For all the debates that writers and readers of young adult fiction may have about diversity, critical respect for their genre or even romantic pairings between fictional characters, it’s a literary community that’s often a pleasure to spend time in because it’s so frequently characterized by a culture of enthusiasm and mutual support. So it was disheartening to read last week that John Green, one of the most prominent authors currently working in the form, had been slammed essentially for writing books that validate the experiences and emotions of teenage girls.
In a post that has since been removed, but that remains archived in Tumblr reposts, someone using the handle “virjn” suggested that there was something inherently predatory about Green’s decision to create memorable female protagonists.
“i bet john green thinks people don’t like him because he’s a ‘dork’ or a nerd or whatever,” read the original post, “when in reality it’s because he’s a creep who panders to teenage girls so that he can amass some weird cult-like following. and it’s always girls who feel misunderstood, you know, and he goes out of his way to make them feel important and desirable…also he has a social media presence that is equivalent to that dad of a kid in your friend group who always volunteers to “supervise” the pool parties and scoots his lawn chair close to all the girls.”
To be clear, the post contains no specific allegation against Green. And while I wouldn’t normally wade into Tumblr drama, the original post has prompted a widespread debate among prominent young adult authors. “Blood Ties” series author Jennifer Armintrout has argued on Twitter that observers ought to be more sympathetic to people who feel dynamics between authors and fans, especially young ones, are headed in bad directions. “Demon’s Lexicon” trilogy author Sarah Rees Brennan, “Mortal Instruments” creator Cassandra Clare and “Shades of London” and “Suite Scarlett” author Maureen Johnson have weighed in with everything from concerns whether serious accusations are being used to further personal vendettas, the rise of outrage culture, and personal defenses of Green’s interactions with readers. Taken together, it’s a conversation that raises important questions about the balance between vigilance and openness, and what girls and young women have to lose — and to gain — when the balance shifts.
Given the way that false allegations of sexual assault are used to discredit such charges (though such fabrications are rare), there’s no question that it’s important to guard against the use of insinuations like these as smears. But rape and molestation victims aren’t the only people who stand to lose when language like this gets weaponized.
Given current gender imbalances in pop culture, if we’re going to get more female characters, some men will probably have to play a role in bringing them to life. Suggesting that only women can write books with female main characters, create television shows that focus on women, or direct movies starring women of any age means that if we want gender parity in our characters, we might find ourselves waiting forever to see the end of gender gaps in writing, showrunning and directing that have persisted for decades. And suggesting that telling women’s stories is exclusively women’s work puts limits on female artists, too: the pop culture world would be a poorer place without Kathryn Bigelow’s movies about men or Michelle MacLaren’s awe-inspiring directing on “Breaking Bad.”
And it’s not just pop culture, either. There’s something profoundly dismaying about the idea that if we want to protect all girls and young women from the depredations of a small group of men, then no adult men should have meaningful relationships with younger women, whether as teachers, mentors, friends or accessible pop culture icons. Suggesting that the only reason a man his age could possibly want to interact with young women is for his own gratification may be intended as a warning. Instead, it reinforces the idea that girls have nothing to offer to adults, that their ideas or conversation couldn’t possibly be worthy of attention from more mature people. And implying that the only reason adult men could take an interest in younger women is sexual or vainglorious underestimates men, too, suggesting that they’re incapable of making genuine investments in people who differ from them in age and gender.
It’s common and depressing parlance to suggest, all evidence to the contrary, that men will advocate for women if that means advocating for their daughters. But stories like that of Izzy Laxamana, whose father shaved her head and filmed her humiliation as a punishment for sending a selfie, suggest that plenty of men view their daughters as unruly figures who need to be managed and controlled. Pathologizing men who listen to girls and young women and engage with them like worthy peers and friends isn’t about protecting girls. It’s about denying them powerful allies.