Cristina’s Close Look [2] Boyfriend Knows Best: On Oppressive YA Relationships

Posted February 11, 2015 by Cristina (Girl in the Pages) in Cristina's Close Look, Discussions / 25 Comments


As someone in their twenties, I’m often considered to be an “older” YA reader, as publishing houses market the YA demographic as targeting those who are 12-17. Being a YA blogger makes this difference and age range seem insignificant, as many of those who primarily read and purchase YA span an age range well into the 40s and 50s. Most of the time I don’t feel disconnected from YA novels due to being a bit older than the characters, but one of the exceptions can be romance. Since I’m out of my teen years I have a wider range of romantic experience and to draw upon than when I was in high school (and thus the age of many YA protagonists) which causes me to look a little more critically at the way romances and intimacy are portrayed.

One of the biggest romantic tropes that I’ve noticed and that has continually grated on my nerves while reading YA is the uneven power dynamic in couples, notably with the submissive female and the oppressive male. The realization of how much deep rooted this trope is in YA dawned on me while reading Splintered by A.G. Howard. Though I enjoyed the book, I could not believe the power discrepancy between Alyssa and Jeb. What masquerades as a protective “big brother” attitude is really a demeaning, superior attitude that constantly affirms to Alyssa that she can’t be trusted with her own fate or decisions (Alyssa’s dad even let Jeb make the decision as to whether or not she should be allowed to go to school in Europe…how does that even make sense?) I was sure that Jeb was going to be a villain which would explain his characterization as such a controlling know-it-all, but no such luck- if anything Alyssa values him more at the end of the book. Now, I admit that I haven’t read the rest of the trilogy so maybe his behavior eases up and he starts letting Alyssa act like an autonomous character…but I have my doubts.

Now, perhaps when I was in high school I would have seen Jeb (or the many other characters like him) as being perhaps a bit annoying but endearingly protective character, the hot-older-guy who knows best and is bossing the character around because he cares about her. As an older reader with a lot of critical thinking and an English degree behind her, I find such behavior seriously worrisome, because these are the characters that readers are meant to swoon over. Someone who blatantly tells the protagonist what she can and cannot do and what values she should and should not hold doesn’t sit well with me; it creates an ideology of “boyfriend knows best.” Perhaps the most well known instance of a YA relationship that employs this ideology is Twilight. Now I’m by no means a Twilight hater (I was totally on that Team Edward bandwagon in middle school) but the power balance in that relationship is beyond ridiculous. Aside from the various instances where Edward is constantly saving Bella’s life (or keeping her out of harm’s way), I found some of the more subtle influences of power over her ideology to be far more concerning. Take, for instance, the scene at the end of New Moon when Edward finally starts to concede to turning Bella, but mourns for the loss of  her “human experiences.” Bella admits that she would like to experience physical intimacy while in her human body, and Edward refuses to become intimate with her unless she marries him (which Bella balks at because it’s the 21st century and 18 seems really young to her to get married). Edward claims that it’s his generational difference from her that makes matrimony before physical intimacy a necessity, and she agrees because how can she say no to him? This scene highly bothered me because the message that is being conveyed is that intimacy before and or/outside of marriage is wrong and shameful. Bella is suggesting something scandalous and Edward swoops in to legitimize her desires in an “appropriate” manner. He states his terms, and she can either follow them and get what she wants or not; there is no compromise. Now, values regarding sex and marriage are very personal and will vary for everybody and that is completely OK. What is not OK is when there is no compromise, when one person in the relationship gets to dictate the terms and conditions as they see fit and gets to decide which values are the most important. Bella’s opinion on the matter carries no weight against Edward’s ultimatum, and she marries at 18 despite constant references in the series about how she’s not 100% comfortable with that decision.

Characters like Edward and Jeb are written with many good traits: good manners, eloquent language, “good” intentions, a protective instinct. Yet their behaviors serve to undermine the actions and ideologies of the main characters, and such behaviors are written off as being romantic. From personal experience, I would find such behavior to warrant a good long look at why someone I’m dating is literally telling me what I can and cannot do. It also begs the question of why are these qualities written into romances to serve the purpose of making love interests more attractive? There are times in which I find this behavior in YA novels to be necessary or well-placed, because they serve a larger purpose of depicting a protagonist realizing that she will not put up with such a skewed power dynamic and/or escaping from an abusive situation and realizing that this type of behavior is not sexy, not endearing, and not a marker of how much you love someone. Novels that utilize oppressive behavior in relationships for such purposes include Dreamland by Sarah Dessen (which deals with dating abuse) and Eleanor & Park (which portrays mental and physical domestic abuse through parental relationships).

