Where Have All the Cowboys Gone: Young Adult Fiction and Manhood

When I got back from the gym yesterday, Twitter was all aflutter with commentary on an article about masculinity in young adult literature written by a teacher who worries she has no good YA to give her son that will help guide him to his “manhood.” There was so much discussion, I actually couldn’t find the link to the article in my Twitter feed and had to ask for someone to send it to me. Here’s the LA Review of Books article everyone was discussing: “YA Fiction and the End of Boys” by Sarah Mesle, who is a fellow in English at UCLA. Here’s what I wanted to say:

Alas, that job of pushing emasculating books on unsuspecting young men (you know, because that’s what I do in the Teen Zone at the library) took precedent. So taking a deep breath and processing my thoughts on the matter (and baking a delicious vegan banana bread) helped me decide what exactly about this article had unsettled not only me, but all the other librarians, YA authors, and YA readers that populate my Twitter stream.

I didn’t disagree with everything Ms. Mesle said. Here’s the part where I nodded along with her.

 Indeed, to blame the distrust of men on feminism would be wildly wrong, a cruel characterization of an optimistic movement. What feminism has made possible is an ability to have hope for new ways of integrating gender into the world.

But let’s start at the beginning and see what I did take issue with.

Mesle has identified a problem in YA literature that we aren’t talking about because we’re all so invested in the discussion of femininity and the way young women are portrayed in YA:

There is “a fear and ambivalence towards manhood” and it “isn’t so much a status to attain, it’s a problem to solve.”


I’ve always got the feeling that YA is and should be about the transition to adulthood, whether that is manhood or womanhood or some kind of non-cisgendered-hood. And that’s the conflict, or as Mesle says, the problem, that we need to solve. I’m not sure exactly what is wrong with that. It kind of feels like the point of it all.

She continues:

“Are there any good men in YA?”

So, first off, I’m not sure if there are any “good” men in YA because I’m not sure what she means by “good.”

“How can a boy become a good man, if he doesn’t know what that would mean?”

Oh, I don’t even have kids and I know the answer to this one. You become a good man by becoming a good person. And you do that by learning from your parents and your teachers and your friends and all the ways in which people are socialized, and yes, by reading. A “bad” character in a book can tell you just as much about how to be a good person as a good example.

And then Mesle jumps from S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders which I did think was a completely reasonable place to start this discussion to 19th century “young adult” literature (which she concedes isn’t actually a thing). I’m not at all convinced it’s relevant, but clearly it is important to her, because unlike most of young adult literature, she’s actually read it.

But it must be important, because the boys in the stories “man up.”

Then I get all confused because she’s talking about how girls in contemporary YA choose boys who reject social power, and then uses Insurgent and Shadow and Bone as her examples. Categorization confusion aside, her argument doesn’t make sense. Apparently it’s emasculating to root for the outsider, let alone choose him for your romantic interest. Maybe it’s the notion that these characters have a choice that rubs Ms. Mesle the wrong way?

If books like these reward boys who give up men’s social power, more provocative still are books that imagine erasing men’s physical power.

Mind boggling!

If there seems to be lurking, here, a hint of strange and reactionary gender politics, let me remedy that problem by making my strange gender politics completely explicit: I actually believe in manhood as something that’s real, that’s inherently different than womanhood, and that is, potentially, awesome.

No, it’s not lurking. It’s pretty much right there out in the open that you think society, and particularly your son, would benefit from reverting to 19th century ways of thinking about gender.

I don’t have any problem with thinking manhood is “awesome.” I mean, I think subversive gender identities are awesome, so I’m not going to take issue if a 19th century conception of manhood is your thing. I just don’t think it should be the ONLY thing. Mesle’s argument is convoluted. It’s as if she’s simultaneously essentializing manhood as she calls for it to be re-imagined. Gender is not a universal experience; it’s a personal one. It should look different in every book, because it’s different for every character.

I believe the diversity of the configurations of manhood that are part of the landscape of young adult literature should be celebrated, not denigrated.

