The Happy Ever After Myth

So you must be thinking that you are seeing an inordinate amount of me this week. My apologies for that, my fellow bloggers are either busy or have less to say about romance than I do. Did you enjoy Wednesday’s post? My foray into positive romance-ey stuff – which is legit by the way. I like romance, I do. I just like good romance (according to me). However, as much as I like romance, I don’t think a relationship defines who or what I am.  To apply this to a more pertinent topic, has anyone else noticed how many female protagonists of contemporary YA novels are defined by the boys who love them or the boys they love? Has anyone else picked up a novel with an interesting premise only to leave it unfinished and disgusted because somehow the romance subsumed the so called “story” and the narrative is more concerned with whether Conner loves Paige or Elizabeth or if Paige is going to choose Conner or Clementine (names are totally random and not associated with any book)? Because I have, so many times, and it makes me wonder many things and I will talk about them if you have time and want to hang around for a while.

The first question is: why are YA novels primarily concerned with romance?

The answer here is obvious: romance sells. People, teenagers included, love romantic stories. I am not at all sure on this so don’t quote me but there are very few YA novels that don’t contain at least a hint of romance. The only one I can name off the top of my head is Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci and I’m not sure how that novel did sales-wise. I certainly do not have a problem with the fact that all YA novels contain romance, not at all. What I do quibble with is the importance romance is granted in YA novels. Instead of being something that makes life enjoyable, romance becomes something that makes life worth living. Soulmates scatter the pages of YA novels like they’re going out of season and people are willing to die, kill or be sacrificed in the name of love.

Here are some cat memes while I think up my next point:



While the histrionics and melodramatics associated with heartbreak and unrequited love would be expected in romance novels targeted at adults, I find them quite bizarre on the pages of young adult novels because they are at a stage in their life where forever is probably a month and permanence is granted the same horror as suspenders were given before hipsters made them cool. When I was a teenager I was in love with someone new every other week (most of the times they were fictional or people I passed by on the street and would never see again) and though I’m older now, I’m not sure that has changed. Relationships during adolescence still retain that exploratory edge to them that almost everything during adolescence has – and this is not a bad thing.

Why then do YA novels insist on glorifying long term relationships while condemning people who have shorter relationships with different people? Girls, especially, are given derogatory labels when they choose to explore their sexuality (though this doesn’t always apply to boys doing the same thing) and protagonist A always falls in love with Love Interest A no matter that he or she is not even two decades old and has a lot more to learn about life before he/she can understand what love is.

I don’t think this perpetuation of societal norms is intentional; the whole one-relationship forever-happy deal is so ingrained in modern minds that those who move away from it are called out as perverts (incidentally, this thought belongs to Kathryn James whose book I’m reading at the moment but she discusses it in the context of death while I’m not). Is this manner of thinking harmful to those who do not subscribe to traditional concepts of love, monogamy, etc? Of course, it is. Leaving aside the whole LGBTA debate, teenagers who want to explore and express their sexuality in a manner different from what is accepted as normal by society face a lot of difficulty and discrimination.

The importance given to romance in YA novels is echoed by how much a protagonist’s sense of self-worth is tied to the kind of boy she dates. And since these books are mainly targeted at females, it would not be a stretch of the imagination (though very bad academically of me since I have done no research that supports this opinion), that this kind of thinking entrenches patriarchy by elevating boys. At the same time though, this also objectifies boys as they are viewed as worthy possessions rather than people to have a relationship, partnership with. That quarterback/jock/shiny vampire may have a personality beneath all the glitter and brawn but no one’s waiting to find out. Most of the times anyway.

Things may be changing as attitudes about masculinity and femininity undergo another change.  We can just wait and read to find out how and what changes. Or perhaps we could also find a pen and start writing our own stories. Have you had enough of me? Shall I leave? Well okay.


18 responses to “The Happy Ever After Myth

  1. “While the histrionics and melodramatics associated with heartbreak and unrequited love would be expected in romance novels targeted at adults, I find them quite bizarre on the pages of young adult novels…” I actually think the opposite because the histronics and melodramatics are a lot more intolerable when you’re an adult. At least when you’re in the YA range, you have the excuse that you’re too young to realize how stupidly you’re behaving. (Mind you, not all adults are equipped with the skill of knowing when they’re being dumb neither but unlike teenagers, they have a lot less wiggle room for excuses).

