What Are We Teaching Them About Love? by Shana Mlawski
Back in 2008, I posted an article on the pop culture website OverthinkingIt.com where I guessed at why Hollywood often gets strong female characters wrong. The main gist of it was that producers thought audiences were calling for physically-strong female characters when we really wanted well-developed characters who happen to be female.
Since then, Hollywood’s gotten marginally better, but if you ask me the YA/MG world is blowing them out of the water. Over the past few months I’ve read a ton of young adult and middle grade fiction, and it warms the heart to see so many great, three-dimensional female characters. I’m delighted by the fabulous male and genderless characters, too! I’ve been seeing well-developed male/male, male/female, and female/female friendships, girl characters with stereotypically-male traits and interests, and boys with stereotypically-female traits and interests. I’ve even been seeing less of the “he’s a bad boy who abuses people, and that’s what makes him hot” trope. Maybe I’m just reading really good books, but it appears today’s YA/MG writers are doing pretty well when it comes to gender.
One gender-related trope I’d still like to see less of is the “stalking = love” trope. Here’s the outline, in case you’ve somehow missed it: There’s a boy who’s fallen in love-at-first-sight with the female lead, but for one reason or another they do not start dating. Instead, the boy memorizes her class schedule so he can “accidentally” bump into her in the halls, or he gets a job at her place of work so he can get close to her. Or he spies on her—you know, for her own protection!—or he watches her sleep, or he uses supernatural means to get her to fall in love with him. Often the boy acknowledges what he’s doing is wrong. Nevertheless, it works out. He gets the girl in the end.
Sometimes there’s a variation that goes like this: There’s a boy who apparently just met the female lead, or they’ve been friends for a long time. Halfway through the book the boy reveals he’s been obsessed with her since they were five. He’s noticed other girls since then and maybe he even dated or slept with them. But they meant nothing. The whole time he’s only wanted Her. That’s why he pretended to be her friend or stalked her or kept pieces of her hair under his pillow for more than a decade. He’s in love but only found the courage to mention it just now.
As a person who’s been in both situations in real life, I’ve got to say, they tend to be more awkward than romantic. And they can be miiiighty creepy. Look at the statistics: In the U.S., 3% of young women will be stalked before the age of 18, and in a large percentage of cases this stalking precedes rape and/or other physical violence. Do we really want to continue suggesting to readers that this is what love looks like? I guarantee that if a straight female or LGBTQ character of any gender did this kind of thing it wouldn’t go over nearly as well with readers.
I’m definitely not the first person to criticize this trope, so I have to wonder why more than half the YA/MG books I read in the last month featured it. Maybe it’s a byproduct of TV and shipping culture . Audiences love watching characters pine away for seasons on end, and we love to argue about who will end up with whom. When the leads inevitably get married to each other, people stop watching, and the series dies. The ship has sailed, as it were.
Unrequited love stories make sense on TV. Networks need to keep eyeballs on sets for at least 100 episodes so the show gets into syndication. But books don’t have to be this way, especially not stand-alones, and especially not books that aren’t love stories. Think about Harry Potter. If Ron and Hermione had hooked up in Book 3 instead of Book 7, would anyone have stopped reading the series? I hope not, because the unrequited love plot was a side dish. The war with Voldemort was the main course.
For the record, I am not against all unrequited love stories! There have been many excellent, non-creepy renditions. The relationship between Liesel and Rudy in The Book Thief is a good example that involves no stalking, as far as I can remember. But I’d love to see more varied romances. There are plenty of other relationships heterosexual male and female characters can have. For example:
A boy can meet a girl. He likes her, he asks her out, and they start dating.
The boy asks the girl out, she declines, and they remain friends.
The boy likes the girl, but she starts dating someone else, so he shakes it off and moves on, and they remain friends.
Any of the above, but swap the boy and girl.
The boy and girl have been friends for a long time, but now they’re getting closer to each other, and they gradually move to the next level.
There’s no romance between them at all; their relationship starts and ends platonic.
The boy and girl hook up in some fashion, realize it was a bad idea, and return to being platonic friends.
The boy and girl begin the book in a committed relationship with one another. (As writer Julie Cross recently pointed out on Twitter, there are precious few YA books about established couples who remain together.)
The boy and girl begin the book having just broken up, and they both want to get back together but are too proud to let the other know.
Notice that none of these scenarios require the guy to stalk, spy, or manipulate to “get the girl.” I’m sure there are many other kinds of heterosexual relationships I’ve left out, so please let me know if you’ve thought of one in the comments.
Shana Mlawski is the author of the recently released YA fantasy HAMMER OF WITCHES (Tu Books). You can find her on Twitter as @ShanaMlawski.