Is it really love?

How romance novels glamorize toxic relationships

Anandita Hussain, Writer

Romance is one of the most popular genres in young adult fiction, but the portrayal of many of the relationships found in these novels can be harmful for the young readers consuming it. A lot of romance novels geared towards teenagers tend to glamorize toxic relationships and abusive behavior.
When it comes to red flags, romance novels are full of them. One common trope is the pairing of a much older man with a teenage girl. In fantasy novels, this can go as far as pairing up a 200-year-old man with a sixteen-year-old girl. Examples of this are commonly found in vampire and werewolf novels like The Twilight Saga, as well as fairy novels like Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorn and Roses series.

Another trope is the mysterious ‘bad boy’ who changes for the girl by the end of the novel. These kinds of stories often depict the boy as having serious, dangerous flaws which are ‘cured’ by the girl’s love for him. This can contribute to unrealistic and harmful expectations for young girls who read these novels and could lead them to put up with abusive behavior.

On these depictions, Diana Raoof, a junior at Battlefield, believes that it’s a story at the end of the day, but it’s definitely something you should not look up to. Don’t expect what you read in the book to end up in your life.” If a partner is exhibiting harmful, aggressive behavior in real life, it is unlikely that they will better themselves for a romantic interest as these problems can stem from severe childhood traumas; they may need professional help rather than romantic attention.

One example of this can be found in the popular series After, in which the male lead Hardin consistently exhibits controlling and manipulative behavior, which is written off as romantic passion. Hardin’s behavior is extreme to the point of threatening Tessa, claiming he can easily find her if she tries to leave him. Unfortunately, his actions are excused because of his past trauma with his father and the two characters get together at the end of the series.

Many adults have come forward to criticize this occurrence in young adult (YA) romance novels. Brogan, a writer for The Tempest, claims, “YA has conditioned us to view controlling characters like these as a sign of love in a relationship when in reality, it’s closer to abuse; gaslighting, intentionally playing on a person’s insecurities, and threatening to leave someone unless they do something, are all common forms of psychological manipulation often glamourized as romantic in YA novels.”
Battlefield librarian Cathi McMaster says that a lot of YA authors tend to put disclaimers in their books to warn readers about toxic content, as well as resources to turn to if they find themselves in dangerous situations. She thinks that it can be easy for a teenager to mix up fact with romanticized fiction because teens “might not have the same experiences that an adult reader might have.” This inexperience with relationships makes teenagers vulnerable to impressions of what a healthy relationship may look like.

Disclaimers are a great starting point for YA authors to raise awareness on toxic relationships and educate its young readers on the red flags they should watch out for. Readers also need to exercise caution and read reviews of the novels they pick up before coming to any conclusions on the relationships portrayed within.