March 13th, 2012


The Conceit Trap

I've been reading a lot of young adult books lately, both to help me gauge the market and because they're on the Nebula ballot for the Andre Norton Award, and I've noticed a trend that shouldn't surprise me but that does alarm me. It seems like the young adult heroine isn't allowed to like herself. The only girls who have lots of confidence and who aren't afraid to admit that they like themselves are the villains, or at least the minor antagonist mean girls who torment the heroine, until she rescues them with her superpowers. Reading too many of these books back-to-back is getting to me because it's a constant refrain of "I'm not worthy."

Not that this is unrealistic. The teen years are pretty tumultuous, and just about everything goes through all that. One of the neat things about my ten-year class reunion (and having parents who still live in the same town and who know a lot of my former classmates) was realizing that everyone else had felt about the same way I did. I wasn't an oddball. Everyone else just hid it well, and they were too focused on their own stuff to realize what everyone else was going through. So, some worry about being pretty enough, capable enough, smart enough, etc., is part of the territory.

But then there's the nasty twist, the Mean Girls twist. In the book Queen Bees and Wannabes, which is a psychology/sociology book that became the basis for the movie Mean Girls, there's a section on the ritual of self abasement among girls. They all have to compliment each other, but part of the ritual is that they can't accept the compliment. They have to deny or argue with it. Accepting the compliment means you agree with it, and that means you think you're pretty/smart/whatever, and that means you're conceited. That's dramatized in the movie, where the mean girl compliments the heroine's hair, the heroine says "thank you" and the mean girls are aghast that she didn't argue, which means she really thinks her hair is pretty. What a terrible person she is!

This reflects my own experiences. When I was in elementary school, the worst insult our neighborhood mean girl could use was to call you "conceited." If The Princess Bride had been made at that point (I was way too young to read the book), I would have been tempted to say, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." But she also liked to set traps to make you show how conceited you were ("conceited" meaning thinking you might in any way be better than she was). One of her favorite games to play was beauty pageant. In order to win, you had to be confident enough to put yourself out there and show off, but doing that meant you were conceited, and you had no way of knowing which was going to be the main factor. Would it be cool to win this time, or would that get you called conceited and made the target of scorn? Or would you be labeled a loser and scorned if you lost? I think this is to some extent one of the roots of my singing stage fright. I didn't know what to do for the talent competition because my thing at the time was gymnastics, which I couldn't do in someone's living room. Otherwise, I could sing. I didn't have vocal training at the time, but I knew I had a pretty voice (and when I did take voice lessons in college, it turned out I'd been instinctively using good technique all along). However, I recognized the trap and knew that if I put myself out there with something I knew I could do well and that was important to me that I'd be taking a huge risk and opening myself up for scorn. So I did something like recite silly poetry (I'd discovered Ogden Nash), but I think I made some psychological connection between singing in public and serious risk.

In the book I'm reading, there's a scene early in the book that feels almost tacked on, like an editor said, "Oh, no, teen readers won't be able to relate to a girl who doesn't hate herself," and made the author stick it in. This heroine isn't egotistical. She just happens to be good at some things and is confident enough to take a fairly big physical and emotional risk early in the book. And then there's a scene where she's comparing herself to her prettier friend and thinking about how icky her hair is and how she's too skinny. I'm near the end of the book and I can't tell that this has any relevance to the plot or even to the character's arc. You could take out this scene without changing anything else in the book. So, I wonder, have girls been so brainwashed by this fear of being conceited that they can't identify with a girl who doesn't put herself down? Yes, it reflects reality, but is this one of the areas where fiction should reflect reality, or is it an opportunity to show the way things could or should be? I would hope that in a book set in another time and place where the main concern is being enslaved by evil wizards that the heroine doesn't have to spend time criticizing herself. She doesn't have to go around talking about how awesome she is, just not talk about how awful she is.

I have seen a few books that handled this in interesting or unusual ways (which may be why they're on the Nebula ballot). In one, it was an honest self-assessment. There were things she was totally confident about and could do well, but there were areas where she really could stand to do better, and over the course of the book she worked on improving those areas. And there was one where that was part of the plot, where she really had been brainwashed by someone who needed to keep her in line, and the book was about her learning that those things weren't true and learning to think a different way about herself.

I may have to switch things up and read an adult book before I start writing sad diary entries about how nobody could love me because my hair is too frizzy and my thighs are lumpy.