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!