YA, Romance and Rape Culture

I’m something like a month late to the party, but last night I came across several essays and blog entries about the alarming trend regarding the types of romances present in YA books.  I’m linking to the posts in hopes that more people will see these excellent, thought-provoking essays and posts.  I also want to add my own thoughts and ideas about the issue.

It started on March 14, when bookshop posted an essay entitled “Bad Romance (or, YA & Rape Culture)” on her LiveJournal.  In it, she discusses the YA novel Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick.  Her essay is fantastic, and I encourage you, Gentle Readers, to go and read the essay in its entirety.  Bookshop writes:

Last night I started reading the bestselling YA fantasy Hush, Hush, which friends and the internet have repeatedly assured me that I would hate. I had no intention of reading it until I randomly picked it up and kept reading. To be honest, I kinda enjoyed it, the way I enjoy movies about super-intelligent sharks who want to take over the world, or episodes of Stargate: Atlantis. The way I enjoyed Twilight until I threw it across the room.

That said, let’s face it, it sucks.

Hush, Hush is the story of a Bad Romance: quite literally, the heroine is caught in a bad romance with a stalker who shows up, will not leave her alone, refuses to leave her life, and tries to kill her. All of this is made acceptable by the fact that he’s hot.

Bookshop goes on to outline all the things that Hush, Hush does wrong, all of them common occurrences in YA lit these days.  But the main point that Bookshop makes is that Nora, the book’s heroine, is a victim of rape culture while also being a perpetuation of it.  She links to a post about rape and rape culture by Harriet Jacobs on her blog Fugitivus (another fantastic post I encourage you to go read NOW).  In this post, Jacobs outlines the stereotypes present in rape culture:

If women are raised being told by parents, teachers, media, peers, and all surrounding social strata that:

  • it is not okay to set solid and distinct boundaries and reinforce them immediately and dramatically when crossed (“mean bitch”)
  • it is not okay to appear distraught or emotional (“crazy bitch”)
  • it is not okay to make personal decisions that the adults or other peers in your life do not agree with, and it is not okay to refuse to explain those decisions to others (“stuck-up bitch”)
  • it is not okay to refuse to agree with somebody, over and over and over again (“angry bitch”)
  • it is not okay to have (or express) conflicted, fluid, or experimental feelings about yourself, your body, your sexuality, your desires, and your needs (“bitch got daddy issues”)
  • it is not okay to use your physical strength (if you have it) to set physical boundaries (“dyke bitch”)
  • it is not okay to raise your voice (“shrill bitch”)
  • it is not okay to completely and utterly shut down somebody who obviously likes you (“mean dyke/frigid bitch”)

If we teach women that there are only certain ways they may acceptably behave, we should not be surprised when they behave in those ways.

Bookshop points out that the character of Nora embodies almost all of these stereotypes, and provides several examples illustrating her point.  In the efforts of fairness, however, she also points out that while it’s easy to point a finger at Hush, Hush and lay the blame there, there are a great deal of YA novels guilty of the same thing:

The complication is that so often, in Twilight, Swoon, Hush, Hush, Vampire Academy, and countless romances dating back to Pride & Prejudice and Pamela, we’re asked to accept that the outward facade of “I dislike you immensely” masks a subtle underlying attraction. Certainly Pamela has to go to extreme lengths to get her would-be rapist to accept that she does not want to be raped, no, really, no, please no. Darcy is so led astray by Lizzie’s attempts to be polite to him in all of their mutual social interactions that he assumes she’s welcoming his attentions, when really she would welcome a chance to serve him a restraining order on behalf of everyone she knows. And of course Pamela was an attempt to show the proper way for a young lady to maintain her respectability and the boundaries of politeness while still struggling to maintain her virtue (whereupon she’s rewarded by getting to marry her rapist!); while Pride & Prejudice is the model for 200 years of love-hate relationships, and it’s generally argued that Lizzy is attracted to Darcy the entire time.

