WARNING: Before continuing, please be advised that this post shall contain content which some may fine inappropriate. There will be some discussion of sex, though not explicit, which you may find uncomfortable. It is provided purely in the context of defining terms and explaining social constructs. Please do not read further should you think this discussion might be offensive to you. At this time I do not offer a “sanitized” version, but would be happy to explain briefly what my main points were if you are interested. Please message me/comment on a post to request this information. Thank you.
I know! An actual post! I’m as shocked as all of you are. Technically, I do not have time for this post, but I was thinking about it today and since I really don’t want to do work right now
(this project is killing me; why hire a writer if you don’t agree with anything the writer says?) I thought I’d do a quick post about this.
[Note: I’m going to change the banner for this post! Eventually…]
First, I know there are a lot of tropes in YA. Absentee parents. Love triangles. OMG the MC is actually this super powerful, super special thing. You guys get the picture. There are quite a few of them out there, but those are a few of the more common ones. But I was thinking about one the other day that I haven’t necessarily heard people talk about *specifically* (
which doesn’t mean that they haven’t, it just means that I haven’t run across it yet or that it’s more in passing during a criticism of something else).
What is it you ask? Why, the Virginal Heroine!
Like the Last Girl trope in horror movies, the Virginal Heroine is the heroine that saves the day. She’s the last girl standing (
or not standing in a few series that I’m not going to mention for the sake of preventing spoilers, but if you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about…) and somehow, despite all odds, has come out on top.
But what defines her?
Well, first, she’s a virgin. It kind of goes with the title. But seriously.
Think of Katniss (The Hunger Games). OMG, boys *like* me? What madness is this? I’ve never even KISSED a boy! And Gale’s hot? I didn’t even notice…
Think of Tris (Divergent). Boys? I don’t do boys… Except for Four. ‘Cause there’s a special connection there. But I’m afraid of intimacy, so this’ll be interesting…
How about Bella Swan (Twilight). Oh, I’m so not beautiful. I’ve never had a boyfriend. What is this intensity that I’m feeling for the first time?
Or how about Grace (Shiver)? Strong, independent, has a plan – and has completely missed that sexual stage of her life? Is so innocent that the wolf-boy who has spent half his flippin’ life as a *wolf* seems more sexually confident than her? (Okay, that is a bit of a stretch. Sam is less confident and Grace is on the confident side, but she starts out Virginal Heroine all the way and embraces a very intense, first-time love, so I think she still qualifies.)
What’s the underlying theme here? Our main character – the female one, anyway – has to be inexperience in the ways of love.
Which leads me to dive directly into some of my theories for why this is so popular (feel free to disagree, because this is mostly just me rambling).
Virginity, this great mythical thing, is very important.
What is virginity, exactly? Well, it simply means “one who has not engaged in intercourse”. You may or may not argue that oral or anal sex counts to change this definition, but I’m not going to get into that. It has nothing to do with a woman’s hymen as this can be broken during everyday activities – riding a bike, running, stretching, etc. Instead, it is simply a marker to indicate a change in your sexual activity.
Which is all fine and dandy, but what does it mean socially? Socially, virginity is very different than simply not having ever had intercourse. Virginity as a social construct indicates things like “purity”. Specifically, it means that one who is a virgin is innocent, naive, in need of protection, submission, and, above all else, pure. A virgin is the symbolic representation of all that is and should be (as deemed by society, not me, to be clear) feminine.
If you don’t believe me, think of some of the pressures women face:
- Boys tell girls to have sex with them, because they [the boys] are told to have sex. Society tells women to *not* have sex, because they, as women, are not supposed to like sex.
- Women are told to cover up, because men cannot be expected to behave themselves in regards to sexual appetite. Women’s bodies are deemed “distracting”.
- Women are expected to be sexually appealing – when she is married to a man already – but only in private and it is for the sake of the man, not herself.
- A woman is expected to be submissive – being agreeable, being quiet, letting men do things for her when she is capable of them herself, or even better, being incapable herself – while a man is expected to be dominant.
- A woman is expected to be polite, smile, and indulge a complete stranger (male) when approached by him on the street, because otherwise she’s a cold, heartless witch who is to blame for the man’s rejection, hurt feelings, and in general, making him into a bad person by rejecting his “friendliness” – regardless of whether or not that friendliness might be dangerous to her.
There are others, but I’m not going to list things forever. Instead, I want you to consider the above, because they are real challenges that women face. No, not all men expect these things in a woman. But many do, and, honestly, regardless of what a man as an individual wants, society (men and women collectively) put the pressure on women. So while an individual man may not want any of these things for a woman and may not create any of these pressures, as a collective, society creates these pressures as an entity.
Now, what does any of this have to do with the Virginal Heroine?
It actually comes back to the fact that the main characters, when female, in YA fiction are strong. Yep, and now that you’re good and confused, let me explain.
Why strong YA female characters create the paradox of being excessively innocent.
Let’s use Katniss as an example, because I’m in a Hunger Games mood. Katniss is a certifiable badass. I think we can all agree that she is a provider for her family, she is a fighter against evil for the sake of the greater good – whether that is simply her family or society as a whole – and she saves Peeta as much (or more) as he saves her. How can she not be defined as a badass, right?
So why is she a Virginal Heroine?
Because otherwise she’d be too masculine. Seriously. I think that people are still inherently worried about this whole “strong, butt-kicking female character” thing. They worry, because it, by nature, shifts the order of things back towards a more balanced concept. IE, men and women on equal footing.
