I ♥ Broken Boys

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I have a confession to make. I’m addicted to broken boys. Now before you start getting all “but can’t you see how BAD he is for you. You deserve better etc” let me clarify; I’m only addicted to fictional broken boys. My real life boy is actually a relatively unbroken grown man. When I was a broken girl I definitely had a predilection for broken boys but I outgrew that, along with my predilection for fingerless gloves and brown lipstick.

But, oh how I love to wallow in books about broken boys. Broken boys are like cooking chocolate to me, dark and bitter, but sweet and addictive. I could read a broken boy book every day and still not be sad enough. I’ve read so many broken boy books of late that I think I’m becoming a leading expert in the field. I’m also starting to see some commonalities with my sweet little fractured heroes. That’s not to say that these books are derivative of each other – I love all these books and each is unique – only that perhaps the authors are tapping into some universal truth about boys and angst. Maybe there are some things teachers and therapists, probation officers and judges, social workers and doctors could learn from the broken boy book phenomenon.

In this spirit I’d like to offer the below as a kind of introductory analysis of broken boys, both fictional and maybe real, for anyone who has boys, cares about boys or loves boys, broken or not.

1. Broken Boys jerk off

Crazy BeautifulA given, I know. ALL boys jerk off. But for some reason only broken boys admit it. Charlie, in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER even seems to discover the wondrous possibilities of jerking off in the course of the book. “Wow!” he writes to his friend. Josh in BOY TOY jerks off about his teacher, Matt in PERSONAL EFFECTS jerks off about his best friend and Tyler in TWISTED jerks off about the most popular girl in school. Poor armless Lucius in CRAZY BEAUTIFUL explains that he has to jerk off “very carefully”. Okay guys, we get it. You have a close and personal relationship with your family jewels. Ahem. Let’s move on.

2. Broken boys get awkward erections

Speaking of family jewels, broken boys seem to have rather unpredictable ones. Maybe this is pretty much every boy too, but broken boys angst about this. As a girl, this has always fascinated me. The only thing I can possibly have to compare it to is when I was five months pregnant with my daughter and she started moving around inside me. Is that what it’s like? Having something alive and sentient in your boxers? Broken boys usually run away or clam up when it happens so perhaps I’ll never know.

3. Broken boys have been abused or neglected

In all seriousness, it is estimated that up to 100% of boys in juvenile detention have been abused or neglected in some way. One in six boys has been sexually abused. At least 20% of boys have been bullied. Fictional broken boys are no exception. Whether sexual or physical abuse, by parent, relative or other trusted adult or the abuse (sexual or otherwise) that we euphemistically call “bullying” broken boys make it clear. Abuse breaks boys just as much, maybe more than it does girls. Neglect breaks boys too. All the boys in my broken boy list have been victims. Josh in BOY TOY is molested, Jason in CRAZY is bullied, Matt in PERSONAL EFFECTS is beaten up by his dad. Many fictional broken boys carry a terrible secret about abuse that they must face in the course of the story. Many of them are so neglected that they have converted that loveless existence into crippling self-hate.

Personal Effects4. Broken boys have experienced death

Death is a common theme in YA fiction but never more painfully so than in broken boy books.  Breckon in MY BEATING TEENAGE HEART is grieving the death of his sister. The titular BOY21 witnessed the murder of his parents. Matt in PERSONAL EFFECTS lost his brother in the war. CRAZY’s Jason lost his mom. Death hurts everyone but broken boys’ grief is debilitating.

5. Broken boys make mistakes

All boys make mistakes, but broken boys make doozies. TWISTED’s Tyler gets busted for vandalizing his school. PERSONAL EFFECTS’ Matt gets into fights. CRAZY BEAUTIFUL’s Lucius blows his own hands off for god’s sake. Mikey in YOU AGAINST ME makes questionable choices when it comes to sex. There are a lot of ways to screw up as a teenage boy and broken boys take advantage of pretty much all of them. And they know remorse too. One of the things that make broken boys so lovable is that they are not afraid to express their emotions, on the page at least.

