Thursday, September 15, 2016

Two Traits of Fictional Teenage Boys that Really Bother Me (or, Never Send Your Boys to Boarding School)

Okay, so, it's come up before. Of all the categories of human beings in the world, I find teenage boys to be the least... likable. In middle school and high school, I mostly just tried to ignore them. Individually there were some nice ones, but as a group they seemed incredibly stupid, so I figured they just generally weren't worth my time. Even after falling madly in love with my husband, I was appalled by stories of his high school self, and I've told him repeatedly it was a very good thing I never knew him as a teenager, because I'm not sure I could've gotten over it (in all fairness, the feeling would've been mutual had he met my own awkward, snobbish, overly-opinionated teenage self).

Books have done little to help me overcome my distaste for the male adolescent portion of our species. It's a bit funny, because I'm actually quite capable of swooning with the best of them if the story is told from the perspective of a teenage girl and the male adolescent in question happens to be the handsome and charming nice guy in love with her (oh, Gilbert Blythe, I would've forgiven you for calling me "Carrots!"). But if the main character is a teenage boy himself, and the book tends to dwell in any measure on the inner-workings of his adolescent mind... it just gets depressing so fast. To support my arguments, I present the following evidence:

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Ugh! You guys! If ever there were an unlikable teenage boy, Holden Caulfield is it. I think there are supposed to be a lot of outside forces to blame for how screwed up he is (messed up parents, terrible home life, societal pressures and expectations, etc.) but whatever. He is exhibit A of all there is to generally dislike about teenage boys in fiction.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

More boys at a private school behaving badly. In all fairness, I can't remember much about this book (I read it in undergrad), but I do remember it was dark and really depressing. Also telling, my Goodreads review of this books simply reads, "Such a disturbing book..."

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

I actually liked this one, at least more than the others. I even concede that Ralph and Piggy are likable boys (from what I remember, this one was a high school read). But the rest are not. What a mess those stupid boys make on that island.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

Okay, so maybe the lesson I should be gleaning from all these books is not that teenage boys are terrible, but that teenage boys who go to private/boarding schools are terrible (weren't even those Lord of the Flies boys from some sort of private school?). This is another one I read long enough ago that I don't remember much, beyond the fact that the main character was stupid and envious and made really poor choices (although it's possible some of the other boys in this book were good).

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Speaking of boys at boarding schools... okay, okay, you guys know my love for Harry Potter is undying, but I think we can all agree that Harry went through a rather unlikable stage in this book. Sure, there were lots of outside forces working against him (the spectacularly yet brilliantly horrible Umbridge being the worst of them), but that doesn't change the fact that he was just an ornery, angry, angsty, depressing teenage boy through much of book 5. It's really wonderful he only had to spend a year in this phase, or else I may have had to give up on the series (haha, not really).

There are more books I could add to this list (although I really am struggling to think of one that doesn't involve a private/boarding school, so this is something to think about), but we'll stop at five for now. Also, I know there are books out there that involve truly decent and uplifting stories of teenage boys (The Outsiders comes to mind), and there are probably just as many dark and depressing things to be said about teenage girls (although, I'm struggling to think of a truly depressing book about fictional teenage girls... Help me out here!), so this list doesn't necessarily account for the comprehensive representation of teenage characters in literature. But it at least accounts for a trend, a certain type of male teenager character that is common enough I see it over and over.

Anyway, usually when I encounter these dark and depressing teenage boys in literature, I either stop reading, or I plow through as quickly as possible and try not to think about what deplorable creatures these boys are. But two books I finished last month (Aristotle and Dante and Owen Meany), read in juxtaposition and both featuring teenage boys, gave me a chance to reflect a little deeper on what bothers me so much about this literary character-type, and I've realized there are two main characteristics that make me particularly uncomfortable, or operate as my triggers. (*Beware, spoilers possible ahead, proceed with caution.*)

