Books, Pop Culture

Love (triangles) in times of life-threatening danger

How YA novels focus on female leads' love lives is problematic.

An older version of this article was previously published. 

Romance has always been a key aspect in storytelling. It manages to squeeze itself into almost every genre, and the PG-13 demographic is no exception. When it comes to this niche the love typically has a certain “edge” – and by edge I mean danger. From the end-of-the-world narrative to sadomasochistic vampires, the YA genre seems to want to pass on the idea that the more intense the situation the sexier and more intense the love.

[bctt tweet=”The YA genre seems to think that the more intense the situation the sexier and more intense the love” username=”wearethetempest”]

Amid all these worrying circumstances (alien invasion, systematic government oppression and slaughter of the poor, your boyfriend being a couple of hundred year old vampire who wants to kill you), characters in YA novels are given the task of dealing with romantic interest from not one, but two suitors. While finding love may be a legitimate concern, when your basic needs (i.e. security, food & water, psychological and physiological well-being) are not being met, maybe it’s not the time. And yet the love triangle has become a staple in YA fiction, with fans choosing sides, making T-shirts, and writing fanfiction pairing off the protagonist with who they see as the “right choice.” It seems a good love triangle is almost key to building up the fervor for a story.  

[bctt tweet=”Maybe the dystopian future is not the time to worry about finding love. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

But is it really? If we separate the stories by the gender of the protagonist, it would seem these love triangles only ever ensnare female protagonists. “The Hunger Games,” “Twilight,” and now “The 5th Wave” have all been hailed for featuring female leads in their sci-fi/dystopian settings, but they all task their heroines with such a decision. More often than not, this love triangle is a symbol of something much bigger. Katniss and Bella, when deciding on Peeta and Edward respectfully, are really choosing how they will live their lives for the foreseeable future. For Katniss, from a literary point of view, Gale symbolizes the new government and Peeta is life under the radar outside of politics. Bella has to become an immortal vampire in order be with Edward. And it doesn’t stop there:in Suzanne Young’s “The Program,” Sloane’s choice in a boy represents either resisting the inhumane treatment that the program is invoking, or stepping away and living a less complex life. Young’s “Hotel Ruby” poses a literal life or death decision for the heroine, and “The Chemical Garden Series” by Lauren DeStefano presents its protagonist with the choice between a gilded prison or a life on the run. “The 5th Wave” has Cassie choosing between Evan Walker and Ben Parish, symbols of her life before and after the alien attacks.

Compare that to YA novels with male leads: “Harry Potter” and “The Maze Runner” are the biggest YA phenomena with male heros, and while both include romance, neither Harry nor Thomas have their love lives featured very heavily. Harry’s journey spanned seven books and eight movies, and audiences were given ample time to get to know Harry and see him enter all kinds of situations. In the end, his relationship with Ginny takes up a very small portion of the plot. Thomas’s relationship with Teresa, while a part of the story, is more background than main plot. The one prominent exception to this is “The Shannara Chronicles,” the first fantasy television show aimed at young adults, which centers around Will, a half-elf, half-human savior of the world. He ends up as the point of a very precarious love triangle and his ultimate choice looks like it will have significant ramifications of his future, but this is a rare case. 

The fact that heroines specifically have their futures tied so closely to their love interests time and time again should be of concern. Situations are being created in these stories where there is a clearly defined path the protagonist is going to follow, and the end result is always falling in love. But the romance isn’t the reason she survived all the elements or kicked so much ass or was all around amazing – the romance was more an effect of her being awesome rather than the cause, which means it doesn’t have to be around every time. This idea can be found in most every genre, not just YA and its subtlety makes it seem less offensive. However, there needs to be even more of a shift in how, especially when targeting younger crowds, we portray our female YA characters.