Thursday, May 5, 2011

Where’s the Respect in YA Romances?

By Ceilidh

There are a lot of reasons I don’t like the romances in many YAs, especially those that fall under the paranormal genre. I’ve never been shy about my dislike of them, even to the point where it’s gotten me a bit more attention than I’m usually comfortable with. A lot of these romances follow a stock pattern and generally fit into the same mould – outcast girl, beautiful boy, instant attraction and love, little development, etc – but they also contain one feature that I can’t help but be annoyed by.

There’s a complete lack of respect and equality in these pairings from the offset, which in any other situation would doom the relationship from the beginning, but in the paranormal YA environment, they’re true love embodied. How often have you read a paranormal romance YA where the guy acts like a complete jerk to the woman and yet she’s still attracted to him? How often have you seen the ‘bad boy’ card played to justify a man treating a woman like dirt? Often, this less than respectful attitude is the man’s only defining characteristic, other than being incredibly handsome (because if he was described as anything less than male model material, his actions would be creepy and not those of the perfect man.) With no personality or defining features beyond good looks and ‘bad boy’ attitude, there’s no way a strong and defined relationship can be formed between the heroine and her love interest, especially if the heroine is as badly written as the male, only with a more passive attitude. We at the Book Lantern have been open in our distaste and disappointment for the archetypal gender roles the young men and women in these books adhere to. From Bella Swan onwards, passivity and a general damsel-in-distress demeanour are not only acceptable, even in the face of complete disrespect from their supposed one true love, but it’s now the romantic ideal.

We’ve seen these jerks saturate YA, with their actions that would be seen as reprehensible in any other situation be forgiven because they’re ‘sexy’ and ‘mysterious’ and a ‘bad boy’, and those two words right there seem to be the get-out-of-characterisation-free card that gives authors a free pass to avoid explaining these actions. The bad boy trope is a tale as old as time itself, it’s evolved over the years but the general message stays the same. There’s the misunderstood troublemaker with the heart of gold and the girl who can change him. Yet in books like “Hush Hush” and “Fallen”, these bad boy actions are desirable and the guys the smouldering heroes, even when they do completely deplorable things like threaten to kill the heroine! Do you remember the scene in “Hush Hush” or its sequel “Crescendo” where Patch apologised for his disgusting actions, and he and Nora attempted to build a relationship based on trust and mutual respect? Neither do I. 

I’ve talked a lot about how much I hate the portrayal of women in these sorts of relationships but think about how much this sucks for the men too. The ‘perfect’ man is unnaturally handsome, usually extremely wealthy with no real responsibilities, and has the chivalrous attitude of a cave man, without the club. Of course, no man’s going to read “Hush Hush” and immediately start sexually harassing a woman in school, but it is adhering to the age old gender norms that we still live our lives by, even though they’re extremely archaic and ultimately damaging. Men are the heroes who save the day and women are the pretty objects and home-makers in training. We force this standard upon kids from freakishly early ages (see this enlightening video on gender marketing in toy ads for more details), then we continue to use it throughout the rest of our lives, even our teenage literature. This isn’t a blanket statement, there are many great books out there with varied, stereotype busting relationships, but the big, bestseller list filling series do tend to stick to these gender expectations pretty rigidly. If you keep telling boys they have to be strong warriors and girls they should play with dolls and princess tiaras, change will never come our way.

I have no problem with romances in YA, I genuinely don’t, but when that romance revolves around a 2 dimensional jerk treating a 2 dimensional meek damsel like dirt and her letting him get away with it, that’s just not on. It’s not just that these default relationships of paranormal romance YA are so ethically questionable, they also reek of bad writing. It’s so easy to go from first glance to true love without building a proper foundation of common interests, getting to know one another, and trust, but how believable is a relationship when it’s built solely on lust, and realistically, how long would that relationship last in the real world? Romeo and Juliet never would have lasted, and neither would Bella and Edward. Of course, Bella and Edward did split up for one book, but that doesn’t count because that’s now the default mode for creating tension in a series (for examples, see Becca Fitzpatrick and Cassandra Clare.) Angst should not be the defining factor of any relationship, especially a teenage one. Teens have enough crap to worry about and so do I! 


  1. Nice job! I like this article because lack of respect in a romance is one of the biggest turnoffs for me. It's one of the main reasons I found Edward Cullen insufferable in Twilight. What gets me is when the fans defend this by saying that "not everything's candy and roses in a relationship", basically implying that it's a woman's lot to be in abusive relationship. Quite frankly, I find the whole idea horrifying.