I’d also like to note that while this unbalanced power dynamic is often perpetrated by male characters, it is not gender-exclusive and females can just as easily inflict controlling and manipulating behavior on male love interests too (there’s a great example of an oppressive female relationship dynamic in Fairest by Marissa Meyer!)

Now I want to hear from you! Do you find these skewed power dynamics problematic in YA relationships? Do you read certain romances now that you used to find swoon-worthy but that now make your skin crawl? Has your perception of this subtle oppression changed with your age? Are there any books that draw attention to the problems with oppressive relationships that you can recommend? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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25 responses to “Cristina’s Close Look [2] Boyfriend Knows Best: On Oppressive YA Relationships

  1. The uneven power in some YA couples definitely gets on my nerves as well. I haven’t read any of the books from your examples, but unfortunately, it’s not too difficult to find examples from other books I’ve read. There definitely seems to be this thread of idealizing this over-protectiveness as a positive thing made to make love interests more appealing, as you said. I think too in so many of the books I’ve read it’s magnified by the fact that so often these love interests have to “save” the main character(either from actual danger or from a situation THEY deem “dangerous” or “bad”). BECAUSE they’re saving the main character so often, it leads to the idea that they are the one best suited to protect, care for, & make decisions for the main character, which is troubling. The MC’s will become secondary to what said love interest believes is best, even when they’re breaking up with the MC “for their own good” or something of that nature. It feels so demeaning to the MC and makes me hope for more relationships built on trust & mutual respect for sure.

    • I didn’t even cover the “breaking up for your own good” trope so thank you for bringing it up! It’s definitely one that appears so often within the context of the “savior” role and I cannot stand it, because those sorts of decisions should be made together by couples as a TEAM. Even when a character finally becomes less pushy with the MC and lets her come into her own and/or acknowledges that she knows what she’s doing or what’s best for her, there’s often never any sort of dialogue from the MC to the love interest that his/her actions were WRONG and UNHEALTHY. Everyone just lives happily ever after -.-
      Thanks so much for stopping by and participating in the discussion!

  2. Wow I absolutely love this discussion! I have so much to say but I’ll try to keep it brief(ish).. haha.

    This is something that has always bothered me, especially as early as Twilight. It seemed that no matter who Bella ended up with, they were going to dictate who she could see or what she could do. How is that attractive? Why were were rooting for a guy who literally forced her into marriage? It just doesn’t make sense. It definitely creeps me out whenever I think about it now.

    Overprotective behavior, to me, is more like exercising too much control. They think the girl NEEDS saving and protection – that she can’t handle herself or make decisons for herself. These guys are always NEARLY perfect in every other way, so the girl just says whatever – it’s a character flaw of theirs. Not enough to worry about it. Some even convince themselves they like it.

    I know this is a more extreme non-YA example, but Fifty Shades of Grey has this exact issue to an even worse extent. People claim it’s just exploring a different lifestyle, but it’s really Christian being EXTREMELY controlling in literally every possible way – right down to what she eats and when. It’s an abusive relationship. Like I said, it’s not YA, but it’s an extreme case along the same (worse) lines.

    • I love how you mention how being overprotective is a “character flaw” (of generally otherwise perfect guys). It’s like, the heroine allows it or deals with it because she’s looking past the “character flaw” because she truly loves the guy or loves him despite it, without acknowledging that it’s a “flaw” that impacts their lives more than the guy’s! I really wanted to mention FSoG in this post but I haven’t read it (I don’t want to waste my time/don’t want to stomach all of the blatant rape and abuse in that book) but I’ve read a lot about the book to know it’s one of the worst and most romanticized instances of an oppressive/abusive relationship in literature. And despite it not being YA a LOT of readers in the “targeted” YA range are reading it….and scarily, thinking it’s just a depiction of a “different kind of romance” which is so, so scary on so many levels.

      • Absolutely. Before I had any knowledge of how abusive FSoG was (and before I took my Women’s Studies classes in college!), I read the first two books in the series. After graduating, I read the third one to see how much my perspective changed now that I had a fuller understanding of feminism/abusive situations. It seriously opened my eyes. I can’t get over how terrible the books are in terms of abusive and controlling relationships… AND awful, awful writing.

