Bookish Ramblings: The portrayal of toxic relationships as OK in YA

I have just finished a popular YA trilogy and whilst it’s fair to say I found it underwhelming – it was mainly down to the lost opportunity to show a really great story idea and railroad it with a toxic idea of what is OK in relationships.  Whilst I thankfully see it less often now it’s always such a shock to the system when mentally abusive relationships between teenagers are normalised.  It is not OK to manipulate your girlfriend or boyfriend by emotionally blackmailing them to stay with you by using the “I love you” catchall.

I was a teenager once (gasp – she can remember that far back!) and I can fully understand how relationships can be intense but intense doesn’t have to mean weird, overpowering and possessive. Why can’t intense be a slow burn, a mutual respect which becomes love in it’s own natural time – everyone seems to hate instalove and in the books I have read recently instalove is a by-word for creepy and stalkery.

Here are some of the topics that I have struggled with: Treat em mean keep em keen (no, it’s just bullying), emotional blackmail (I don’t think I can live if you don’t love me), controlling behaviour (where were you, who were you with), a shameful secret (the high lord having a thing for the daughter of the staff), inappropriate age differences (i’m talking teachers and students), girls throwing themselves at all hot boys (because we clearly have no self worth), they have to have instalove with the first person they see, and everything’s OK because “I love you” (I can come into your room in the middle of the night after knowing you a few days push you against a wall and have my way without asking permission, but it’s OK because “i love you”)

We need to be projecting to teen readers that it is OK to say no, that you don’t have to be with the first guy or girl who turns your head and says I love you, that they should feel comfortable in their own skin and not need the lust of a potential partner to validate them – they can function alone and achieve greatness.  I felt so saddened reading this last trilogy that the MC spent more of her time being pulled between (at the age of 17) her 2 love interests, feeling pressurised to confess her love to one of them after only a couple of weeks and having the other one shun her because she is confused about her feelings, than she spent dealing with the actual world and war going on around them.  I feel that the notion of love, whilst coveted, is given way to much priority over story content. We are reading for the characters and their adventures, not to see them reduced to a shell of themselves, constantly justifying their actions to another and being threatened when they try to walk away. We want to see our characters grow, not be taunted and humiliated as a way of deflecting against the antagonists true feelings.

In one way, reading all this YA is good as I know which to steer my children to and from as they get older.  Abusive relationships do begin as early as teenage years, I suffered abuse when I was 17 and it has haunted me for over 20 years now – It is so easy for minds to be shaped to think something is acceptable when it isn’t. But if their favourite author is churning out book after book with this behaviour constantly in their face what are readers meant to think and feel?  It is possible to get it right and many do, look at the Lunar Chronicles by Merissa Meyer or the Dead Things series by Martina McAtee – these are series which focus on the story, bring relationships which are respectful, diverse and born out of time spent together.

I expect I have probably offended some with this and it’s of course always OK to read and enjoy what ever you want, but think about whether what you’re reading would be how you would want to be treated in a relationship?  As always, I welcome discussion and different points of view so please comment, but kindly please….

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