The male leads in YA are starting to look strikingly similar to me. Some may be princes, some “troubled” youths, and some the boy-next-door, but their personality traits are incredibly similar. Often they are misunderstood or under-appreciated. Typically they see and value the female lead in ways no one else does. They pair strength with sensitivity, showing that they are able to cry over a family member but also able to fix a car or fight for their girl’s honor when necessary. All of them appreciate the beauty of the female lead, but in a romantic, respectful, aesthetic sort of way. You will never catch them looking at a girl’s assets. In short, they are, every one of them, the “perfect boyfriend.”
These depictions of teenage boys are fascinating because they are so obviously a female fantasy rather than attempts at realism. The services asked of YA male heroes often seem close to superpowers. Routinely these teenage boys intuit what a girl is not saying, exhibit endless patience in drawing it out, empathize with her by crafting the perfect response–and then suddenly go hyper-masculine by saving or protecting her with their physical strength or other “manly” skills. This may be the dream–a man who can read minds, who can be both sensitive and strong–but it is a dream that readers should know is just that, a dream.
Real-life teenage boys are incredibly diverse and not all of them (or none of them?) are going to be the “perfect” boyfriend as depicted in YA books. They are going to struggle to read minds. They are going to struggle to come up with the right words. They may not want to fight anyone. And, yes, most of them have noticed that girls have chests and butts. That does not make them dirty. That makes them human. And they should be allowed to be so. They should not have to feel that they will never measure up to the YA fantasy. They should not have to worry that teenage girls think less of them for being who they are
I would love to see more male authors published in YA and I would love to see them write male protagonists. Rather than a wealth of female fantasies, I want to see characters like Brandon Sanderson’s lead in Steelheart. He notices the female body. He does that because he’s a guy. As a result, he feels real. He’s not trying to impress the ladies by being simultaneously all sensitive and hyper-masculine while also pretending he only ever looks at girls’ faces. He’s just busy being himself. We need more of that, for the sake of male and female readers alike.