In some ways, reading Young Adult fiction is a right of passage for all teens growing up. Not only does it let young readers escape the realities of impending adulthood by temporarily getting lost in a fantasy world, but it also offers them a microcosmic view of wider society today – highlighting the diversity of the modern world, challenging and tearing apart gender norms, and providing a glimpse into dating and relationships.
However, when it comes to love and romance, the genre is also guilty of inaccurately portraying romantic relationships; this could be anything from the unrealistic childhood friends to lovers trope – no one has childhood friends that hot. I’m looking at you, Julian Blackthorn – to the more harmful portrayal of toxic relationships, often glamorising and even glorifying dangerous tropes.
One type of romantic partner that YA often glamorizes is one that is obsessive, hyper-protective, and overly jealous. YA has conditioned us to view controlling characters like these as a sign of love in a relationship when in reality, it’s closer to abuse; gaslighting, intentionally playing on a person’s insecurities, and threatening to leave someone unless they do something, are all common forms of psychological manipulation often glamourized as romantic in YA novels.
Take the recent Netflix adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone novels, for example. Many readers have noticed the relationship between two of the main characters, Alina Starkov and the Darkling, is anything but healthy – citing the Darkling’s powerful control over Alina; “Darklina” is one of the most popular ships in the fandom, yet a controlling partner is never a sign of a healthy relationship.
Another toxic trope that is often glorified in YA, is the idea that true love can be a cure for deep childhood trauma. Many YA characters are often written with a traumatic past, be that a childhood of abuse, a struggle with mental illness, or another instance of a traumatic event. However, romantic love is not a cure for trauma. And it is not the responsibility of the other person to make you better – that’s what therapy is for.
The “true love solves everything – even unresolved childhood trauma” trope, often leads YA readers to try and justify the toxic behavior of a character. Many readers cite the relationship between the two protagonists of Anna Todd’s After, as a perfect example of this type of toxic trope.
The cruel way Hardin often treats Tessa is excused by his abusive childhood relationship with his father, however, a traumatic past is not an excuse for toxic behavior in the present; what happened back then does not dictate what is happening now – no matter how you try to swing it.
One of the most important parts of a healthy sexual relationship is consent, yet some of the most popular couples in YA fiction are made up of someone who initially wasn’t interested, and the other who just didn’t take no for an answer. In this way, the YA genre is often guilty of trivializing consent; framing constant persistence as a sign of true love. But ignoring someone’s rejection and continuing to pursue them is not romance, it’s harassment.
When you refute someone’s sexual advances in real life, you expect them to understand that no means no. So why should this be any different with fictional characters?
Equally, being in love with someone is not a free pass to have sex with them whenever you want; another harmful trope surrounding relationships in YA novels is that loving someone means you never have to ask for consent. Sarah J Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series, is guilty of mistaking lack of consent for romance – especially with its main protagonist Feyre, and her male love interests.
YA authors always pairing off single characters – even if that person isn’t good for them – is another popular toxic trope. With internet dating apps becoming the norm over the last decade, and society still telling us that single people are just lonely people waiting to be in a relationship, this trope only encourages the harmful idea that we need a partner to be happy.
While the “I can’t live without them” romantic cliche isn’t exclusive to YA books, there are relatively few YA characters that make it through a series without the author putting them in a relationship. Whereas in the real world, data shows that there are more single people than ever before.
By YA authors writing couples that are so codependent on each other they cannot physically stand to be apart, or putting two people in a relationship just because they are the last single characters left, it encourages readers to stay in bad relationships for fear of being alone. That level of codependency is not just unrealistic to real life, but also breeds toxicity – you shouldn’t rely on someone for your happiness, they should only add to the happiness you already have within yourself.
But YA is fictional. What does it matter if it glamorizes toxic relationships? For many young readers that enjoy this genre, the relationships in these pages might be the only representation of romantic partners they are exposed to; there is the danger that these toxic and even abusive relationships, might be considered the norm by young impressionable fans. It’s different for older readers that are able to spot the toxic red flags, but younger readers might think this behavior is okay. In this way, it’s paramount that we separate fantasy from fact, and fact from YA fiction.
cause there’s so many toxic relationships in books at the point people think that normal and healthy and completely fine to have in real life
— jesille ❣️ (@jellyorchids) May 2, 2021
As a genre, YA needs to do more to portray healthy (and also realistic) relationships. We often only read a snapshot of a relationship in a book, particularly the honeymoon phase where both characters are loved up, and absolutely nothing and no one can ruin it – we see how they fall in love but not how they maintain it.
But love doesn’t work like that in real life. Real relationships are messy, and the happiest couples I know are the ones who aren’t completely reliant on each other – the ones who give each other space and the freedom to be themselves. They are made stronger, not weaker by boundaries, and communicate even the smallest of issues.
They are the ones who understand that love should add to your happiness, not be the reason for it, and that you don’t need a partner to make you whole, since you were never broken to begin with.
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