        • From the excerpts I’ve read (mainly for research purposes, there are some excellent blogs that REALLY look at the problematic themes in the series) I cannot BELIEVE how horrible the writing is, content aside. Also, I took Women’s Studies as a senior in college and it really opened my eyes to so many problematic issues!

  3. Great topic! I find this oppression even more problematic in the Japanese and Korean dramas that I watch. Too often will a guy grab a girl by the wrist and pull her wherever he wants to go, fight another guy for her attention, or make demands about what she should say or wear. Even though the female characters are usually strong women, they end up acquiescing because they love these guys and want to make them happy. Of course, this behavior is excused by readers or viewers when the guy is extremely good-looking. If Edward or Christian Grey looked like Charles Manson, there’s no way in hell their abusive behavior would be tolerated. Girls need to be taught that control does not equal love.

    • Thanks for bringing your experience with other cultural texts to the discussion! It’s definitely interesting and important to look at how these oppressive and abusive themes play out on a global scale as well as in the US which is generally thought to be *progressive* with gender roles (which is rather laughable when you start critically looking at it…but I’ll save that rant for another time!) Physical attractiveness DEFINITELY plays a HUGE role in this trope in literature, so thank you for pointing it out! The most oppressive and abusive boyfriends also tend to be the handsomest (and richest) ones. Funnily enough, a lot of the women who end up in relationships with men like these in books always tend to be on the “plain” or “innocent” looking spectrum, as the imbalance in attractiveness is some sort of justification for the imbalance in power!

      Thanks for stopping by and contributing to the discussion! 🙂

  4. Tara

    I love this discussion, too! And I agree with every point. I sometimes forget when I read novels that I see some behaviors as very negative, but that other readers really do idealize and romanticize these types of controlling and manipulative characters. I think that’s what scares me the most — not that these books exist, but that people take it seriously. That people want Edward Cullen/Christian Grey to love them. Yikes.

    In a similar vein, I don’t like it when ANY male character use power imbalances to exert control over female protagonists (or any combination of genders). Two tropes that drive me nuts are the overprotective father and the overprotective brother. It’s seen as their job to protect the daughter/sister from evil, horny boys. An example would be in Something Real by Heather Demetrios, where the protagonist’s twin brother is really pushy about her not having sex with the love interest, while is implied that the twin brother is involved a serious/sexual relationship with his own boyfriend. Why does he get to regulate her virginity? Seems a bit hypocritical. Ugh.

    • I completely agree. The alarming part is not that content like this exists, but that it’s read by readers who can’t look past the “fantasy” to the deeper, problematic nature of the relationships. A few years ago, when the book first became really popular, practically EVERYONE (male and female) was reading it and gossiping about it excitedly (during work, after work, at lunch, etc). This was before I started blogging (but was still an avid reader) but I never felt any draw to pick it up- something about it just seemed off to me (and it had nothing to do with the sexual content…it was more the way that people almost felt the need to whisper about it, as if on some level they KNEW it wasn’t OK but that somehow made it all the more desirable).
      I love that you brought up the overprotective father/brother tropes (I didn’t cover that but it could be a complete separate discussion in and of itself!) In some ways it grates on me even more because the female characters are learning that their bodies should/can be dictated by the men in their own families, so why should we be surprised when they enter into relationships when they are treated in the same way by their partners? I’m really interested in checking out Something Real now! Do you think the control by her brother was used as a mechanism to show how the protagonist overcame that pressure from her family or was her brother’s “ownership” over her body ever even discussed as being negative?

  5. Having recently escaped a relationship like the ones you described, I too find this dynamic worrisome in literature intended for young men and women, and for it being portrayed as appropriate behaviour. I use the word “escaped”, because it really feels like I escaped. It is SO easy to fall into thinking that they’re telling you what to do for your own good, that you’re in the wrong and that they only do it because they care about you…. but it’s not true. It’s about power. It’s incredibly unhealthy and emotionally draining. I’m not a stupid or weak woman either, it’s not just “silly” or Mary Sue types who fall into this trap.

    From my experience, I definitely see it as emotional abuse and blackmail. Edward threatened to walk into the sun, because it’s “better” that way. My ex threatened to commit suicide if I left him or if he felt I was disagreeing with him… it’s the same thing. It’s a means to get what they want from the girl. They make that power call and the woman goes along with it; because you feel like you need to “fix” him, make him happy, you blame yourself, surely you’re the one at fault…

    I escaped when he decided he wouldn’t allow me to further my education. That was my final straw. This goes along with three years of telling me what to wear, what car to drive, how to do my hair, what to talk about, what career I should get into, who I could go out with and when, where and what we should eat… sound familiar? It’s all in YA and women’s lit of the 50 Shades variety! And this is portrayed as okay. It’s sickening, and I think it does impact how young girls accept this kind of behaviour and young men learn that it’s “romantic” or okay for them to behave in this manner.
    It comes on slow and builds up, much like Edward and Christian’s behaviour towards their respective partners. To romanticise this kind of behaviour contributes to the problem and normalises abuse… because that’s exactly what it is- Abuse.

