The YA Novel and Bad Romance

To set the context for this post, let me tell you about the academic thesis I nearly wrote. I was (am still) interested in the question of perpetuation of rape culture in certain YA novels and though I didn’t do much research before I switched to a creative thesis, I still am very much passionate about the topic and about the lack of progressive female characters in books aimed at young adults. The books I planned to analyze were Hush Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick and Twilight by Stephenie Meyers. As you may all be aware, there already exists quite a volume of work dissection Bella and Edward’s relationships, feminist readings and reactions to feminist readings of The Twilight Saga though the same cannot be said for Hush Hush. Because the following is a blog post and I am rather pressed for time, the following post will necessarily be shorter than it should be; it also won’t contain any specifics and will be mostly opinion based as I have not done as thorough research as I wish to before I write anything official about this. My only intention with the following post is to start a discourse, provoke thought and perhaps critical commentary and awareness about what is being produced for young adults/people who read YA novels.

Stephie had a wonderful post about romance in dystopian novels and I’ll leave you to form your own thoughts about it. My main concern is about YA novels as a whole, subgenre inclusive, and the romances depicted (often unhealthily) in them.

It is common knowledge that young adult literature often has quite an intense focus (so intense that sometimes the original premise is subsumed by the romantic plot) on romance. While this is another subject and I’ll be discussing it later, at this point, I’d like to discuss the kinds of romances usually common in YA novels and work in the problematic aspects of the type being discussed.

1. The Love Triangle

We have discussed love triangles before but not in any great detail but you will have realized that none of us here have any great fondness for this particular trope. I’m sure if one analyzes it, one can speak in their favour as they present the protagonist with a choice. And there have been love triangles that have been handled quite well though I cannot name any at the top of my head (in my defense, it’s late)  but what makes this trope problematic more often than not is the total objectification of the female who is being fought over. (To be fair, guys are also objectified but not as much as women are.) Almost always, the female protagonist will be a passive speculator in this fight, not coming out to assert herself or to make a definite choice. She will instead wring her hands wondering what to do without making a choice. These kinds of situations end up with the two boys vying for the girl’s attention and fighting amongst themselves almost as if the girl has no say about who she ends up with and that makes me very angry.

Objectification is extremely damaging and all women know what it feels like to go through it. Here’s an article that talks about one woman’s experience with objectification.

2. The Bad Boy


So yeah, this. I don’t like this at all. And yet this trope proliferates the YA novel like some unending nightmare. YA protagonists, of the female variety, let boys treat them badly over and over again simply because they are hot and somehow irresistible. They mistakenly believe that if they stick by the dude and endure the atrocities he puts them, they will somehow redeem the dude, change him into a nice person. Right. More insidious, however, is the perpetuation of rape culture in books that put the bad boy on a pedestal, portraying him as misunderstood and soft on the inside. If you are not familiar with rape culture, wiki defines it as:

Within feminism,rape culture is a concept that links rape and sexual violence to the culture of a society, and in which prevalent attitudes and practices normalize, excuse, tolerate, and even condone rape.

If you are still confused, maybe this .gif will spell things out:


Or perhaps this one:

Do some more reading about rape culture: a post by Fugitivus.

Now, let’s apply rape culture and bad boys to YA novels and you get Hush Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick. Rather than do a full analysis of the novels of the novels, I will just direct you to wonderful posts by people who have pinpointed EXACTLY why Hush Hush is a cause for concern. Read Lissa’s review, and The Book Shop’s article (which inspired this one), the University of Fantasy also talks about this. Another article about the Twilight movies and what it says about abusive relationships was also a quick interesting read. 

So why are all these things cause for concern, you ask? If you remember, in our Fairytale month (September 2013) we talked a lot about how children assimilate culture through fairytales. They learn power dynamics, gender expressions and everything in between from books and tales that are narrated to them or read by them. I don’t think that fiction created rape culture but I do think that fiction perpetuates it to some degree. If there is no critical awareness both on the sides of the reader and the writer, being with someone who explicitly threatens to rape you will continue to be construed as romantic.

This post is not to imply that all YA novels contain problematic (or bad) romances. There are some that approach romance in a wonderful manner. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow all contain romances that grow gradually and give a more substantial portrayal of relationships than is present in other books. One could argue that the landscape in the YA romance novel genre is changing but I’d have to ask you to provide evidence of such a claim because I recently read a novel that made me want to smack things and I’m usually a very mellow person. In the interests of fairness, this article about feminism and the YA romance novel does bring up good points but, in my opinion, the cons majorly outweigh the pros. Twilight presents as romantic: stalking, threatening, and the intrusion into and the eradication of the concept of personal space. It normalizes such courtship rituals and I cannot see it as being in any way a healthy example. Surely there are ways we can celebrate women.

In conclusion, I’m well aware that this post is massively lacking but I hope you enjoy the fascinating reading material I brought to your attention. Do give them a read. And maybe then, we can have some interesting discussion about the YA genre and bad romances.

