By Kelsey Rolfe
Photographs by Lindsay Boeckl
“I love you.”
“You are my life now.” (Meyer, 314)
After the 2005 release of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, both the authoress and her work of fiction were shot into superstardom. Years later came similar novels Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick, and Swoon by Nina Malkin, which didn’t quite attract as much hype as the vampire/human love affair, but did get considerable attention. All three books were revered for their supernatural twist on romance.
However, the novels may not be that black and white. As of late all three have received heavy criticism from feminists for their perpetuation of stereotypical gender roles, as well as their normalization of domestic violence and so have several other titles. Because of this sudden backlash, Young Adult (YA) romance novels have been put in the hot seat – or, at the very least, the way that they portray ‘healthy’ relationships are.
As critics have noted, the storyline that frames most romantic narratives (boy meets girl and sweeps her off her feet, they fall in love and live happily ever after), including the majority of YA romance, portrays the female protagonist as passive, vulnerable, and responsive, and gives her partner the power position – he’s risk-taking, active, and heroic.
“I think…[gender roles are] just reinforced in so many ways,” said Laura Hache, the campaigns coordinator of the RSU Women’s Centre. “People don’t realize that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to act that way because you’re a woman, or because you’re a man; people just follow them because that’s the way they’re socialized.”
“Sometimes it does lead to violence and unhealthy relationships,” she added.
Hache touched on an issue that Jean Golden, a sociology professor at Ryerson University, feels very strongly about. Golden teaches Feminism and Society, and sees the controversy surrounding YA romance novels as a social-cultural issue, citing that teen novels are feeding into rape culture.
But what is rape culture?
“Rape culture is…men think[ing] they’re entitled to have sex with women…and that young women have internalized that expectation, and they think it’s okay for men to be sexually aggressive with them, and that’s what sexuality is like,” Golden explained. “We don’t see sexuality as mutuality, or sensuality between equals.”
According to Golden, this is perpetuated throughout society and, as a result, in its literature – including novels meant for teenage girls. “At that age young girls are exploring their sexuality, but their sexuality is explored in terms of how the culture defines it,” she said.
“It is a problem for young girls…because they’re not really sure how they should act and they see [the characters] as role models,” Hache seconded. “They may not speak out if they feel like they’re in a weird relationship because they think that’s just normal.”
That seems to be the main issue that critics are drawing with novels like the Twilight series, Hush, Hush, Swoon, and other YA romance fiction: the books are normalizing, and even romanticizing, situations like emotional, verbal, and physical abuse, as well as stalker-like behaviour.
“The message is there,” said Golden, “There’s something about the bad boy that’s sexually exciting…it’s that notion of ‘no, no, no, no, but I really mean yes,’ which is what young girls learn all the time.”
“I think there needs to be a lot more education, because when I was reading about Twilight I [was] thinking ‘this is what I was taught were signs of borderline abusive behaviour,’” said Kirthan Aujlay, the events coordinator at the RSU Women’s Centre. “You’re reading that thinking ‘red flag, red flag, red flag,’ and young girls are thinking ‘oh, he’s so dreamy!’”
The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a check-list of indicators on their website for when someone is in an abusive relationship. When ‘Kar3ning,’ a Livejournal blogger, assessed the Twilight series using that list, she found disturbing results.
Wanting to be wanted:
“Maybe [teen girls] don’t understand what kind of boundaries they should have,” said Aujlay, “So they’re thinking ‘oh he calls me ten times a day, how sweet!’ At our age, we’re like ‘oh, that’s not cool.’”
“Girls have low self esteem when they’re teenagers and they just want to feel like someone wants them, and someone’s there for them,” Hache added. “If the guy wants to know where they are every minute of the day they might see it as ‘oh, he’s thinking about me!’”
In that respect, YA romance fiction novels have an element of wish-fulfillment to them – in a much more extreme way. Said Golden of Hush, Hush, “That guy [Patch] really wanted [Nora, the protagonist] – even when she pushed him off he really wanted her, he was persistent. I think that’s what it is – ‘someone really wants me.’ It’s that developing hormonal pubescence that doesn’t really know where to go, and it’s the messages in the culture are really about ‘the guy wants me, because I’m just so sexy.’”
Though some YA fiction in the media seems to promote the idea of a weak female to a strong male, one that pushes and pushes until she eventually submits, there are undoubtedly novels that don’t subscribe to this belief; teenage girls can find books that encourage healthy mindsets and romantic relationships that aren’t borderline abusive. Though, as Hache notes, “I guess it says something that we can’t think of [one of those novels] off the top of our heads.”