“Ghost Stories”: The ubiquitous anti-feminism of young adult romances

Teenage girls are being told that romantic desirability is the proof of, and the reward for, individual worth.

In a Guardian article last November, Tanya Gold condemned the Twilight franchise and the paranormal progeny it has spawned, calling them sado-masochistic “disempowerment fantasies” masquerading as fairy tales, normalising abuse in the name of risqué romance. But her argument – though apt – hardly goes far enough. To focus criticism of the now-ubiquitous “YA (Young Adult) paranormal” genre on the relationship between its heroines and their “bad boy” lovers is to ignore the more insidious, perhaps more dangerous message the genre sends to teenage girls: that romantic desirability is the proof of, and the reward for, individual worth.

I view the genre with an insider's perspective: I paid my way through university by ghostwriting YA romances for various publishing houses. It was an easy job at first: padding chapter word counts through the judicious use of erotic ekphrasis, mentally calculating how many pennies each adjective added to my bank account: (“His rippling, supple muscular chest, shimmering in the bright sunlight. His smooth, almost preternaturally marble-white skin...”). Yet, after over twenty such books – each written to my employers' chapter-by-chapter outlines – I began to feel increasingly uneasy about the message such tropes send to the genre's young, largely female readership.

Certainly, there is something to be said for the way in which these books provide teenage girls with an opportunity to explore their incipient sexual desires. My typical heroine (let's call her Mary Sue) not only experiences arousal; she, like Twilight's Bella, is often the sexual aggressor, her numerous suitors holding back at a safe distance, non-threatening objects for adolescent sexual curiosity. (There were no Mormon vampires, but various plot devices often barred the way to consummation; in Mary's world, blood-letting and psychic mind-melds often serve as unsubtle metaphors for sex, providing her virginal readers with a fantasy sanitized of unfamiliar appendages).

Equally promising from a feminist perspective is the notion that our heroine can not only desire two or more suitors, but also act on that desire (up to a point) without condemnation. If Twilight's Bella vacillates slightly between husky werewolf Jacob and lethargic parasite Edward, Mary Sue is usually juggling up to four warlocks or mermen, passionately kissing one in Chapter Five before succumbing to the smoldering stares of his rival in Chapter Six. (Jealousy is rarely an issue; her love interests are usually so desperate for our Mary's affections that they're willing to wait on the sidelines: a fantasy of puppy-dog devotion that belies their purported dangerousness; these are “bad boys” in name only.)

Yet this proves problematic when this devotion not only replaces, but informs, character development. The typical “character pack” provided with my outline tells me that Mary is “nice, smart,” and other vague adjectives; she rarely gets narrative space to prove it (I'm lucky if I can sneak in a scene of her reading a book). Her qualities are informed ones, emerging not from the story itself but from the lips of Mary's besotted suitors, ever quick to reassure her (and the reader) that she is the single kindest, most beautiful, worthiest girl in the world.

It is this concept of worth I find most troubling. Mary Sue doesn't find love through common interests, through shared experiences, through long conversations or walks along the beach. Her relationships are not predicated on the idea that two people, with all their flaws, might discover themselves operating in emotional synchronicity. Rather, Mary is loved because she is the best (often, the plot demands that she be extra-special, possessing a secret royal lineage, or magical powers exceeding that of even "ordinary" mermaids). That she is the best is proven, somewhat circularly, by the love she inspires: heroes, villains, and minor characters alike must prostrate themselves at her feet: a vicious circle of affirmation.

Worse still is the genre's treatment of the girls unlucky enough to share space on the page with Mary Sue. Having established that love and worth are inextricably intertwined, any girl who appears on the scene must of course desire one of Mary's love interests; for this, invariably, she must be punished. Each outline I received featured three or more such characters – ditzy, shallow, usually blonde, existing only to salivate over Mary's harem before promptly being rejected or killed off. Genuine female friendship is nonexistent – Mary might, at best, have an anodyne hanger-on to make her look good in comparison – in the world of the YA novel, other women are stupid, jealous, or evil; they exist only to affirm Mary's sovereign desirability.

I have since hung up the ghostwriting mantle, but the genre is still going strong: “New Adult” – YA's more explicit cousin – carries on where I left off, producing knockoffs of Fifty Shades of Grey. Its popularity, however, leaves me wary. Must our young adult fiction teach teenage girls that their self-worth is predicated on being loved, and that love in turn is merited only by being the prettiest, the worthiest, the best? Its promise of female erotic fulfillment is diminished by the implicit caveat that it is merited only by being the object of male affirmation. Why can't Mary Sue experience desire on her own terms – for an equal, a partner, a friend? Until then, Mary's world has no room for human relationships – in any sense of the word.

Photograph: Getty Images

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

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How Facebook and Google are killing papers and transforming news

If journalism is to survive, it needs either to cut costs (read: sack journalists), or build revenues.

When I started work at the Daily Mail in 2005, there was often a discussion among the men who decided the running order of stories about which pages should be printed in black and white. Not all the presses used colour, and God help the unthinking journalist who placed a story about a man painting his entire council house with replica Michelangelos on a page that would end up in “mono”.

