Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Romanticizing the Stalker

The internet is overflowing with articles accusing Twilight and Hush Hush and many other paranormal romances of romanticizing stalkers and abusive relationships. People seem genuinely concerned that a generation of girls is going to seek out unhealthy abusive relationships because Edward watched Bella sleep and removed her engine from her car.

Some of these YA paranormal romances want to have these dark, mysterious, dangerous heroes, but they don’t want to show the consequences. There is some fantasy involved in having a dark, dangerous hero without the actual danger. So these unseemly behaviors get glossed over or even romanticized.

But is this really as big of a deal as those articles on the internet make it to be?

Don’t get me wrong. I understand how serious and frightening being stalked is. I would never want to make light of it, but there are other stories that glorify other horrible behaviors like killing.

The movie the Matrix is one. I loved that movie (the first one, the sequels not so much), but it was extremely violent. Some people have blamed it and other violent movies and video games for being somewhat responsible for very tragic school shootings.

I understand that there is power in stories, that they can inspire and uplift and change minds, but I’m not sure if every story has that power.

Some stories like Twilight and The Matrix are really just for fun. They are not meant to be groundbreaking, world-changing novels. I don’t think the teenaged audiences are as impressionable as others make them out to be. Most people know the difference between reality and make-believe long before they are teenagers, and if they don’t, then there is a much bigger problem there.

I honestly don’t think that the reason someone gets into an abusive relationship can ever be simplified to “I read Twilight as a teenager.”

I don’t know. Am I wrong?

But I do know that I don’t like censorship in any form. Claiming that some novels are dangerous for impressionable teenagers is a slippery slope because it opens up the flood gates to keep some very important and powerful books from teen readers just because some people don’t agree with the world view presented in the story.

I believe we should trust the teen readers and teach them to think deeply and critically about what they read. Let them make up their own minds.

There was no YA section when I was a teen, and when I think about some of the things I read….

For example, when I was fifteen, I was obsessed with The Phantom of the Opera. I listened to the music from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical all the time, went to LA to see the play, and read the original novel by Gaston Leroux. I loved the story, and I still do.

But talk about a stalker.

The Phantom is unquestionably manipulative, abusive, controlling, and a murderer. But he is also isolated, rejected by society and his own mother because of a physical deformity. He is brilliant, a musician, a genius. Cold and callous, and yet deeply wounded. In my opinion, he is one of the most fascinating characters ever.

There is also something deeper in that story than an obsessive, controlling love.

In the book, we come to understand The Phantom, and by sympathizing with a villain, who does unspeakable things, we see that people aren’t born evil. They are twisted by how they are abused by society.

But his tragic past in no way excuses his behavior. He does not win. He does not get the girl. He is only redeemed when he gives up what he wants most. In the end, he learns that if you really, truly love something, you can’t trap, manipulate, or control it; you have to let it go.
I understood this as a teenager, and I don’t like the idea of keeping powerful stories like this from teenagers because it could be interpreted as romanticizing the stalker.

So what do you think?

Do you think that romanticizing the stalker is harmful to teenage girls and boys?

Do you feel that YA authors have a responsibility to present healthy romantic relationships or at least not glorify unhealthy ones?

And how do you really decide what is a healthy relationship?

I’m very curious because I've been fascinated by darker characters like The Phantom, Heathcliff, and Raskolnikov ever since I was in high school.


ETA: This post was inspired by this converstaion on Hatrack: http://www.hatrack.com/cgi-bin/ubbwriters/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=1;t=007142;p=0&r=nfx


  1. It is funny to me that people go into hysteria over Edward "controlling" Bella when I felt that Bella was the more controlling character. She wouldn't let Edward fight with his family in the third novel and manipulated him into staying with her. She was unfair to Edward (and Jacob) time and time again with her insistence on keeping Jacob as a friend and inviting him to the wedding. If people are going to criticize the relationship of Bella and Edward, I think more criticism should be placed on Bella who uses emotional blackmail to get her own way time and time again. mm

  2. Honestly the relationship never bothered me while I was reading the books. I understand where the stalker-boyfriend accusations come from, but when I was reading Twilight, it was just a fantasy romance in which the guy is totally, utterly devoted. I didn't think about what it was teaching teenage girls because I'm not one :)

    I don't think Bella is a particularly strong heroine, but maybe that's okay. Not all books that teenagers read need to have main characters who are also role models. Maybe her uncertainty, her head-over-heels feelings, her emotional immaturity, etc. are things that it's okay to relate to - a little bit of "you don't have to be perfect to live the fantasy" fantasy. We all have a *little* Bella in us, don't we?

  3. The relationship bothered me a lot, but at the same time, I couldn't leave the book alone until it was done - so I fumed along.

    If a girl didn't have other role models of correct relationships, then I do think Twilight could lead to unrealistic expectations (maybe even that it's okay to be controlled). Maybe we should just be relieved that no one can live up to Edward, so all those fan girls really have to worry about is being disappointed by perfectly average pimply guys.

  4. All right, at the risk of telling an overly personal story on the internet... remember how I admitted to reading all of those vampire stories as a teenager? It did, in the end, give me a somewhat unrealistic view of love, and I had a bad experience.

    But, you know, not a traumatic one. It was that whole thing where I tried to fit a person to an idealistic mold, and it didn't work out. Illusions were shattered, etc, but I wasn't really hurt by it much at all, and now I look back on the experience and roll my eyes and say, 'gosh, wasn't I silly?'

