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”.


  1. Just thought of something: If you are really interested in exploring this with a larger audience, consider approaching Sarah of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and ask her to review this one. She's recently been commenting on books outside the adult romance genre. I suspect she'd be interested in a discussion.

  2. I think you hit the nail right on the head.

    Now I'm going to go find myself a copy of Graceling and The Demon's Lexicon. :)

  3. Awesome post! I haven't read Hush Hush, and have no desire to from everything I've heard, but this sort of thing just makes my blood boil. (Having done my dissertation on sexual violence and male/female perspectives of power... need I say more?)

    I read the blog post you referenced, and she also made good points. Only thing I'm not sure I agree with is including Vampire Academy in there. That one really feels like a stretch to me. Sure, the MC can be very immature, but to equate her position to Bella/Nora/etc.? Can't see that at all. (Haven't read the others so I can't comment.)

    Funny thing about The Demon's Lexicon is that I didn't like it all *because* the MC is such a psycho. I couldn't stand being in his head. ;-) Which really just goes to make your point perfectly clear!

  4. Very nice post, Para. I've not read Hush, Hush, but I have read Twilight and the whole "watching Bella sleep" thing never sat right with me. 'Tis rather upsetting.

  5. This is an excellent post! Thank you so much for linking me to it. I second both the recs for Graceling and TDL, and also want to throw in recs for 2 of last year's debs, Ash and Silver Phoenix, which both explicitly dealt with and rejected enforced gender and sexual roles for women.

    I agree with you completely. The problem as I see it now is that there's no impetus to change. With Twilight being a mega-hit (not that Twilight is by any means the root of the problem), naturally Hush, Hush is going to get a huge release push and become a giant bestseller, which is just going to spur more authors on to write books like it and like Swoon. Even if books like Graceling and TDL sell relatively well and are critically acclaimed, it's really hard not to see the success of Hush, Hush as encouraging more books that push this kind of message onto teen readers, who will then grow up to write more books with the same kinds of built-in misogyny.

    Although really, the fact that publishers are willing to publish books with messages that are pathologically harmful to teens but are resistant to putting gay kisses in other YA novels makes me fear that even acknowledging the existence of a collective and ongoing problem will do very little to reshape industry priorities.

  6. Fantastic post. It sounds more like horror/thriller than romance.

  7. I agree that having the LI stalk and try to kill the MC for the first half of the book is on the disturbing side, lol--and in that respect, I don't think it's like Twilight at all. (but that's another story!) :)

    I can't help feeling bad for the author, though, who is getting pummelled vocally all over the web when I doubt she did any of this on purpose--it's just a typical storyline like you'd find in any number of adult romance novels. What a bummer for her.

    As I commented on the original post you cited, too, I think part of the issue is parents should know what their teens are reading, so they can discuss the implications. Bc while teens *should* know this is a totally fictious situation--hello, fallen angel, anyone?--they may, as you suggest, subconsciously apply parts to real life.

    But honestly, I think a lot of whether or not this type of novel has any effect on readers is going to depend on upbringing and parental involvement. If you're raising your daughter to be a strong girl who doesn't accept that kind of crap, is she *really* going to be swayed by this? I doubt it.

  8. Para, you rock so much. First, can't thank you enough for linking me that awesome post by bookshop, and then your post this AWESOMENESS.

    You totally said everything that needs to be said about HH & abusive relationships in YA. And you put it so eloquently! I think I'll go link this from my blog as well :)

    Also, GREAT examples for kickass heroines! *loves those two books*

  9. Fantastic post!! The very first review I read of Hush Hush ages ago described Patch as a horrible, scary person, so I've dismissed all the great reviews I've read since. But to see all of the things that he actually does in the book spelled out is horrifying!! I COMPLETELY agree about Graceling, that was my favorite book of '09, and I'll check out the Demon's Lexicon. Thank you for the great post!

  10. I was going to read this book. Now, probably not.

    Although I think an important distinction is that it is a symptom, not a cause.

  11. Yay, I've been missing your blog.

    I don't think I'll read that book then. I do like a bit of twisted romance, but not rape (at least, not when it's portrayed as okay). Your heroines are much better than this one sounds.

  12. Patch sounds quite scary and reading about what he does in the book made me feel uncomfortable. This post was great. I thought you put your points across quite well.

    I didn't get very far into The Demon's Lexicon, and mainly because I found Nick to be quite an annoying and unlikeable protagonist. But now that you've pointed him out as a deconstruction of the classic YA supernatural boy, I'm glad I did read enough of it to see what you're talking about.

  13. Ninja master.

    You are as wise as you are awesome.

  14. Aw man I love this post. Hush, Hush is huge! Right up there with Twilight! Twilight always struck me in a way I wish that it was not so popular. It scares me that they both are so popular!!

    Great words, you said it so well. So many obsess about these books, and boy are they everywhere. I'm writing a YA novel, inspired by Stephanie Meyer, I want to clean up the mess her and every other author like her has created. YA they are so important, so much sponges at those ages, they need better books. @genemarie1

  15. And this is when I put my copy of Hush, Hush all the way at the bottom of the TBR pile. I wish I had read more deconstructions of how psycho Patch is before I bought it.

    Srsly though, what kind of a name is Patch?!

    Okay, okay, in all seriousness, I really hate that teen girls seem to be idolizing this sort of behavior in their love interests. It's not sexy at all. Thank you for bringing up all of these points!

  16. (this is attempt FOUR, what is UP with blogger today?)

    @April: "I really hate that teen girls seem to be idolizing this sort of behavior in their love interests."

