Ask Alice, Blog, For Writers 3 years ago

Ask Alice: Is consent, sex, and female agency in YA fantasy as magical as we’d like?

Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay under the name A.B Endacott.

Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!

Let’s be honest: sex sells.

Few things can ignite the passion and adoration of a fandom beyond a compelling romantic storyline. If a book’s primary plot is plodding along a bit, some good old fashioned ‘will they, won’t they?’ between characters often keeps readers engaged when they otherwise might put the book down.

Young adult as a genre (yes, it can be classified as both a genre and readership) often features romance as a key component to its stories. Given one of its defining characteristics is a focus on ‘firsts,’ it makes sense that a first serious romance is a frequent feature.

Yet in those moments when the handsome (often dark-haired, shaggy-fringed) guy leans in for a kiss to finally consummate the simmering tension with a female love interest, things aren’t always healthy as they could be, and this is often the case with YA fantasy.

The difference between young adult contemporary and young adult fantasy in depicting consent

Contemporary YA published in the last few years has begun to pay more particular and explicit attention to:

  • demonstrating active consent between characters
  • drawing attention to problematised consent between characters.

Two #LoveOzYA titles that spring to mind as doing this really well are Holden Sheppard’s Invisible Boys, and Tobias Madden’s Anything But Fine.

Take this (abridged and warning: *potentially spoiler-ific*) exchange from Anything But Fine:

“Are you all right?” he asks.
I nod.
He kisses my cheek, reaching up to turn my face towards his.
“Are you sure? You look…stressed.”
And before I know it, it’s out of my mouth. “I’m not ready to have sex.”
A smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. “Luca, no one said we have to sleep together,” he says. “I’m sorry if you felt pressured.”

But jump over the genre fence to fantasy, and it’s a bit of a different story, says Deakin University researcher Elizabeth Little.

Little is undertaking a PhD that investigates depictions of sexual consent in young adult fantasy novels. In a recent conversation, she pointed out young adult fantasy is still catching up with other stories aimed at young readers when it comes to depictions of positive, healthy representations of consent. In particular, she says some of the most popular YA fantasies feature romantic pairings in which the sexual agency of the female lead is murky at best, explicitly undermined at worst.

Elizabeth Little’s research on how young readers respond to sexual consent in young adult fantasy

Little’s research combines a textual analysis of YA fantasy texts (most notably A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR), Sarah J Maas, and Red Queen, Victoria Aveyard).

The analysis focuses on these key elements:

  • how the female characters’ identity as women is constructed
  • how female characters’ sex and sexuality is depicted
  • how female characters’ agency and power is depicted with particular reference to the insights gleaned from focus groups with high school aged girls who read the texts.

Brief nerdy detour: this kind of research is particularly important because there isn’t a lot of work being done which specifically looks at the experience and interpretations of readers, let alone teenage ones.

Research conducted in this way gives us actual insight into the experiences of the intended demographic of young adult fiction as they read these texts, instead of extrapolations based off assumptions, occasional anecdotal exchanges with teenagers, and the experiences and reactions of older readers.

Now, onto Little’s results. In a piece for The Conversation, Little and Deakin University Senior Lecturer Kristine Moruzi drew attention to a “serious violation of consent” in from ACOTAR:

When Tamlin attempts to kiss Feyre, she tells him to “let go”, but instead he embeds his claws in a wall behind her head. When she pushes him away, he “grabs [her] hands and bites [her] neck”.

Feyre’s reaction to Tamlin is confusing as well. While she tells him to stop, she also describes her feelings of sexual arousal. She “couldn’t escape” from Tamlin but “wasn’t entirely sure [she] wanted to”. To Feyre’s fury, the next morning Tamlin says he “can’t be held accountable” for her bruises. But by the next paragraph all is forgiven.

Many of the high school-aged readers were able to articulate that this first kiss between Tamlin and Feyre in ACOTAR was non-consensual because Feyre says no.

But beyond that, they were confused, and raised questions like: did she really ‘want it’, despite saying no? If she didn’t want it at all, why didn’t she do more to extricate herself from the situation? According to Little, the end outcome is that the scene, and its associated sexual dynamics, left the young readers with a complicated and contradictory understanding of consent.