6. Broken boys are on the run

Maybe my favorite broken boy of all, UNWIND’s Connor is literally running for his life. We never really learn why and how Connor became the screw up that his parents decided to “unwind” but we certainly feel his fear. “I’ll do anything you want,” he says to a trucker who finds him stowing away. Older readers understand what this means, even if the author doesn’t spell it out. Miguel in WE WERE HERE is on the run too, from the past, from juvie and from himself. Some broken boys don’t literally run. THE SPECTACULAR NOW’s Sutter numbs himself with alcohol so he doesn’t have to face up to his life.

7. Broken boys have bad dreams

Everybody Sees the AntsRecurrent dreams form a big part of some broken boy books. In EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS, Lucky repeatedly visits his POW grandfather in dreams, trying, but never quite succeeding in rescuing him. Josh in BOY TOY has repeated wet dreams about his abuser – that would mess you up wouldn’t it? And in CRAZY, Jason has terrifying dreams of drowning or being buried alive that make him wet the bed.

8. Broken boys have bodily functions

Speaking of wetting the bed, broken boys are not shy about sharing their bodily functions with the reader. While broken girls seldom seem to even eat, much less pee or poo, broken boys do all of the above. BOY TOY’S Josh pees in the laundry sink. YOU AGAINST ME’s Mikey claims he can think better after taking a dump. Ew. TMI, guys, really.

9. Broken boys are healed by love

Maybe this isn’t always a feature for real-life broken boys. The reality is that a lot of real life broken boys end up in jail, or dead from suicide or drugs. Some end up on death row. But stories often have happy endings. BOY TOY’s Josh is healed by his loving girlfriend. Charlie in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER and Jason in CRAZY are both healed by new friendships.  Breckon’s life depends on a ghost. Miguel learns to love and forgive himself. This is the one time I wish broken boy book boys were real. So I could tell that that I love them too.

I love you Connor; I would never unwind you! I love you Charlie, even if your breath smells like smoke. I love you BOY21 and I believe you! I love you Breckon, Tyler, Sutter, Josh, Jason, Lucius, Mikey, Miguel, Matt, Lucky. I love you all! I want to bring you home and make you soup and tell you everything will be all right! I love every broken little thing about you!

Swoon…

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28 thoughts on “I ♥ Broken Boys

  1. I like that you pointed out these trends. One thing you didn’t mention that I would have thought would be more prevalent is anger. I’ve read more “broken girl” books than boy books, so I couldn’t say whether anger or sadness is more prominent in boy books. Or are both those feelings just lumped together under “angst”?

    About the bodily functions, especially #8 — I think the characteristic of broken boys being more connected to their bodies is flipped in broken girl stories, where there’s little description of bodily function. I always thought that lack of description was intentional, because many broken girls — heck, many “normal” and “balanced” girls too — are shamed into hating their bodies. It was especially interesting that you pointed out how they often don’t eat, or at least aren’t shown eating. Could be a problem with anorexia or similar food-related problems, or it could just be a part of the distancing of the girl from the body. This body-distancing or body-shaming in broken-girl-stories happens in various ways: through the typical body shaming & embarrassment that goes along with puberty, or because of a traumatic molestation or rape in the past, or because of the idea that you have to be a perfect, flawless princess. Perfect people don’t poop or pee or eat or jerk off. Imo that’s not possible, but that could be part of the reason why girl stories don’t tend to talk about those things.

    Our culture seems to have a serious awkwardness issue when it comes to women’s bodies anyway. Overall, boys are more encouraged to explore their bodies during puberty — the signs of becoming a man, including (heterosexual) sexuality, are a source of pride. Girls, on the other hand, are are encouraged to hide their bodies, their development, & their sexuality.

    1. Completely agree about the bodily function stuff, and girl shame. I’m not sure if authors are intentionally “hiding” the physical aspects of their girls (as a manifestation of their body-shame) or merely adhering to an accepted aspect of story-telling – princesses, as you say, don’t poop.

      Have you read HUNGER by Jackie Morse Kessler? VERY graphic depictions of eating, pooping and vomiting by this very sick broken girl, near death from anorexia.

      But the jerking off thing is funny isn’t it? Why don’t girls wank in YA books? Lord knows they should.

