Jun 7, 2013

Swoony boys v. sexy ladies: does YA market to heteronormative ladies?

As everybody knows by now, I attended BEA this past week and went to the YA Editors' Buzz Panel. Five books were spoken about: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, about a fangirl entering college; Tandem by Anna Jarzab, a parallel-universe romance; All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill, a sci-fi time travel romance which hooked me with the line 'you have to kill him'; Entangled by Amy Rose Capetta, a sci-fi described as a YA version of Joss Whedon's Firefly; and If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan, about a young teenage girl in the Iranian LGBTQ community.

Out of all five marketed, the only one whose swoony male love interest wasn't talked about was If You Could Be Mine - and that's because it doesn't have one.

So I started thinking about when the last time I heard about either a) a sexy female love interest or b) no love interest at all was talked about in marketing. And when I couldn't think of one off the top of my head - and my Twitterverse could only come up with one - I dove into the 150+ YA books that I owned and yanked out all of the ones that featured a) humans and b) had marketing that didn't focus on a love interest.

This was the pile I pulled out.

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan was obviously the first one I pulled out; there's no male love interest because the plot revolves around a pair of lesbian lovers - so clearly it can't be marketed like that. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson and Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott are both 'issue' books that don't have any romance at all. Stay by Deb Caletti is the story of a stalker ex-boyfriend, and while there is a romantic plotline, it was marketed more as an 'issue' book. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray has an entire pirateship of swoony boys, but is actually a satire on our society and was marketed as such. Jonathan Stroud's The Bartimaeus Trilogy I read a long time ago and only picked up a few weeks ago, but I don't remember a romance, and it certainly wasn't marketed as such. Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell doesn't have a romance plot. The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa had no marketing done for the romance whatsoever; it focused on the vampirism and the dystopian world. A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan focused on the world and the dragons and not on her adorable husband.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman I threw into the pile because, while the prince certainly was a big focus in the story, I don't remember if it was marketed with a focus on that or with an actual story. The blogosphere was more focused on the worldbuilding than anything.

I almost put The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins into the pile as well, but the marketing for the movie clouded my mind on what the marketing on the books had been. I suppose Harry Potter would also apply, but it's important to note that every canon relationship is heterosexual, and that Harry is supposed to be a hunk that everybody in-canon wants, for the most part.

We can throw all other books that focus on lesbian romances into this category as well, but there are very few of those I can think of off the top of my head - and the gay romances fall exclusively into this category.

Out of the dozens of books that I own, those were the only ones that I knew definitely hadn't been marketed as having a sexy male lead, either the actual protagonist or the love interest.

And it got me thinking.

When people complain that there's no YA books for guys, I think they're stupid. There are plenty of books, both with male protaganists and just books that are interesting, that are very appealing to the male gender and the female gender.

But there's a huge issue in how we market - and it's always towards heteronormative ladies. (Heteronormative means that they are hetereosexual, as expected; they are girls who are interested in boys.) The only time we're really marketing towards boys is when there's no romance in a story which, given that boys worry about their romances as much as girls do, is silly.

But because we know ladies will buy romantic leads - and because it's socially unacceptable for boys to have, you know, feelings and stuff - we market towards that.

And maybe that's why so many people say YA is a female-dominated genre. Not necessarily because of the protaganists and the authors, but because of how we choose to market what we have.

When was the last time we marketed a female love interest or a female protaganist as being sexy and romantic? When was the last time romance wasn't a huge focus of how a book was marketed?

What do you guys think?


  1. I prefer to read books that avoid the swoony male love interest, partially 'cause I seem to have new born without the romance gene, and partially because stories that feature swoony male love interests tend to focus most of their words (and energy) on the (usually) unrealistic romantic relationship, which tends to bore the hell out of me.

    Most of the YA books in my collection, that I love, have romance as a very small subplot. Books like, 'Plain Kate', 'Chaos Walking' series, 'The Boneshaker', 'Shipbreaker', 'The Giver', 'Florence and Giles', and a host of other interesting books that have more meat than, "girl meets boy(s) an when not flirting, manages to save the world while dressed impeccably".

