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The Male Savior Narrative in YA Lit And Beyond Has Got To Go

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

I spend a good chunk of time reading book descriptions. I use them not only to figure out what it is I want to read, but also to work on book lists and talk about what books are out or forthcoming that other readers will want to know.

A recent description reading binge led me to a micro-trend that is, in a word, disturbing. As small a chance as it was to see two books in a row tackling similar territory, it got me thinking about how frequently the narrative pops up, and how quickly we don’t question or challenge it.

Both books, written by male authors, followed a male main character who has lost a significant female in his life to suicide. In one book, it’s a sister. In the other book, it’s a friend (not having read the book but knowing how these things go, presumably, she’s a love interest of some sort). The descriptions of both books suggest that the male main character could have done more, could have talked more, could have been something better, in order to have saved the girl’s life.

In other words, the books are about how a male has failed to be the savior for a girl in his life.

In other words, the books are about how mental illness can be fixed by a boy.

In other words, boys can fix everything, even and especially the mental health challenges of the girls in their world.

In other words, these boys—and, perhaps, the male writers of these books—fail to understand that they aren’t the makers of the world. That they may indeed be contributing factors to the choices these girls made. That they cannot resolve the bigger problem of mental health crises unless they actually do something about the bigger, social complications around any and all discussions of mental health.

It is, of course, simple to boil two books down to this big, meaty topic. But we’re in an era of #MeToo, of women finally feeling like they’re being heard for speaking out about the unspeakable sexual assault they’ve experienced at the hands of men in power. Those women are being asked why they waited. Why they’re just speaking now. Why it is that they so conveniently waited to share this information until x or y or z thing happened that would benefit them.

They’re being denied their autonomy. They’re being denied their experiences. They’re being denied the opportunity to feel like they can speak up with fewer consequences than they’ve ever felt they might endue previously.

They are not waiting for their knight in shining armor to speak for them or to save them. They’re speaking up for themselves and highlighting the very root of the problem: the male savior complex.

It might feel innocuous to see the story play out where a boy feels bad about a girl committing suicide. But that’s not the story. The story is about what happened to the girl—what did she experience that led her to make the decisions she did? Maybe the boy had something directly to do with it. Maybe he didn’t.

At the end of the day, she’s gone, and we’ll never get her story. We’ll never know. Because no matter what, it’s colored by the perspective of the boy. The boy who wants to know why. Who wants to know what it was he did or didn’t do.

Her voice is gone. His voice takes over.

His story, as it relates to her, is what we get. And as much as it might not seem to relate, this is why it is that those who are suffering who are not culturally powerful men don’t speak up. Their stories aren’t the center. They’re only the story so much as it relates to that man.

Remember Monica Lewinsky, the 22-year-old intern and victim of Bill Clinton’s affair? It wasn’t until 2015—20 years later—that we got to even hear her side of the story. She was the one who took him down. Who ruined his marriage. Lewinsky only ever was attached to the powerful man and was never given the opportunity to be a young woman in and of her own.

She did eventually speak up, and she spoke of the shame she felt. Her life was altered by a powerful white man, and yet, no one gave her the mic to tell her story. To share what it was that happened to her in the wake.

Meanwhile, we’ve turned Bill Clinton into a balloon-loving meme.

She deals with the fallout of living in a culture which hates women. Which doesn’t want to hear  them. Which silences them, then accuses them of lying or exaggerating when they do open their silly lady mouths.

Clinton is a beloved former president. In this case, he’s slid mostly under the radar thanks to his wife, who likely feels more like she’s experienced what Lewinsky has during her time in politics than her husband.

Because she’s a woman with a voice.

When YA books—or any books—center the tragic girl story as the context for the boy/man struggling to understand why he wasn’t a hero, we continue to impart the message that the role of the empowered male is to protect and save the women in his life. That anything a woman does is in some way directly related to him.

That whenever she opened her mouth before and spoke, he never bothered listening. Because he never needed to. Because it has always been his world and his story. He’s rewarded for it time and time again. Until the girl dies, and he has to figure out why.

The answer’s been there all along.