If you follow John Green or Shailene Woodley on Instagram, or if you have an unhealthy obsession with Ansel Elgort – as most of the American population seems to – you’ll know that the filming of the movie adaptation of Green’s young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars began last month. John Green has suddenly been thrust into the Hollywood spotlight, and Nerdfighters everywhere are rejoicing. However, there are some anonymous Internet users who have accused Green of narrow-mindedness. They claimed that he has an offensive lack of variation in his protagonists, and that he ignores his white, middle class, heterosexual privilege. However, he's actually doing just the opposite.
Green is the author of four young adult novels: Looking For Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, and The Fault In Our Stars. He also co- authored a book with David Levithan entitled Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Four out of five of these books are narrated by a white, middle class, heterosexual boy. This pattern initially caused some to accuse Green of perpetuating the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ stereotype. The most publicly addressed accusation of this sort came in the form of a question submitted to Green’s Tumblr by an anonymous user about a month ago:
"Hey John, I was just wondering what your explanation was for asserting yourself and appearing to be a very forward thinking writer and I guess general social rights advocate, but yet you heavily play into the troped ideal of what’s essentially the manic pixie dream girl, not to mention romanticizing extreme illness & suicide to your very young and definitely impressionable reader base?"
Green responded diplomatically, if passionately, and explained the plot for each of his books as what they are: a way to get his readers to think about people as complicated human beings and not as stereotypes. As he puts it, “I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about [the importance of breaking down stereotypes] without calling the novel The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed.”
I will agree with the anonymous Tumblr user to a point. John Green has a formidable web presence and considerable international influence on young adults, which is why such accusations against him are so preposterous. In fact, Green’s novels, and most of his Vlogbrothers videos deal with “imagining people more complexly,” to quote Green himself in his Tumblr response. Almost everything he discusses in his books and on his many YouTube channels urge his audience to look at people as complex human beings as opposed to cardboard cutouts of idealized stereotypes. This is an important message for everyone to remember, especially young adults, which is why I’m such an avid fan of Green. This particular Tumblr user is likely uninformed and has possibly never read one of Green’s books -- or has done so without taking them seriously.
Green’s novel, Paper Towns, is essentially a record of the narrator’s journey to find Margo, the girl he has idealized since childhood. She disappears and he takes it upon himself to find her and “save” her, which is a desire mostly motivated by his need to understand her mysterious personality. However, at the end of the novel, Green makes it very clear that Margo doesn’t need to be found, or saved. In truth, the narrator’s obsession with Margo was really an obsession with what he wanted her to be, not with the person she truly is. Clearly, Green is using his books to smash down the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, not to add to the hefty canon of literature that spotlights this persona.
Other Internet users have similarly accused Green of writing from a single point of view: that of a privileged, middle class white male. He addressed this briefly in a few of his YouTube videos, yet I think the defense for this particular accusation is pretty clear. Green is a privileged white male. Thus, he has no other perspective from which to draw for his writing. It’s understandable that he doesn’t write about the struggles of a gay teenager, or an African American teenager, or a trans teenager because he doesn’t identify with any of these labels. Some of his readers would find his attempts to write a story about an angst-ridden Chinese trans woman incredibly presumptuous because he has no frame of reference for that particular human experience. In fact, that could be seen as even more offensive for him to attempt to do that, than to keep with his current method.
Young adult (YA) novels mostly attempt to capture relevant moments in young adult life that readers in that age group will enjoy reading about. YA fiction is an ever-expanding genre that covers a wide range of races, ethnicities, religions, gender identities, and sexual orientations. John Green represents one of these types of people in his fiction; it simply happens to be the majority that he is representing. It’s frankly not his fault that he was born a white, heterosexual man from a middle class family. Let’s all take a step back and, as Green would put it, try to “imagine him a little more complexly.”
Image: Penguin Group
- Megan Tripp is a senior Writing, Literature, and Publishing major at Emerson College. When she's not writing, she drinks copious anounts of coffee, watches Netflix, and thinks about what she wants to write next. Contact Megan on Twitter.