Tuesday, 23 March 2010

hush hush, the designated love interest and gender relations in YA

NB: Potentially triggering discussion of why one character is a rapist.

This week I read Aja’s LJ post Bad Romance (or, YA & Rape Culture). Aja argues that Becca Fitzpatrick’s debut YA paranormal romance Hush, Hush “repeatedly and systematically reinforces rape culture”: the protagonist is “both a victim of rape culture and a perpetuation of it”. I scored a copy of Hush, Hush to see if it was as bad as Aja said.

It’s worse.

First the good. Hush, Hush is a fast read. The dialogue zings. I liked the protagonist much more than I thought I would, and her best friend was tons of fun. And the cover is breathtaking. I could stare at that image all day.

Isn’t that gorgeous?

It’s a shame the designated love interest is a creepy sexual predator.

In a cast full of stalkers, designated love interest Patch is absolutely the worst. His his ideal woman is “vulnerable”. He zeroes in on Nora because he can intimidate her. Patch enjoys threatening her. That’s why he keeps asking her if he scares him - because he gets a thrill out of it. He puts his hands all over her, he invades her personal space, he makes unwanted sexual comments, he leers at her, he follows her around, he isolates her, he scares her. That is not sexual tension but sexual threat - the threat of rape. When Patch corners her alone in a deserted tunnel, Nora explicitly wonders if he's going to rape her. While Patch may not physically rape her, his actions constitute psychological (invading her thoughts) and metaphorical (entering her mind, taking over her body, and physically restraining her from calling the authorities so they can protect her) rapes. He is a continual threat to Nora’s independence, self-respect and even survival.

In one particularly horrifying scene, Nora is stranded with Patch with no cell phone and no way of calling for help. Over her repeated objections, Patch forces her to spend the night with him in a motel room with a single bed. He tells her to strip and get in the shower. Then he pins her down on the bed, straddles her and warns her that nobody will come help her if she screams.

Ladies and gentleman, behold the hero of this paranormal romance.

Nobody worthy of Nora’s love would ever, ever, ever do this. A worthy person would respect her wishes. A worthy person would recognise that she feels threatened and help her to feel safe. A worthy person would support her, encourage her, empower her. Patch is the diametric opposite of that person.

When I talked to the twifties about this novel, the wonderful Becca Cooper commented:

“Now that everyone's talking about it I'm sitting here going, "Hey, yah, how did I miss that?" And I think it's because I read the book with the understanding that Patch was the love interest and I was pretty sure he and Nora got together at the end. Therefore, when Patch did these creepy things I sort of dismissed it/tried to justify it/assumed he had good motivations, and so on.”

Patch gets away with it because he is the designated love interest.

I use this term “designated love interest” to try to express how very artificial the supposed romance is. Nora isn’t drawn to Patch because of his humour, warmth or respect for her: he has none. Nor because they have fun together: they don’t. Nor because he empowers her to become a fuller, better person: he doesn’t. In fact, she finds him so repulsive she spends nearly the entire book rejecting and fleeing him. (If someone forced me into a motel room, told me he wanted to kill me, shoved me up against a wall and put his hands round my throat, I’d reject him too.)

Patch has two things going for him. One, he’s physically attractive. Two, the author designated him as the story’s official love interest. You can tell that not because of anything he does, but because he’s on the front cover, and in the back cover copy, and is an attractive yet brooding boy the protagonist meets in class.

That’s it. Those are the only two reasons Nora has to like him. Those are the only two reasons the reader has to like him. However appalling his behaviour, a love interest (by definition) must be a likeable character, and the protagonist must love him (and have good reasons for loving him), and he must deserve the reader’s sympathy. Patch must be all these things, otherwise he wouldn’t be the love interest ... right?

The lesson Hush, Hush teaches is this. Whatever a boy does to you is out of love. He scares you because he likes you that way. He ignores your wishes because he wants to spend time with you. He invades your personal space because he wants you. So if you find yourself pinned down on a bed, trapped and helpless, just remember that he’s doing this to you because he loves you.

I know YA paranormal romance in general has a problem with gender roles. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight is notorious for this - it’s the archetypal example, the model that Hush, Hush follows closely. Aja suggests other offenders: Claudia Gray’s Evernight, Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, Nina Malkin’s Swoon. My friend Hope commented that “it sounds as though YA might be going through the same need to reject rape-as-love dynamic that the romance world went through about fifteen years ago”. But before YA can reject the bad-boy archetype that gave us Patch and Edward, the romantic hero whose obsessive, dangerous love is expressed through threatening and controlling and overriding the heroine, it first needs to recognise that archetype for what it is: Aja’s “perpetuation of rape culture”.

I’d like to finish up by recommending two YA novels whose handling of love, sex and gender put Hush, Hush to shame.
  1. In Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, the protagonist Katsa lives in a male-dominated world in which the easiest way of escaping the control of one man is often to take shelter in the protection of another. Katsa rejects that with a vengeance. Katsa challenges the many contexts in which men have power over her: direct feudal hierarchy, offers to protect her, telepathic understanding of her thoughts and feelings, marriage proposals. Unusually for a YA heroine, Katsa explicitly prizes her own autonomy and independence. Her love interest is sweet and warm: he respects and loves Katsa's strength of character. He allows and encourages Katsa to be a strong, independent woman.
  2. In Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Lexicon, the character of Nick Ryves is a deconstruction of the classic YA supernatural bad boy. He's scary and dangerous and smoking hot. He possesses many forms of power - physical, sexual, magical. He's the Edward, the Patch, of this story. The twist? Nick is the protagonist of the story, not the designated love interest who dominates a weak heroine. And when we're in his viewpoint, we see how much of a freaking psychopath he is. We see his callousness, his violence, his total lack of empathy. Frankly, he's Chaotic Evil. We see clearly that the YA bad-boy stereotype of Hush, Hush is incapable of real love for another person, only dangerous, controlling obsession. (And the girl who is initially attracted to Nick for his bad-boyness comes to realise that he's a psychopath and kicks his ass to the kerb.) In a way, I perceive The Demon’s Lexicon as a critique of the YA paranormal romance subgenre, and I love it all the more for that.
Further reading: Choco, “Why YA Romance Needs to Change”.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

leaping into the shark tank

Today I had an attack of boldness and decided to submit a first chapter to a writing forum I belong to. (No, not that forum. Early drafts require gentle critique.) Confusingly, I have two contradictory feelings about this:
  1. I am an unparalleled genius whose latest masterpiece will send readers into ecstasy.
  2. I am a hack. Readers will laugh. Tomatoes may be thrown.
I suspect the truth, as always, will be somewhere in the middle.