  2. I adore this post, and cannot agree more.

    I like a "bad boy" romance as much as the next person, but only when the hero's bad points are genuinely shown as "bad" and the heroine realizes this. Even better if he at least *attempts* to change (i.e. Pride and Prejudice or Beauty & the Beast). Otherwise, I just can't see the relationship working out.

  3. So true. So, so true. Why is it that girls have to slaver over the boys? Why are all the boys "mysterious" and "intense" and "darkly good-looking"?

    Why do we even still believe that girls should be the ones downtrodden in a relationship? It's like we're still stuck in the Dark Ages.


  4. Oh, yes, thank you for writing this. I'm so sick of the disrespect - not only the disrespect the characters have for each other, but for the disrespect these pairings show for teenage readers (like me, GAH). My friends and I are so sick of wimpy girls floundering around in the arms of someone who, in real life, would clearly be toxic. Thank God for the dystopian genre for giving us some girls to look up to.

  5. This is a great post, and really hits the nail on the head. Interestingly enough, I was reading a blog complaining about the romanticising of abuse in Gossip Girl, and one of the commenters had some really relevant points to make:

    'We tell and re-tell the Beauty and the Beast
    story over and over and over again in this culture. Girls are repeatedly
    sent a message that boys basically never are: that if a man is mean and
    brutish, you may be the only means of his transformation if you stick
    by him.

    'And I think this is made worse by the inescapable, claustrophobic
    ubiquity of the pink princess imagery that dominates EVERYTHING that is
    marketed to younger girls. Many girls also or eventually recognize that
    as a boring and oppressive space at some level, and the “bad boy”
    narrative is waiting there as a seeming escape from being too “goody
    goody.” The pinkness and pastelness of all things girl then heightens
    the appeal of something that is the reverse–the appeal of the “dark”
    side, the being bad, and the “bad boy” becomes the culturally approved
    way to explore the non-princess world.

    'There’s so little cultural space for less zero-sum understandings of young women–either princess or Persephone.'

    That pretty much sums it up, really.

  6. I think it has less to do with gender roles and more to do with respect. Why is a man going to respect you if you don't respect yourself? And by allowing a man to treat you in the same manner that Patch treats Nora, you're not respecting yourself. Ultimately, that's why I decided to skip that book - because I couldn't take how big of a jerk Patch was. I don't necessarily have a problem with a man saving the woman because sometimes that does happen. I have a problem with the idea that a man ALWAYS saves a woman (or even vice versa). A relationship should be made up of two individuals who respect each other and are KIND to each other. Just sayin'. lol

  7. That is one of my major issues with the whole Twilight storyline: Edward is a jerk! A creepy, stalker jerk who hangs around in secondary schools, despite the fact that he has lived for many decades in the world. It kind of horrifies me that there might be people out there who think this is the ideal way of going about things. It's too bad for all of those guys out there doing their best to be decent human beings - their real role model should be an over-age stalker who's happy to treat his girlfriend as a possession over whom he has ultimate control.


  8. Thank you! I agree with everything you said. One reason a lot of paranormal books are infuriating to me is due to this inequality--esp. HUSH, HUSH. The covers are GORGEOUS, but the inside...I only read the first book. These relationships are so abusive. I want to cringe every time I hear a young girl say that Edward is the perfect boyfriend; he's not. If you have two opposites coming together and the arguing is to cover the attraction, that's one thing, but that's never the way it is in PN! *grr*

  9. I agree with everything you said about the quality of YA romances being crappy because of the reasons you stated. But I just had an interesting thought, so humor me: Maybe the reason why so many YA romances are like that is because it reflects what society wants to read. Maybe when we read YA books, or just books in general, we want to read about fantastical things where it'll be inconsequential if you fall head over heals for a gorgeous bad boy for the duration of the book (even without any real develpment) and say lovey dovey things each sentence. Maybe the very pull of the industry IS the fact that what it offers cannot exist (or at least, not work out) in the real world. Think about it, if the books were so mundane , on account of the romance being crappy, why does it sell so much? Are the readers simply unaware that it is crappy? Or is it a deeper need for the fantastical?
    I got the idea from the reactions of people towards Ethan from Beautiful Creatures (Caster series). Most people didn't like the book because Ethan was too "feminine." And even if I thought Bella wasn't a good role model, I still held on until the last book. Talk about guilty pleasure!