Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a young adult novel released in 1999, set in 1991, that follows 15 year old high school freshman Charlie. Charlie is an awkward, shy, quiet kid who is left to loneliness after one of his closest friend’s commits suicide and the rest of his friends either move away or drop him in an effort to change themselves to fit into the high school mold. It isn’t until Charlie meets Patrick, a senior in his shop class, that he then finds his place among a close, tightly nit group of outsiders and falls in love. The novel continues to follow Charlie over his first year of high school and explores how the young teen comes about finding himself through love, music, and friendship. What’s even more interesting is the portrayal of Charlie through the novel. As a young, male teen- Charlie is largely open and honest about his thoughts and feelings, often interjecting his thoughts and being so open that it gets him in trouble at times. I would say that Charlie’s behaviors, and his friends, are something that challenges as well as show the harmful conformity to general tropes of masculinity that seem to often be deconstructed in young adult fiction and the importance of this portrayal is to young male readers and it’s inclusion of various issues
Author Ben Brooks stated that “I want to help boys become better, happier men and open up a debate about what we think of as masculinity,” a statement that speaks loudly about the current perspective of the topic. Masculinity, though not at all inherently bad, is a bit of a slippery slope in how it is to be approached. Though it is important for young men who conform to the idea of masculinity, it is also highly important to realize there is a limit and balance that one must take in order to perfectly balance it out without leaning into toxicity. Toxicity, in the case of masculinity, and be anything from violence, to homophobic remarks, and even lead to sexual assault. The balance that is a tough task that proper guidance can ease, but again must be proper so that it doesn’t lean into toxicity. So how should young men and boys be properly guided toward a good balance? It could very well be through young adult fiction. According to Kathryn Jacobs, it seems that when it comes to reading, young men seem to be most recipient to young adult novels, stating “boys are drawn to these books solely because they are easy to read. Young men also relate to books with adolescent male characters whose social and emotional conflicts mirror their own.”(Jacobs 19). However, even with this fact, it seems as if young boys aren’t pushed to actively read more so often, and when they are, they aren’t pushed to read genre’s outside of normal gender preference. Jacob’s acknowledges this, quoting Millard and Telford, saying that research “Has found that, when it comes to recommending books to boys, teachers tend to use conventional understanding to reinforce traditional ideas of gender and gender preferences, thus denying boys wider reading choices and chances to expand their taste”(Jacobs 20). Heck, I can personally attest to this having been recommended the Alex Rider despite my constant checking out of cheesy YA Romance.
So even if we were to push young boys into reading more YA of various genres. Now what? Is that the end all be all to helping balance masculinity in YA readers? Not at all. Though YA may resonate more with young boys than classic literary works, it certainly doesn’t mean that there isn’t its fair share of toxic masculinity. Whether it’s Edward Cullen of the Twilight Saga, a character associated with stalking and extreme possessiveness, or the every so controversial Holden Caulfield. Some authors have realized the need for protagonist and characters that work against the perception of toxic masculinity and portray masculinity possibility.. Author Brandon Kiely understands this, and realizes how impressionable young males are and how reading offers a great opportunity for young adults to develop emotionally (Ferguson). This understanding of a need for positive masculinity is important and for authors to focus on writing these characters, they’re giving young men positive masculine tones.
Though a great idea to have characters that go against toxic masculinity, it is also a good idea to have characters that also fall into the category of toxicity. In a perfect world, absolute positive protagonist and other male characters would be just fine. However, to simply have nothing but these characters would be a detriment, because then we ignore the existence and thus create a false image of it not being particularly present at all. Instead, in young adult fiction that do include characters comfortable in their masculinity that do show positive traits, it may also be great to give the protagonist and other characters toxic traits and explore the negative impacts it has, and task the character in acknowledging, or even overcoming the traits. The idea of it being simply acknowledged rather than overcame can leave the impression on youth that maybe they can always be introspective and look at themselves and see the possible traits that they have that can very well also be along the lines of toxic masculinity, or even show young adults the possible outcomes when it goes unchecked
Whether committed to the transgressive potential of a male who feels different because he offers vulnerability where others offer hardened restraint, or whether insistent in the claim that these texts simply add to what Gail Bederman would call the “remaking” of a continually complex normative subject, we find in the man of feeling an ambivalent subject for the public sphere.”
