With people nostalgically rewatching the Twilight movies, Harry Potter trending again on Tik Tok; the pandemic has undoubtedly caused a renaissance in Young Adult Literature as more and more young people seek comfort by returning to the books and movies that shaped their childhoods. But YA has changed a lot since the days of Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior. 

As someone who never stopped reading YA, I have watched the genre grow, and more importantly diversify. There are now hundreds of YA books that include protagonists of color, LGBTQIA+ characters, and plots that don’t just center around a 15-year-old girl (who isn’t like the other girls) singlehandedly saving the world and falling in love with a sarcastic yet mysterious male love interest at the same time.

The YA genre diversifying went hand in hand with the rise of social media, particularly Instagram – which has since turned into the best social media platform for aspiring artists to showcase their work. For illustrators that like to draw fictional characters, Instagram is a great place to share their art with fandoms; similarly, for those actually in these fandoms, it’s the easiest way to see our favorite characters bought to life. 

Fan art of the characters from The Dark Artifices series by Cassandra Clare.
[Image description: Fan art of the characters from The Dark Artifices series by Cassandra Clare.] Via Lariablog on Tumblr

As YA literature became more inclusive, fandom members were excited to see this change reflected in the fan art as well – especially readers of color that were finally able to read about characters that looked like them, after years of reading about characters who didn’t.

However, a large number of artists have continued to consistently draw characters of color with the wrong skin tone – whitewashing them, or even changing their skin color so much it looks like they’re using it as an aesthetic tool to make the image pop.

Even for illustrators that do draw characters of color with the right skin tone, many are often guilty of still giving them features that promote Western beauty ideals, such as a smaller button nose (often with a slight slope), straighter hair, and a thinner body. Not only does this perpetuate the dangerous idea that these Western beauty ideals are the most attractive features for women to have, but it also undoes the hard work of the author who sought to add more diversity into their books in the first place. 

It undoes the hard work of the author who sought to add more diversity into their books

And this seems to be something that exclusively happens to female characters. I repeatedly see artists drawing male characters of color with more diverse features, yet continue to shoehorn their drawings of female characters of color into these anglicized ideals – artworks of two of my favorite YA characters, Alastair and Cordelia Carstairs, a pair of siblings who are both half-Persian, constantly fall foul of this. While most artists draw Alastair with typically Middle Eastern features, for example a longer nose with a bump in it, they are more inclined to turn that nose into a ski slope shape when drawing his sister.

A nose with a bump in it isn’t any less beautiful than one without, yet typically, Middle Eastern noses like this are seen as attractive on men – and a sign of strength and masculine appeal – yet unattractive on women who according to Western ideals, should instead favor one that is small and delicate.

Emma*, an artist, says that “a big problem in fan art is people drawing non-white characters who are canonically beautiful as just white people with darkened skin. People don’t realize how subconsciously our perceptions of ‘ugliness’ are tied to non-whiteness.”

“However, it’s also not totally the artist’s fault, since realistically, they can draw what they want. It’s more a product of Eurocentric beauty standards put in place by colonization and white supremacy than it is the fault of a specific artist. That being said, it is especially important to hold artists accountable for whitewashing POC characters since so many characters of color in YA function as role models for people of color.”

I also asked Emma whether she thought fandoms do enough to call out these artists: “Fans generally do a really good job of recognizing when an artist has lightened a POC character’s skin, and most often an artist will respond with an adjustment to the portrait or illustration and an apology in the caption,” Emma says. “I think it’s important to maintain this level of dialogue since it’s one way for an artist to learn that their depiction of a character may be harmful to people that were hoping to feel represented.”

 

While some artists whitewash characters of color in their drawings, many illustrators are also guilty of promoting Western beauty ideals by drawing their white characters with these so-called “perfect” features. For example, drawing every single female character with the same tiny button nose – despite only a small number of women in real life actually having a nose that looks like this – and drawing girls who are described as warriors complete with cuts and scars, as stick-thin models without an ounce of muscle between them.

Social media does enough at promoting literally impossible beauty standards, we don’t need it in fan art as well – especially in the artwork of characters that have specifically been written to go against these standards. It seems that sometimes, despite the majority of characters in the most popular YA books having the same skin color as me, even I cannot see myself represented in the fan art.

While like Emma* said, it’s not totally up to the artist to draw these characters exactly the way the readers see them, I do think illustrators owe it to fandoms to include more diversity in their artwork as a whole. Different body shapes, different nose shapes, and profiles that don’t play into these Western beauty ideals of feminity. In the same way, authors owe it to their readers to commission artists who put this diversity at the forefront of their work.

More often than not, fan art is just as important as the book itself. Not only does it bring the story to life, but it also helps readers feel represented in a world that still considers white skin, a smaller nose, straighter hair, and a thinner body, the definition of feminine beauty. 

I have loved seeing my favorite literary genre become more diverse over the years, but I worry this hasn’t completely transpired into accompanying artwork; it seems to me that while the YA genre might be promoting more diversity in its pages, it certainly isn’t in its fan art. 

*All original names were changed for anonymity.

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  • Tilly Brogan

    Part-writer, part-booktuber, Tilly is an Editorial Fellow at The Tempest. She loves writing about current affairs and women’s rights, but also passionately defends YA books and considers herself a regular in most YA fandoms. She can pluck her eyebrows without wincing and sink enough vodka shots to raise the Titanic.

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