Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sex for Beginners

by Marcus Sakey

First off, I'd like to thank Sean for covering for me last week, and also for the both the character assassination and an image I can't get out of my head. When he described dancing ideas, I think he had in mind some sort of Dance of the Seven Veils thing, but what I'm seeing is the dancing popcorn and soda singing, "Let's go out to the movies!"

Which tells you a little about my brainstorming process. Apparently my imagination would rather catch a matinée.

Anyway, onto the real stuff. Recently, I had two separate people whose opinion I respect recommend the same book. When that happens I get me to a bookstore. The novel is called THE BOOK THIEF, and it's classified as young adult, although having since read it--it's wonderful, pick up a copy--I'm not sure why. Yes, the language was simple and approachable, but shelving it as YA is like shelving Vonnegut as YA. Accessibility shouldn't be the only criteria.

The reason I bring it up, though, is that this marked my first visit to the YA section of a bookstore in recent years. Things have changed since I was shopping there:






Gulp. When I was a young adult reader, I had to settle for looking up the word "vagina" in the encyclopedia. Lucky kids today.

Besides the sexual intimations, everything was so slick, so tightly packaged. There used to be authors--now there are brands. Whole shelves devoted to series playing at Sex & The City for teenagers.

Does this seem odd to anybody else?

I'm not laying a the-world-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket trip on you. I think today's kids are smarter than my generation, and while yeah, their attention span may be shorter, that's because they can process more information than I could, and process it faster from multiple sources at once. (Total aside--my brother wrote a great piece on this last week, well worth checking out.)

Still, I find the whole thing odd. And it got odder when I came on a Newsweek article on a recent study of three major series, "Gossip Girl," "A-List," and "Clique," which posits, among other things, that:
  • Brand names (Jimmy Choo, Marc Jacobs, Chanel) appear an average of once a page
  • There were 65 references to brand-name alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription drugs
  • Brand names were used to define character--each of the 22 references to Keds were used to label the girl wearing them a loser
It's hard not to see this as at least a little creepy, if not downright insidious.

But what do I know? I don't have kids. What do you all think? Is this a bad thing? And what does it mean not only for today, but for the future? What will those kids be expecting in literature--and life--when they get older?

31 comments:

Karen Olson said...

I'm a parent and find this incredibly disturbing. We don't let our daughter, 11, watch the Disney channel because of the sexual innuendos and the insinuations that all adults are stupid. It's a totally different world than the one I grew up in, and I'm hoping to keep my daughter a little girl as long as possible but I know what's coming down the road...

Anonymous said...

I think it's extremely disturbing, especially about the fact that it takes so many adults to make those publishing decisions, and they're making them.

I teach at an all-girls' high school, and our librarian has thrown up her hands in despair, because the things the girls want to read are adult books with YA covers: books about teenage serial killers, books with blatant sex and lots of it, books about about supernatural beings having sex, and all with the sort of world weary, we-are-so-slick tone of the adult writer trying to "capture" the teen experience.

On the other hand, my niece put Gossip Girl on her Christmas list, and having read one I advised her mom and dad not to buy them for her (she's in 7th grade), and they were rather offended that I would censor her reading material.

I know many parents who think that it is somehow appropriate to discuss sex with children as young as nine--with a sort of "forewarned is forearmed" attitude that I think will obliterate innocence.

So my opinion is that we parents still have some worth, and one of the ways we can and should be influential is in helping to choose our young people's reading material. Better yet, we can read together.

(this is from Julia Buckley but I couldn't get it to post under my name).

Anonymous said...

As a father of two girls let me voice my thoughts, I will teach them about sex earlier on. It's not to take away their innocence, but I believe whether you are a boy or a girl, knowledge is better then nothing. Kids nowadays go into life being bombarded by everything sexual, clothing commercials, ads in stores, everywhere. I'm not prude dad, far from it, but it's surprising to see how much we have all become desensititzed to, although we can just turn off the tv.

On the book side, I've worked in retail for 5 years and for the past 8 I've owned my own business as a publishers rep working with k-12 schools and public libraries. In response to the librarian throwing her hands up, I see that a lot, but at the same time the C word - Censorship is a hard one to get over, who has the authority to do so.. parents yes, but the librarian has a hard enough time matching curriculum, researching books, buying them, teaching and a host of other issues.

I think that these issues were around when I was in school, maybe all of us were, they just weren't as blatant and obvious as they are now. The question of who do you blame comes up, well, who? if anyone at all, I think it is a combination of things and you don't have to accept it, but you have to work within the reality of this is out there and do what is best for each, but I strongly believe that there is a reader for every type of book, whether we like the content or not, it's all opinion in the end.

Capt.

Dana King said...

You had "vagina" in your dictionary? They kept those dictionaries behind the librarian's desk in my town, and they notified your mom if you asked for it. The strongest words in the dictionary we could use unaided were "bum" and "heck."

Picks By Pat said...

I find this obsession with name brands disturbing as well. When I was a kid, I didn't care if the shirt I wore was Polo, or Ralph Lauren or Ralph Kramden, for that matter.

These kids may grow up disappointed when they grow into adulthood and can't afford their name brand clothes because the baby needs diapers and flu shots.

And I wore Keds sneakers, and never though twice about it (Of course, some of my fellow high schoolers thought I was a loser...go figure).

Libby said...

