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The Lack of men and boys in YA Fiction: where can we find male protagonists?

Representation is essential in fiction. The importance of people being able to see elements of themselves in other people’s stories cannot be understated, as this gives them a sense of validation. Through reading about individuals who hold different social characteristics to our own, there’s the opportunity to expand our worldview. So, gender representation is critical within fiction, from childhood all the way up to adult fiction, for these two benefits to be realised. 

As someone who has spent most of their adolescence between the pages of Young Adult (YA) fiction, I’ve noticed a lack of male readership. A quick look at the  Goodreads’ top 40 YA Books of the Year shows that females are more often featured than males, suggesting that the target audience is female, too. 

While there is a plethora of these female-headed stories, when considering male-led trilogies, the only one that springs to mind is The Maze Runner

These issues bring forward questions about whether males are getting pushed out of YA fiction, feelings of disconnectedness amongst male readers. Many are also asking whether teen boys would read more if there was more representation. 

The prominence of female protagonists in YA can be traced back to the rise of dystopian fiction towards the end of the 2000s, specifically the publication of 2008’s The Hunger Games. Our lead, Katniss Everdeen embodies female empowerment, strong and independent. Everyone wanted to be a little more like her. What followed the success of this story was a wave of hugely successful dystopian trilogies headed by females such as Divergent, Shatter Me and Delirium. While there is a plethora of these female-headed stories, when considering male-led trilogies, the only one that springs to mind is The Maze Runner.

This imbalance may not be the main cause of the lack of male readers, in fact, the fast-paced nature of dystopian appeals to all, evident in the success of the film franchises that spawned from the success of these books. So, if dystopias have boys reading, why do they not continue to explore other genres? Here we reach the obstacle of contemporary fiction.

The only female detectives, aside from Miss Marple, are for much younger readers, think Nancy Drew and the schoolgirls from the Murder Most Unladylike series

Contemporary fiction covers a wide range of sub-genres. One that has received recent popularity is romance fiction, with a particular resurgence of chick-lit fiction. Within these, women are often the focal point of the story whilst men often serve as the love interest. The stories with a male lead often feature a male love interest, for example Adam Silvera’s books and Love, Simon by Becky Albertalli. This representation is vital for young LBGT+ teens, however it is equally as important for all love stories to be told. It could be argued that boys don’t want to read love stories, and hence females are more regularly chosen to narrate these stories. This idea however is archaic, and males that want or need these stories will consequently find it near impossible to access them because they are so hard to find. 

Romance novels aside, the most popular YA contemporaries feature female leads, such as The Hate U Give.  Even those that are male-led such as Thirteen Reasons Why feel female-dominated, as Clay is discovering Hannah’s story, and she is driving the narrative.

So, where are all the males within fiction? The answer can be found between the pages of crime fiction. The majority of the most famous detectives within the crime genre are male; Inspector Morse, Sherlock Holmes and more recently, Jack Reacher and Cormoran Strike. The only female detectives, aside from Miss Marple, are for much younger readers, think Nancy Drew and the schoolgirls from the Murder Most Unladylike series. 

These observations highlight a lack of male protagonists in the most popular young adult stories. This is problematic, as it is so vital that individuals of all ages can find themselves represented across a variety of genres. Male representation can be found, it just takes a little more searching for. 

Here are some personal recommendations for male-led YA stories:

Dystopian: The Extinction Trials, Legend, Thirteen 

Contemporary: The Outsiders, The Year I Didn’t Eat, Boys Don’t Cry

Fantasy: This Savage Song, The Novice, Armada

Hopefully, more and more male-led YA novels will begin to rear their head, and these will tackle issues young males face. Consequently the readership of YA will begin to balance.

 

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