Friday, June 15, 2012

The Overprotective Boyfriend in Novels

Modern novels pretty much say that if your boyfriend is not actively stalking you, then he must not care. I have no idea if this started with Twilight, but I'm going to assume it did. When you contrast Twilight with a book like The Princess Bride, you see two very different dynamics. Firstly, when Westley discovers that Buttercup loves him, his first impulse is to go away. To leave her. Alone. With any manner of men hanging around her. In Twilight, when Edward realizes that Bella loves him, he becomes attached to her hip even more than he already was. (Keep in mind that before they started dating, Edward was watching Bella sleep at night and followed closely behind her friends while they went for a trip into the Big City for some ho clothes. After they started dating, they were inseparable.) Take even The Dresden Files, where we are unsure if Murphy is dating anyone at all and she's a tough kick-ass cop and she has martial arts awards. And Harry Dresden not only appreciates this about her, but he respects her for it and admires how she's able to bring a grown man to tears by a well-placed knee.

"I don't need a fedora, but I like a fedora."

I'm not saying that male writers do relationships better, I'm just saying that they don't equate constant togetherness with twu wuv.

(You see what I did there?)
Have you the wing?
And it could just be a YA thing, too. I don't see many Adult-Adult books with this theme, but again, most of the Adult-Adult books I read are written by men...

I can't tell if YA novels are preying on the fears of young girls with regards to rape and abuse, but if they are, in the author's attempt to assuage a character's fears about rape generally makes her the prey of every man in the universe except the guy she's currently dating so that he can save her from those men and therefore make her even more dependent on him than she otherwise would be.

Now, the problem with teenaged relationships is that teenagers are basically still children (doesn't adolescence supposedly last until 21-22? I don't know, but it lasts a long time), and children lack the life experience that is required for really good, balanced relationships, and the only way they can get that experience is to have relationships. So they're pretty much doomed until they hit their mid-twenties, fingers crossed that they didn't do something stupid like marry their childhood sweetheart. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) What I'm saying is, remember in New Moon when Bella finally starts snapping out of her zombiehood and her friends are all pissed at her? Most people (well, I can't really speak for guys but most girls I've known) experience this after breaking up with a guy that they dated for an extended period.

I was in the band in high school (shut up), so most of the time when we dated between ourselves (like an episode of Friends), we were usually together no matter what (making breakups haaawkward) so my band friends didn't get into this as much as my non-band friends did. And if you didn't have any classes with those people, you'd see them at lunch and be like, "Where have I been? I've been here, eating lunch at our usual spot while you made out with your pimple-faced idiot boyfriend all afternoon, thank you very much. No, I do not want to share a pizza, just tell me why you're here so I can get on with my day, okay?" Only I was a teenager so it probably came out more like, "Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"

Most authors probably remember this. Maybe some of them haven't grown out of that phase yet. But the point is that if this boyfriend that this author is writing were a guy in real life, you'd call him a perv and creepy, no matter how floppy his hair was.
Christian Grey/Edward Cullen levels of floppiness should be avoided at all costs.
I think the thing that I find the most disturbing, after the assumption that women don't know how to take care of themselves and that disaster awaits them around every corner, is that the authors create all other men as rapists waiting to happen. They take the lowest common denominator and apply it to all men everywhere, and EL James even went a step further and put Christian Grey in that category. Yes, she did. In the third book, Ana remarks that Christian doesn't hire brunettes to be his assistants because he is attracted to brunettes. There is no room for him to not be attracted to a particular brunette, or to reason that no matter how attracted he is, he can't date her since she's his underling because he's a grown-ass man who knows better. No, he's a walking hard-on, and any brunette in his path will feel his mighty staff.

This makes women objects of lust. It makes us purely sexual creatures. It makes us the prey of any man who finds us attractive because naturally they want us in that way and our simple act of existing is somehow offensive to them. It also objectifies men. They become the walking hard-ons who want only one thing out of life and that one thing is sex. It also takes away any choice from them because there's no room for him to say, "But I don't want to rape this girl if she's unwilling to be with me." He's essentially saying, "I must have this girl, and if she doesn't want me, I shall have to rape her." So that's where the overprotective boyfriend comes in. He doesn't have to rape the female protagonist because she's already giving it to him, but he does have to protect her from all the other guys who just naturally want her because she exists and that's her point of existing.

Buttercup had a huge adventure after Westley went away. Count Reugen decided that she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and Prince Humperdinck decided to make her a princess so she could marry her (this doesn't happen in the movie). She survived The Cliffs of Insanity, the fire swamp, an ROUS attack, lighning sand, and a nice jump from a castle tower. After that, she totally intimidates the castle guard all by herself and gets Westley, Inigo and Fezzik to safety. (We think.) (Read the book.) If she had been Bella, she would have been dead for all of that because Bella would have killed herself the moment someone told her that Edward was dead. Bella could never switch places with Murphy because after her first martial arts class, she would have fallen and broken every bone in her fragile little body.