    My point is this: such stories can indeed have an effect. Does that mean that people should stop writing about stalkers, or about dominance issues in relationships? Not at all. I think the only time I get irritated is when any trait is glorified without exploring or acknowledging its dark side. This is true for dominance issues as well as other things like violence.

    In summary, fiction is fiction, and I truly believe that the majority of people can tell the difference. I think that as long as a writer is conscious of what he or she is doing, and that they recognize the traits that might be glorified rather than carefully explored, then that's a good step in the right direction.

  5. Sabrina, I'm sorry to have reminded you of a bad experience, but thanks for sharing because it's the first concrete example I've seen of someone being effected by these types of stories.

    I definitely agree with you that it is best to show the consequences of these types of relationships in fiction. Not only is it more socially responsible, but it also adds more conflict to the story. And I don't know if there is any story that wouldn't benefit from more conflict. :)

  6. You know, it's funny. When people first started talking about Twilight and the stalker-vibes they were getting, they got all up in arms. There was a video comparing it to Buffy. After all, Buffy was a strong, independent woman - she'd never fall for a stalker!

    Oh, except for those two times she did.

    Her relationship with both Angel and Spike started out with them stalking her, following her. They were both devoted to her, more than was healthy, and both made the ultimate sacrifice for her (Angel lost his soul, which he dreaded more than anything. Spike gained his soul, which is something HE dreaded.)

    Neither were entirely healthy relationships where there was give and take. Buffy wanted more than either of them was willing or able to give, at least at first.

    This is what I grew up with. Honestly, I do have a thing for aggressive guys that pursue the female after she says no, and maybe this is why, but I don't see anything wrong with it. It's not what I want in real life, but it is something I play with in my own writing, and my own fantasies.

    I believe that young girls should have positive role models, of course! But I don't think that every role model should be positive.

  7. @Anonymous. I could do a whole blog post on Bella. I have a very different interpretation of her than most of what I've read on the interenet. :)

    @Sarah. I have to say I do love a hero who saves the day. Don't get me wrong I do like a strong heroine who can take care of herself, but there is nothing wrong with someone else saving her too every once in a while. But my all time favorite is when they save each other.

    @Susan. I think you are right about girls who don't have positive role models to show them what a healthy relationship is supposed to be in real life. But I think this is why we need to teach girls (and boys too) to think more deeply about what they read.

    @Anjsa. I never thought about that. I love Buffy. She was an awesome heroine, and I think a positive role model, but she was a little self-destructive when it came to relationships. I forgot that Angel started out as a stalker. Her relationship with soulless Spike was definitely unheathy, and really she threw away the only relationship with a normal, very nice and awesome guy IMO, who could have given her the emotional support that she needed, Riley.

    I too like different things from books than I like in real life. I love books full of conflict and drama, and in real life I want as little drama and conflict as possible. So it seems odd to me that people would try to pattern relationships or seek relationships similar to those in books.

    Maybe that is why I don't see the romanticized stalker as a big deal. But I'm assuming that most people are like me. Perhaps there is a significant portion of teenagers who see things differently.

    Very interesting. Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments.

  8. In Buffy's defense, she never fell for a stalker she couldn't beat in a fight.

    And I agree, MaryAnn, that I wouldn't want the same relationship in real life that I enjoy in a lot of books. And when it comes to paranormal stuff, is there any such thing as healthy? I mean, really, how healthy can a relationship with the undead be?

    Sookie Stackhouse may not have the sexual morals that parents want their teens to read about, but she's a great role model when it comes to sticking up for herself. She gets put off by the controlling ways of both Bill and Eric and tells them that in no uncertain terms. She usually ends up putting herself first (in a healthy way) because she has a strong sense of who she is. Harris has a lot more freedom with Sookie's love life, though, because the books aren't romances.

    1. True about Buffy, but then, that means that she could date pretty much everyone :)

  9. It's like in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett tells Rhett, "No, No, No," and then in the next scene, she's happily walking out of the bedroom.

    There's a kind of double standard/fine line when it comes to aggressive men in fiction. On one hand, a strong man is super hot, and on the other...hmm... I've seemed to have lost my point somewhere.

    I think books have different rules than life.

  10. I thinks books do influence the reader, but I doubt they are the pure cause of anyones actions. Teenagers who are facinated with killing or bad relationships are going to gravitate towards things that support these impulses. I also think that fiction provides a safe place to explore behaviors and ideas different then are own. I think a lot of us girls are attracted to the bad boy, but we don't want to get hurt. I like exploring different worlds and people in books and I think there is no harm in that.

    1. I definitely agree with this. Apparently there was a study done (I can't verify, because I heard about it a few years back) where it found that crime dropped on opening nights for violent films - the theory being that violent people were drawn to violent films, so for the duration of the film there was less violent people on the streets.

  11. @Sarah, maybe the difference is how the heroine responds to the stalking.

    @Sheena, LOL, my thoughts exactly.

    @Anonymous, that is a very good point. I do think there is a reason we are drawn to certain stories. Maybe it is a way for us to explore or deal with impulses we have that are not exactly healthy.

    @Anjasa, sounds like a fascinating study. I'll have to try to google it.


Got an opinion? Use it! Remember... be silly, be honest, and be nice/proofread.