Venue: Los Angeles Review of Books
Cars in the YA Genre
YA novels navigate through romance, desires, and all aspects of growing-up. Why are automobiles important? Green selects an automobile accident as the primary event to fuel Looking for Alaska’s plot. Meyers uses model specificity to broaden Twilight’s readership. The novels’ vehicles and driving styles perform characterization. Disappointingly, Alaska and Bella’s behavior matches stereotypes of teenage girls around cars. The characters enforce cultural myths regarding females and vehicles. The novels miss an opportunity to elevate women to an equal level with men in the automotive world.
In the early twentieth century, press coverage for cars was overwhelmingly favorable, laws were lenient, and the product would soon be available for every consumer. James Flink, author of “The Automobile Age,” offers a reason for the immediate connection Americans felt with cars. Automobiles brought individualism coupled with the “freedom of choice and opportunity to extend one’s control over his/her physical and social environment.” Young adults select their social and physical environment based on their identity. Therefore, the ability to select and alter one’s “hang-out spot” is extremely important. Today, automobiles grant this ability.
The novels use the importance of cars in two different ways. Looking for Alaska centers the plot on Alaska’s car crash. The ominous “before” foreshadows her ambiguous death. Her car is, literally and figuratively, the vehicle of destruction. Alaska’s death spawns questions and emotions that plague the second part of the novel, but automobiles remain central. Friends Pudge and the Colonel drive through the same road that Alaska departed on. They accelerate as they approach the exact spot, and “POOF we are through the moment of her death. We are driving through the place that she could not drive through, passing onto asphalt she never saw, and we are not dead. We are not Dead!” The boys experience a catharsis as they conqueror the immediate fear of inevitable death. Their automobile provides emotional freedom from Alaska’s death, transitioning from depression into acceptance.
Twilight employs the appeal of automobiles to expand its readership. Meyers admits she asked her brothers’ advice on specific car models to make sure her vampires drove appropriate cars. While it is respectable that Meyers made a conscious decision to select cars, the implied readership seems unresponsive. Teenage girls swoon over any Volvo with little consideration to the model, because its “Edward’s car.” A number of YouTube videos and online blogs display similar admiration towards cars that are not actually featured in the book or movie. In reality, gear-heads appreciate the car selection. This implies boys who associate automobiles with manhood. The cars make the reading experience relatable to a larger audience.
The vehicles depict characters’ personalities. The specificity in Twilight suggests an implicit interpretation. For example, Rosalie drives a red BMW M3. This car embodies the racing heritage of BMW, built into a streetcar. The M3 is almost indistinguishable to the undiscerning eye. However, the lowered suspension, power dome, side intakes, flared wheel arches, and quad exhaust indicate to other drivers it possesses vampire speed under the exterior. Both Rosalie and the M3 are foreign, deceptively quick, and require time to warm up.
Bella receives a used 1953 Chevrolet pickup truck as a gift from her father. The vehicle allows her the ability drive to and from school. It also gives her freedom from the embarrassing police cruiser. Bella describes her truck with love, having a “faded red color, with big, rounded fenders and bulbous cab.” On the outside, the truck appears ordinary. However, the engine was revived and the “solid iron” frame meant it was built to last. Bella appears physically unattractive as well. Similar to the truck, Edward finds her dependable, and able to withstand his temptations with bravery.
Looking for Alaska does not specify car models to the same degree as Twilight. Still, Alaska’s background mirrors her automobile. Alaska introduces her car with veracity. The vehicle earned its namesake because “she is a lemon.” Blue Citrus hides seat belts, and provides an opportunity to throw Lara in Pudge’s lap. Alaska carries severe guilt about her mother’s death and is permanently damaged like her car. Both express little concern for personal safety and facilitate the relationship between Pudge and Lara. The blue color matches Alaska’s pessimistic and melancholic outlook.
To summarize, automobiles empower characters to choose a social environment, are involved in central plot lines, and help characterize. The two novels utilize the significance of cars for young adults, but the girls enforce cultural myths on female driving. Alaska dies while intoxicated. It is assumed females are not as safe as men physically, and drive filled with raging emotions. Statistics show males between the ages of 18-20 are seven times more likely to drive drunk in comparison to their female counterparts. Alaska drives fast and reckless, flooring the accelerator despite the capabilities of the car. Driving is a “cultural conception of manhood” that scholars are “seeking to denaturalize.” Alaska’s relation with cars could have been an opportunity to include automobiles within womanhood. Instead, she embodies the careless, fast driving, hot girl who miraculously escapes accidents. Alaska dies because she fails to act as a practical male.
Bella can turn around oppressive gender roles that sort “human bodies into binary categories to assign labor, responsibilities, moral attributes, and emotional styles.” She has the opportunity to dominate her relationship with Edward by displacing the males’ assumed role as the driver. The vehicle’s driver takes control of the environment. At every important scene involving a car, Edward subdues Bella’s agency. Edward saves Bella in the school’s parking lot, he tells her to get in his car in Port Angeles, and he insists on driving her out of danger from the hunter. Bella passively joins along for the ride. If Bella had one skill to prove her worth, driving could have been a simple choice. She frustrates readers by constantly allowing other people to shuttle her around. Lamentably, both novels challenge concepts of death and desire in new ways, but kept the automotive world falsely outside the bounds of womanhood.
**I decided on the LA Review because it is a serious online newspaper that has seems to have a readership that demands a formal review. The focus on LA is important as well because car culture is huge here.
I wanted to write for an auto magazine, but my disappointment with Bella and Alaska could not be voiced. I would be forced to write more on the specificity and characterization than the exclusion of women from the automotive world.