That story makes me feel very old (I’m 33), but it highlights the accelerated pace of change in the news industry in the past decade and a half. I also remember the cuttings library, and a time when headlines were written to fit arbitrary spaces on a page, rather than having to be stuffed full of searchable keywords. Those days are gone.

The first newspapers were printed in the 17th century, and the methods of both their creation (movable type) and their distribution (on paper) remained broadly unchanged for three centuries. When Marxism Today’s published its New Times issue in 1988, that system was unravelling. Computers had arrived and the print unions’ insistence on sharply delineated workplace roles was under threat. This had already led to the Wapping dispute of 1986, in which Rupert Murdoch moved his newspapers to new headquarters to break the collective power of the printers. It took 13 months and 1,262 arrests, but it ended with thousands of men in effect accepting that their skills were obsolete.

That trend has merely continued. Today’s journalism students are encouraged to become jacks of all trades – they learn how to make videos, record podcasts and use databases, they master Photoshop, they understand social media and, yes, they even write and edit stories.

On one level, the world of news now seems gloriously open: anyone can start a blog, anyone can publish on the Huffington Post (if you don’t mind not being paid) or Medium, and anyone can build a following on Twitter or Facebook. But there are new barriers to entry. Where many of my older colleagues at the Mail had started work at 16 – often on local papers, because NUJ rules demanded you spend two years there before heading to Fleet Street – young journalists increasingly have postgraduate qualifications as well as degrees. That privileges the middle class and those whose parents live in London, and who can therefore live at home while trying to break in to the industry.

Local newspapers, once the training ground for young reporters, are dying out: there has been a net loss of 198 since 2005, according to the Press Gazette. Their classified adverts have gone online or gone altogether, and some of those titles that remain are consolidated into remote industrial parks, far from the communities they serve. So there is less reporting of court cases and of the petty corruption of councillors (Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs, which still covers that ground, is never short of material).

In place of independent papers are glossy PR puffs produced by councils. In December, the editor of the Hackney Citizen complained that the local authority was producing its own fortnightly freesheet, Hackney Today. The latter sells advertising space, making it a direct competitor to independent newspapers, and the council pays for 108,000 copies to be printed by Trinity Mirror and distributed to households every fortnight. It is produced by a press office.

National newspapers are also struggling. Print circulations are falling and the returns on display advertising online can be pitiful. Most online adverts are “programmatic”: sold in real-time auctions on a CPM (cost per mille, or thousand clicks) basis. Users hate them for slowing page loads or interrupting their reading. Unsurprisingly, the use of ad-blocking software has risen steadily.

The industry has tried to fight back by expanding the types of adverts it sells. That is why everyone became so excited about video a few years ago: publishers could place an unskippable advert before a video clip and charge pounds, not pennies, using CPM.

The internet-only news organisation BuzzFeed had another strategy: from the start, it didn’t sell display advertising, only “native ads”: what used to be called advertorial. The theory was that users might be irritated by display ads but they wouldn’t object to a pet-food brand sponsoring a heart-warming video about life with a pet. In at least one case, this paid off handsomely – BuzzFeed’s 2015 collaboration with Purina led to a video called Puppyhood, which racked up four million views in two weeks. The challenge is to repeat that winning formula again and again.

Other publishers tried the start-up mantra: build it, scale it fast, hope the revenues turn up at some point. Medium, a cleanly designed blogging platform, was launched by the Twitter co-founder Ev Williams in 2012 and attracted big-name publications and writers. But on 4 January Williams announced that he was “renewing Medium’s focus” by cutting a third of its staff, because it was not financially sustainable. “It’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet,” he wrote. “The vast majority of articles, video and other ‘content’ we all consume on a daily basis is paid for – directly or indirectly – by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals. And it is measured, amplified and rewarded based on its ability to do that.”

If journalism is to survive, it needs either to cut costs (read: sack journalists), or build revenues. Hence the proliferation of sidelines: conferences, round tables, business-to-business operations, events, sponsored supplements and the rest. Some companies are trying a more direct approach. The heavily loss-making Guardian is investing in a membership scheme, and the radical US magazine Mother Jones has a pledge to fund in-depth reporting. (Individual journalists are trying this, too: the Patreon website offers readers a chance to fund writers directly, at a set cost per month or per piece.)

Of course, someone is making money out of the great flowering of content on the web. Facebook has 1.86 billion monthly users, and in the third quarter of 2016 its net income was $2.38bn, up from $896m a year earlier. Along with Google, it controls two-thirds of the online advertising market. “Facebook is the new town hall,” Mark Zuckerberg told investors. Unfortunately for him, that role in public life is what made Facebook the focus of the row about “fake news” after the US election. For millions of people, Facebook is where they get their news; its editorial decisions and inbuilt biases shape our common understanding of reality.

You might not have to get your words past the print unions any more, but you do have to pander to what Facebook’s and Google’s guiding algorithms deem important. Zuckerberg has more power than anyone who bought ink by the barrel ever did.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times