1. Anger. Teenage boys tend to be angry. A lot. I really had a light bulb moment while reading the book Wild Things, because it helped me understand that a lot of this uncontrollable anger is not due to inherent deficiencies in a boy, but more the volatile influx of testosterone during the pubescent years. Still I am not and never have been much of an angry person, and I often have a hard time relating to angry people. Especially irrationally angry people, like testosterone-ridden teenage boys. So I got pretty annoyed with Ari in A&D  because it felt like he was angry all the time, for no reason. I was especially annoyed at how angry he was with his parents, who definitely had flaws and made a few mistakes, but in general were really wonderful parents who loved and supported their son a whole lot. It broke my heart when Ari talked about wishing his mother loved him less because he couldn't bear the weight of her love. Often this anger leads to simmering, dark, uncommunicative depression, but every now and then it boils over into violence, and that is just really hard for me to read. Physical violence is just so disturbing and not okay, and the worst part about angry teenage boys. Uuuuggggghhhh!

2. Sexual Objectification of Girls. I actually realized this one because of how pleasantly absent it was in A&D, and how noticeable it was in Owen Meany by comparison. Now (spoiler ahead), it was pleasantly absent in A&D because both of the main male characters ended up being homosexual in the end (the drama of the book is them figuring this out), but I found I really appreciated how respectful Ari was toward girls in general, how sickened he was by the way other boys talked about girls, and how he just couldn't understand that type of objectification. That was a breath of fresh air. Then along come John and Owen in Owen Meany, and the only thing they ever seem able to talk about regarding any of the girls around them is their breast sizes. They even discuss the breast sizes of all their friends' mothers! Can I get a huge uuuuuuuggggggghhhhh! Look, I get that puberty brings with it a myriad of problems around hormone influx and biological instincts and figuring out attraction and all that. I know. I get it. But that is no excuse for teenage boys forgetting that teenage girls are human beings, with far more to offer than individual body parts. I just get so infuriated and annoyed when teenage boys (or men, for that matter) can't seem to think of girls as people with thoughts and emotions and ideas, instead of just bodies. And (more spoilers ahead) it honestly didn't surprise me at all that John remained a virgin for the rest of his life, because he never ever learned to think of any girl or woman beyond her physical parts (including his own mother, which I found pretty disturbing). Also, it should not be surprising to note that both John and Owen attend a private/boarding school (there really is something to that).

I've realized that my younger self used to write off these disturbing teenage characters the way my younger self used to write off teenage boys in real life, as not worth my time to worry about. But now that I am a mother of two boys who will grow into teenage boys someday, I find myself quite a bit more interested in understanding the male psyche, and especially in figuring out how to raise boys who are not like these characters (step one: do not send them to a private/boarding school). As disturbing and frustrating as it is to read about these types of characters, I think it has helped me develop a little bit more compassion towards teenage boys: it's simply not easy to grow from boy to man in our society. My hope is that somehow I will be able to help my boys navigate their anger and strong emotions until their hormones calm down, and also always maintain a respectful appreciation of girls as real live human beings, and not just sexual objects. I'm still not entirely sure how to teach them these things, but luckily I've got a few years to figure it out.

And there is hope. They may not be the majority (at least in literature), but there really are some great teenage boys out there. I intend to raise a couple myself.


  1. Well I'm rather selective in what I steer my boys towards reading and I do think it's paid off, they were wonderful teens and great young men. And yes other than Harry Potter they haven't read anything else on your list, sexual objectification is not on, nor is anger unless it's showing how to control.
    Mmm so what books do come to mind, boarding school books, Fr Francis Finn's Tom Playfair and Harry Dee come immediately to mind. A normal boy who is constantly working towards being a better man. However they are Catholic so not sure if you'd be happy to read them or not.

    1. Hm, I haven't heard of any of those books, but I'll definitely look into them. I'd love more literary examples of positive young men :)

  2. This post was absolutely fascinating. ...And I guess I haven't read a lot of books with angsty, angry teenage boys in them--at least I haven't read a single one of the books you mentioned, nor can I think of any others!!! It's obviously not one of my favorite genres. :) But believe me, I've still thought (and worried!) about this because of the four boys living under my roof. I like them so much right now, and I don't want that to change in a few years.

    1. I'm shocked you've never read any of these, they were all required reading for me at some point (except for Harry Potter, but I'm still shocked you haven't finished that series). It's not one of my favorite genres either (obviously), but I can't seem to get away from it.