I certainly don’t mean to crib all of Bookshop’s essay, but it is so fabulous that it is hard to choose a select few quotes.  She also provides this gem about Hush, Hush:

Hush, Hush is extremely self-aware; it knows that its hero is stalking and sexually harrassing its heroine. Its heroine complains of harrassment loudly and repeatedly, but the text expects us to assume that her repeated no means “yes” — the text wants us not to take no for an answer. The author, Becca Fitzpatrick, as well as the society that produced Becca Fitzpatrick, both want the heroine of this book to have her “no” rejected over and over, until her resistance is worn down and she gives up and gives in and starts to love the thing that’s attacking her and trying to kill her. The social arc of Nora’s womanhood demands that she shut up and submit to her sexual subjugation. For god’s sakes, the freaking title of the book is BE QUIET.

Parametric at University of Fantasy created a post about Hush, Hush after reading Bookshop’s essay.  In it, she expands on some of the issues that Bookshop touched on.  Her entire post is well-written and completely fascinating, but she makes several outstanding points.  Parametric provides specific details from the book:

In one particularly horrifying scene, Nora is stranded with Patch with no cell phone and no way of calling for help. Over her repeated objections, Patch forces her to spend the night with him in a motel room with a single bed. He tells her to strip and get in the shower. Then he pins her down on the bed, straddles her and warns her that nobody will come help her if she screams.

She asked fans of the book to explain why they liked it, and one of them talked about how she knew that Patch was the love interest and so she just sort of rationalized away his behavior.  Parametric then writes:

Patch gets away with it because he is the designated love interest.

I use this term “designated love interest” to try to express how very artificial the supposed romance is. Nora isn’t drawn to Patch because of his humour, warmth or respect for her: he has none. Nor because they have fun together: they don’t. Nor because he empowers her to become a fuller, better person: he doesn’t. In fact, she finds him so repulsive she spends nearly the entire book rejecting and fleeing him.

Parametric goes on to talk about the fact that the only things Patch has going for him are his looks and the fact that the author designated him the love interest.  This is very similar, in my own opinion, to what happens with Edward in Twilight, to a less-serious degree.  Edward is so beautiful that Bella can’t help herself around him.  Never mind the fact that he’s a total stalker, a controlling psychopath, antiquated in his beliefs and expectations, and boring as all shit.  He’s gorgeous, so the rest doesn’t matter.

Her essay ends with the following statement:

My friend Hope commented that “it sounds as though YA might be going through the same need to reject rape-as-love dynamic that the romance world went through about fifteen years ago.”  But before YA can reject the bad-boy archetype that gave us Patch and Edward, the romantic hero whose obsessive, dangerous love is expressed through threatening and controlling and overriding the heroine, it first needs to recognise that archetype for what it is: Aja’s “perpetuation of rape culture.”

The discussion about YA and Romance and Rape Culture doesn’t end there, though.  In Which A Girl Reads also posted about this topic, choosing more of a rant-style post than essay.  While she focuses less on Hush, Hush and more on YA books that feature some sort of twisted romance in general, the sentiment is the same.  There are an alarming number of titles that feature heroines who are stalked or otherwise controlled by these boys who have no redeeming qualities but are forgiven because they are beautiful.  In Which A Girl Reads mentions several books and offers her take on what the implicit meaning behind the story of each one is:

  • Willow by Julie Hoban: When everything in your life sucks, find a guy you can cling to and then sleep with him. Then everything will be ALL better.
  • Evermore by Alyson Noel: If a guy is horrible to you, fall in love with him. If your relationship is going badly, go become an alcoholic and get suspended from school.
  • Twilight by Stephenie Meyer: Let a guy push you around all the time, watch you when you sleep, and stalk you. It’s all good romance. Also, fall into depression and then jump off a cliff if he breaks up with you.
  • Fallen by Lauren Kate: So what if a guy is a complete, utter jerk that treats you like dirt? If he’s hot, he’s your true love.
  • Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick: Sexual harassment is love. Also, the guy who’s trying his very hardest to kill you? SOUL MATE!

