask me for books like Sweet Valley High or Sweet Dreams -- the romance series.
Besides their being simplistic and of mediocre writing quality, an even greater concern I have about these novels is that the girls who read these books will measure themselves against the girls shown in the books. The "normal" girls in the books are usually very good-looking: Elizabeth and her twin Jessica in Deceptions (Sweet Valley High #14) are "spectacular, with the all-American good looks that made them the envy of every other girl in Sweet Valley" (p. 3). Being told that one is pretty is considered the highest compliment.
I also worry that girls might take seriously the way females are divided into "admirable" and "not-admirable" people. In the same book, Jessica is shown as rather conniving and shallow mainly because she is described as selfish. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is elevated because she worries about other people. Of course, the same standards do not appear to apply to males who are allowed to think mainly of themselves. Girls are more readily condemned in these novels if they make mistakes and are not allowed the "boys-will-be-boys" maxim that excuses males from mistakes. I worry that, if my female students buy into these books, they will be too harsh on themselves.
I have talked to girls about the appeal of reading these books. I have also talked to two worried parents whose daughters have read widely in many genres but have also read every number in the romance series. What I have found out surprises me. I thought that girls were only reading these books because they were desperate to have a boy in their life. But I have found out that girls often read these books for comfort when they are upset. There is a sameness in each book that they can count on. They feel safe when they read these books because doing so takes them away from whatever is going on in their lives. The most serious problem in these books is usually how to catch and keep a boy. There are no parents arguing, no one demanding they do anything, no one challenging their view of the world. Everyone is pretty much the same in these books. Everything at home gets done magically. Crime and violence do not exist. This predictability seems to be soothing to the readers.
The soothing effect of these books was made clear to me when my own twelve-year-old daughter went through Nancy Drew books in big gulps. Not only did she read every one, but, when something was bothering her, she would reread them again and again. That experience suggested to me the idea that these books might be escapes for their readers. I found out that similar patterns existed when I questioned two of my friends who were offended and upset that their daughters read books in the Sweet Valley High series. They too had observed that their daughters read these books over and over again, apparently finding comfort in reading them.
Although reading the romance series for escape seems harmless enough, I still prefer to hide them at the back of my book racks at school, hoping students will find something else before they come to them. Experience has taught me that bad-mouthing these books or chiding students for reading them does not work. These books appeal to teens. So instead of ignoring them or trying to subvert their appeal, I decided I might instead learn to use these books in ways that can provoke thought and encourage readers to look closely at what these novels really say, especially about male and female roles. By helping students become conscious of such issues as the gender expectations shown in the books, I can help them think about their own values and expectations for males and females.
The major theme that appears to run throughout the romance series is the girls' desire to be accepted, usually by a member of the opposite sex. This desire to be accepted should not come as a surprise to us, since we are dealing with young teens who are trying to figure out who they are and how they can get people to like them.
Although we cannot expect to take readers from Sweet Valley High (where girls who have boyfriends have a higher status) to a heightened awareness of sexism in one bound, using these books and raising and discussing the issues in them is certainly a beginning. Since approaching any issue in preachy ways won't get students to look closely at the issue, it is advisable to start out gently and indirectly.
For students who are planning to read these books, the teacher could construct a series of questions and ask these students before they begin reading to discuss the questions with those who have already read books in the series. Such questions might include:
* What do you look for in a friend?
* What do you think makes you a good friend?
* Are there differences in the ways boys and girls are judged? Explain.
* What do you think appearance tells you about someone?
* If people judged you on your appearance, what might they conclude about you?
* What kind of people would you rather not be friends with?
* Is it important to you whether or not your friends are involved in school activities and/or athletics? Explain.
* What activities or interests in school bring status or importance to boys? To girls?
* How might people your age react if a male wanted to be a ballet dancer?
* How might people your age react if a female wanted to be a football player?
It is difficult to discuss gender issues with preteens and young teens because they are still grappling with their own sexuality. So in my classes I try to illustrate the adverse effects of gender stereotyping on both males and females: gender stereotyping limits choices and opportunities. Both boys and girls can be hurt by gender expectations. When students start to understand the negative effects of such stereotyping, they are usually a bit more willing to discuss gender issues.
After reading these very short novels, students might discuss why these books appeal to teens and what information is contained in them.
* How do these books show "normal" behavior in high school?
* What is usually involved in a relationship?
* What do males expect of females in a relationship? What do females expect of males?
* When females are involved in relationships, how are they viewed?
* When males are involved in relationships, how are they viewed?
* How are males and females shown acting around the opposite sex?
* Which portrayals of males and females seem realistic? Unrealistic?
The next step may be to get students talking about and recognizing some of the sexism in these books. Teachers can select sample activities from the list below, perhaps asking students who read these books to respond to a few of the questions in place of the more traditional book report that only asks students to report on what is in the book, not question it.
* List words used to describe male and female characters. Compare them.
* List what males and females are shown doing in the story. Look at the verbs that describe what they are doing.
* Compare the way female appearance is described with the way male appearance is described. What do such descriptions say about what we expect of males and females?
* What are males shown doing in the novel that result in disapproval of them? What are females shown doing in the novel that result in disapproval of them?
* How are fathers portrayed? What are they shown doing? What is expected of them? What are they criticized for? What about mothers?
* Who seems to have the power in the teen relationships shown?
* Do you believe there should be differences in male and female behavior? What should they be?
* Compare males and females in the novels in terms of the following personality characteristics: active/passive; stable/unstable; courageous/afraid; risk-taker/complier; aggressive/non-aggressive; challenging/obedient; low need to have friends/high need to have friends; competitive/nurturing.
* What are males criticized for? What are females criticized for?
* What personality characteristics are valued for males? What personality characteristics are valued for females?
* How does the author characterize females in contrast to males? What is primarily used to show what kind of person the character is? Speech? Appearance? Actions? What others say about them?
* What characters seem to have the most interesting plans for the future?
* Who seems to be the most intelligent? the most sensitive? the most emotional?
Once students start to look at these romance series through the lens of gender expectations, they might still read these series just as much -- but there is a chance that they might become aware of both how sexist the series is and how these novels promote the idea that involvement in a traditional romantic relationship is the answer to any girl's problem. Generally, with young girls, the process of questioning the way females are portrayed in the books they read is a bit threatening. They want to avoid being labeled as "feminists," since in middle school and high school they associate the term with females who are not accepted by males because they appear too independent. So this questioning process may be slow, but, over a period of time, with gentle urging from the teacher, romance-series readers can learn to be more objective about what they read.
Thus, since many of our female students have a natural attraction to the romance series either as a way of finding solace in an increasingly demanding world or as a way to reassure themselves of happy endings, we as teachers need to use this interest as an opening instead of fighting the losing battle of warning students against reading them.
A ninth-grade teacher in Williamston, Michigan, Diana Mitchell is the current President of ALAN.