Why are the designated love interests in so many popular stories so abusive, controlling, and troubled? Why are they presented as the romantic ideal? And why, for the love of all things good and beautiful, do women and girls like that in their fiction?
The idea of a ‘bad boy’ love interest isn’t anything new. Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and others make use of this trope to varying degrees. Rochester had a whole host of issues, of which the wife in the attic is probably the best known; Mr. Darcy was an arrogant snob (to a degree); Willoughby was a womanizer. There are many other classic works that I haven’t thoroughly read but whose plots I know enough to know that they employ the idea of a less than ideal man being a love interest for the heroine.
The difference between these works and the more modern bestsellers I’m reading today is that the classics all depict the bastard boyfriend for what he was. Rochester got a building dropped on him to teach him the error of his ways, Darcy got a brutal rejection from the woman he thought for sure would say yes, and Willoughby loses the only woman he cared about because of his philandering. Their behavior had consequences.
In a lot of modern novels, this doesn’t happen. The badly-behaving love interest generally gets rewarded or idolized for the way he acts.
Edward Cullen of Twilight notoriety is sort of the obvious example; I’ll content myself with saying that he dismantles his girlfriend’s car to keep her from meeting someone of whom he doesn’t approve. There’s way more where that came from.
In Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series (the first book of which I’ve skimmed and am about a hundred pages into via in-depth reading), the ‘hero’ spends most of his time mouthing off to the heroine and patronizing everyone around him, including a boy he’s supposed to have a fraternal bond with. There’s no sign that Clary, the main character (who has a host of issues herself), finds him anything but attractive, if annoying.
In Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Anita ends up dating (read “screwing”) multiple men, all of whom have several behavioral issues that can’t be excused by their supernatural nature, and one of whom essentially rapes Anita in Narcissus in Chains (be warned that the video is NSFW). In later books, Anita practically ends up drooling all over herself every time this character comes into a room.
Fifty Shades of Grey, the Twilight porn fic turned porn bestseller features a romantic hero somehow even more disturbing and creepy than Edward Cullen, on whom he was originally based.
All these books are huge bestsellers. They have legions of adoring fans who are quite vocal about their desire for the hero to step out of their pages and into their lives. And the authors usually agree. The extent to which Laurell K. Hamilton loves her characters is rather terrifying, the tone of Cassandra Clare’s LiveJournal and tumblr imply she’s as attracted to Jace as her
author avatar main character is, and Stephanie Meyer has gone on the record saying that she’d leave her husband for Edward or Jacob (interestingly, when I tracked down the interview, the quote appears to be gone, but there are multiple people, both fans and non-fans, who confirm its existence- go the very bottom entry on this Twilight Lexicon thread to see).
And these are just a few examples of authors who write this behavior as acceptable. I’m not even touching the mess that is the worship of Severus Snape (his being played by Alan Rickman does not render the character any less a deeply troubled bully), L from Death Note, or even Malcolm Reynolds (love the character, but he’s a needle short of a moral compass on more than one occasion). Hell, at least E.L. James of Fifty Shades authorship recognized that the behavior of her hero wouldn’t be acceptable in real life. But that doesn’t change the fact that that behavior is perceived by many fans to be intriguing or even romantic.
“But it’s just a book!” you say. “Why does it bother you so much?”
It bothers me for a couple reasons. First, in the case of Cassandra Clare and Stephenie Meyer, the reading audience is of an age where they will be trying to figure out romance and relationships for the first time. If they’re subconsciously expecting romance to come in the guise of a bad boy like the ones in the books, it’s going to warp what they perceive as romantic. Even before these books became a hit, I knew a lot of girls who firmly believed that they could change their significant other’s poor behavior. It almost universally ended in them having really nasty breakups. Having the added confusion of a formative reading influence touting the virtues of someone abusive and controlling is not going to help.
The second reason? It’s lazy writing. A lot of really horrible behavior is passed over from consequence or comment because the heroine loves the man in question. The possibility of consequences for bad decisions, which is really key to good character development, get tossed out the window because the heroine will always forgive her love interest. Always. There’s never any doubt or tension over whether or not the heroine and hero will come together, even if the hero frigging sexually assaults the girl (Jacob Black and Micah Callahan, I’m looking at you down the barrel of a gun). Other times the male love interest is given little to no character development on the grounds that he’s supposed to be mysterious. And what bugs me most is that securing the man is supposedly the culmination of all the heroine’s adventures. I give you the first paragraph of the description of City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare:
The Mortal War is over, and sixteen-year-old Clary Fray is back home in New York, excited about all the possibilities before her. She’s training to become a Shadowhunter and to use her unique power. Her mother is getting married to the love of her life. Downworlders and Shadowhunters are at peace at last. And—most importantly of all—she can finally call Jace her boyfriend.
So her boyfriend is more important than her Shadowhunter training- which means essentially a whole new life at the age of 16; her mother getting married happily after horrible treatment at the hands of her first husband; and peace between two factions that have been at war for a long time. Calling Jace her boyfriend is more important than all that frivolous nonsense.
This is why I really am starting to hate the YA genre. The last thing girls need to be told in the things they consume for entertainment is that the ultimate reward for their efforts is a boyfriend. Romantic interests are going to be on their minds anyway, especially during high school. It’s all part of environment and hormones. I’ve been there; I really do know what it’s like. And not every teenage girl is going to be as lucky as I was and have a mother who repeatedly and patiently explains that having a boyfriend is not necessary for happiness. If the books and characters you like are constantly being paired off, it will contribute to your thinking it’s the norm, especially if you’re anything like me and lived a rather sheltered life where books were the key to learning more about other people and how they interacted.
I’m not saying it’s not impossible to have a good love story, nor is it impossible to have a decently written side plot that’s romantic. But I am getting sick of it being such a big component of books, especially books that feature women as main characters. I’m coming to expect that there’ll always be a love interest for the female lead whenever I crack open a book, and I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see a heroine who can make her own way in the world, without a man being the focus of all her efforts, or her reward. I’d love to have a good friendship story between a man and a woman, where there’s no hint of romantic involvement. And I’m certain such stories exist. I’d like to see them appreciated more by the reading public at large.