Challenging Views of the Teenage Boy

Returning home from ALAN this past week, I started Adam Smith’s book Winger; I finished it on the way home from our family Thanksgiving excursion to my mom’s place in Idaho. I should have read the book last year when I landed a copy at the workshop, but I’m glad I finally read it. Winger is the story of Ryan Dean West, a 14-year-old at a rich boarding school who plays on the varsity rugby team and finds himself thrust into a world of older (16- and 17-year-old) students. He has to make some tricky decisions and navigate some complex situations as he’s forced to live in O-Hall with other students who are on their “last chance” at the school. Things move along at a nice pace: Ryan Dean makes mistakes (many of which are not hard for the reader to see coming but which Ryan Dean himself can’t seem to stop from happening) and he learns a lot from his experiences (about friends and the nature of friendship mostly). The ending’s a bit of a gut-wrencher, as things go off the rails in a surprisingly sad way–I had the distinct feeling of the carpet being pulled out from under me. I’m not complaining, just expressing surprise at the direction things took at the end of the book.

When we talk about young adult literature, we often idealize the writer who is able to capture a convincing teen voice, and there’s no doubt that Adam Smith has done that in this book with Ryan Dean. I enjoyed seeing the world of Pine Mountain, the boarding school he attends, through Ryan Dean’s eyes, and many times I found his thoughts and feeling echoing my own as I navigated that treacherous time of age fourteen. However, about three-quarters of the way through the book, I started to feel weary of two aspects of West’s character: his near-constant preoccupation with sex and his tendency to make choices he knew would be wrong or hurtful to someone else–and these choices often had to do with sex (in this case, mostly making out and kissing–there’s nothing more serious in this book).

Now, I recognize that teenage boys think about girls and sex a lot. I’ve been there myself, I’ve been in locker rooms and college dorm rooms, I’ve watched lots of teenage boys–I know this is a topic that occupies our attention a lot from the ages of 14 onwards. (And, honestly, I know that this is something that some of us never seem to “grow out of.”) And I recognize that most teen boys make stupid choices–often governed by hormones–even when they should know better. Portraying a young man like this is not surprising in realistic fiction, and as I mentioned before, Ryan Dean is endearing and believable and makes the book worth reading. In the context of his obsessions, the small glimpses we get of the more sensitive, artistic, and vulnerable sides of Ryan Dean are made all the more evocative.

However, in reading this book I’m compelled to wonder about the portrayal of Ryan Dean (and many other male protagonists) in ways that portray a young man as subject to his hormonal impulses. And Ryan Dean is very subject to these impulses–almost every mention of a girl is couched in description of how attractive she is or how her presence or touch (even if incidental) excites him sexually. And he does let himself be controlled by these feelings: Ryan Dean gladly grabs the opportunity to make out (multiple times) with his roommate’s girlfriend in spite of the fact that (a) his roommate could easily (and willingly) cause physical harm to Ryan Dean if he found out about their trysts, and (b) Ryan Dean says he’s deeply in love with another girl with whom he has a blossoming relationship that might be harmed were she to find out. It’s frustrating as a reader to see Ryan Dean make some of the choices he makes in this situation–and a great relief of sorts when he doesn’t get caught and makes the “right” choice to stick with the girl he’s been in love with from the start of the book. (So, clearly, Smith is a good writer who’s able to engage readers with compelling characters and events.)

Societal constructions of teenagers (and teen boys in particular) define them as driven by hormones and unable to resist the impulses from this awakening sense of themselves as sexual creatures. Often, these constructions are identified as presenting teens in a way that emphasizes their deficits (i.e., they are immature in the way they are subject to these impulses). Ryan Dean, for much of the book, seems to fit this deficit construction–to the point that, as a reader, I became tired of his continual meditations on the attractiveness of these girls and his excitement at being the object of their attentions. I was hoping for some resolution to this–to see Ryan Dean take on a more mature, healthy view of women, to see them as more than sex objects (which is something he’s told at least once or twice during the book by other characters). This happens towards the end of the book as he makes some mature, responsible choices regarding his relationships with others. But for much of the book I found myself chiding Andrew Smith a bit for creating a young man–a very likable young man–who falls squarely into some of the stereotyped views of teen boys.

But do I err in this wish? Am I suggesting, then, that this book needs to present healthy, mature ways of viewing women and our relationship to them so that teens can “learn” something from the book? This attitude, itself, might suggest my own deficit views of teens–that they need correcting in some way, that their natural state is aligned with Ryan Dean’s and they should have “better” models in the books they read. Some of that may be true, but heading too far down this path of questioning raises inevitable problems of analysis paralysis where we can’t decide on anything. I’d rather suggest that as a society we should value relationships where women aren’t seen solely as sexual objects and decisions that are made based on mature definitions of friendship and loyalty–and that’s why I think Winger has power: Ryan Dean is an endearing, attractive character who struggles mightily to come to these conclusions, but he reaches them in the end. And I think he’s better off for it.


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