      1. LOL maybe the characters haven’t read Twilight yet so they don’t want to. XD Hahaha I don’t know why I remember *this* comment out of all the disparaging comments about Twilight, but someone wrote, “Twilight is going to fail eventually because all the preteen girls who discovered masturbation while reading it are now in college having sex and don’t care anymore.” Heh.

  2. So not what I was expecting to read (I actually have no idea what I was expecting, actually), but this is brilliant, and I now have a ton more books to read. Charlie is so much my favorite broken boy (and one of my favorite boys in fiction ever, after Guthrie and Marcus Flutie) that I named a character in a yet unfinished novel after him.

    I think my favorite thing about broken boys in fiction is that they seem slightly less problematic than broken girls, who I am used to seeing from boys’ perspectives (like Looking for Alaska) and finding to be awesome, totes broken, and also Mary Sue-like, but then I feel a bit icky because I think there are some problematic objectifying bits to it all.

    1. I’m glad you liked it. And I agree that Broken Boys are maybe less problematic than broken girls. For a lot of reasons maybe. Boys are allowed to be more human, as I noted they can pee and poo and jerk off and do all kinds of things that are taboo for girls. But also Broken Boys often delve deeper into the the fuck-upedness that drives their plots. Some broken girls (Alaska for example) don’t seem that broken. She IS a bit of a Mary-sue so her denouement just pissed me off. This beautiful, rich, smart, popular girl. What does she have to be sad about? Oh, her mom died, well… Whereas Jason in CRAZY lost him mom, he’s been bullied, he has no friends, his dad is crazy, he’s quite crazy himself, and they’re so poor he can barely eat. HE’S broken.

      And broken girls are fetishised in boy POV books too. And in movies. When I was growing up I wanted to be just like Betty Blue from the movie, so sexy and fucked up. But I soon learned that men ran screaming from girls like this. Whereas broken boys really ARE attractive to girls (sadly) and nice stable guys are too boring.

      1. We really are damned if we do, damned if we don’t, right? If you’re actually broken, nobody wants you around, and if you play at being broken, you just get fetishized. Gross. But yes to all of the above. I’ve definitely wanted to be my share of broken girls, but then I’ve also been told I can’t be, because all broken girls are white, too, so I guess I win? In a way? Ick.

      2. All Broken Girls are white?! OMG I think I’ve just had a paradigm shift. You’re right! This is so interesting as it relates to the discussions about POC on covers of YA etc. Because YA heroines NEED to be a bit broken (for the plot to be interesting) and I do think there’s a kind of aversion to girls of color who are broken because….why? I don’t know. Stereotypes? Fear?

        A WHITE girl who abuses drugs, say and has sex with the wrong guy is just troubled, hurting, wounded, BROKEN, Whereas a black girl who does those things is…argh! What? An object of fear and loathing?

        Help! My brain is overloading! I’m literally having an epiphany.

      3. Confession: I’ve never really liked John Green’s books precisely because of the way he festishizes these girls through the boy’s POV. We NEVER get to hear the girls’ perspective. It also makes me wonder if Alaska only seems so perfect, like you said, because she’s being described through another’s eyes. Whereas she might be under so much pressure to be perfect, in her own mind, that she just shatters. Also, having everything & being used to the good life probably didn’t give her the greatest coping skills to deal with tragedy.

        Speaking of fetishizing — isn’t that what you’re doing with the title of this post? That’s what I thought of the minute I saw it, and tbh, it made me a bit uncomfortable. (It also made me want to read it, though 🙂 ) :/ “I want to take them all home and feed them soup and tell them it’s going to be OK”? #9? The IDEA of a broken boy (or girl) is attractive, but in reality…

      4. @gsprendergast It was a recent epiphany for me, too. I was wondering why it was only in the last couple of years that broken girls and “quirky” girls feel so uncomfortable and problematic (I especially hate the latter, as I’ve been awkward and quirky my entire life and it’s been socially debilitating, and now people just think I’m trying to be Zooey Deschanel), and then I realized it was because it’s only in the last couple of years that sociology has become a hobby and that I’ve been in a graduate program for children’s literature. So even though I’ve always been aware that I’ve never really been represented in the books I want to read, now I get why my identifying with broken girls is problematic on a few different levels, not just one.