In Which A Girl Reads takes the argument a step further and says that if we want to see this trend change, we have to demand it, because ultimately we’re the ones who decided that this kind of story and this kind of lesson is okay.

This is turning into a never-ending cycle, in which authors write books with twisted relationship dynamics—> the novel rockets to the bestseller list as readers go crazy over it —> publishers are open to even more books with similar plotlines —> authors hence write more of these books —> readers buy MORE of these books.

As for myself?  I haven’t read Hush, Hush but now want to, so that I can come to a full understanding of what’s happening in it.  I’ll get my copy from the library, because I’m not going to support something that I so strongly disagree with.  I encourage you all to check out the posts I’ve linked to and form your own opinions about what’s being said and what’s being written in these books.


9 thoughts on “YA, Romance and Rape Culture

  1. This is fascinating; i’m more-or-less a professional children’s/YA book person [in the latter stages of acquiring my PhD], and i dip into the YA romance stuff as infrequently as possible. Since reading Twilight (twice!) and being appalled and horrified, I’ve steered clear of anything that looks like it operates in that vein: supernatural interspecies relationships, creepy relationships, rape/abuse relationships, etc. I’m a little surprised to see there are, evidently, so MANY of these kinds of books….

    Twilight is so insidious to me because – bafflingly – i know a number of fellow phd-getters (all literary scholars) who are absolutely devoted Twilighters. and they try all kinds of tricks and turns to explain how it’s really an empowering book, and not THAT poorly written.

    The refusal to 1) accept that Twilight replicates a VERY disturbing stalker/abuser/quasi-rapist/potential-murderer and victim relationship and 2) once having acknowledged this, talk intelligently about why that particular fantasy is so catchy for so many girls and women and what it means, is seriously disturbing to me.

    Now I’m contemplating checking Hush, Hush and/or some of the other titles here from the library and seeing what’s what. I read a ton of YA girlie novels over the summer, prepping for a class in adolescent lit that i’m currently teaching, but it was mostly of the bubble-gum “boys are all that matter” variety.

    thanks for a thoughtful & provoking post.

    1. Thanks for the insightful comment. I’m in the very early stages of obtaining a master’s in library and information science and I am considering pursing a focus in YA/hildren’s literature, and I’m always happy to see other professionals who share a passion (or at least an interest) for the subject.

      Have you seen the tumblr account Reasoning with Vampires? It’s a detailed, technical (and often very funny) look at the poor writing in the Twilight saga. You could point it out to your fellow PhD candidates. At the very least, it offers concrete evidence about how weak Meyer’s writing is.

      If you do check out Hush, Hush, I encourage you to get a copy from the library or borrow it in some other way. My curiosity was too strong to resist, and while I’m not sorry I read it, because it helps me understand trends in reading and writing, I am sorry it’s so popular and is held in such high esteem by a lot of readers.

      Again, thanks for commenting! It’s not often I get such a thoughtful comment, and it’s an absolute treat.

  2. I guess I don’t understand this. When did he ever sexually assault her? He made a couple of comments about her body and some innuendos, but there was no physical sexual assault. Never did he attempt to rape her or make her do anything she didn’t want to do physically. Forcing someone to be your lab partner hardly counts as “stalking.” And if he is guilty of stalking Nora, then you can say that she was, too. Calling in a bomb threat to check his personal file? Going to his place of work and asking questions about him?

    No doubt that Patch isn’t a good guy, but you’re making him out much worse than his character actually was.

    1. You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but I do think you’re misunderstanding what my post (and the other posts) are actually talking about when we talk about rape culture. I never claim he actually assaults her, but I do believe the book has really problematic messages. I have since read this book (and the sequel) and still feel very strongly that this book is the poster child for what rape culture is.

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