The Imperfect Feminism of Some YA Fantasy Books

Lately, I’ve been struggling to find a YA fantasy novel that I’ve really liked – and yes, I know that I’m generalizing an entire genre, but hear me out. Fantasy – YA or not – is one of those genres that I really, really want to enjoy, but a number of things make it tough for me, personally: first, I’m a medieval lit scholar, so any fantasy that draws on vague ideas of the middle ages tends to bother me when it repeats tired tropes. Second – and this point is related to the first – fantasy is one of those genres where anti-feminism can be a huge problem because many authors draw on the middle ages or the vague historical past. The idea that life for women was “hard” and that they were little more than breeders is incorrect yet widespread in historical fiction, so it’s no surprise that fantasy which draws on the historic past tends to insert some of that anti-feminism in stories with no relationship to our actual history.

So, getting to YA fantasy, specifically.

I’ve read a number of fantasy novels written by (primarily white) female authors and targeted towards younger audiences that seem to adopt the trappings of feminism. There’s a “strong female protagonist,” usually one who kicks a lot of ass, who finds herself in an environment that is completely foreign to her. Something about the protagonist’s awesomeness attracts the notice of a (usually) broody male love interest, and after a number of adventures, the two fall in love and overthrow some kind of oppressive power structure.

Of course, this is an extremely loose and general overview. Fantasy YA novels themselves are more nuanced than this, and even those that aren’t can still be enjoyable. I’m not suggesting anything is wrong with this general outline. What is wrong is the particular way many YA fantasy books develop their romances. The romance aspect is going to be the subject of this blog post, and below, I want to explore how some books use the appearances of feminism while drawing on the anti-feminist trappings of the vague medieval (or historical) past to create love stories that may do more harm than good. In particular, I’ll be analyzing books such as A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas and others.

SPOILER ALERTS for ACOTAR and some plot points for other YA books. Also TRIGGER WARNING for discussions of assault and rape.
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