Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Relationships in YA

Okay, bear with me because this is going to be a long post.


When I discovered YA it was a lightbulb moment. The genre had changed since I was a teenager. I felt like there was finally a place where my books matched. And I loved it.


But I’m not having much fun reading YA these days. It isn’t because of lack or brilliance in the genre- quite the opposite. It’s because of a couple of trends that having been bugging me a little too much to be ignored.


One is the romance. When Edward first met Bella fangirl hearts squeed. Then they analyzed. And they didn’t like what they saw. Sure, Edward’s dedication to Bella was romantic, but in another light it was also creepy as all get out. He was controlling and difficult, basically forcing Bella to become a new person to be with him. There were huge amounts of internet screaming about how Edward and Bella were causing abusive relationships.


Now I don’t know how much I actually buy into that. I think that Twilight is a reflection of the world we live in, not creating a new one. But that problems for a different post. This one is about the romance.


Relationships in YA tend to be bizarre. Here’s an example of a YA love story for you. The girl (or occasionally the guy*) is thrown into a new world where it’s imperative that they learn how to do something quickly. She’s super special and only she can save the world. The love interest is most knowledgeable person around about the new world that the heroine finds herself. In fact, he’s her trainer/guardian/overlord to the heroine. And he treats her like crap. Despite the fact that she has perfectly valid reasons for not having the same experience level he has, the love interest is bothered by it and manipulates and bullies her until they perform up to the standards the love interest sets. Eventually she’ll win his approval by taking the appropriate amount of punishment and performing satisfactorily and they’ll live happily ever after.


Okay, I’m saying it. This whole dynamic creeps me the heck out. It’s obnoxious, unhealthy, and borderline abusive. So how did we get here? I found the answer when I started reading romance novels. The relationships in YA have come down to us from the romance genre. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The romance genre’s have had decades to build their formulas. The problem is that they depend in part on the age of their protagonist.


Take this for an example: The hero shows up. He’s smart, driven, and has a crap ton of experience. The problem is that he got that experience in a way that liquefied his sense of humor and/or empathy. He’s about doing his job and he’s going to do it no matter what. The heroine is a relative newbie. She wants to do her thing and save the world but isn’t really sure how to do it. The hero takes her in hand, pushing her hard to help her achieve her full potential. On the way she learns how to be the butt kicking lead that she wants to be, while he learns a little bit of humanity by falling in love with her.


Honestly, even if those characters are in their twenties or thirties that story still has a wacky power dynamic. But imagine that these characters are in their teens. I’m sorry, but there is no plausible way that a teenage boy should have the kind of experience to turn himself into that kind of hero. Even if he did, the larger implication is that he somehow has more agency then the heroine, even though they’re of a comparable age. He has all of his crap together and is skipping teenagerhood entirely. Despite having the body of a teenager he is an adult.


On the flip side the heroine is still a teenage girl. She has all the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of a teenager. When she falls for the hero she’s doing so from the perspective of someone not really capable


When there is a vast power imbalance in a couple the relationship is almost always abusive. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, but there’s a reason the legal age to marry without parental consent is 18. We try to protect our teens from making decisions that land them in a place they can’t get out of.


So why are these relationships a problem? Two reason. First is that the people reading this are overwhelmingly teenage girls. They’re not grown women who can tell that this fantasy hero doesn’t exist, and if he did she’d get the heck out of dodge after ten minutes with him. Second is that we’re perpetuating a stereotype that isn’t healthy for girls or boys. Boys have just as many problems adjusting to adulthood as girls. And there is no reason to teach girls in books that they are weaker than their future boyfriend- that’s what movies are for.


Sorry this has been long my friends. It’s a rough topic. I know mine won’t be the last word on the subject but I’m glad to be part of the conversation.


*For the sake of this post I’m going to assume that the more powerful member of the relationship is the guy and the less powerful is the girl. While YA predominantly features these gender roles, they are by no means the only portrayal of power differences in a relationship. For this post the difference is academic- no matter which gender has the upper hand the problems remain the same.

1 comment:

  1. I don't like relationships like that in YA either. I've only read a few like that though, so maybe it's specific to the fantasy/paranormal books? You probably don't see too much of it in contemporary.