        @Laura W, I wonder that about Alaska, too. I just read the book for the first time a couple weeks ago and thought it was fantastic. And I still do. But after the initial finishing it and thinking, “Gosh, I wish somebody would see me the way he sees Alaska,” I thought, “Ewww that’s so gross and that’s how I write girl characters sometimes and those are the types of girls I sometimes want to be and yet it’s infantilizing and fetishizing and unreal and unfair.” And then I was sad, both because it slightly tempered my love for the book and because it made me realize how pervasive the idea is and how hard it is to combat. With the post title, though, I thought she was doing that on purpose, to be ironic.

  3. Oh yes, I’m completely fetishizing them. Mea Culpa. But I think there IS a tendency in the real world to fetishise fucked up guys (women write to and marry serial killers in jail for example, although I don’t think I would do that), whereas fucked up women and girls are only fetishized in the media. In the real world they are maligned as sluts and loopdiloos.

    Frankly, I think Alaska exhibited narcissistic personality disorder, as many beautiful fucked up women in books and film do. I remember discussing Betty Blue with my BIL and wondering (spoilers) why she had to die at the end and my BIL said “Well, it’s really not about her, its about HIM” and that ruined it for me.

    I then theorised an archetype: “the inexplicably insane woman” who you find all over films and books that are told from the man/boy’s POV. Whereas in a female POV story if there is a fucked up guy we usually find out why. Why is that?

    Also, if we do happen to find out why a Broken Girl is fucked up, it’s almost always because she has been sexually assaulted. Grrr. That bugs me big time too. I man that DOES fuck girls up, but so do a lot of other things – pressure to be perfect, body image, bullying, learning disorders, mental illness, etc etc etc. RAPE victims are fetishized and that’s what really concerns me, because that’s one step from fetishising rape.

    1. It’s just another version of the manic pixie dream girl, no? Just manic like the actual mental health definition instead of the pop definition. It also has to do with manpain, since women in stories only exist to be caretakers and then to suffer so that boys can learn things.

      1. Zooey Deschanel. Oh how I detest her and all the manic pixie dream girls, because that was me too, only it never resulted in guys falling head over heels for me. They either ran screaming or just used me for sex. Me and the bells around my ankle.

        Oh and my irony is only ever partially on purpose (I’m the writer of this post) 😉

      2. Same here! It never works in real life. Have you seen “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl?” She gets it. Also, she stalks me and then makes a webshow about my life. And yes, I knew you were the author of the post. I just couldn’t decide which pronoun would be more clear, given that I was responding to one person after responding to you and yadda yadda.

    2. Hmm. I personally have noticed fetishizing of both broken boys and girls IRL, some of which has happened to my friends (young women). They realize it — and they totally use it as well. That’s not to say they “pretend” to be broken so that guys will like them; they just know the fascination exists so they use it to their advantage. Is it manipulative? Yes. Do I blame them? No, not really. If anything, what destroys their relationships is not that guys run screaming from freaky girls — it’s their emotional distance and inability to trust. “Broken” people are often so wary of letting others in that they push others away, fearing intimacy as just another way for someone to hurt them. Even those who are trying to help and love them.

      The rape thing is an eye-opener. I guess I never really thought of it that way. Probably because a depressingly large number of women and girls have been raped and/or assaulted, so it seemed natural to me that writers would write about it. Also, a lot of later problems can spring from a traumatic incident like rape. But a rape survivor fetish? Part of me says “ew ugh no way” — but another part completely understands what you mean.

      1. Well, I posted about this a few weeks ago. I mean if one in four women is a survivor (I believe it’s more like 1/2) then what I object to is the construct of rape as a destroyer of women. Most of the “survivors” I know (myself included) are pretty fine and not broken in romantic, narratively interesting ways. We have hang-ups, maybe, but who doesn’t? Is one in four women destroyed? I don’t like to think so.

      2. Of course in a book, 1 in 4 women would be destroyed in fascinating ways that only the right man, aka the main character, could heal…he just has to get her to open up to him so that he can show her what’s what… *vomit*

        Yeah….

