Kernels of Nonsense, #27: “Perfect” Heroes

Kernels of Nonsense (2)Kernels of Nonsense is a bimonthly discussion feature, posted every second and fourth Sunday of the month. Today I want to explore the prevalence of “perfect” heroes in YA literature.

I feel obligated to point out that most of the books I read are written by female authors and feature female protagonists. Whether or not this has an effect on what I’m going to discuss is probably a topic for another time, but I think it’s worth noting that my views on this may be limited as a result.

While it’s common for me to come across female protagonists who lack a certain amount of confidence in their appearance, the male characters (and I want to concentrate on the love interests) they inevitably meet are always extremely attractive. They are good-looking, confident, and usually come wrapped in a six-pack. For all intents and purposes, they are “perfect”.

This ubiquitousness is troubling on many fronts. While these male characters are usually within the same age group as the female protagonists (which in YA literature means they are about high school age, if not a year or two older), they don’t seem to be dealing with the same kind of issues as their female counterparts. They all seem extremely aware and confident of themselves and have conveniently skipped over those “awkward teenage years.” Now, I remember being in high school and feeling insecure about how I looked and these doubts were not limited to my own sex. Teens remind me of oversized puppies struggling to grow into their bodies, but it’s rare for me to actually see this in YA books.

So why don’t I see this more? Why is it that a female protagonist is often presented as insecure and awkwardly trying to find confidence in herself, but her male love interest is always Adonis incarnate? He never doubts his looks or dwells on physical shortcomings common to teenage boys. He has a chiseled jaw, thick wavy hair, a looming form, and eyes that can see into your soul.

Perhaps the reason I see this so often is that I mostly read YA books with female protagonists and the authors feel more comfortable exploring these ideas of self-doubt in their leads instead of their other characters. But that’s not necessarily true. Sometimes a male character does show up who is clumsily lanky and a bit awkward, but he usually ends up being the dorky best friend.

I don’t read too many YA books with male leads and it makes me wonder if they ever struggle with these same issues. Do male protagonists doubt their attractiveness and wish they were better looking? Is this something limited to fictional females and if so, what does that say about how we view females in general?

I’d love to see more male characters, and particularly love-interests, with physical shortcomings because this is what I often see female protagonists struggle with. They are too plain. Their hair color is lackluster. They’re too tall. Too short. Big nose. Wide eyes. Too fat. Too skinny. And I know that struggling with your body image is something most people like to attribute to females, but I’d have to disagree. I’ve known plenty of males who also struggle with how they look and worry about how others perceived them and I wish this was represented better in books, especially those marketed to teens.

Only one character comes to mind when I think about male love interests who struggle with their appearance. Derek, from the Darkest Powers series by Kelley Armstrong, as a teenage boy struggles with acne. And while I occasionally come across books that may briefly remark on a male character not being particularly attractive, I haven’t come across many books that allow their male characters to feel vulnerable because of this.

I realize that there is more to a character’s shortcomings than doubting his or her appearance, but it’s hard to ignore the endless amount of male love interests (even with all their complexities and character flaws) that come wrapped in an impossibly perfect package.

Have you seen this trend in YA literature? What are your feelings toward male protagonists that lack the kind of self-doubt that is often seen of females ones? Is this limited to YA literature or have you seen this in other genres? Are there any male love interests you can name with physical flaws? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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29 thoughts on “Kernels of Nonsense, #27: “Perfect” Heroes

  1. Oh man, this is definitely a trend that I’ve picked up on as well. It’s pretty annoying and also makes the story less believable in my eyes. We’ve got this perfect guy who’s more mature and then he falls in love with Miss Teen Average. I think Sarah Dessen is usually pretty good at creating real love interests.

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  2. I don’t read much YA literature (partly because I have kids in high school and the last thing I need is to worry about their romantic lives) but I have noticed that trend in adult romances as well. It doesn’t happen all the time but they guy is frequently incredibly broad shouldered, always about 6 foot 5, and with no flaws. Maybe male flaws are harder to write and make appealing? It does tend to make me laugh though. Great topic! This is something I’ve noticed but never thought about it. Also, I have a 17 year old boy and I will tell you that the insecurities are there on their end as well though they seem to handle them a little differently.

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    • I think it’s worth noting that adult romances are also written mostly be women. The men they write tend to be ideal types and as authors perhaps they believe this is what female readers want. I’d love to read a novel, perhaps better written by a male author, that explores these insecurities that teen boys experience. I think it’s easier to explore these issues in contemporary novels, but I’d love to see it make an appearance in other types of novels as well.

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  3. I don’t read a lot of YA books either and I’m just speculating but maybe it has to do with a psychological issue since young girls are most likely to deal with insecurity and self esteem issues, I guess authors feel they need to create characters who embodies those traits so young female readers can see the possibility to overcome them. With male characters being flawless? I think that deals societal expectations and flawed stereotypes, a young girl requiring to have a perfect guy to save her from herself. That needs to change.

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    • I think it’s dangerous to only label teen girls as insecure and ignored teen boys’ own struggles with self-esteem. It pigeonholes the sexes and reinforces these false ideas that girls are the only ones who struggle with confidence. I tend to think that this trend sends the message that having a hot guy give you attention adds to your worth as a female and I’m not a big fan of such a message.

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  4. I was just discussing this with someone the other day. I’m ready to read a book where a couple of people with love handles fall for each other haha. I can only think of one book where it had a confident female and a very self-conscious male, but the male USED to be a little on the husky side and now was basically perfect, though it took him awhile to see himself as that.