Little’s research with the young readers also touched on how consent plays into retellings or use of well-known romantic tropes. For the ACOTAR example, many of the high school-aged readers were able to identify the story was a loose retelling of Beauty and the Beast, and therefore anticipated the fractious dynamic ultimately blossoming into something romantic. Notably, this meant they either judged the problematic behaviour as excusable, given the narratively predestined Happy Ever After endgame, or at the least glossed over it without much examination or discussion.

Of perhaps the most significant concern is that many of the fantasy stories which have depictions of non-consensual sexual interactions feature a fundamental – and fundamentally imbalanced – power dynamic.

Especially when we’re looking at a Beauty and the Beast retelling (of which there are approximately three thousand million), the power dynamic of a ‘beast-like’ man who is richer, more educated, and physically stronger than the woman who he is literally holding captive as payment creates all kinds of issues.

The power of discussing different representations of sexual consent in young adult novels

So, if a young adult fantasy novel represents a deeply imbalanced power dynamic, and blurry examples of sexual consent, does that mean no young person should ever pick up the book in question?

In my opinion, no.

The key word here is ‘discussion’. Frank and bold discussions of these power dynamics and problematic (verging on abusive) behaviours both in-text and outside of the text is an opportunity to deconstruct them, which can be a valuable educational experience for all readers – not just young ones.

And that’s not just a bonus. It’s imperative. In our conversation, Little stressed that passively presented ideologies – that is, those that are ‘baked into’ the text, without explicit acknowledgement that they may be a character’s subjective worldview or attitude, and therefore less likely to be openly discussed – were most persuasive when it came to affecting readers’ world views.

So, when a female character accepts without question the sexually aggressive behaviour of her love interest, the danger can be that readers take away the assumption that such behaviour is standard because it’s so normalised within the character’s worldview.

Female sexual desire and agency in young adult literature

There’s an interesting point to be made here about the broader discussion regarding how we teach young women to understand their sexuality and listen to their bodies. While many books do explore the internal life of their female characters, this can suddenly disappear if these characters experience sexual arousal.

Little herself has drawn attention how teenagers use books in instructive ways to navigate a variety of situations, such as romantic encounters.

When the books young readers are consuming don’t clearly explore problematisation of consent or female sexual agency, that’s what they internalise.

This is further problematised by something Germaine Greer (a contentious name to bring up, I realise) pointed out in The Female Eunuch, which I would argue remains true today; a lot of language used when describing sex still ascribes a very active doer and reciever, and a lot of the time it is the man who is doing ‘it’ to the woman.

While I don’t have a quick answer for how to resolve this linguistic peculiarity, a good starting point seems to be to discuss these concerns and norms openly.

In a year where Australian society has been calling for change in how we address consent with leaders in this charge being young women such as Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins and Chantel Contos (and even more established women, thinking of Welcome to Consent by Yumi Stynes and Dr Melissa Kang who I spoke with for #LoveOzYA earlier this year), it feels right to look at how we can understand and address quite a sneaky and pervasive element in literature.

Although Little was quick to note when I spoke with her that her research was conducted in March 2020, and the recent publicity on questions of consent might have made teenagers more conscious of such issues, the insidious ways such depictions can go unnoticed and undiscussed mean it’s definitely worth a think about such matters.

For those of us handing over books to younger readers which do contain these murky depictions of consent, there are a couple of easy things to be done to steer young minds and understandings of such issues in a more healthy direction.

First and foremost – never, ever tell someone they shouldn’t read a certain book. Gatekeeping doesn’t give an individual the opportunity to reflect upon a particular theme and progress their understanding of it. The best thing to do is to flag that there may be something a little ‘interesting’ about it. Leave lines of communication open so you can dissect it with the person after they’ve read the book.

I think that’s my favourite thing about books. They’re not just something we consume in isolation. They’re something which we can unpack together, and in doing so, forge better understandings of the world around us, and how to navigate it as stronger, better, versions of ourselves.

An enormous thank you to Elizabeth Little for making time to sit down with me and discuss her research and findings.






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