        I think this discussion also begs the question of what is “broken”? You can go through horrible things and not be completely broken by the experience. Is broken more like “troubled”? Have broken characters given up?

  4. I’e heard of that series but I’ve never watched it (I’m not much for web series – or TV series for that matter). But lately I have tried to be more aware of the limited range of images available to women of color in the media. In stock photography for example, black women seem to be more likely to be photographed as vixens and less likely as “girl next door” types. I even started a tumblr to try to demonstrate that a person of color can be on a book cover without that cover screaming “THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT RACE!” or worse “THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT GANGS/CRIME/POVERTY” or whatnot. (http://angelhorn.tumblr.com/)

    Personally, being white, I feel a bit awkward writing about race, or writing characters of color, but I have to get over that I guess. WICKET SEASON has a black (Jamaican/Haitian/Canadian) protagonist and I just sold one with a Chinese Canadian protagonist so…

    1. Yes, get over it! Because white writers still have more of a chance of being published when they write about PoC than PoC, so even though that’s disgusting, it means that your writing a sensitive, authentic, wellmeaning portrayal *could* maybe help prop the door open to make editors and marketers more willing to take on actual PoC as list authors. And clearly you’re already doing it (adding your books to my to-read list).

      I actually collect stuff like this so that writers can find lots of perspectives on privilege, “multicultural” books, writing through race, etc: http://bitly.com/bundles/o_4qrl3vt7de/2

      1. Yes, I’ve heard this a lot, that white writers have more chance of being published. It’s not that I don’t think this is true, only that I wonder in WHAT WAY this is true. What drives this phenomenon or the perception of this? I don’t think most editors and agents are overtly racist (I mean more than the sort of low level baseline privilege/ignorance that most educated people have) so they wouldn’t just turn away writers of color. There is a hesitation about stories about POC, yes, but as you say white writers have less trouble getting these stories published. Is it about story-telling traditions and writing style? (maybe I read something by Zetta Elliot about this?)

        Lord, I could go on and on. I wonder if someone is doing a PhD about this question somewhere. Kind of like that sometimes intangible way you can tell that someone is black when speaking to them on the phone. Is there something in the writing that is giving sub-conscious cues? Are agents and editors responding to that? How do we counteract that?

        Actually I’ve been planning a blog post on “What can readers do to diversify literature” for sometime. Any ideas?

        BTW – Awkward Black Girl? Hilarious. I completely relate to her nightmarish job.

    2. “I even started a tumblr to try to demonstrate that a person of color can be on a book cover without that cover screaming “THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT RACE!” or worse “THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT GANGS/CRIME/POVERTY” or whatnot.”

      That reminds me — I’ve noticed that trend before with books & movies labeled “LGBT fiction.” Invariably they’re stories about coming out, or their parents rejecting them, or someone committing suicide, or other orientation-related problems. And yes those are important issues, but where are all the books where LGBT characters go about their normal lives?! Why must all books featuring minorities be “issue” books? It’s like the expectation that when you pick up a book with a PoC cover or protag, you expect to read about discrimination & whatnot. Sure that might be part of the book, but it doesn’t have to be the central focus of the book & I think that might be part of what puts people off…

  5. If you can find the Zetta Elliot thing, let me know! I keep meaning to read more of her. And hey, I’m not writing a dissertation, but that sounds like a cool thesis idea for my master’s! I’ll think about that. I think it’s more about expected storytelling styles and stereotypes, though there is something to be said for different linguistic and expressive styles. But if it really were only about ACTUAL storytelling styles, nobody at Borders ever would have come up with the idea that Toni Morrison has the same writing style as someone who writes cheap genre fiction about babymamadrama just because they’re both black.

    And I love your idea for a blog post. I’m sure I could come up with some ideas. Or at least some grievances, lol.

    @Laura, yes! Everything that’s not whiteguyliteraryfiction or generaldefaulthumans(aka white) fiction is “African American fiction,” “LGBT fiction,” “Asian American fiction,” etc. I’d like to see them put “disabled fiction” as a label and see how people react.

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