Maybe it’s the domestic violence trainings I’ve been going through, making me realize how many romantic “heroes” fit the classic profile of abusers. Maybe it’s the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon, and the conversations it’s been sparking about sex, literature and pornography. Or maybe it’s just the fact that I’ve been reading a lot of great YA books that I wouldn’t let any child of mine even LOOK at until they were at least 16. But recently I’ve become much more attuned to the sexual content of the books I’ve been reading, the way it interplays with the larger story, and the message it sends the readers.
For instance, I’ve been reading the Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer. They’re hilarious, action-packed books about a poor orphan girl who chops off her hair, dons a dead friend’s clothing, and signs on as a ship’s boy. The adventures are fantastical, and Jacky Faber, the spunky, over-the-top cockney heroine, is impossible not to love. My 10-year-old son would adore these books.
They’re so loaded with sexual innuendo that I would never give them to him. At least not until he’s too old to properly enjoy them.
The content itself is not that objectionable, and the morals, though loose, aren’t horrible. But the giddy flirtations, snicker-worthy bawdiness, and especially the perpetual threats of rape (always miraculously averted–what does that tell the poor girl who CAN’T escape?) guarantee that we won’t be reading them aloud anytime soon.
And that’s a pity. Because they’re great books.
Now, probably, Jacky Faber’s adventures in infatuation are well-suited to a girl of her age and character. They don’t seem out of place in the books–at least, they’re no crazier than any of her other adventures (and that’s not saying much). But I wonder how well-suited they are to their audience? Perhaps they were written for older teens, but to me, they seem ideal for the 10-12 set.
And while I have it on good authority that my 10-year-old sometimes thinks about girls, he thinks a whole lot more about puppeteering. And playing with his dog. And his quest to become the next Billy Joel.
And I like it that way.
While I don’t want to shelter him, I don’t want to fill that innocent blond head of his with flippant, somewhat humorous mentions of failed sexual assaults, either.
Couldn’t we just leave it at innocent crushes?
Then there’s the Graceling series by Kristen Cashore. I enjoyed them, but wasn’t a huge fan of the casual sexual ethic that they pushed–a sexual ethic that had the characters in her high fantasy world behaving pretty much like modern Americans, complete with ill-conceived dalliances, domestic partnerships and birth control “herbs.” Of course, they’re her stories; she certainly doesn’t have to conform them to my sexual ideals. But there was a moralistic tone, a defensiveness of sorts, that caught my attention. The characters’ sexuality didn’t always feel like an organic part of the story. It felt like there was an authorial agenda behind their behavior. Which is totally within her rights, but it felt–well–a little odd.
A series that’s sexuality did not strike me as odd was Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder, published, ironically, by Harlequin. (???) While it does mention the main characters having sex, there were no explicit sex scenes, and the relationship felt believable. The book contained violence and sexual assault, but once again, it seemed in step with the story, and was portrayed as a horrible evil that had to be stopped. Although it is classified as YA, it was obviously written for an older audience, so it escapes the Bloody Jack problem.
As prissy as this post probably sounds, I think it’s important to think about the messages books (and movies, and music, and other media) send about sexuality, and how it fits into the larger plot not only of those books, but of our lives and society. As a writer, I don’t buy into the idea that “the media” is shaping culture any more so than the culture is shaping media. Contrary to popular opinion, novelists, journalists, musicians, artists and even political pundits aren’t just strange, fantastical creatures who rise up from out of the sea like Botticelli’s Venus, are struck by some mystical muse, and begin their work, either fiendish or holy. The ideas they present come from somewhere, and if you’re willing to listen carefully, with grace and discernment, you can learn a lot.
What do you think? What messages are the romantic and sexual relationships in your favorite books, movies, and TV shows sending? What is the mindset behind them? Are they realistic, fanciful, or flat-out deceptive? Helpful or harmful? What can we learn about ourselves and about society from them?