    I think I would have less problem with the whole you’re only worthy/validated when a certain werewolf/vampire/outsider-dude-who’s-hot likes you back if the same can be said of male protagonist. It’s still problematic but at least, the field would feel a lot less sexist to me.

    • Ha! I would like to read a book like that but I think it would skew on the side of the guy having insecurity issues because god forbid, a girl can validate a guy. I mean, they are objectified and thoughts as possessions, you know, the cheerleader dangling off the arm of a guy gives him street cred, but meh. Girls do that too.

  2. As ever I fully agree with your outlook on this topic. Then again, I like to make a joke that my romance in high school was a bit like Twilight if Bella had been smart and dumped both guys eventually because clearly its wrong to settle for creepy guys that are going nowhere in life, especially not in any direction I want to go in, just because of some stupid notion that love conquers all… Love is only one aspect of a good, solid, life long relationship. And I get unbelievably happy whenever any romance story curves from that norm, even just a little. In the sequel to The Selection, the love interest tells the female protagonist that he wants to keep trying to make it work ‘but I can’t trust you so you need to really work at this and be willing to give me space to explore other options because I’m not screwing up the rest of my life because of you, no matter how much I love you.’ Obviously not a direct quote, but I really appreciated that conversation and look forward to the next book, The One. (Also on a final note, I am happily married for two years and my parents have been married for 28 years. They are the ungoing basis for me of all things romance because whatever they’re doing it’s obviously working)

    • I had avoided The Selection after the whole drama with the author cursing at a blogger friend of mine but maybe I will check it out some day. I’m glad he told her that. You should try out The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke. She has romance but it is definitely unconventional at the end. (And I’m glad you have a good example in your parents. Plus congratulations on finding someone you can spend your life with!)

  3. Very interesting idea! Especially to me since I have two daughters, who will no doubt subscribe to the necessity of romance once they start hitting their tween years!

    • Oh dear, I sense a lot of angst and drama coming your way. I remember retreating into myself once I discovered I liked boys (but then, I grew up in a culture where relationships were a no no). Some good books should help!

      • Interesting. I was also raised to believe that relationships were a no no! And that sure didn’t help me pick the right guy to marry! Fortunately here I am 10 years later and I’ve finally figured out what real romance is!

  4. “Soulmates scatter the pages of YA novels like they’re going out of season.” Oh Nafiza, I love your writing!
    I will quibble, however, that the emphasis on “forever” in teenage romance also makes it harder for teens who ARE interested in monogamy and mature relationships, as the “forever” portrayed isn’t really forever, doesn’t give useful information on developing serious (not just “serious” but actual) relationships of any sort (friendship as well as romantic), and holding on to ideals not shared by the wider culture, or at least YA culture is a struggle when doing so is branded as “not normal” and “uncool.” As well as pressure on girls to not be named sluts (etc), there is also strong pressure in high school and after, both in novels and out, to be cool, popular, “in”, which typically means expressing her sexuality in ways she isn’t necessarily ready for. Acknowledging physical desire is one thing, but the sexualization of girls, even maturing late-teens (the human brain is not finished maturing until the mid-twenties, so even the most responsible of older teens are still “becoming” themselves as adults) is hugely exploitative. Calling girls whores is wrong; so is pressuring them to identify themselves according to their romantic entanglements, as you pointed out so well, whether these relationships are experimental or steady. Not everyone goes through a “wild” phase.

    • We should foster an accepting attitude no matter how adolescents choose to express themselves. To an extent obviously. I certainly didn’t have a wild phase, I was too busy reading but I think YA novels in particular are biased on the side of the straitlaced protagonist and anyone who is more adventurous and sexually confident is seen in a more negative light.

  5. So well said. I love YA lit, but the most interesting parts of it are almost never the romance. Even though kids at that age are emotional and hormonal, they’re still people with interesting stories beyond that!

  6. I read this a few days ago and have been mulling over my thoughts on it because you raise so many interesting, important points.

