There are so many elements I love about the young adult genre, especially themes such as acceptance, self-exploration, and the valuation of personality over aesthetic. However, it’s also come to my attention that in some ways the genre has tried so hard to elevate the normal protagonist or fight for the underdog that it’s created inverse stereotypes in order to break others: pretty girls are mean girls, wealthy people are evil, privileged people don’t have problems, those who care about their appearance are vain and shallow (generalizations, but you see the point). The breaking of stereotypes in favor of implementing others doesn’t sit well with me, and I’ve become disappointed with how callously some of these tropes are used in the novels I read, particularly with respect to females who enjoy fashion and make up and putting effort into their appearance.
The following except from the short story novella Snowed Over really highlighted this phenomena of using a love of makeup and fashion as a negative character trait:
“She wasn’t about to let this spoiled, Kardashian wanna-be touch her gift from Alex. And what was with all the makeup? They were in podunk northern Wisconsin for Pete’s sake, not at an L.A. movie premiere.” (109)
Sure, in the context of the story the character in question DID end up being a total troll, but it also seemed like a really cheap shot for the main character to take to judge the character because she lived in rural Wisconsin and also happened to like makeup. So? It would be cruel and considered rude to judge someone for NOT wearing makeup, yet it often isn’t a two way street. The stereotypical “mean girls” usually tend to be interested in fashion, makeup, and their general overall appearance, which is used to symbolize vanity and a vapid personality in many forms of media. This really works against inclusivity, as it rejects certain aspects of femininity as being lesser than others, which I really think does a disservice to female and male readers alike. I, for instance, am a book blogger and academic at heart, but I love makeup. I often say if I wasn’t a book blogger, I would be a beauty blogger. I have a large makeup collection, worked in the fashion industry for several years, and do occassionally enjoy watching the Kardashians. Yet does this mean I’m doomed to being typecasted as a snotty antagonist if I were ever to be written into a modern piece of media? Unfortunately, I think that would be a real possibility.
As frequently as I see a love for makeup, fashion, hair, etc. have a negative connotation, I decided to seek out some examples in YA fiction where the above hobbies and interests were celebrated, desired, and even used for a greater purpose by the protagonists. There are several extremely strong female YA literary heroines who take pride in their personal aesthetic and/or who use their appearance as a form of creative expression or even political strategy:
“He puts up my hair first, in the braided style my mother introduced him to, the proceeds with my makeup. Last year he used little so that the audience would recognize me when I landed in the arena. But now my face is almost obscured by the dramatic highlights and dark shadows. High arching eyebrows, sharp cheekbones, smoldering eyes, deep purple lips…then he adjusts the light in the room to mimic twilight and presses a button just inside the fabric of my wrist. I look down fascinated, as the ensemble fully comes to life, first with a soft golden light but gradually transforming to the orange-red of burning coal. I look as if I have been coated in glowing embers- no that I am a glowing ember straight from our fireplace.” (Catching Fire, 206)
In Catching Fire, Cinna is more than Katniss’ stylist, he helps her cultivate and project a very specific political image based on the makeup and costumes he creates for her. Katniss, never one to seek out fashion for herself, gains advantages through Cinna’s careful planning of her aesthetic, and the presence as “The Girl on Fire” not only intimidates her competition and awes the crowd, but it allows her to rebrand the image of District 12 (coal mining) to the rest of the capitol, from dirty, defeated miners to citizens who harvest an important natural resource that creates a product both powerful and destructive- fire.
It’s harder to find characters so deeply invested in makeup and fashion in a positive position in contemporary novels, which is why Stephanie Perkin’s novel Lola and the Boy Next Door is so unique and even ground-breaking in that respect. Lola is unabashedly devoted to her personal aesthetic, and cultivates her creativity through her artistic use of makeup, sewing her own clothing, and looking everywhere for sources of inspiration for her outfits.
“I don’t believe in fashion. I believe in costume. Life is too short to be same person every day.”(Lola and the Boy Next Door, 7)
The novel really celebrates a love for clothing and makeup, and shows that it doesn’t have to be juxtaposed with other traits, as Lola is just as committed to her friendships, family, and being a decent human being as she is to experimenting with her image. We may not all be ready to rock the sort of outfits Lola does on a daily basis, but I think she’s a wonderful example of how we can invert the stereotypes of fashion and makeup being vapid or vain into something that’s just as viable a hobby and interest as anything else.
“Having an eye for beauty isn’t the same thing as weakness…” (Catching Fire, 211)
As someone who personally is very invested in makeup and fashion, it’s personally difficult to see an interest in these elements paired with unsavory characters in novels. It creates girl on girl hate, and limits the idea of what can be considered a positive female role model. Do you think that there’s a negative connotation across the YA genre with fashion and makeup? Is it something that you think can be empowering? Do you think by elevating and celebrating certain interests and personality traits in characters that we’ve stereotypes and belittled others? Do you have examples/recommendations of other books where the character is empowered or embraces a love for their personal appearance in a positive way? Let me know in the comments!