    But that's more to do with the genre of YA books I choose (or avoid). Perhaps if your focus is on the books which have a higher marketing budget, thereby skewing the spin towards the biggest/widest target audience, there might seem to be a larger ratio of 'swoony male love interests' than are actually out there. Personally, I have no problem finding, and devouring hoards of books without them...

    1. Oh, I agree that they're easy to find in terms of content - most people who make the argument that there are no 'books for boys' don't look very hard. Marketing is weird, though, so it shakes things up a bit.

    2. I used to work in marketing, so I do know how you can spin something so far around its I recognizable ;)

      Sorry for the spelling errors, hard to type on a phone :P

  2. LOVE this post, especially because it articulates something that I've been thinking to myself about for the past couple days in light of reading Sarah Dessen's The Moon and More. Dessen's books are, of course, well established as always including a swoon-worthy boy of one kind of another, and they're typically talked about (and, I think, marketed) as such. However, The Moon and More doesn't actually include a swoony, wish-fulfillment type of romance, and it's this fact that most reviews have focused on as the "weak point" of the book.

    Personally, I thought it made the book more interesting, but beyond that, it got me thinking about how we straight lady readers are almost conditioned to expect and even demand that authors include not just a romance, but a romance with a guy who makes us swoon. Anything less, and we end up thinking the book is somehow lacking.

  3. I'm trying to think of a time when books weren't geared towards marketing romance. Perhaps it comes down to genre. Middle-grade fiction doesn't advertise romance. Most of the historical fictions I've read don't focus on advertising the romance unless it's a historical romance. High fantasy is another genre that doesn't focus on advertising the romance.

    I agree that there are YA books marketed towards girls with a large focus on the romance in the book. Sometimes, they suggest that it plays more of a role than it actually does, and they're books that boys would enjoy. Then there are books where there's a swoony romance that plays a large role in the book that some boys like my brother wouldn't give a second glance. Maybe it's because of the latter that we see YA as being primarily female-oriented, and so marketers think that that is what will sell and so they publish more of them and market towards them, which then further serves to discourage boys from reading YA--because they don't want to be seen with a "girly" book.

    It's sad because I know that my brother would read more if he knew that there was a market for him, but he doesn't because the YA market is geared towards attracting female readers. I have to personally recommend books for him to give them a chance.

    1. I think boys would also read about romance, but a lot of heterosexual boys are less likely to pick up a book that's all about the swoony sexy guy. There also seems to be this belief that books without romance won't sell, which is silly - think about how well Harry Potter did, and even though (heterosexual) romances did come into play in the later books, it exploded in popularity despite the lack of romance.


  4. This is why I love the "blind date with a book" thing a lot of libraries are doing now because I covers are a big part of how this happens, as well. I know there's already been some talk about that in the blogosphere. When I'm working in a library, I'll definitely be doing the blind date with a book from time to time to show my kids that the covers and book blurbs can be misleading.

  5. unfortunately, I agree with you :/ I personally prefer books wherein the romance is secondary (although I do enjoy a little bit of swooning) but they're getting more and more difficult to find in YA, especially in the paranormal genre. The worst part is that so many of these hunks are generic and unrealistic- what kind of expectations are they creating?

  6. Through Strange Chemistry I have published Kim Curran, who writes YA SF thrillers with a male protag who has a sexy, sassy female love interest (Shift is the first, followed by Control forthcoming Aug 2013). I've also published Katya's World by Jonathan L Howard, which is a SF interplanetary novel with a female lead and absolutely no romance :-) I like to buck trends.

  7. I definitely see what you're talking about. As a heteronormative female, I still find myself tending to prefer books that focus less on romance. Of my 4 favorite recent YA books, 3 of them aren't super romancey (being Code Name Verity, Seraphina, and Out of the Easy). The fourth (Eleanor and Park) I think does a good job of balancing the feelings of both partners for the other.

  8. Fascinating article and I totally agree. This is also affects us authors when we see heteronormative books with the prerequisite book boyfriend being what sells and sells big, any attempt to do otherwise might result in a book not selling at all let alone well.

    I just read My Chemical Mountain - a refreshing story with an all boy male cast that didn't focus on romance and that had no romance related advertising. Awesome book! And yet many reviews commented on the lack of a big romance as a negative :(


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