    • I really appreciate that you took the time to bring your own experiences to the table, and I am sincerely happy that you were able to leave a relationship that you didn’t feel happy or healthy in. I completely agree that it’s not just silly/weak females (or males, for that matter) that end up in situations like this…if anything, it can be stronger ones because they are more inclined to bear the burden of others and to try and assist their partners, when their partners are really just employing manipulative tactics (I especially like your example of Edward “threatening” to walk into the sun…how many times has he threatened to do something to expose his vampirism/dangerous nature to the public when he feels Bella is being too nonchalant about him being a vampire? Often, that’s for sure).
      I’m really glad that you were able to move on for the relationship and pursue your education! I worked in clothing retail for many years while on summer vacation from college, and I was always astounded by the number of customers I had who would try something on and love it (like a crop top or a skirt) and say “It’s so cute, but my boyfriend would kill me if I wore it.” Not only is that highly concerning that they need their partner’s approval to wear a certain article of clothing (that’s far from outrageous) but they actually used the term KILL (which in most cases was probably a hyperbole, but I feel that even reaching for that sort of language in a casual manner is indicative of a deeper problem).
      I think you’re completely right about this abuse being normalized in literature slowly but steadily, and with readers falling for it without really realizing they had. When I first read Twilight (around 12-13 years old) I was enamored with Edward. And while I still don’t think he’s as bad as Christian from FSoG (which isn’t saying much, really, because from the excerpts I read he’s truly horrible) whenever I reread the series now I get so frustrated with the power dynamic in his and Bella’s relationship, and scoff at the fact that when I was younger I found it romantic. (I mean, Bella literally gets to decide NOTHING- she doesn’t want to break up but he does, she gets bullied into going to prom when she doesn’t want too, she has to plan an escape route to try and save her mother, etc.) I’ve been in several relationships since I was that young, not all of them good, but the one I’m in now is based on so much mutual respect that it’s sickening to me to realize that those who don’t have that sort of partnership (or any at all) read these books and normalize- and even fantasize- about that behavior in their partners.

      • Thanks lovely =) I don’t talk about it a huge amount but felt it would help to illustrate where I get my position from and why I find it particularly worrying… I felt the same way about Twilight, and even Fifty Shades, until I really sat down and thought about it. Now that I’m out of that relationship I can see even further and see the similarities between that behaviour and what I experienced.
        You’re right, it often is the stronger men and women who take on that role, because we do tend to feel that we should take on other people’s burdens and help them, even when we really can’t.

        You know, now that I think of it, I’ve heard that kind of talk as well when I worked in retail! Mostly in women’s clothing, like you said, but sometimes when I worked with aromatherapy based skincare and perfumes… They’d say stuff like “Oh, I really like this hand lotion but my hubby hates rose scented things…”

        It worries me that young adults might fall into these kinds of relationships and not realise how dangerous they are, because of themes like this. Look at any Fifty Shades related comment section and it has women defending the book despite there being reasonable arguments against it. I’m so sick of the defence of it as “just a book or movie, get over it, it’s not real life!”… actually, yes, it is real life for a lot of people and books and movies like this fetishise this kind of behaviour. This normalises it, makes people desensitised to it. So many people are totally blind to the relationship dynamic in these books, it’s sickening. I worry that those are the people in relationships like that and don’t realise… or don’t care, because it’s all so romantic. I think for a lot of them it is about fantasy, as you say.

        You’re so right about Bella not getting a say in anything! She doesn’t even get a say about whether she gets married at 18 or goes to college! Who does that?! Haha, don’t read it unless it’s for researching this kind of thing, it’s not worth the loss of brain cells and the hole in the wall when you throw it across the room!