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      • The Real Thing by Cassie Mae. It’s NA which I usually don’t go for, but it’s probably one of the better NA books I’ve read. It still has the graphic-type scenes I don’t enjoy, but I thought there was enough of a plot for it to be good. Oh and main guy character also has anxiety issues that I felt were portrayed well.

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        • Most NA books are contemporary, so they don’t interest me too much and if I’m being critical, they all sound more or less the same. I think if more genres were explored within the age group, it would give rise to better quality books. Whoops, that’s a different topic altogether.

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  5. I think to a certain extent it comes down to wish-fulfillment. On one level, girls reading these novels are supposed to identify with the heroines and that means that the body issues particularly resonate with them and the fact that the hot, perfect guy is into the heroine feeds on fantasy. For boys reading these books, maybe they just want to see guys full of confidence. It is damaging (and it’s also damaging that the YA heroine is usually described as a pretty perfect specimen herself, but completely brought down by a hair color or a dress size or whatever). Boys do deal with these body and presentation issues, the same way that girls do. But I think in a way extent, the market dictates, and readers want their fiction to be more “pretty” than real life.

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    • I think if we criticize male authors for writing flat, perfect females (the epitome of hotness, the “cool” chic), we should be able to do the same with female authors. I think if written well, you can have characters that are self-conscious about their looks. It doesn’t necessarily have to reinforce the importance of these trivial problems, but it can acknowledge that in real life girls and guys do think about these things. I do agree that fiction is often a romanticized version of reality, which is one of the reasons we’re so drawn to books, movies, television, etc.

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  6. I really liked this post! I know everyone feels insecure about their appearance at one point or another so why does it seem limited to girls. I wish there was more male vulnerability in terms of appearance. I think that with books with female protagonists especially in YA, it’s from her perspective so she’s more aware of her own physical flaws although it definitely happens a lot more with female protagonists. I think with most books I’ve read that have the male protagonist being insecure, it was because he wasn’t as strong or “manly” as other guys. As for the perfect male love interest, I think it’s more of a wish fulfillment thing. I mean I know a lot of readers use books to escape and having a hot guy love interest is just fun entertainment. It’s kind of like having Chris Evans play the male love interest in a romantic comedy instead of your average joe. Eye candy basically. If that makes sense.

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    • Your comment actually brings up another topic I want to explore which is “How realistic should fiction be?”. Should we criticize a book for giving us perfect characters and convenient story lines or is this what we are looking for when we pick up a novel to escape? I do wonder if this premise of perfect male characters is influenced by different mediums. Turn on your television or go watch a movie and 95% of the actors are insanely beautiful. There’s such an emphasis in our culture to value outward beauty, we sometimes forget there is more to a person than how hot they are.

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      • Well I guess it depends on what type of movie/book it is. If it’s more about realism like a contemporary drama, there’s less emphasis on beauty. If it’s like a blockbuster Hollywood movie, there’s more emphasis on idealism. I mean physically flawless people have to have depth to them otherwise people will not connect or like them anyways. So either way, you have to write your characters with care if you want your audience to care. Though I have to admit, there’s more pressure on female actors to be beautiful and once they reach a certain age, it’s harder for them to get a job which is really sad and despicable. In books, I feel like there’s too much emphasis on female ideal beauty. Whenever a book describes a female, there’s more of a tendency to describe them as beautiful whereas males get to be other shapes and sizes without being criticized which is also really sad. I feel I’m just ranting now lol. Sorry 😦

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  7. Although, now that I’m thinking of it, Rainbow Rowell does a pretty good job of having heroes of lots of physical “types,” who have insecurities about them that they go through. Lincoln is massively tall and big and seems to hate it. Park has a lot of issues related to being biracial, and also with wanting to wear makeup. Levi’s balding in his 20s, Neal is described as the “cartoon hobbit.” (He also, conversely, seems to be the most confident of her heroes). So yeah. They are all super hot to their respective heroines, but deal with issues regardless.

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      • I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, but she’s the one author I can think of who consistently has male characters of different shapes and sizes who aren’t relegated to the “dorky best friend” role. I wish there were more out there that I could think of. If I’m in the mood for perfect I’ll turn to a romance novel (although, more and more, at least of the few authors I read, less-than-perfect male bodies, particularly injured and disabled ones, are showing up there, too. Not that you would know it from the typical cover.)

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  8. LOVE this topic. It is something that is so, so prevalent in YA. As much as there are times I love reading about these beautiful men/boys, at other times it drives me up the wall that they are all these icons of perfection, who have deemed the plain Jane’s worthy of their affection. It would be so interesting… different… refreshing (!) to read a novel where there are less than singular physical attributes. Regarding females in YA literature, while they may not have quite the perfect bodies of our male counterparts, so, so many of them are thin. Only recently I read a YA book (the male had hair that swept into his eyes, large biceps, 6 ft and a six pack) where the female was continuously described as having a perfect, flat stomach. This reference was made often enough to irk me. I think it would be an excellent move for YA fiction to de-Hollywood itself and come back to earth with a bump! Rx

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    • I’ve been thinking about this since I wrote it and I think the part that annoys me the most is when the author spends far too much time remarking on a love interest’s perfection, especially through her protagonist. I kind of wish authors worked more on developing their characters’ personalities rather than how they look.

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