YA fiction is a broad and diverse genre. Over the past years, it has only grown, and now has a readership that is actually 55% adults.
But this is still a genre targeted at teenagers, making the normalisation of toxic masculinity even more worrying.
What is toxic masculinity?
Toxic masculinity typically describes ‘manly’ features that are often celebrated, despite being harmful.
This includes traditional masculine values, such as being aggressive, over-protective, suppressing emotions, ‘mansplaining’ and dominance.
Toxic masculinity is dangerous for all genders and has a massive impact on our society.
Toxic masculinity in fiction
Literature often shows a snapshot of reality, so it’s not surprising that even the nastier parts show up in our fiction.
This isn’t inherently bad. Like anything, fiction should show the real parts of life, including the bad parts. Toxic masculinity has become a common trope in literature when exploring sexism and equality.
The issue is when toxic masculinity is glorified in fiction, or glossed over entirely. It’s no surprise that something that is increasingly present (and overlooked) in society is often normalized in fiction.
Although this is present in many genres, today I’m going to focus on the category of YA fiction. With such a young, potentially easily influenced readership, it’s important to spread the right messages through these books.
The trope of the ‘bad boy’
If you’re struggling to come up with examples of toxic masculinity in books, this is an easy trope to spot.
The ‘bad boy’ turns up in the majority of YA stories– a dark, brooding love interests with a mysterious past and questionable morals.
Throughout the story, they become more and more over-protective and often controlling of the female character.
Sure, there’s no inherent problem with finding the bad boy hot. But it’s important to be able to differentiate between someone who snaps sometimes and a character who emotionally abuses the protagonist.
Examples of toxic masculinity in YA fiction
The number one instance in YA fiction has to be Twilight. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the relationship dynamic between Edward and Bella. Edward is overly controlling of Bella (following her and even watching her sleep), which we are supposed to accept as being because he loves her so much.
Edward often tells Bella he can’t live without her, and even threatens to kill himself when they are not together. Sure, this may sound romantic, but really, it’s emotionally manipulative, completely tying her to him.
In fact, when Edward leaves, he has manipulated Bella to the point where she seriously considers killing herself, despite having only known him a few months. Sounds normal, no?
If this relationship dynamic had been shown as dangerous and unhealthy, it would have been fine. Instead, Edward’s obsession is demonstrated as romantic and protective.
This Wattpad fanfiction, turned book, turned movie is absolutely crammed with toxic tropes. Hardin, the main love interest, is the very image of a ‘bad boy’– sullen, handsome and with a whole host of (pretty nasty) secrets.
Hardin emotionally uses Tessa throughout the whole book, acting differently with her around friends, and acting overly aggressive whenever anyone else who gets close to Tessa.
Throughout the book, he plays hot and cold with her emotions and manipulates her with lies shared between him and his friends.
Toxic masculinity is especially rife in YA fantasy. Some of the most popular series, including the A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J Maas and the Folk of the Air series by Holly Black, feature toxic characters who are obsessive and overly controlling.
Although there are some steps made to show this as harmful in ACOTAR, ultimately, the men (or ‘males’) are overly controlling and extremely aggressive (often this is just played off as ‘natural instinct’).
In The Folk of the Air, what is supposed to be an ‘enemies to lovers’ scenario, is extremely toxic (both emotionally and physically abusive). Cardan, the main love interest, goes beyond ‘bad boy’ and is completely abusive towards Jude in the first book. This is suggested as being because he himself has issues with his family (which doesn’t excuse anything), and because he is ‘jealous of Jude’.
Have you come across toxic masculinity in YA fiction? I’d love to hear any books you’ve noticed it in. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below or you can connect with me directly on any of my social medias.