Jo Talks Books: On Problems With “Book Boyfriends” and Adult YA Readers

Hi everyone! I hope you’ve all been doing well since my last one of these, it’s hard not to feel a little dread as the darkness and the cold sinks in and the prospect of potential winter lockdowns looms, but I’m trying my best to focus on the good stuff (mostly books).

So there was a lot of discussion last month, or maybe it was the beginning of this month, honestly what is time anymore? Anyway, there was a lot of discussion on Book Twitter after a popular YouTuber released a video talking about books that she felt turned on by after a few of them were YA books about gay teenagers. There are obviously people much more suited than me to be talking about the sexualisation of m/m relationships, so that’s not what I’m going to be talking about today, but the response to that video did get me thinking about the concept of “book boyfriends” and all the problems with that when a large proportion of the online book community are adults.

I’m sure we’ve all heard of, or even perhaps used the term “book boyfriend” in the past to describe fictional characters that we’d like to date, were they real (or were we fictional). There’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept of having a crush on a fictional character, it’s a pretty harmless thing.

Obviously, I don’t think that when adult readers talk about “book boyfriends” from YA books, that they mean they would want to date an actual teenager. I know when I’ve talked about it in the past, I’ve definitely more meant, “in the context of if I was still a teenager, or if the fictional character was my age”.

But as I’ve got older, I’ve definitely found myself with more of an uneasiness with adults discussing their book boyfriends from YA books mostly because as a 24 year old, when I read about 16 year olds now, my immediate reaction is definitely less, “ooh I’d definitely date this guy if he were real” and more “god I’m old, you are a child” when I remember that it’s been eight years since I was that age. That’s not to say that I don’t find certain traits in fictional male characters attractive, but I’m definitely very much aware of the age gap between myself and the characters I’m reading about now.

Like I said at the start, I assume (and very much hope) that when adults talk about their book boyfriends, they do not mean that they would want to date an actual teenager, because I think we can all agree, that’s gross. But there’s still definitely something uncomfortable and slightly weird about grown women referring to underage boys as “boyfriends”.

I do think part of the issue stems from YA characters reading as older than they are actually meant to be in some cases. Take a book like Six of Crows, where the main characters definitely read more as they’re in their early twenties than sixteen. I can definitely see how when reading a book with characters that don’t act like teens, it can be easy to picture them as older and therefore describing them as a boyfriend wouldn’t seem like such a stretch. This is connected to a larger issue: because publishing has seen how much YA appeals to adult readers and adults have more spending power than teens, so stories that tend towards the more mature end of YA/with characters that feel more like adults have become more and more common (but that could probably be another discussion post in itself).

I also think that YA authors may have a little to answer for in this issue. Not that they write with the intention of adults sexualising their teen characters, but you do often see YA authors on Twitter talking about their own book boyfriends from other YA books and I think this does proliferate the issue: because if the adults who are writing YA books are talking about how “sexy” male characters are, then it encourages adult readers to do the same thing.

I also think the line between YA and adult is increasingly blurred: I’ll admit, I only really started feeling like I was a lot older than the characters I was reading about when I was about 22/23, so for a few years I was in a strange place where I was technically an adult but didn’t really feel massively older than the characters I was reading about. One of the reasons a lot of adults in their early twenties still relate to YA is because they can relate a lot more to the issues faced in those books than in adult books with older protagonists and I feel like that also feeds into the way that “book boyfriends” are perceived by older readers.

There’s also a wider issue here in terms of how teen characters are presented in wider media. In TV shows and films, teen characters are often portrayed by older actors, including in adaptations of books (for example, in The Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence was four years older than Katniss’ age in the books). Obviously books are a different medium to film, but I think the same issues apply here, because a lot of the “teenagers” we see on screen are actually older adults, I think perceptions of fictional teenagers can be somewhat warped because we are fed images of teens that don’t actually reflect reality.

So how do we tackle these issues? I definitely think adults not using the term “book boyfriend” (or girlfriend) would be a start. I don’t think it’s harming anyone to have a fictional crush, but perhaps “book boyfriends” should not be as popular fandom discourse as it is.

But I also think this issue is connected to a wider issue in publishing: the lack of a specific NA category leaves younger adult readers stuck between categories, where they aren’t teenagers anymore but might not necessarily feel that adult fiction reflects where they are in life. This leads authors writing to YA characters that feel like adults because publishing wants to appeal to adult readers and then leaves the very audience they’re meant to reflect out. I think if there was a wider range for both teens and adults (books that skew toward the younger end of YA, and books that appeal to the younger end of YA) then it might resolve the issue, as there wouldn’t be a need for YA characters that read like adults.

I also think adult readers and authors need to be more responsible in terms of talking about “book boyfriends”. We don’t want to make teenagers feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in the community, and we need to make sure that teenagers in YA fiction are not sexualised. Changing the dialogue around book boyfriends would go a long way to dealing with the problems, we should leave “book boyfriends” to teenagers rather than adults. Obviously we can enjoy YA fiction but I definitely think we need to recognise our place in it: and that involves YA authors not describing YA characters in other books as book boyfriends.

But ultimately, the change required is a societal one. We need to show the reality of teenagers rather than the fantasy in all forms of media, and I think if that happened, reactions to teenage characters would be closer to “You’re a child” than “I’d like to date you”.

What do you think? Is there a problem with adults talking about book boyfriends from YA books? How do we solve this problem? Let me know what you think in the comments!

I’m not really sure what I’m going to talk about next month so I guess you’ll find out then! In the meantime, I’ll have another Book Vs Movie post up for you guys tomorrow.

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