Bottom line, this way of writing hurts women. It hurts teenagers. It hurts men, too. It puts unrealistic expectations on relationships and makes controlling, abusive people seem normal. It makes uneven power dynamics in a relationship look reasonable, and I really think it can make inexperienced girls afraid--of men, of being on their own, of not being in a relationship--and that's not what literature should do. Literature should empower women. Katniss was not afraid of Gale or Peeta or any of the other guys trying to rape her. There was one man (one, uno, ein, un) in The Seam who preyed on young women, but he used them as prostitutes so at least they got something out of it. (I know, but...she recognized him as a pervert! Not as a normal example of human males!) Neither did Peeta or Gale stalk Katniss. Westley left Buttercup on her own while he went out into the world to get educated so that he could provide to her. He actually trusted her to not only "behave" while he was gone, but to wait for him and he promised to be true to her as well. Harry might hold information back from Murphy, but we're literally talking about life-or-death, and he actually tells her more than he should (legally by the laws of the White Council) and trusts her to be able to defend herself. If anything, she takes care of him.

So, Authors of the world, can we please have more kick-ass heroines like Katniss and Murphy and put Bella and Ana in the place they should be in: the girls that Katniss and Murphy would try to save from their abusive boyfriends? That's all I ask.


  1. I'm basically stalking your blog while waiting for the next chapter-to-chapter Fifty Shades post, but hey, your other posts are nice too :)

    I didn't read all of the books you've mentioned, but I couldn't agree more. What keeps me away from most teenage books nowadays is how much the female protagonists are lame. Not only they are completely uninteresting characters (which is nearly nightmarish when the story is narrated in first person), but the only important thing in their lives is to find the perfect man. As a 24 year old woman, I find that incredibly offensive. Of course everyone wants to love and be loved, but putting your happiness in the hands of one single person is sickness, not love. I can't see why people
    would be interested in such stereotyped and empty characters, but if that kinda thing is a success, it must say something about your times. I'm afraid to figure out what it is...

    1. I am more than happy if people read my blog. I was actually just logging on to write some more notes for a new chapter-by-chapter post when I saw your comment.

      I really don't want to think about why this sort of heroine/hero combination is what's selling. You'd hope that by now, women and teenagers are being told positive things and given positive role models, but that doesn't seem to be happening. Unfortunately.

  2. I love young adult, so I can honestly say no, this stalker-boyfriend thing is not a common theme in YA. It is pretty much just twilight. Katniss Everdeen is much more representative of heroines in YA. Sometimes, the men in these books are complete douches - in the Fallen series, Daniel greets Luce (in this life) by flipping the bird, for example - but there's usually a good reason for it (with regards to Fallen, Luce has lived 400 lives and died at 17 in each one. She is 17. He has pretty much accidentally killed her in every life - he's an Angel - so he's trying to save her life. And not in the twilight 'we're in imagined danger' sense, in the 'you might burst into flames' sense.)

    I think what it comes down to, is what the writers experience is, and how they get that to come across in their writing. Clearly, being a Mormon or a disinterested middle-aged housewife means you have little experience. And I don't think it's the fanfiction angle for E.L.James either, I used to write fanfiction, and read amazing fanfiction. I just can't believe a Peggy-Sue got published. Any diehard fanfiction writer will tell you how irritating that is.

    Been reading your blog for a couple of weeks now, love your posts! Been linking up where I can, including (apparently, one 50 shades reviewer thinks that if you don't fall for ChrisWard, you're a lesbian. Put her straight!)

    1. I don't want anyone to think that I don't like fanfiction because I do, but this particular one is
      pretty galling.

      Okay, not liking Chrisward means you're gay? I clearly need to continue my work so that it's clear how unhealthy this relationship is.

  3. A great post with several fantastic conclusions.

    This makes women objects of lust. It makes us purely sexual creatures. It makes us the prey of any man who finds us attractive because naturally they want us in that way and our simple act of existing is somehow offensive to them. It also objectifies men. They become the walking hard-ons who want only one thing out of life and that one thing is sex.

    I couldn't agree more.

    1. Thank you! I was in a romance novel phase in my early twenties, and I thought that the Kathleen Woodiwiss ideal of a heroine in peril of being raped every five minutes was just a passing fancy of that one author. When I started branching out, I discovered that Rape!Fic was a trope that several authors went for. I was disturbed and put off of most romance since, though there are a few that I have really enjoyed that stay away from the trope. I was so upset to see that it is still pervasive and common, because how else would this book be doing so well?

  4. So I'm - what, 3 months late to comment? But who cares! I just read 50SOG and your blog has been the best debrief/therapy. Princess Bride, Dresden Files AND Mockingjay??

    As our favorite wilting flower would say, "oh my!"

    1. Always say that with George Takei's voice!