        Thanks =) I’m moving on to work towards my PhD… he couldn’t stand the thought of me being intellectually superior to him. If he was going to stay at a lower level of education, I had to as well. No way was I doing that! I have my eyes on the prize =D I’m so glad your current relationship is healthy with mutual respect =)

  6. I love you for writing this post, would it be alright if we got married?

    It’s the romances in YA which lead to me reading very little YA nowadays. There’s something very dangerous about writing these controlling, patronising men as the romantic heroes and having young girls, and boys, swooning over them, because these people may then go on to think that this kind of relationship is okay in real life. Issues like this are so important to talk about, especially with the disgusting romanticising of abuse that’s currently going on with the Fifty Shades film promotion.

    A lot of people are surprised that I’m not a fan of Peeta Mellark. I don’t hate the guy, but The Hunger Games is one of those series that could have done without the love triangle; poor Katniss is threatened by the bloody President, who hangs her family’s lives over head to make her do whatever he wants, and all Gale and Peeta care about is which one of them she’s going to pick. When I was reading the book Katniss to me felt like an aromantic character – which would be awesome, because for the aromantic community to be represented in such a popular book series is amazing – and for me the perfect ending would have been Katniss either living with Prim or living alone. Not because she doesn’t deserve to be with someone, but because I really hated the way it did end; the way Katniss talks about her children just felt to me like she hadn’t wanted them, like she’d only had them because Peeta wanted them, and I’m so sick of this idea in YA that because a guy is nice to you he deserves to have everything he wants while you make all the compromises. Niceness in the guys in YA shouldn’t be rewarded at every turn; if he loves you he should be nice to you anyway, and as far as I’m concerned these nice guys are just as problematic as the possessive ones.

    Great post!

    • I am always down to accept marriage proposals from those who stand up against oppression and abuse!

      Haha! Anyways I LOVE that you brought up The Hunger Games, because themes like this are present in YA that’s not just the obvious picks (like Twilight). I HATED the way Mockingjay ended because Katniss so clearly didn’t want to have kids- the fear she had of bringing children into the world after what she suffered was so painful to read. And you’re right, she TOTALLY does it for Peeta. Peeta’s not a stereotypical “abusive” male figure so I feel like a lot of people don’t seem the problematic themes in their relationship, but his relationship with Katniss totally follows the “nice-guys-deserve-to-be-rewarded” trope (that’s actually often a problematic way in our society when it comes to sexual assaults, as guys “expect” girls to be intimate with them in exchange for a date, drink, meal, etc).

      Thank you so much for commenting and bringing this new element to the discussion!

  7. Great topic!
    I’ve never really noticed it before in Twilight! I always noticed/hated how obsessed Bella was with him, but I never really saw him as oppressive. I guess I read it years ago and was much younger so I never really thought anything of it (which is a scary realization); I always just cracked it up to Edward being born at the turn of the century so he had old fashioned views.

    Where I have really noticed it is in adult erotica novels like 50 Shades, Bared to You or the Stark Series. In my reviews I often say that the girls have Bella Swan’s “I can’t live without him syndrome”, where they proceed to make ever life decision based on what their “Edward” says and that drives me nuts! Nothing worse than watching what starts as a strong female character become a dependent mess on the man she immediately falls for. And a lot of these men fall within the “alpha” category that some women can’t get enough of–and something I can’t stand (it’s why I don’t read werewolf novels because the “primal” stuff annoys the crap out of me)! To me, these relationships border on abuse (and sometimes they are full out abuse) and people devour these books and love them for it. I’m reading the 4th Crossfire novel (Captivated by You) right now and I’m having a hard time digesting the relationship the two leads have with each other because I find it really abusive. It honestly frightens me that as a society we are starting to normalize this type of relationship.

    It’s easy to say that things are fiction (I definitely did in my review of 50 Shades and likewise series) but as Bellarah said earlier, these things happen in real life. And my fear is that some girls will read these novels, enter a relationship where the man treats her like this and think it is normal or healthy when it isn’t.

    There is a great book called Addicted to Him by Lauren Dodd where the relationship starts off like every swoon worthy romance but quickly turns into something else. I found it so refreshing to read about when these oppressive relationships are glorified in mass-marketed publishing.

    • I’ll definitely have to check out Addicted to Him- like I said in my post, I appreciate when themes like this are used to bring awareness to the problems they pose. You totally hit the nail on the head with your description of the “alpha male” syndrome in literature these days, and how female readers find this attractive because the dominance these males exert is seen as appealing and often “sexy.” I also didn’t notice these things when I was a younger reader, so I’m not claiming to have been above their influence, but it scares me when I see pre-teens reading not only YA novels with such themes but also things like Fifty Shades of Grey, where the abuse and the controlling element of the relationship is not concealed in the least, and neither is the message that it’s supposed to be “attractive.”

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