YA Novels and the Curse of the “Unconventional” Protagonist

Note: when I say “unconventional”, I don’t mean diverse or unusual protagonists: I mean that they are slightly different variations of the same thing. The “unconventional” protagonist always has a similar appearance and an identical attitude, no matter the genre or book. I call them a curse, because they are usually the markers of a bad book, even for ones that had the potential to be good.

Now, the curse of the “unconventional” protagonist. had been a huge part in the young adults novels of my teenage years. It was practically everywhere; the same pale short girl that’s never a brunette, who isn’t “conventionally beautiful” like their mom.

Their main staple is their lack of curves, making them look like twelve years olds (when they’re adamantly sixteen). They have seemingly messy or bland hair, usually an unusual color, and they are always pale. They’re not conventionally attractive, but they have pleasant features, making them appealing to their main love interest. They look like their mothers, but their mothers, being taller, are somehow much the most gorgeous people to walk the face of the Earth, while they’re “cute”. Dressing nice or scandalous is taboo; modest clothes all around. They’re almost always useless and cause more trouble when they do involve themselves, but they’re stubborn, and never take the blame for anything they’ve done.

Almost every young adult book I read, the protagonist can best be identified by what I said above. It almost never changed (the big exception here is the Hunger Games, which featured a non-white woman who was tall and useful) and always had the same outcomes. It caused a lot of serious issues with how I perceived things during my teenage years.

Of course, I wasn’t about to charge into situations I knew I wasn’t useful in. In fact, the stubborn and useless factor actually got on my nerves. It even got to the point where I’d skip entire portions of books if I knew the protagonist was about to do something insanely stupid because “they’re not a useless child”. What really hurt was my perceptions of myself and romance.

My appearance heavily contrasts from the typical main protagonist; I am tall, I have olive skin that tans really easily, and I have dark brown eyes and hair. I lean more on the conventional side of attractiveness, in that I don’t look like a twelve year old. As a teenager, this made me very insecure about my features. I wanted to be like the main protagonists (before I realized how much of a stupid idea that was). I wanted to be short, and pale, and curve-less. I wanted unusual hair and eye colors. You may think that’s stupid, but when it’s all you see in the books you read, it doesn’t seem so stupid. At least, it didn’t seem so stupid to thirteen year-old me.

Girls that I look like get constantly trashed in comparison to the main protagonist, getting written off as sluts and mean girls who are insanely preppy and stupid. At the same time, the books with the “unconventional” protagonist gets pushed as “beneficial for all girls”, despite the obvious bashing of “conventional” girls. When that idea is getting shoved down your throat all the time, it really starts to affect how you see yourself. They’re extremely damaging, and can psychologically affect girls as young as ten to see themselves in a negative light. Worst part is, most won’t even realize until they’re practically adults, if then.

Now, I have seen improvements in the YA genre. I have noticed a growing diversification in main protagonists, which is quite refreshing. But the curse is still there, and it still maintains a presence. A weakening presence, but a presence. It needs to be targeted, and stopped once and for all.

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