This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a different thing and different scares people, even if it’s only subconsciously.
So in order to combat Katniss’ natural masculine ability to be a hunter and provider and save the day, she’s given a vulnerability: Men. She’s made feminine again by making her “innocent” and “pure”. Remember all that mumbo jumbo about virginity being at the essence of representing the ideal feminine women? Well, here it shows up again. If she were a sexually active/knowledgeable/confident woman, then she would be the equivalent of a man.
She saves the hero.
And she’s aggressive sexually.
Do we see how that is the basic model of a “hero” in a romance novel? But if we change the last one on the list to being “sexually naive or innocent” then we are suddenly left with a girl who has been thrust into a position of strength that she a) wasn’t ready for and b) maybe didn’t have a predisposition for. Instead, she was *forced* to become this aggressive thing – and we find it quite tragic!
Like, oh, poor Katniss! She has to provide for her starving family, all of whom are female! And, oh, poor Katniss! She’s had to grow up so fast – and doesn’t know anything about dressing like a woman! And, oh, poor Katniss! She has to be rugged, out there hunting with Gale, when he just wants her as a wife!
We feel sorry for her. And we shouldn’t.
Yes, it’s tragic that her family starves. It’s tragic that her father died. It’s tragic that she must fight in the Hunger Games for her life. But it is not tragic that she is strong and capable and doesn’t need to be saved.
But she seems to indestructible as a strong heroine, so we need to give her that weakness. And it’s sexual inexperience. Now, both Peeta and Gale suddenly have something over Katniss. It’s not that they aren’t also virgins (I think Gale probably isn’t, but I can’t remember definitively), but a boy being a virgin isn’t important. It carries no weight. They are naturally sexually aggressive, so being inexperienced isn’t as big of a deal. They still have the power here, naturally.
So Katniss is shoved back into her rightful role of feminine innocence and purity while the guys manage to be elevated to emotional heroes simply because they are naturally and instinctively knowledgeable about sex.
How you like them apples?
Okay, so that’s my first, and maybe most subconscious and under cover theory about the Virginal Heroine. My next might sit a little better with you.
Write for your target audience.
Who reads YA books? Myself, obviously, and many others who might not fit into the “young adult” category anymore (omg I’m turning 28 in like a week!). But mostly, YA is written for the teen age range (I still think it’s a genre, but acknowledge that “target audience” is at least partially based on age, so there’s that). And since the majority of YA protagonists are female – because, hell yes! Men may have the market cornered in Comics and movies, but they can’t have books, too! – then likely the readership will also be largely female. (Yes, men/boys read YA, too, but fangirls are notorious; myself included.)
What does this mean?
It means that authors take that into consideration while writing. So while creating your heroine, you consider who your readers are – and what they’re most likely to relate to. As teens, a lot of us (me, I’m thinking of me) weren’t incredibly confident. We didn’t think of ourselves as strong, as heroes of any shape or form. So how do you create a strong female character that your readers relate to? You grasp onto the one thing that many of them likely *do* relate to.
Now, I know that I’m a little weird because my sexual experiences (TMI, I know) happened much later in life. I was already in college when I gave in to that particular urge, so yes, I likely fall into the majority. HOWEVER, I feel like a lot of the teens who read obsessively like I did, were a lot like me.
Not very confident.
Had difficulty socializing – likely with the opposite sex on a level other than “buddy”.
Which means that if an author creates a strong female character who is maybe insecure about her lack of sexual knowledge, then the readership, from many walks of life, might have a greater chance of connecting to her.
(A quick note here. As I mentioned, I know that I’m in the majority for how long I waited. I personally don’t think that it much matters when you had sex, if you’re waiting, or whatever. But I think it’s not a bad guess to think that a lot of female readers at that age haven’t had that experience just yet. But on the other side of that, I haven’t done any research. I only know what I’ve been through personally and I guess I like to think that it wasn’t just me who was like that in the world. Feel free to disagree; I know I’m a weirdo!)
Finally, my last best guess: It’s all about that intensity.
Have you ever noticed how much more *intense* YA novels seem to be? That’s why I read them. You get a closer perspective from the main character. You, as the reader, have a greater chance of feeling and experiencing what she is experiencing as you read. That close reader-protagonist connection means there’s a lot of intensity to a novel, but if there’s nothing happening in the novel, then that intensity is wasted.
And cue First Love.
Because think of your most intense romantic experience. I’m willing to bet that for most of you, it was your first love. I’m not talking “we held hands in preschool” or “we dated in middle school which was the equivalent of holding hands in the hallways”. I mean that first all-consuming, first kiss, I think of him/her all the time love. That *first* real relationship.
I know it was for me. And it gave me a swift kick in the kidneys, so I’m grateful it’s over! But I remember how intense it was. I remember how it seemed to consume me whole. And I think that intensity is what YA authors are searching for. They want to latch on to that first love feeling and push it into their novels, to infuse the story – which may or may not already be intense – with a healthy dose of wild, crazy, hormonal insanity.
And tell me you don’t love it… (Okay, maybe you’re tired of the romance. I am sometimes, too.)
And there you go. My comprehensive list of why I think there is the Virginal Heroine trope in YA novels. There might be other reasons. Maybe I’m completely off base, but I can’t help but feel like maybe there’s some merit to what I’ve said here. Mull it over. Give it some thought. Then let me know what you think and how you feel about the thing. What’s your theory?
Thanks for checking in! See you next time!