As I’ve mentioned previously, I saw the Sunday matinee performance of Spring Awakening, the musical interpretation of a nineteenth century play by German writer Frank Wedekind. It won the Tony for Best Musical in 2007, and for good reason–it’s an amazing show. But I have to admit that it left me feeling a little bit off for some reason; it was hard to shake off the, for lack of a better word, dark and melancholy feeling that sort of settled over me throughout the entire performance. Another word I’ve used to describe the show is “creepy”, which is hardly illuminating. I think I might have isolated in part what makes the show so damn creepy, and while it rankles even after you leave the theater. (This discussion will probably be of no use to anyone who hasn’t seen but plans on seeing the play and doesn’t want to be spoiled. Just a warning.)

The show starts out like your typical adolescent coming-of-age comedy, for the most part, sort of like American Pie but everybody’s a bit younger. Sure, it’s taking place in 1891 in Germany, but whatevs, same diff. There’s masturbation humor and homoerotic subtext a la History Boys and Stiffler’s mom-type jokes and girl/boy meet-cutes, everything you could want in an adolescent Apotovian comedy, basically. The show opens with a funny scene between main female protagonist, fourteen-year-old Wendla Bergmann, and her mother, as Wendla begs to be informed finally where babies come from and her extremely agitated mother simply tells her that when a woman loves her husband, she becomes pregnant. Now, the contemporary feel of the play distracts you from the blatant irresponsibility of this act on the part of Wendla’s mother; my parents never explained sex to me, but I had sexual education in school and I watched television, so I got the message pretty quickly and way before I turned fourteen. But Wendla is a young woman in 1891 and all her girlfriends are just as clueless as she is–they literally have no other way to learn about sex but from the adult women in their lives, who refuse to teach them and thus leave them unprepared for real-life sexual situations that, I’m sorry, have existed since the beginning of human history, namely: TEENS ARE GOING TO HAVE SEX. Ignorance is not an obstacle to that fundamental condition.

This is problematic for several reasons, the biggest being that Wendla has sex without connecting it with the act of procreation; if she had known that was how babies were made, she probably wouldn’t have submitted to Malchior in the hayloft. Once she finds out she is pregnant, she reminds her mother that as far as she knew you could only get pregnant by loving your husband, and since Malchior is not her husband she figured she was pretty good on the contraception front. DUH. But I’m getting off topic. Here, an originally comic situation–parental discomfort with teen sexual curiosity and avoidance of the issue, which we see in a hundred sitcoms every year in some form or another–becomes a devastatingly tragic one when Wendla, completely clueless, has sex and gets pregnant and then ultimately (SPOILER! SERIOUSLY) dies from a botched abortion.

Another example of this is the relationship between Wendla and Malchior. Here, we have another typical teen comedy set-up: the smart, secretly sensitive radical falls in love with the sweet, mousy virgin, and vice versa, but forces–parents, teachers, various other teen dramas–conspire to keep them apart. Except that, almost from the beginning, the relationship is tinged with–and then drowned by–darkness, because Malchior and especially Wendla misinterpret sexual and romantic longing and the desire to feel something translates into a violent encounter where Wendla begs Malchior to beat her and Malchior becomes exceedingly aggressive. Though Wendla and Malchior eventually have what appears to be relatively tender (though awkward) sex later, the fact that Malchior knows about sex and its physical consequences (although he, like Wendla, must be ignorant of the social and emotional ramifications of having sex at such a young age) and Wendla so obviously does not makes the scene seem, if you think about it, a little bit like rape. At least, a sort of taking advantage, since if Wendla knew she could get pregnant from having sex with Malchior she probably wouldn’t have done it. And, indeed, in the original Wedekind play Malchior does explicitly rape Wendla, but of course they dialed it down a bit for Broadway audiences. So, what is first a romance fit for a teen chick flick becomes much darker and more tragic, especially after Wendla dies.

