Prada: The new puberty

In today's young adult novels, girls become women via consumption.

Published July 15, 2008 9:40AM (EDT)

Kids, I thought the young adult fiction back in my day was h-o-t, hot. Every other page, someone was making out or thinking about making out. It felt naughty cracking open my latest R.L. Stine book at the dinner table -- something akin to boldly unfolding the centerfold in that month's Playgirl in-between bites of Mom's spaghetti. In fact, I purchased a reusable book cover just so that I could read these books in public without being discovered as a total pervert. I couldn't believe that adults were so utterly oblivious to the smut right under their noses. Of course, it turns out they did know about the content of these books -- they just didn't consider tongue-kissing pornographic.

Ah, but young adult fiction has changed: nowadays, the protagonists are going much further than French-kissing; sometimes they're having sex. No real surprise there. What I do find somewhat startling is that today's popular series do not offer lessons on romance so much as retail. In the place of the name of a crushed-on boy -- written again and again in curlicue script -- are brand names. Lots of them. Naomi Johnson, a communications professor at Longwood University, surveyed three hugely popular young adult series -- "A-List," "Clique" and "Gossip Girl" -- for her doctoral thesis. In the 1,431 pages of the six books she examined, there were 1,553 brand mentions. Johnson told the New York Times: "Heroines no longer become women through romance, they become feminine through consumption." A girl's first Prada -- not her period -- marks her entry into womanhood.

Of course, both versions of the heroine's journey -- maturing-through-men and coming-of-age through consumption -- are troublesome. In the young adult fiction of my day, though, the protagonist may have been boy-crazy, but she was a girl at the start and a girl at the end. There was no aspiration to adulthood. Naomi Wolf put it perfectly in writing in 2006 about the protagonists of these new young adult series: "The girls try on adult values and customs as though they were going to wear them forever ... It's sad if the point of reading for many girls now is no longer to take the adult world apart but to squeeze into it all the more compliantly. Sex and shopping take their places on a barren stage, as though, even for teenagers, these are the only dramas left."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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