Thursday, December 20, 2012

Syrenas, No Means No, and the Intent/Execution Divide

Yesterday, I saw the cover for “Of Triton”, the sequel to Anna Banks’ debut “Of Poseidon”, for the first time. It was an… interesting experience. Not because of the cover itself (though it is pretty), but because just looking at it triggered a slew of memories I had about its predecessor and how it made me feel.
Some background: I read “Of Poseidon” in March this year, when Macmillan gave me access to a copy on NetGalley. I was reluctant to even write my review, as I didn’t particularly like the book, and I felt like there was nothing I could add to the conversation. In the end, I did write it, if only to purge the poison from my system.

Yet, nine months later, just seeing the cover for the sequel made me boil up.

So, here I am, writing about bad romance in YA. Again.

DISCLAIMER: From this point on, there will be spoilers. If you have not read “Of Poseidon” and would rather go in blind, now is the time to turn back.



“Of Poseidon” is the story of Emma, a girl who discovers that she is half-mermaid (or half-Syrena, as they are called) after her (black) best friend gets killed off by a shark. She meets Galen, a Syrena prince, who acts as an ambassador of sorts between humans and mermaids, and sparks fly. The plot gets thicker when they discover that Emma has an extremely rare ability.

But this post isn’t really about Galen and Emma (even though theirs can easily be described as a bad romance). No, it’s about Galen’s sister Rayna and his best friend Toraf. When the book opens, Rayna is avoiding Toraf, because he professed his feelings for her. As the story progresses Toraf not only follows Rayna around everywhere, but also goes to Rayna’s eldest brother (and current king), and gets married to her without her knowledge, consent or presence.

Take a moment to let that sink in.

Also, before you ask, the Syrena society is structured in such a way that the notion of romantic love doesn’t factor in the choice of mates. Instead, they are chosen based off their mutual suitability, so in the context of the society, Toraf’s actions are not that unusual.

What makes them extremely unpleasant, though, is the fact that Rayna states, repeatedly and with great conviction, that she doesn’t want to be mated, EVER. Moreover, Toraf has known her since childhood and was, prior to becoming a stalker, her friend. The early chapters show that Rayna is outraged and dismayed that she was mated without her consent, but she also feels betrayed. And for a good reason - the one person she could count on to understand her turned around and did exactly what she didn’t want anyone to do.

And how does this pay off?

How, you ask?

About halfway through the book, Toraf uses Emma to make Rayna jealous, and it is revealed that Rayna never really objected to Toraf, that Rayna loves Toraf, and that she was only playing hard to get.

She was playing hard to get.


*deep breaths*

*deeper breaths*

Nine months later and it still pisses me off.

Okay, so for shits and giggles, let’s imagine this situation happening in the real world. Let’s imagine a guy, who has known some girl all her life and is aware that she’s not interested in a relationship, forces his feelings on her. He stalks her, makes inappropriate comments, invades her privacy, uses her family to get close to her and, if possible, marries her without her consent (okay, so that last one may not be possible in the Western world, but let’s imagine.)

Now imagine that the girl protests, loudly and repeatedly, against this treatment. Would you think that she’s not genuinely scared? Would you shrug off her concerns because you know the guy and you know his intentions are good? I’m gonna guess: No. Because this behaviour is truly, genuinely creepy.

Even if the girl really did like the guy, even if she turned around and said she was only playing hard to get, that wouldn’t make the guy’s behaviour any less sketchy. Because in the real world, this stuff is sick! It’s crossing boundaries. It’s violating the rights of another human being, and that’s not acceptable, no matter how good the intentions behind the actions are.

But you know what? I don’t really blame Anna Banks for writing this. No. As far as I’m concerned, she was following a standard story trope, one where a woman’s general air of “I dislike you” translates as “Take me, I’m yours.” Love-hate relationships have existed ever since Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy lay eyes on each other (or maybe even before that), and they make bank hard core.

However, here’s the kicker: there is a line between a love-hate relationship and reinforcing the idea that no always means yes.

How do you tell the difference?

Love-Hate relationship: Lizzie and Darcy didn’t fall into each other’s arms as soon as Lizzie realised she’d been wrong. Both partners were shown the errors of their ways and took steps to becoming better people. Their romance didn’t happen overnight, but through a series of events that showed that both of them had grown and learnt from their past experiences.
No always means Yes: Rayna’s professions that she wants to be independent are only window dressing, because as soon as Toraf makes her jealous, she changes her tune. She and Toraf are not shown discussing their situation like grown-ups, she doesn’t even get to explain why she doesn’t want to be mated. Ultimately, her desire to break the paradigm and be independent are brushed aside as a selfish whim. Toraf, for his part, barely seems to understand how his behaviour might have upset Rayna, or how wrong it really is.

I think, in YA fiction, we don’t make the difference between intent and execution. I recently read a post by Foz Meadows on bad boy romance in YA , and it talked about how we, as readers, are supposed to ignore bad behaviour on the part of the male protagonist because he’s the intended love interest, and therefore, his motives must be good.

The problem, though, is that there is a difference between intent and execution.

If you, unintentionally, say something that hurts someone else, that other person will be hurt in spite of what your intentions were. If you break a dish while you’re setting the table, your intentions not to break the dish will not put it back together. If someone creeps you out, you won’t feel any less frightened if that other person’s intentions were completely harmless.

This is how things are in YA, yet even after years of talking about Twilight and how creepy it is to watch someone sleep, we see these reoccurring tropes in YA, again and again and again, even though reinforcing them means that we’re normalising such behaviour. Why is that?

Part of it, of course, is cultural. We see those tropes, and we’re prone to repeating them, sometimes without so much as thinking about what they really mean.

However, I feel that the intent and execution divide also plays a big role, this time when it comes to authors.

Ana Mardoll talked at length about the way our culture puts us in an all-or-nothing position: we can either be good or bad people, and, for the most part, we like to think we are all completely good. That’s why, when someone points out a faux pas (be it something we did, or said), we’re more likely to immediately go on the defencive, rather than see our errors.

This is especially true in YA. Authors don’t like being told that their work perpetuates a racist/sexist/albeist/homophobic stereotype, because, in their eyes, that makes them racist/sexist/albeist/homophobic. They might say that they didn’t set out to write the racise/sexist/albeist/homophobic thing, and conclude that they are not, therefore, racist/sexist/albeist/homophobic.

I get it. I really get it.

But here’s the thing: your intentions are not what matters in this case. It’s your execution. And yes, sometimes, you may do that racist/sexist/albeist/homophobic thing without even realising it - Western culture works in extremes and is not particularly big on nuance.

But at the end of the day, your work still perpetuates that stereotype, and you need to recognise that if you want to avoid perpetuating it again. If you’re an author and you inadvertently normalised a dangerous stereotype in your work, accept that. It doesn’t make you a bad person, just susceptible to the messages you’re sent through popular media. Learn from your experience, apologise, and don’t do it again.

I won’t judge you. After all, I’m human too.
Note: Image via Goodreads.

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