eFictional: Romance and Relationships in YA
For this Think Piece on the distinctive differences between the types of relationships that exist in the sphere of the young adult novel, I’ve created a mock eHarmony website, to give a bit of the background and flavor on the nine books that I read for this project: The Twilight Series; Hush, Hush, Fallen, Red Riding Hood, Uglies, Matched, The Hunger Games, Leviathan & Behemoth, and the His Dark Materials Trilogy. Here is the link.
Welcome to eFictional, a think-piece project
This was a fascinating project for me to undertake, as I have a love of YA literature and have often dissected the romance in Twilight and how it would be unacceptable in a real life context. I have begun to notice though, that Twilight is far from alone, in either the YA or adult romances, as far as having a dangerous and unacceptable out-of-context type of relationship. Not only that, but there seem to be two kinds of romantic plots in YA: ones in which the heroines are strong and ones in which they seem like nothing more than shadow, a sort of prop that is there only so the reader can ogle the male lead through their eyes. This alone seems like it should have parents questioning what their daughters are reading, because as females in a real life context, we are so often relegated to shadows, and have tried to combat that for so long, that it seems like we would want to be sure our daughters have enough self-esteem to see themselves as more than a prop for a man.
I am curious as to what separates these two styles of romance: the strong female and the shadow — is it the heroines themselves? the plot of the story as a whole? the element of the paranormal? I am interested as both a reader and a writer, because publishing tends to follow the trends, and so I’m interested to see what it is that teenagers are buying, and what makes these romances and characters appealing to them.
I decided to profile the different male and female leads and what struck me at first was that the female leads in the first 4 stories were completely unmemorable to me. In order to come up with their profiles I had to go over and over the books, looking for clues. The male leads were easier for me to think of, which is odd, because the point of view character is almost exclusively the female lead (the exception being Red Riding Hood, in which the point of view character is Valerie probably 3/4 of the time, but every once and a while we look over the shoulder of another character). When I think of it now, it seems to me that once the girl meets the boy she’s going to fall for, everything else about her falls away. Her thoughts and actions begin to revolve around this other character, and all you see is the boy. I read Midnight Sun, which is the companion to Twilight, written from Edward’s point of view, and found it to be not only more interesting, but far better written. Edward does not constantly think of Bella and what she looks like, he has a personality and thoughts of his own.
The other thing I noticed about these stories is that there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why the two leads like each other, or rather, the rhyme and reason is one that is felt, both by the characters and the reader, but which is difficult, if not sometimes impossible, to explain analytically. They meet and the male lead pushes the female lead away, usually because he knows he is a threat to her, and the female lead responds by seeking him out and falling almost instantaneously in love with him, despite his rejection (or maybe because of it?).
Of course, that is yet another worry: the element of danger that the male lead presents to the female. In all of these first 4 books, the male is either capable of, or is actively trying, to kill the female lead at some point in the story. Yet in every instance, she says she doesn’t care about the danger, that his love is worth it. I wonder what kinds of consequences this has for the reader? I know that the “bad boy” has been a popular story line since probably before there was YA literature, but to normalize these types of relationships seems dangerous, especially for girls who have not yet experienced enough of real life relationships to realize that this is not normal or acceptable. This seems to me to be a bad message to send, particularly when it is made to be so desirable. At no point in these stories does it seem dangerous or frightening — it seems sexy and exciting.
[One thing I should point out, is that the first four books are all paranormal romance, which I think is an important distinction. I haven't read very many contemporary teen romances, as for the most part I'm attracted to paranormal, steampunk, and dystopian stories, so this reflection discusses only these genres of YA literature, and perhaps in contemporary romances the female leads fall for a healthier option, or perhaps there is a third type of romance I am not seeing here. I would be interested to find out, and I'll probably make that my next project.]
In the first 2 dystopians, Uglies and Matched, the female lead is one who begins as a someone who is happy with the way things are, and perhaps even fits into the same type of character mold as with the first four books, but the major difference here is that she goes through changes and development to reach a greater understanding of the world around her, as well as herself. In the middle of that, she finds love, and this love is one that takes time to come to, happening little by little as she spends more and more time with someone she previously would have had no interest in. Yet these relationships are normal, despite the intense plot lines. Even the third wheel of the love triangle is someone that is good and caring, making the choice more difficult to make, because someone will be hurt that the lead and the reader cares about, unlike the paranormal romances in which any option seems to be a dangerous one (with the exception of Red Riding Hood in which the male third wheel actually seems like a better option than the male lead).
In the final 3 books, love is often relegated to the backseat, because survival and the journey the characters are making are far more important to the story. In these books, not only is the plot far more developed, but the characters are as well. By the end of the story there is real change in the way that they think and view the world and you can see a maturation that doesn’t exist in the first four novels at all.
I think that, after looking at all of these stories, I would probably be wary to let my daughter (if I had one) read the first 4, without a lot of discussion about the story and why these relationships are not something to be desired in real life, but are okay to fantasize about in our imagination. I also found that I strongly prefer the second kind of book, because the relationships feel more realistic and the love feels REAL. I think that is the biggest difference of all: the first kind of book is a fantasy that shows and captures, quite accurately I think, the feelings behind teenage love. The second kind shows us what real love can be.