14 responses to “The YA Novel and Bad Romance

  1. The best example of a good love triangle is from Lost Girl, the syfy series. Of course pretty sure its a Canadian production and isn’t exactly YA (the main character is a succubus who stays alive by absorbing sexual energies of people.) On top of that the main character has the continuing choice between a man and a woman, so all in all it’s a pretty progressive use of the love triangle trope.

  2. The interesting thing about this is that so often it is deemed unacceptable to examination how women can contribute to or help perpetuate rape culture. It is often considered taboo, or a part of victim blaming (from those with the perspective that all women are victims of rape culture) to point out when someone who just happens to be female in some way actively engages in rape culture. Yet to suggest, for instance, that Stephanie Meyer’s work is simply a product of the fundamentalist Latter Day Saint upbringing is to remove any agency she has as a human being.

    Rape culture is a difficult subject for many people to wrap their heads around (helpful gifs or no). For instance, if only rapists cause rape, how can there be rape culture? Most people who contribute to rape culture are not rapists, but their attitudes which are reflected in the culture by way of media, arts and commodities they produce are harmful non-the-less. What is and is not harmful and objectifying to women, or any individuals, varies from person to person. (For instance, it is to the point where I pretty much refuse to read any manga or watch any anime because SO much of it is demeaning to women and SO much of it sexualizes children that I’m no longer willing to give anything in that medium the benefit of the doubt.) Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous remark, “I know it when I see it”, comes to mind. Rape culture and what specific things that contribute to it are nebulous enough that each person’s definition is going to be different despite any consensus that it does exist and it is a problem.

    One of the core fundamentals of critical analysis, I’ve found, which may make things even more difficult, is that anyone can find anything they want in anything. Whether it’s queer narratives, objectification narratives, or anything else, a clever linguist can jump through enough hoops and connect enough dots to sufficiently prove up is down regardless of author’s intent. And I guess intent goes back to contributing to rape culture: can an author unintentionally contribute to rape culture? Where is culpability? Should fault be found or assigned or not? Between Anne Desclos and Stephanie Meyer, who did more damage to women?

    The mind is boggled D: Sorry for all the circular thinking here on your blog! It was a good post.

    Fun (or not so fun) Fact: Megara was the wife Hercules eventually murdered during a drunken temper-tantrum; her death kicks off his “labors” quests for which he is best known.

    • You bring up some very interesting points, Alex. Who is it unacceptable to? Other women? Because in my circles and amongst my colleagues, it is common knowledge and freely admitted that more often than not, women, rather than men, are the ones who enable and perpetuate rape culture.

      I think authors can unintentionally contribute to rape culture simply by reiterating tropes that advance rape culture. For example, by portraying Edward’s stalking as romantic and even desirable, Meyer is normalizing such behaviour and in real life, should a girl complain of someone stalking her, she will be told that he’s just courting her. It’s just one step away from being told that assault an expression of love.

      I’d say more but let’s save it for a later time.

  3. I have to agree that neither of these common themes are good examples for youngsters reading YA lit, and the love triangle device is so pervasive its sometimes difficult to pick up a popular book that doesn’t feature an indecisive female character. Recently though I’ve been able to find some great YA lit with strong female characters and no love triangle, so here’s hoping these themes will become less popular.

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  7. I would like to see a more realistic love triangle. If you’re going to do it, do it right. For one thing they’re rare in the real world, and second, they almost never resolve with anyone happy.

    Lets say two guys are fighting over a woman(as this is the most common troupe); this is how it happens in the books. Eventually the competition is going to get physical because all men in YA literature are FIGHTERS! They tear each other apart and the poor distressed woman comes in to break them up, and ask the age old question, why must you be so cruel to each other?

    Now lets look at what happens in real life. If by some chance two men have feelings for the same woman they will probably avoid one another, or go out of their way to separate the competition by planning time in which they can be exclusive with the subject of their infatuation. Both men would likely bad mouth their competitor, or praise them(depending on the angle they’re going for), and should it get physical, where both men finally come to blows, the relationship for all three is completely and utterly shattered due to a build up in tension and mistrust fostered by the negative spirit of the competition.

    Some semblance of friendship might be salvaged from these awful moments in life, but in the end a real love triangle is more like a human centipede, in which everyone ends up dying of the infection, having feasted on a diet of excrement, that is the very substance of an unhealthy relationship.

    Write that book and you can have my money. ;)

    • There have been good examples of it though I cannot think of one of the top of my head but you are right, love triangles play out prettily only in fiction. Love triangles in real life usually are messy and end up destroying all relationships though sometimes, after a lot of time has passed, something can still be salvaged. I wouldn’t know though. Haha.

  8. I’m pretty interested in your point about bad boys. I don’t read much YA, but it seems to me that across pop culture the bad boy is presented as 1) Misunderstood and 2) Way smarter than you would think from looking at his grades in school. While it makes for some interesting characters, this always bugged me because in real life, this generally isn’t the case. That “sexy” guy that flunked algebra 3 times isn’t going to turn out to be a future nobel prize winner.

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