Mental Health Monday is a (sometimes) weekly discussion series I discovered through Wendy @ what the log had to say. To see more of these posts, check here.
Hello and welcome to another
rant discussion post! Today I want to talk about something that gets me really fired up: the way toxic and abusive relationships are viewed as sexy and romantic.
First, a little bit of background. When I was 18, I fell in love with an older guy. He wasn’t a bad guy, but he was insecure, and he took advantage of my feelings for him and lack of experience. What followed was one of the most tumultuous, on-and-off again, secretive, destructive relationships I’ve ever experienced. This relationship affected my self-esteem and my ability to have effective relationships for years afterward—and plunged me into multiple depressive episodes.
Recently, a series of New Adult romance books by “Wattpad sensation” Anna Todd gained a massive following.
Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of After. As one does, I picked up the book and read the back cover… and let me tell you, I don’t need to read this book to know it’s about a toxic relationship. Don’t believe me? Here’s a quote from the blurb:
“With his tousled brown hair, cocky British accent, tattoos, and lip ring, Hardin is cute and different from what she’s used to. But he’s also rude—to the point of cruelty, even. For all his attitude, Tessa should hate Hardin. And she does—until she finds herself alone with him in his room. Something about his dark mood grabs her, and when they kiss it ignites within her a passion she’s never known before. He’ll call her beautiful, then insist he isn’t the one for her and disappear again and again. Despite the reckless way he treats her, Tessa is compelled to dig deeper and find the real Hardin beneath all his lies. He pushes her away again and again, yet every time she pushes back, he only pulls her in deeper.”Goodreads Blurb (emphasis mine)
As a bookseller, I’m well aware that people have different taste. I never read Fifty Shades of Grey either, but that series still draws a huge audience. People are entitled to their own taste in reading material; if we all liked the same things, the world would be incredibly boring.
So what, exactly, is the problem with a series like After?
I mean, if adults want to read a book about a college girl in an on-again, off-again toxic relationship with a “bad boy” with a “dark past,” isn’t that their prerogative? Absolutely. My issue with the book, however, is that it’s not just targeted to adult women; teens are showing up in droves to devour the series, along with the movie that recently came out.
I was a teenager once. Back in my day, the YA genre had hardly even been born (and certainly not in the capacity that it is now). By the time I was 16, I’d pretty much run out of books written for teens and was well into steamy adult fiction. At 16, I probably would’ve eaten After right up, in spite of the apparently shoddy writing style.
At 16, I would’ve read this book and learned that true love is worth fighting for—even if he treats you like absolute shit.
Even without After, I gained plenty of unrealistic expectations of relationships by the time I met my first love at 18. I was already stubborn about sticking to my guns when I liked someone; I never gave up, regardless of how unlikely the romance really was. And I firmly believed that love comes at a cost, that sometimes you had to go through the hard times to get to the good.
Fortunately, I’m a lot wiser now, and I’ve finally found a solid, happy relationship with a basis in mutual respect. But it took years of therapy for me to rebuild a sense of self that wasn’t defined by someone who treated me like dirt. It took me years to retrain my brain that just because you love someone doesn’t mean they’re the right one for you. It took me years of my healthy relationship with my now-husband to stop flinching every time we disagreed about anything—because I had learned that everyone leaves.
Books like After have very real consequences when they’re praised as amazing romance stories.
A book that shows a girl in a healthy relationship who abandons it for a guy who’s rude and cruel teaches young women that good relationships are boring, that abusive behavior is just passion. A book that shows a male character who refuses to talk about his feelings is romanticizing toxic masculinity. Calling an on-again, off-again relationship “romantic” loses sight of the reality of how traumatic such turbulence is—and I’m speaking from experience.
Even if these types of stories are firmly categorized as adult romance, teens will still pick up these books—they already are. In fact, I had a Mom and her young teen daughter in a few days ago buying the entire series…after they’d been to see the movie together, twice. That’s the scary part: the average person doesn’t seem to see how harmful these types of narratives are.
I’m not suggesting that we take the fun out of romance, or that teens shouldn’t be allowed to read adult romance novels.
I love a steamy romance as much as the next person! As a teenager, reading these books was as close as I got to having a real relationship, honestly. But I have high expectations for my romance plot lines…and I think the book world, in general, has a right to expect more.
What I’d Like to See More of in Romance Plots
- an open discussion of consent, where characters verbally talk about sex, what they’re comfortable with, etc.
- guys who are called out when they treat women like dirt, rather than being rewarded for it
- romantic heroes who don’t just fit into the traditional masculine stereotypes (more soft boys pls)
- more queer romance, always (duh) & more romance with non-traditional bodies
- toxic relationships that end with the girl realizing how awful that relationship actually was
- realistic romantic obstacles: couples overcoming long-distance, different backgrounds, pregnancy scares (and talking about protection!!!), balancing real life with their relationships, etc.
Realistic Romances I Love
- A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
- Noteworthy by Riley Redgate
- Aftercare Instructions by Bonnie Pipkin
- Girl Out of Water by Laura Silverman
- Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
- Eliza and Her Monsters by Fancesca Zappia
- The Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg
- Bad Romance* by Heather Demetrios
- The Melody of You and Me & The Paths We Choose by M. Hollis
*This book actually shows a toxic relationship, with the lens that it is, in fact, toxic.