Friday, December 24, 2010

Guest post: Mean Girls in YA fiction by Jessica Park

Today I have Jessica Park guest posting on my blog. I recently read her book, Relatively Famous and found myself very surprised that there were no mean girls in her novel.  Of course, besides this being something relatively unheard of and refreshing to me, I asked Jessica if she'd do a post about Mean Girls in YA fiction.

The thing is, many of us dislike mean girls because so many of us (including myself) have bullied by them and reading about them does not always make for the most pleasant kind of material. While I applaud many authors for writing about them (because I do feel that it is important, especially when it comes to highlighting the vicious effects of bullying), what I wanted to know from Jessica was the following:

Do you think that some mean girls in novels are an accurate portrayal of the mean girls in today's society? 


Or, do you think that artistic license plays a role in exaggerating these mean girls and their actions, thereby perhaps perpetuating the idea that a fiction novel cannot be written without having a mean girl cast in a novel?

And finally, at what point does a mean girl's character veer into over-the-top, unrealistic territory? 

Here's what Jessica had to say.

As a general rule, I am no longer a fan of the mean girl story line in YA books. Or television, or movies. It’s just… well, boring. It’s been done to death.

And once something has been done to death, what you see happen is storywriters trying to top whatever has come before in an attempt to put a unique spin on it.

Now look, we can’t say that every story must have a totally unique them or plot, because we all know that there are thousands of phenomenal and engaging boy-meets-girl stories out there. Certain themes are timeless. It’s the little twist that you give yours that makes something special.

The problem comes in when that little twist becomes a gigantic, wretched, annoying, massive spin. You’ve taken a good, solid theme and wrecked it because you’re trying to outdo what’s been done before. If you ask me, that attempt shows a lack of talent. 

Here’s a example: The original BH 90210 vs. the new version. Stop laughing, I’m serious.

Granted, it’s impossible not to watch reruns of the original and not groan because they seem so silly, but the reason that show did so well during its early years was because it relied on the relationships between the characters.

By the end of that series, things had just gotten ridiculous. People were hard core drug users, getting shot and raped, killing their pedophile fathers, and debating about whether or not to medicate their schizophrenic wives. See? They kept trying to top themselves and fell apart.

And the new 90210 just jumped right into idiocy in the first five minutes of the first episode. Do we really need to see a guy getting a…. Well, I’m not going to say it here, but we all know what that girl was doing to him in the front seat of his luxury SUV. That tells me that no one had a good story to tell.

Supposed shock value only gets you so far. And mean girls are all about shock value.

Good writing and good storylines do not have to be completely zany and extreme. If you do it right, a classic story can be retold a thousand times over and still blow you away.

I made a definitive decision not to include mean girls in RELATIVELY FAMOUS. It was too obvious.

What I wanted to do instead was to take a moderately common story idea (Midwestern girl goes to Hollywood to meet her actor father and hangs with local rich crowd) and tell that story differently.

Yes, I include some glitz and glamour, but it was important to me to give readers a story that delivered the unexpected: heart and emotion. To write about complex, meaningful relationships in the context of a superficial background. My heroine, Dani, could easily have run into ridiculous drama while hanging out with her new L.A. friends.

There could have been resentment directed at the new girl for being forced into this tight knit clan. Dani might have been picked on for her interest in one of the guys, taunted for her awkward fashion skills, or shunned because of her father’s reputation. But what’s the point?

Do girls have to be nasty to each other?

Is it a given that friendship circles are so tight that no newcomer would be treated with anything but backstabbing and sabotage? Really. It’s just not interesting to me. And it’s not always the case. I had an amazing group of friends in high school, friends that I still have. Warm, supportive, loving, incredible girls that grew up to become remarkable women, who I still adore.

Now, that being said, this is a really challenging time to be thinking about the mean girls phenomenon, because the news has been riddled with horror stories about bullying and suicide. So, yes, without question, people can treat others monstrously.