I’d like to point you to a few other posts I cam across after writing this that examine this article from a few different angles: the problem with commentary on YA from a tourist’s point of view, YA and “new men,” and a critique of Mesle’s limited historical context.

And I’ll share just a few YA novels that have awesome male characters:

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork {review}

Graceling by Kristen Cashore {review}

My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick {review} 

Personal Effects by E. M. Kokie {review}

Other authors to check out: Matt de la Peña, Matthew Quick, Chris Crutcher, Mike Mullin…I could go on, but there are tons of lists out there. The more widely you read, the more you’ll find what you’re looking for, and of course, when in doubt, ASK A LIBRARIAN.

What are your thoughts on the way “manhood” and “masculinity” are portrayed in YA fiction? 

3 thoughts on “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone: Young Adult Fiction and Manhood

  1. Hi, Molly! I can see why the article has caused such a stir, and I think all of your points are valid. There are great male characters in YA novels, and the article doesn’t really acknowledge that properly.

    But I do think a lot of people have attacked the author of the piece too eagerly.
    There have been a lot of snide comments to the effect that she wishes we could roll time back to women being barefoot and pregnant, and I just don’t think that’s what she’s getting at. She’s actually asking a valid question. So many books hold up male characters who refuse social power (I’ll admit that I didn’t understand her point about physical power at all) as morally superior to other boys.

    Where are the examples of young men who take advantage of the social power offered them by virtue of their gender and then use it for good? I don’t think she’s saying that she wants society to revert to 19th century gender roles; she’s saying what if my kids *want* to be CEO’s or politicians? Where are the books that tell them it’s not inherently wrong to be a man in a position of social power? Where are the books that show men in these positions being kind and charitable and hardworking? (Really, though, she should have acknowledged that there aren’t many books out there that show people of any gender in power behaving well. In fiction, power usually corrupts.)

    About a week ago I reviewed Gennifer Albin’s Crewel for my blog, and I think it highlights the problem she sees, such as it is. The society is hugely oppressive of women (which makes no sense by the way, see my review for more detail if you like) and the only really positive male character is a boy who chooses to work as a sort of house servant. He’s good and admirable because he’s not in power, because he refuses to take a role of power in that society. The author of the article, I think, would wonder why there aren’t any men trying to fix the problem from inside their positions of power. Because all of the men who have power are shown to be horrid and evil (and lecherous to boot), Albin doesn’t acknowledge that surely some males might rise to positions of authority and seek to change things for the better. (By contrast, the one woman in a powerful position in the book does seem to have a moral compass pointed in more or less the right direction.)

    Much YA fiction *does* privilege male characters who eschew authority over those who accept it. As I read the article, she’s not saying that boys who choose to go their own, less-traditional ways aren’t real men; she’s saying that its deceptive to imply that boys who aspire to social power can’t be good men as well.

    I’m not saying there aren’t problems with the article. There are. But I think it’s taken a few more unfair knocks than it’s due.

    Just my two cents…

    1. Hi Cassie!

      If I came across as snide, that’s wasn’t really my intention. In real life I can be kind of snarky and sarcastic and also argumentative, and I realize that might not always translate well.

      It is hard to think of a male (character of any gender identity) “using their power for good” because as you point out, it doesn’t make for a very good story in most cases. But it doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to have more inspirational and diverse and nuanced characters.

      I’m completely with you on Crewel. It’s a book I did find entertaining and think teens will enjoy, and I thought the concept was fascinating, but gender issues did trouble me. I noted that in my review and in comments I’ve made on others. I did find the male characters in it somewhat one dimensional. It seems like that particular society would be well suited to explore gender issues, and then it never really materialized.

      And your last two paragraphs sum up her argument more succinctly than she does. My issues were how she seemed to advocate a particular type of manhood and an essentialized conception of masculinity. I don’t have a problem with celebrating what some might say is “traditional” manhood or those who use their privilege for a greater good. But I don’t think you need to position a certain type of masculinity as “better” than another. Her comments on David Levithan — “known for his suggestive work about queer sexuality”seemed loaded.

      Thanks for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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