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!