An Emotional Character, an Instructional Object
7 min read

An Emotional Character, an Instructional Object

An Emotional Character, an Instructional Object
Photo by Parker Gibbons / Unsplash

Masculinity is presented as a monolithic characteristic, unchanging and unchallengeable. For a long time, it perhaps was — however, contemporary authors are starting to move against the default essentialism of masculinity. From academia to fiction, decades of gender studies have reframed the concept of identity formation in boys and authors of young adult literature have starting writing nuanced expressions of individualized masculinities, no longer focusing on a singular ideal. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Monster by Walter Myers are two examples of exemplary fiction that question masculinity and ask their readers to do the same.

Peter Middleton asks in The Inward Gaze: Masculinity and Subjectivity in Modern Culture, “is [masculinity] a discourse, power structure, a psychic economy, a history, an ideology, an identity, a behavior, a value system, an aesthetic even” (152)? Middleton, before this question, states that “oppression confers an identity” (146), which Douglas Schrock and Michael Shwalbe neatly encapsulate in their article “Men, Masculinities, and Manhood Acts” with an overview of Carrigan et al.’s work in cohering previous, individual strands of theories on masculinities into a contemporary idea of “hegemonic and subordinated masculinities” (278). Hegemonic masculinity is within the purview of white, financially able, heterosexual, cisgendered men, while subordinated masculinities cannot achieve the hegemonic ideal due to structural obstacles (racism, poverty, sexuality, et cetera).

These claims can guide an evaluation of the young adult novels All American Boys and Monster, which present multiple masculinities. For the three main characters spread across both novels, these socioeconomic markers of their identities are inextricable from their masculinities and, in fact, inform the actions the characters take in their respective plot arcs. However, what is worth examining with these novels is the role of the reader as an active participant in discourse with the text.

Michelle A. Abate’s chapter “My Job Is…to Make You a Human Being in the Eyes of the Jury” from her book Bloody Murder: the Homicide Tradition in Children’s Literature quotes Walter Dean Myers explaining his goal in writing Monster: “…I hope kids reading this book will…think more in advance about what they’re doing…” and then compares Monster with colonial American execution sermons to define the novel as an instructional text (177-178). Abate does not claim that this is the role of young adult literature, but these novels are regularly used in classrooms as instructional tools for both critical studies, although perhaps not for identity formation. Regardless, children are very aware of the social stratification happening in media.

Boys are acutely aware of gendered performances and the performativity of masculinity (Bean and Harper, 16). Thomas Bean and Helen Harper use a social semiotic approach in their article “Reading Men Differently: Alternative Portrayals of Masculinity in Contemporary Young Adult Fiction” to study the literal text on the page, which revealed public-private modes of expression for the protagonists in the books they studied that the authors chose to realize through font and other stylistic choices instead of narratively (18). Schrock and Schwalbe also examine the role of media imagery that boys can use to craft manhood acts—defined by Schrock and Schwalbe as any act that attempts to claim privilege, elicit deference, and resist exploitation (281). These studies illuminate the fact that the majority of media aimed at men and teenage boys is not made to be explicitly instructional, yet these pieces of media are nonetheless used as models to construct ideal masculine identities.

Before adolescent boys reach these texts, they have already been enculturated through society (Schrock and Schwalbe, 281-282) to produce, according to Middleton, a “…social group for whom only a limited range of forms of interaction are valid within public space,” stemming from a collection of ideas from the 1980s that Middleton summarizes as the elimination and reconfiguration of feelings (120). How does a boy interact with young adult novels that center the emotional interiority of their masculine protagonists if they have been emotionally stunted by society’s expectations of their masculine performance? A potential explanation is in the privilege of the male gaze—as novels written by men for adolescent boys (not to mention simply existing in a patriarchal society), All American Boys and Monster exist as objects explicitly for the male viewer.

The male gaze privileges masculinities by objectifying the books and, more importantly, the characters within the books. Often this gaze is catered to within schools through the selection of literature chosen for students to read. As Bean and Harper pointed out, boys are acutely aware of gender norms and masculine performances. However, Bean and Harper’s research complicates the role of novels featuring masculine protagonists by highlighting the semiotic cues used to clue in the reader to a shift in tone and a focus on emotional interiority (19-26). Abate examines this as well with her comparison of Monster with execution sermons and her inclusion of the author’s intent for the novel to be instructional. These concrete examples manipulate the male gaze and its object-making to craft a lens on top of itself and guide the reader through their text, but often novels are not written these explicit instructions. In books like All American Boys, how are boys meant to navigate the complexities of social issues as presented through the protagonists’ self reflection and narration?

Middleton’s claim that men are a social group with limited public interactions stems from the closing off of emotion to boys and the idealized rationality of intellectualism (169-171). This rationality is imperative for the male gaze to operate, as it is what allows a thing—a person, an idea, a space—to become an object, able to be held up in front of the masculinity and assessed. Everything within a hegemonic masculinity’s purview is, indeed, reduced to an examinable object.