Jeez, Marcus, how can I not mention my new book here? EASY INNOCENCE is about high school girls, sex, designer clothes and toys, all wrapped up in a couple of murders. However, I will say that the idea came to me out of fear. My daughter was just starting high school... I was recently separated... and I had no idea how the two us were going to make it through the next 4 years, given the enormous peer pressure to "have" and "buy" on the North Shore. Luckily, my daughter was smarter than me, and it all turned out okay. (at least I think so).. But I still think the prospect of raising a high school girl in an affluent community can easily become every mother's nightmare.

Wilfred the Author said...

Marcus, don't tell me I was the only one that stole my father's old Playboys now and then.

I don't know really how I feel about this. I have three daughters and I've familiar with the series in the pictures.

My oldest didn't read much YA stuff on her own, my middle daughter is in Journalism School, studying braodcast and newpaper with an aspiration to be a sports broadcaster and my youngest is the reader.

Personally, I think it's up to the parents to instill morality in their children. We can't control their world forever, so it's up to us to let them know the difference in literature/television and real life. It's not an easy task.

R.J. Mangahas said...

I think there's just WAY too much emphasis placed on designer clothes and brand names. I mean Baby Gap? Seriously now! I have to say at this point though that one of the main problems too is that many of the young people reading these novels don't draw the line between fiction and reality.

And of course, the YA's who read this stuff will more than likely grow up and be hit with a HARD dose of reality. (Oh my God, I have to work so I'll have money to buy things.)

I don't have kids myself, but I can certainly see where a lot of issues are raised with some of the YA novels right now.

Michael Dymmoch said...

I brought my kid up with the mantra, "we can't afford it." I got him the expensive things I thought he needed--a Mac, a Carvin amp, a Montessori education. The rest he had to work for.

I never censored his reading (though I kept the Joy of Sex on the bottom shelf and subversive stuff like philosophy up high.)

He's 32 now, and I think he has good morals and good manners. He dresses well, but I've never heard him mention a brand name. And he still reads the subversive stuff--now The Economist.

Marcus Sakey said...

I think more disturbing to me than the idea of sexual content is the warping of expectations. Sex, and sexual content, are part of life, and while it's nice to say that little kids should be little kids forever, that's just not the way things work. And it's worth remembering that our current age-of-consent considerations are pretty new. For most of history, sex and marriage were commonplace from about the age of 13. That only changed in the last 150 or so years.

But the warped expectations, that I'm a little concerned about. I felt the same way about "Sex & The City." By and large I enjoyed the show, but key to that enjoyment was understanding that it was nonsense. The number of partners and possibilities, the ridiculous situations they found themselves in, these aren't real life. Unless I'm going to the wrong parties.

Is it wrong to paint a false picture of life and present it as true? I do wonder how many high school kids watched that show and thought that threesomes and 50 partners a year were normal things. ..

Katie Bell Moore said...

I guess what I find most aggravating about these books is that not only do they glorify all of the must-have "it" brands and such, but the books themselves have become status items. It's become yet another thing you must do to be one of the popular girls...wear these clothes, listen to this music and read Gossip Girl books. At that age, books should be a refuge from all of that social-climbing crap, not yet another test for peer approval.

Marcus Sakey said...

Nice point, Katie! Hadn't even thought of that. Don't know how I'd have made it through if I was supposed to be reading something, instead of was just burying myself in the stuff I loved.

Maryann Mercer said...

I've been trying to think of something erudite to say on the subject of teen fiction and all I can come up with is "it's not for every teen". Some of the language, situations, and elitism shock even me at first glance. Do I recommend them to parents whose children want more than juvie fiction at the age of eleven? Not without checking the back cover. As 'cool' as these titles seem, there's adult content couched in teen-speak, including drug use and casual sex. There are some excellent books as well, dealing with the process of growing up in a less overt manner and also filtering in the message that actions have consequences. I'm sounding preachy, I know, but as a bookseller I get questions on these books all the time. If we recommend what a parent thinks is inappropriate, we're the ones who take the heat, not the author.
That said, The Book Thief is an excellent read, and not just for the YA crowd. It's well-written and tells the story of courage and resourcefulness at a time when those two traits could cost one his or her life.
Thought provoking post, Marcus. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I wish there was an easy answer to this. I've seen parents keep their kids "innocent," to the point where they end up complete social misfits.

I much prefer the way Judy Blume wrote about sex, but unless you homeschool your child and keep them away from other kids, you can't really keep them innocent.

In the end, I suppose our only choice is to let them see the world as it is, and try our best to maintain a conversation about the consequences of our options.

Our children are smarter than our society gives them credit for. It's to the point where we don't call a child an adult until they're 21. I've watched hundreds of children mature. The first blossoms of adulthood occur around ten. By 14, they're pretty much adults. They may not make the wisest of decisions, and it would be far safer for them to listen to those older and wiser, but ... they're adults.

Bat and bar mitzvahs happen at 12 and 13. Why? Because for hundreds of years, society viewed them as adults at that time, and responsible for their own actions.

So suddenly, in the past two hundred, three hundred years, the human race has devolved so that kids are "just kids" until age 21?

No, our society treats them as kids for longer and longer, in an effort to protect them. But what we get for that is teenagers acting more like kids, because that's the way they're treated.

Keeping them innocent will not help them make better decisions when faced with reality. Keeping them knowledgeable will. They are much older than we think they are.

Bethany K. Warner said...

I agree... the YA trend with name brands and sex and all the rest is disturbing. I read the first gossip girl just to see what the fuss was about... On top of all the questionable content, I thought the writing was boring to boot.

Glad to see you like "The Book Thief." The rest of Markus Zusak's work "I am the Messenger" and "Getting the Girl" are equally as phenomenal (though very different). You want to see how "real" teenagers without name brands and sex, read "Getting the Girl."

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