Page 10-11 The Work of Being a Wallflower
Back on the note of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, there are a variety of young men in which Chbosky explores masculinity through aside from Charlie. One character in particular is his best friend Patrick. Patrick is introduced as a class clown, being addressed as Nobody and doing impressions of the teacher, and eventually introduces Charlie to Sam and the rest of the circle of outsiders. Though Patrick comes to be a friend to Charlie in times of needs, we see that he succumbs to more toxic traits, abandoning Charlie when he needs him most when trying to snake and see his boyfriend Brad, who keeps their relationship secret due to his fear of being outed as a homosexual. These momments are Chbosky’s exploration of toxic masculinity left unchecked and it’s harmful effects on individuals. We see that the toxic principal of discouragement of homosexuality in young boys stigmatize these characters, pushing them into situations of abandonment, and picking up negative coping mechanisms. After Brad and Patrick break up, which involves a vicious fist fight between the two, Patrick stars to doing various drugs, drinking more often, and casual sex all used as a coping mechanism that lends to toxicity rather than being more open and seeking healthier alternatives.
“One night Patrick took me to this park where men go to find each other. Patrick told me that if I didn’t want to be bothered, don’t make eye contact.”Page 161 The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Another particular scene of the perpetuation of toxic masculinity is from Charlie’s sister, who critiques him for not facing his bully when he was younger. Described as charming by their mother, and soft by their father, We get the idea that this boy is a kinder individual. However, after constant bullying from Charlie’s sister, he ends up hitting his sister in the face. The depiction of violence here shows what happens when the idea of a man’s need to be seen as tough and dominant gets out of hand.
“And this guy got really red-faced. And he looked at me. Then, he looked at her. And he wound up and hit her hard across the face. I mean hard.”Page 11-The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Though Charlie does come to use drugs later to help cope with not having friends momentarily, it also seems that he is the least affected by perceptions of masculinity despite the environment he’s in. His father and brother were athletes, which very much could have lead to him being pressured to follow the same route, but he never really is pushed to do so. We often see Charlie cry whenever his feelings get too much, and he is open and honest to his closet friends, expressing how he feels most of the time. Though these are all positive traits, Chbosky takes it a bit further and shows that one isn’t necessarily free from issues even in doing so. One moment in particular is when Charlie kisses Sam instead of his girlfriend Mary Elizabeth when asked to kiss the prettiest girl in the room. It’s a moment that shows that Charlie’s openness is too much and non-considerate, resulting in his temporary barred from his group of friends. Charlie may avoid toxic masculinity on a greater level he isn’t necessarily safe
“I knew that if I kissed Mary Elizabeth, I would be lying to everyone. Including Sam. Including Patrick. Including Mary Elizabeth. And I just couldn’t do it anymore, even if it was part of a game.”Page 135 The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Toxic Masculinity is an issue that many young adults face in their teenage years, whether it’s being told that showing their emotions is a sign of weakness or to man up and face their bullies. Young male readers need a positive outlook that shows that not subscribing to these behaviors isn’t something to be ashamed of and that they should be able to freely be who they are without the pressure of not fitting in by doing so. Young Adult fiction’s ability to take this idea and show characters that are able to be who they are and express themselves openly is just the positive reinforcement these readers need in order to see. Though it is important to have these characters, it is also important to not pretend that even in the real of fiction that toxic masculinity doesn’t exist and, instead, should act as a contrast to the positives being shown. Young adult fiction can be the medium that shows the good with the bad shows the effects of both, the positives that come out of both as well as the negatives, and allow its young reads to take what it is they have seen and grow from there. The reason The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a great example of this is because it does deconstruct a lot of harmful traits of masculinity, shows positive traits and show the clash between both and the effects on everyone around them is an important one to young boys who read YA. It’s an important note that can profoundly change who they are and how they drift through their teen years.
Ferguson, D. (2018, Jul 14). Authors steer boys from toxic masculinity with gentler heroes. The Observer Retrieved from http://login.libproxy.siue.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.siue.edu?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.siue.edu/docview/2069679544?accountid=13886
Jacobs, Kathryn. (2004). Gender Issues in Young Adult Literature. Indiana libraries, 23(2), 19-24.
Carrillo-Vincent, Matthew. University of Southern California, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2013. 3598174.
Chbosky, Stephen, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” New York Gallery Books, 1999