As books contain smaller, discrete parts (plot, characters, protagonist, setting, et cetera), each part becomes an object beneath the male gaze, able to be examined through the rational means imparted to the masculine reader. While this seems like a natural part of literary criticism, it is not holistic and unduly simplifies the book into unrelated units. This train of thought leads to something similar to New Criticism from the mid-1900s, which Middleton discusses at length for its abetting of the argument that unemotional rationality is superior to something like an emotional appeal. Ultimately, Middleton takes an explanation for the absurdity of audience emotionality and dismisses it wholesale: in Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, Middleton explains that “emotion becomes a term for various forms of social relation, most obviously that between reader and text” (173). This idea, that emotion can bridge the intellectual space between a reader and text, gives adolescent, male reader access to masculine identities in a new way, which contemporary authors are leveraging without explicit markers throughout the text. By leveraging the emotive interiors of the protagonists, the act of reading can become a reflective experience for the reader to model his own interiority.

All American Boys is written with a priority on its protagonists’ emotional interiorities. As the characters move through their plot arcs, the majority of the text is taken up by inner monologues, explorations of thoughts, assumptions and actions, and their feelings. Each character is foremost worried about their integrity as three-dimensional persons and, in being so, each novel presents nuanced, reflective, and reflexive boys presenting both hegemonic and subordinate masculinities. According to Middleton, these emotive boys should be inaccessible to the average masculine reader: how could they possibly be relatable when they aren’t moving through their worlds emotionally cutoff and always rational? Masculinity is performative, first and foremost, and, as Middleton says, the range of acceptable interactions for masculinity is restricted in public. Reading a book creates a private discourse with the text and allows adolescent boys a venue through which to examine the emotionality of these characters—providing a different model than is normally found in media portrayals or social interactions.

This is one answer for hegemonic masculinities, however All American Boys and Monster do not feature protagonists (with the exception of Quinn from All American Boys) with hegemonic masculine identities. Bean and Moni explain that “ethnic identity searches in adolescence often arise from a critical life episode…one in which cross-cultural communication fails, or it may involve an act of racism. This critical life episode,…produces a feeling of disequilibrium. Previously held attitudes and beliefs about others and oneself are called into question” (642). This provides a relational framework for hegemonic and subordinate masculinities in All American Boys and Monster. Both center a black protagonist accused of a crime and All American Boys provides a hegemonic masculine, white identity (Quinn) as the black protagonist (Rashad)’s foil. In Monster, the protagonist is opposed by white adults, demonstrated in oppositional scenes where the protagonist is perceived to be less-than. Both books explore the black protagonists’ feelings and responses to their critical life episodes and demonstrate the identity formation achieved by each character in opposition to their white foils.

Interestingly, the white protagonist in All American Boys follows an identity-searching arc analogous to a critical life episode. Although Quinn did not necessarily have a failure of cross-cultural communication or experience an act of racism, his position in the story—a witness, complicit without knowing, attempting to catch up—does follow another marker of identity development, cited by Bean and Moni (640): “…young people are social actors, struggling with social relationships to construct positive identities in fluid time.” This fluid time was a result of postmodern society eliminating industrial society models, leaving teenagers adrift. Instead, teenagers cling to ephemeral means of constructing identities (641)—much like Quinn taking up a political cause and identifying pointedly against his white peers.

The strength of All American Boys is that it shows the legitimacy of these choices for the protagonists. Both of these boys are written as very average, masculine teenagers who, through self-reflection and introspection, move away from predetermined masculine ideals and redefine their identities against societal expectations of their performative roles as men. The hope, as Myers expressed with Monster, is for boys to model their own masculinity after these characters instead of the stereotyped images and canned representations they had modeled before—and with authors writing to exploit the male gaze inherited by boys, they might be able to.

Works Cited

  • Abate, Michelle A. “‘My Job Is…to Make You a Human Being in the Eyes of the Jury:’ Confronting the Demonization—and Dramatization—of Murder in Walter Dean Myers’s Monster.” Bloody Murder: the Homicidal Tradition in Children’s Literature. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013, pp. 175-204.
  • Bean, Thomas W. and Harper, Helen. “Reading Men Differently: Alternative Portrayals of Masculinity in Contemporary Young Adult Fiction.” Reading Psychology, vol. 28, no. 1, 2007, pp. 11-30.
  • Bean, Thomas W. and Moni, Karen. “Developing Students' Critical Literacy: Exploring Identify Construction in Young Adult Fiction.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, vol. 46, no. 8, 2003, pp. 638-648.
  • Kiely, Brendan and Reynolds, Jason. All American Boys. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhny Books, 2015.
  • Middleton, Peter. The Inward Gaze: Masculinities and Subjectivity in Modern Culture. Routledge, 1992.
  • Myers, Walter D. Monster. Amistad, 2004.
  • Schrock, Douglas and Schwalbe, Michael. “Men, Masculinity, and Manhood Acts.” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 35, 2009, pp. 277-295.