Love is considered vital in our societies and it is generally accepted that everybody needs someone to love and to have a relationship with. We are taught that a person needs a partner to share his life experience, that could be summarized in three phases: to fall in love, to get married and to have children. This idea of love is constructed during childhood and, especially, adolescence, the period when teenagers construct their identities and have their first relationships. Therefore, what is the role of romance novels for young adults?
Two of the most read books in the last decade are Three meters above the sky and Twilight.
The first one, written by Federico Moccia, explains a love story between two adolescents, Babi and Step. She has all the characteristics of the “perfect women”: she is beautiful, sweet, pure (she has never had sex before), sensitive and obedient. As opposed to that, he is experienced, teaser, thug and violent. For all these reasons, he is respected by all the men and pursuit by women. Undoubtedly, this book is a good example of gender stereotypes. The plot is not original at all, it is the typical story of an innocent and impressionable girl that falls in love with a rebellious boy. Not only the relationship is toxic, but also Step pushes dangerously the limits of becoming an abusive man.
As for Twilight, the book written by Stephenie Meyer starts like that:
“I’ve never thought about dying, but dying in the place of someone I love seems like a good way to go.”
Twilight is a romantic novel where the main character, Bella, a normal girl, falls in love with Edward, a vampire that seems incredible to her:
“I wasn’t interesting. And he was. Interesting… and brilliant… and mysterious… and perfect… and beautiful…”
From the moment she knows him, she is not able to think or to do something that has no relation with him. As in Moccia’s book, the love relationship is characterized by dependence and possession; Bella has no friends and no life apart from Edward. Their story perfectly fits with the “half orange” myth: they are soulmates and their lives have no sense without the other. Furthermore, the book shows that Bella always needs Edward’s protection:
“This is only about you. All I care is that you’re safe.”, says Edward.
Indeed, she is always in danger because Edward has an irrational instinct to eat and kill human people.
Edward: “It’s wrong. It’s not safe. I’m dangerous, Bella — please, grasp that.”
Bella: “I told you, it doesn’t matter what you are. It’s too late.”
At the end of the saga, she has to sacrifice herself, she dies as a human and becomes a vampire in order to be with Edward forever: she does everything for “love”.
“I would rather die than stay away from you”, says Bella.
Edward defines their love story in this way:
“And so the lion fell in love with the lamb.”
This quote is representative of how much unequal their relationship is.
Another point to bear in mind is that in young-adult books polyamory is rarely accepted. Love relationships between three people are always characterized by the competition and enmity. For instance, in Twilight Bella breaks in love with the vampire Edward, but she also likes the wolfman Jacob. However, from the beginning of the story, we know this secondary relation has no future because it is presented as impossible to love two people at the same time. On the other hand, there is a Spanish trilogy famous among teenagers entitled The Idhún’s Memories where the main female character falls in love with two men and decides to have a relationship with both. In the book we can read:
“You don’t belong to me. Only what you feel for me belongs to me.”
“I don’t see why do you have to love only one person, if there is space in your heart for two.”
A further point is that is difficult to find homosexuality in young-adult books. It is increasingly common to see in the media and around us other types of relationships out of heteronormativity and monogamy. Toxic, abusive and unequal relationships are a concern for society and more and more people claim to break with traditional gender roles.
Marta Nájera has studied¹ the influence of children and young-adult literature in the construction of gender roles. In an interview for eldiario.es she explains that the roles transmitted through books determine the relations young people make between them.
“Most of the stories currently produced are still promoting or representing very traditional values and stereotypes. (…) Men and women appear as two opposites, as very static figures, and the relationships will always be understood as superiority of the man above the woman. In addition, relationships will always be heterosexual, without any other possibility of relationship or family.”
Young-adult books have an important educational role because they end up building the collective imagination of young people. Based in two of the most read books of the last decade, it is alarming what type of messages and values are teenagers receiving. Book authors have a role beyond telling a story, keeping teenagers entertained or selling books; they have the responsibility to be critical of the heterosexist roles and they should show different models of relationships, families and sexualities.
- Marta Nájera is the author of the research Gender performativity as identity (de)construction in literary education: four didactic answers to four cultural models.