What I meant to point out about all this is that Spring Awakening is able to effect an emotional resonance by taking the audience’s expectations based on reasonable indicators of tone and content presented early in the show and completely subverting them. Light comedy and sweet romance are transformed into haunting, angry tragedy when the characters start connecting sex with violence and never look back. It’s an interesting–and effective–narrative strategy that, I think, comes from a narrowing of perspective, like, it’s all masturbation jokes and hot for teacher fantasies until you start examining individual relationships and the dark underbelly of sexual exploitation. I don’t have much to say about it other than I think it’s cool that they’re able to so flawlessly cause that effect, and that they manage to say something really meaningful in the process.

Sex-y time

There are some debates happening on various blogs about sex in YA and whether or not we YA writers have a responsibility to the Truth (as we see it, of course) or to our readers and their parents. Well, of course we have a responsibility to our readers, but what does that responsibility consist of with regards to sex scenes in the books we write for them?

Well, it’s not an easy question. I was just going through John and Hank Green’s Brotherhood 2.0 vlogs the other day and I watched one entitled “I Am Not a Pornographer”, in which John Green explained why the sex scene in his Printz Award-winning Looking for Alaska was not porn.

Sayeth the John:

Pornography is designed to titillate. I don’t think there’s a single halfway normal person in the world who would find a single thing in my book in any way arousing. There is one very frank sex scene [I believe here he’s talking about (white text to prevent spoilage) when Miles gets a blow job]. It is awkward, unfun, disastrous, and wholly unerotic…the whole reason that scene in question exists in Looking for Alaska is because I wanted to draw a contrast between that scene, when there’s a lot of physical intimacy but it’s ultimately very emotionally empty, and the scene that immediately follows it, when there’s not a serious physical interaction but there’s this intense emotional connection. The argument here is that physical intimacy can never stand in for emotional closeness, and that when teenagers attempt to conflate these ideas, it inevitably fails…it doesn’t take a deeply critical understanding of literature to realize that Looking for Alaska is arguing against vapid physical interactions, not for them.

I personally think that’s a pretty made of awesome way to put that, but let’s be honest, not every sex scene in a YA novel is meant to explore that same idea. For a very personal instance, there is a sex scene in my novel. It is short and non-explicit, but it is not lacking in emotional intimacy in the same way that Green’s scene is. It is, in essence, a poor choice on the part of the protagonists because it is motivated on one side by a deep feeling of loss and tragic desire for oblivion, and on the other side a desire to make things better and the knowledge that he cannot, but it does not ruin them. There’s a fuzziness to the act, like it may or may not have contributed to the failure of their relationship, but I think that it comes from the same place inside Protag #3 (you don’t know how badly I want to use names) as the behavior that does cause the failure of their relationship, so, like, who knows?

I didn’t include the scene to make a statement about whether or not teenagers should have sex (although I think they shouldn’t), or whether or not they do have sex (of course they do). The sex that my protagonists have is not emotionally empty–actually, I think perhaps that it’s too full of emotion, and the act is an attempt to express and reconcile those emotions by using the body and the other as a conduit, which does not–and cannot–work because the emotions are to big for the act. Does that make any sense? They are using the act in an attempt to express those things that they cannot say to each other, because they’re too young and immature to recognize the depth and seriousness of their own emotions. But I think the lesson is pretty much the same–whether there’s too much emotion or too little involved in a teenage sex act, in at least these two cases, the physical act is a cheap stand-in for really understanding and sharing with someone.

I don’t read a whole ton of YA, but I suspect that there are sex acts in some YA novels (perhaps more than I think) that are meant to be titillating. I mean, hi, the entire Gossip Girl series? I think that probably however sex is presented in YA novels directly corresponds to how the author of the novel feels about teen sex.

I think this argument comes down, at the root, to what you’re trying to say. Even though I don’t think it’s necessary (or even good) that any given book have a specific “message” or “lesson” to “teach” to the reader, I think that most books written by contemplative authors do end up having a sort of thesis, which is pretty much the author’s world view or a world view the author aspires towards or fears. I think every book is a reflection of the heart and mind of the author when she or he wrote it, and readers respond to that as much as they respond to any other factor that determines how good or bad they think a book is (the writing, the characters, the plot, etc.). YA novels are the same, and YA authors are the same, and how an author writes about sex is part of that world view. There is no right or wrong but instead a desire–even a duty–to be authentic to the characters as you wrote them and to the world as you see it.