A few weeks ago, a friend came across Kiera Cass’s The Selection novels. “Thirty-five beautiful girls. Thirty-five beautiful rivals…” he read from the blurb as he scoffed. He then passed them to me, tongue firmly in cheek, and said “There you go, you’re a woman – this is for you”. I told him to get them away from me before I wrote an angry blog. We both laughed but weeks later, I’m still thinking about those books and here I am writing about them. But why do I care about some romance novels I’ve never read? Well, perhaps because our mocking of the genre soon turned to disgust when we realised these weren’t books for women fantasising about competing to be a princess – these were books for children and young adults which told them to compete against other women.
Now, as I’ve said, I haven’t read the books but it set me off thinking about the kinds of messages we send out to young girls in fiction. For all I know, The Selection series, despite being self-described as “swoon meets the Hunger Games” (why does that make copies sell!?), is actually deeply subversive and is not all about female protagonist America’s quest for Prince Maxon’s heart in a royal version of The Bachelor. I like to imagine I’m right but somehow I don’t think I am.
Why are youth novels like this encouraging women to fight against each other rather than for each other, and usually over a man? Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Take Me Out as much as the next Saturday night TV fan but there’s something about infantilising a line-up of unattached women fighting for the heart of one man (prince, or no prince) that particularly irks me. Once again, I can’t criticise Cass without knowing her work but I have to wonder what there is out there that isn’t about “boy meets girl”, or rather “boy wins girl”.
Some of you may be aware of the Bechdel test and how feminist critics use it to discuss how films represent its females. (If you’re not familiar, the Bechdel test can only be ‘passed’ if the film has at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man). Isn’t it time we had something similar for fiction? The idea did emerge from a Virginia Woolf essay (cheers Wikipedia!) after all.
Whilst I’m not saying that women talking about men is a crime (I’d be spending a lot of time behind bars if that was…), I’m just saddened that that is all there is to offer. With the recent release of a new instalment of Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries series titled The Royal Wedding, The Selection is not unique. Perhaps the fascination is more about royalty than romance but either way, I’m bored. If you’re going to write about teenage love, make it as witty yet weepy as John Green, or don’t bother at all. And if people still won’t let go of dangerous Disney dreams (yawn!), the least we can ask for is stories about Queens, not Princesses.