    And, with that said, it’s also in contrast to my own experience growing up in the 90s–which is obviously way before most everyone on the internet’s time (it was also the heyday of RiotGrrls in the PNW, where I grew up). Back when I was a teen we were in the height of grunge and 3rd-wave feminism so a focus on relationships was viewed as retrograde. When I went to college at 17, I met my now-husband literally on my first day of school and we’ve been more or else inseparable since then. For years I was told by peers (and a fair number of adults) I was “wasting” my youth and should be dating around and “hooking up” (the term that was big then) because a long-term relationship at a young age wasn’t normal. Obviously, this is just my own experience, but I’ve heard the same anecdotally from other people in my age group.

    Now, it seems like young people receive the opposite of the messages I did. I have a lot of theories about the culture shift that happened in the 2000s that caused this (tied to both the rise of internet culture and the collapse of the economy–which also correlates to the rise of modern DIY/crafting movements, which is something I’ve written about a lot professionally and have ton of opinions on). Honestly, I feel like (again, just perception) it’s far harder for young women now than when I was in my teens and 20s. Sure, there’s more awareness of subjects like sexual assault, but day-in, day-out, the messages that are all over all types of media are just brutal, and the expectations are ridiculous.

    In terms of YA, I’d love to see more complex romances (there are some, but you’ve got to dig) that really show how relationships are tough and sometimes are worth it, and sometimes are not and sometimes the timing isn’t right, but maybe it will be later (Trish Doller’s Where the Stars Still Shine did this brilliantly). I also like what Amy Spalding does with relationships in her YA novels. They’re very clearly depicted as “right now” relationships, and while maybe the characters can mature together and be a long-term thing, there’s something healthy in the realism that the relationships she develops are imperfect, but right for that particular time in their lives. Lisa Schroeder does this well also. At that age, so much of life is figuring out what you want and what you can tolerate from other people, and I’d love to see YA romance explore that more thoroughly/completely.

    FWIW, I’ve been slowly putting together a list of YA that doesn’t involve romance (as a companion to another list of favorite YA romances) for my blog–there’s some good stuff out there, but it’s rarely called out in marketing materials, which is revealing.

    • That’s an amazing story. I guess it works both ways but honestly, from what I’ve read, to me it does seem that a certain kind of relationship is normalized in the YA novels I read and a departure from the normalized relationship is looked up as perversion. But you bring up awesome points. I guess the deeper and more lingering issue here is acceptance. As I said to Janet, we need to understand that all of us are different and will live differently and we need to accept that instead of trying to pigeonhole people into shapes we think are good. Thanks for the comment, Sarah!

      • I also think that there’s something to be said for the fact that YA wasn’t a big thing in the 90s–we had Christopher Pike, Judy Blume, Sweet Valley High and a few others and none of those were all that influential as older teens generally just “moved on” to adult fiction, since what there was skewed toward younger teen audiences. TV-wise, it was 90210 and a couple of other things, but they were definitely more nighttime soaps that the YA television we have now (ie The Fosters, Dance Academy, even the Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars were later). In a sense, youth culture was still very informed by music culture, whereas now, the all-encompassing “Media,” is what’s tangled up with youth culture, expectations and norms.

        I do wonder what sort of influence the cultural (including religious) perspective of the the bulk of YA authors has on the sort of relationships (happy ever after, forever stuff at a young age) depicted/reinforced in these stories? My perception is that the bulk of YA novelists skew in a certain direction, and I feel like that’s something that’s an important–and problematic–element to what we’re seeing now.

  7. This was very interesting. (and the cat pictures always help with story telling). I’m a little torn on my reaction. As an adult now who has been in a stable relationship for a few years, I tend to agree with you that romance shouldn’t be the overriding theme of the story. However, I think my teenage self would disagree based on the number of Jane Austen books I read and the fact that apparently “Nicholas Sparks” was the answer to one of the security questions I set at 18. Suffice to say, I really loved love stories. Oddly enough as a teenager, I had no desire for an actual boyfriend, focusing instead on studies and my friends. I pretty much knew the grim statistics of high school relationships. For me, reading romance allowed me to channel my romantic side into books instead of an actual serious relationship, which I wasn’t ready to commit to. Well this is kinda long and I hope it makes sense!

    PS- if actual high schools had any boys as hot as these YA ones are supposed to be, we’d have problems.

  8. Pingback: Weekly Recap | Feb 24 – Mar 8, 2014 | Oh, the Books!·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s