Girls can be particularly brutal and cruel to each other. 

How many times do we all want to hear about some narcissistic, bitchy, spoiled girl turning her rival’s hair green, or stealing her boyfriend, or humiliating her in front of the school? I’m all set with that. But if you choose to include that angle in a story, do it well. People are not stupid (well, lots of the time) and do not need to be hit over the head to understand the point.

That’s the angle I took in writing RELATIVELY FAMOUS. The book is really about the relationships that Dani struggles to understand. It’s one of the reasons I include so much from her father Mark’s viewpoint.

We need to see the character’s internal dialogue and witness their smaller actions to really appreciate their growth. We’ve all heard that “actions speak louder than words,” and it’s true. But “actions” do not necessarily mean explosive, spectacular scenes on every other page.

That’s a shtick that doesn’t impress me. Subtlety can go a long way. A slow build-up with deeper character development makes a character’s lines and behavior more powerful.  It’s harder to do, but it’s significantly more rewarding than mean girls/easy-way-out approach.

Thanks so much Jessica for taking the time out to share your thoughts on this topic with us.

Jessica (and I) would obviously love to hear your thoughts on mean girls in YA fiction, so feel free to start the debate below. :)

Additional info:

8 comments:

Aisle B said...

First and foremost.... I LOVE LOVE LOVE This new LOOK! WOW it is AMAZING!

Ahhhhhhh Pixie you done it with style and the avatar is so you :)

The sparkles on the butterflies and the Pixie's wing is beautiful.

Great post and focus on the author Jessica Park.

Again LOVE LOVE LOVE this LOOK!

Jessica Park said...

Thank you so much for having me here, Tammy! Of course, I thought of a million other things to say on this topic after I'd sent it off to you, but it is a really interesting issue. There have always been "mean girls" in real life and fiction, but the technological advances have added a whole new element. Look, we should all be allowed to go to a party, do something dumb, and feel slightly embarrassed the next day. The hitch now is that SOMEONE will have that night on permanent digital record and can do dreadful things. It's gotten easier and more tempting to behave amorally, so teens especially really need to watch themselves. The kind of long-term emotional damage that can come from seriously awful behavior is something no one should have to put up. And these issues can be dealt with very well in books... it's just a matter of doing it well.

Jan von Harz said...

Love this post. Working with middle school students, I see a lot of girl drama that has turned vicious, and amazingly it also involves the girls mothers. I think it is great that this book explores relationships without the use of the mean girl or girls. I also love the fact that the protagonist goes off to me daddy who is famous and must adjust not only to that but to being a part dad's life.

Also I adore your new look; it's really lovely.

Jessica Park said...

Thank you so much, Jan!

Yes, the reality of "mean girls" in our high schools make it all the more important how those issues are dealt with in literature. Trying to use them as a tool to heighten action and drama is less likely to fly these days because of the seriousness of real-life bullying.

Jamie said...

What a great post! The mean girls thing really has been done to death in recent years. However, I guess the fact that it is SO prevalent and people are able to relate to those mean girls that makes it so popular. However, I agree with Jessica in that it's about the special spin you put on it and not just trying to make it so outrageous. Outrageous doesn't always make something a good different or all that unique.

As you said, I think it would be nice to see more tie-in to the real life bullying that takes place..rather than just using it for drama's sake.

Great post!

Jessica Park said...

Thank you so much, Jamie! Yeah, it'll be interesting to see what writers do with mean girls in light of so much attention to bullying... It's often the more subtle aspects of girl-on-girl bullying that can be so damaging, not just the more showy/public incidents. It'd be great to see some more examination of the pain that the shunning and quieter comments cause.

Jessica Park said...

PS-Jamie, feel fee to email me if you'd like a PDF copy for review!

Clover said...

Really, really wonderful guest post! I'm a little bored of bitchy/mean girls too. Give me complex characters and emotion any day :)