Love + Sex Love

YA books are guilty of glorifying and glamourizing toxic romantic relationships

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. 

The Darkling and Alina Starkov in the Netflix adaptation of Shadow and Bone
[Image description: The Darkling and Alina Starkov in the Netflix adaptation of Shadow and Bone] Via Netflix
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. 

Tessa and Hardin from the movie adaptation of After by Anna Todd
[Image description: Tessa and Hardin from the movie adaptation of After by Anna Todd] Via Aviron Pictures
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.

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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Love Life Stories

I thought I knew who my best friend was – until this happened

We’ve all had friendships that meant the world to us once upon a time, yet they are no longer a part of our life.

Sometimes, you just grow apart over time. Other times, you come to the realization that it’s a toxic friendship, and that it’s best to walk away. I learned this the hard way.

After I completed my O Levels, I switched schools. I was both excited and scared about starting at a new school, and about forming new friendships and meeting new people.

On the very first day,  I connected extremely well with one girl, so well that it took me by surprise. Our friendship grew from there until we became inseparable. It meant the world to me to have someone so close to me.

I thought we had an unbreakable bond, which clouded my judgment. It became easy to justify everything she asked me to do, even if I had to go against my other friends, or my judgment, I’d do anything to keep her happy. In my blind admiration for her, I didn’t see just how abusive she really was.

It started slowly at first. My other friends told me that they didn’t like her and that I should be more wary of her. I thought they were simply mistaken.

I told them that they didn’t know her as well as I did.

To me, it wasn’t manipulative when she told me she “forgot” to tell me that her other friends wanted to talk to me. It wasn’t manipulative when she would encourage me to ditch my group of friends and hang out with just her. She made me feel like she was completely dependent on me, and that if I walked away, there would be nobody there for her. There were countless times where she made me choose between being with her or my other friends.

I never saw the lies and manipulation for what they really were.

She was the one person that I shared every little detail of my life with. When I felt down, she was the first person to know about it. If there was any trouble at home, she was the one I ran to. In my head, I assumed she would do the same for me. I assumed I was the person she contacted when she was upset.

That’s what friendship is, right? At least that’s what I thought. Instead, I would constantly find out things about her from other people. Upon confronting her, she would completely downplay it and refuse to answer whatever I asked.

It came to the point where she would do things for me only to cash in favors. I was constantly being reminded of the things she’d done for me. It didn’t matter how mundane they were. According to her, there were always strings attached.

After a particular incident where she chose to abandon me completely instead of sticking around, I started to see things for what they really were. As I sat there stunned, wondering how my best friend could just walk away, I started to go through my memories one by one.

I remembered, so clearly, the number of arguments and fights I got in with my other friends over her. I remembered how she forced to choose between her and my friends. One of my best friends got so upset about the whole ordeal, that she ended up in tears. Instead of consoling her, I was pulled away by this toxic friend.

The thing that finally made me come to my senses was when, coincidentally, I became friends with another person this girl knew. Once we got talking, we started to see how scarily similar our situations were with this same girl. This person was manipulated and emotionally abused the exact same way I was and had also been unaware of it the whole time. I connected the dots and finally understood just how toxic and abusive this ‘friend’ was.

I finally saw the pattern of mental and emotional abuse, and that was the day when I finally chose to walk away.

I stopped hanging around her, and slowly cut off all contact with her. It was easier to do so as we were going off to university soon, and I no longer wanted to be manipulated again.

[bctt tweet=”I started to finally see the pattern of mental and emotional abuse.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Today, I am happy to have cut that kind of toxicity out of my life. Removing her from my life made me see my other friends in the right light, and I finally saw their concern as genuine.

Experiencing that kind of toxicity and negativity taught me a valuable lesson, to choose my friends wisely and to recognize toxic people when I see them.