The Problem With Romance in Young Adult Novels

By: Kiyun

The other day, while browsing the National Novel Writing Month’s forums, I ran across a discussion about what people dislike about YA. The topic of romance (and, in particular, romantic sub-plots) crept up over and over again, until it spawned various other forum threads on the subject— one with the title of “Does Everyone Hate Romance in YA?” and another with “Am I The Only One Who Doesn’t Mind a Little Love in YA?”

As someone who has read quite a bit of YA, a fair share of which have included romance in at least a sub-plot capacity, I can safely say that yes, I do tend to dislike romance in YA. Part of it is the frankly disturbing trend of unhealthy relationships being held up as examples of ‘true love’, part of it is the lack of diversity in romantic partnerships, and part of it, I’ll admit, is that I honestly don’t relate to characters in love. But that’s another story. Let’s focus on the first two.

The more pressing issue, I think, is the way relationships in YA novels tend to spiral wildly into dangerous territory. Generally, unhealthy relationships take shape in one of two ways— either a) the relationship has a huge power imbalance, which often leads to one character manipulating, controlling, or even borderline abusing the other, or b) the characters cease to have lives outside of each other, a trend that is more commonly seen in female characters but does occur in male characters as well. What’s even worse is how these unhealthy relationships are held up as examples of “true love”. Out of the two, the first type of unhealthy relationship is the most troubling, so let’s focus on that.

Putting aside the fact that most teenage romances don’t last, these stories are teaching YA readers, primarily adolescents, that an unhealthy relationship is desirable. It’s putting so many of us, regardless of gender, at a higher risk of having these types of relationships and not recognizing that they’re bad for us. When domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women and almost 40% of women experience some form of emotional abuse, holding up relationships with huge power imbalances as examples of good relationships is both problematic and irresponsible.

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