    I don't think it's that teenagers are idolizing the behavior, so much as they are clinging to the promised rewards. Like the protagonist of SHUT UP, err, HUSH HUSH, most teenagers are well aware when their creep factor is ringing at high volume. But at the same time, our social rape culture is also telling them -- even louder than their internal creep alert -- that this is how the world works, that this kind of treatment is inevitable and unavoidable.

    It's hard enough dealing with those pressures as an adult; as a teenager, it's almost soul-crushing. No teenager, no person, likes to know that the daily lesson is that she can be cornered, abused, frightened, attacked, and dismissed and that there's nothing she can do about it. The problem is that books like these offer a kind of twisted hope: the misery is inevitable, but look, in the end, there's love! Which is a truly sad and horrible final lesson, to be reinforcing such damaging messages with a dangling carrot of love after a hundred pages of the stick.

    If young girls absorb that message and cling to the books as guides for how to deal with life in prison, I can't blame them for it. I save my ire for the adults -- the author, her agent, her publisher, her editor -- who should freaking know better, and who should have at least some bare scrap of human integrity to realize all they're doing is reinforcing the bars on the prison door.

    But I sure wish I could take those books away and give these teenaged girls something better, and a better world while I'm at it.

  17. It makes me worry about the mindset of young girls where these boys are held up are paragons of sexuality. I think in the rush to be edgy, they have run over the edge.

  18. I agree with everything up until the part where you mentioned "The Demon's Lexicon."

    > the character of Nick Ryves is a deconstruction of the classic YA supernatural bad boy.

    Er... nnnnnnno he isn't? He's actually a very typical example of the classic YA supernatural bad boy. The most you can say is that he's a JUSTIFIED example of the trope, since there is an actual reason for why he's such a douchebag, whereas most supernatural bad boys are douchebags just because. But a deconstruction, no. He's still a douchebag, and yet we're still supposed to squee over how dark and dangerous and tormented he is, and the end is shown as a validation of him - "see? See? He really was a great guy deep inside after all!"

    > 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.

    Yeah, er, when does that happen? Because as far as I can recall, the girl goes along quite happily all the way to the end and has sexual tension with Nick and Alan at turns, and the end leaves it open who she will eventually end up with.

  19. I worry it's kind of bad form for an author to respond and I promise this will be my only such response - but I did want to validate the OP's view. Nick is certainly meant to be a deconstruction of the bad boy hero. Deconstruction's fun, and I did feel That Guy could use some. ;)

    Nick's not a great guy - he's a terrible guy - but he is meant to have some redeeming qualities, because I find the idea of focusing on a character without any awful and pointless. ;) (Chief said redeeming quality being familial rather than romantic love, another deliberate choice.)

    Basically telling a book from That Guy's pov and without illusions, and not using romantic love (not that I have anything against romantic love) was a choice, and it's a choice that has made the character of Nick unpalatable to many, many readers. (Also off-putting at many turns to the other characters in the books.) Those who enjoy other YA heroes and those who don't, as seen here. ;) If Nick was just intended to be squeed over, I'm smart enough to have done a much better job creating an alluring character! I meant to deconstruct (while trying to retain said allure, because if it's not there, what's to understand?)

    How *successful* I was in said deconstruction is obviously up to the individual reader, and just as obviously I wasn't successful for baeraad! And authorial intent is a flawed vehicle. But for what it's worth, for the most part I meant it the way the OP took it, and was pleased to read the article lo these many moons ago and again through a link just now! And so this is not all me blithering about myself, co-signed on Kristin Cashore. Her book Fire, I think, is even better than Graceling, and does a wonderful job deconstructing the femme fatale via literalising the myth of a woman 'so beautiful men can't help themselves.' It's a pretty sketch character - like the bad boy! - but Kristin Cashore made that idea into a person, thinking about how a woman with a real personality would be affected by being this archetype, how she'd struggle against it, how she'd use it, and what choices she'd make.

  20. I think this is an unfair post . Most everything is exaggerated .
    Sure Patch was a really bad boy . When the author says bad boy , she means it . He was lustful . He wanted to seduce , betray and kill Nora for plot related reasons . Killing her would give him a human body so he can satiate his lust . But he fell in love with her . Love won over lust . He gave up his dream of becoming human to keep Nora alive . Through the series you can see him becoming more moral . Thats redeeming enough .
    As for the sexual comments and touching , Nora actually liked it and he knew it . He never goes beyond the touching and kissing unless he's sure thats what Nora wants . He does respect her wishes as we see in this and later books .
    That Motel scene is exaggerated . He didn't ask her to strip . He only said she needed a hot shower as she was shivering . There were enemies out looking for her . He wanted to talk to her in a secluded place where they won't be interrupted so he can explain the whole 'I'm a fallen angel who wanted to kill you but can't , now there are others looking for you ' . He was the only one who could protect her . Hence the threatening and the straddling when she tried to run out of the motel into certain danger before he had a chance to explain . He didn't really have a choice .

  21. I like the article but I feel like including Vampire Academy in the list of offenders is VERY wrong. I feel like it's only up there because the romance in it is a "student-teacher" romance. Which, technically it's not because he's not a teacher at the school, he's the princesses body guard and offers to help train Rose to get her up to speed. But the sex and romance in the story is handled very well. There is a situation where Rose is almost potentially raped but it's not by the main love interest. Dimitri actually respects Rose, her age, and the fact that she's still in school. He doesn't try to intimidate her and make her feel less powerful, in fact Rose and Dimitri are equals which is what makes them so great together. Because he doesn't act like he needs to make Rose feel like she's safe either, she can protect and take care of herself, sometimes better than he could, and that's why he loves her, because she's sleek and beautiful but dangerous like a panther ready to strike. And even later when Rose has a different love interest and they're going to have sex, both naked, he doesn't have a condom so she doesn't wanna do it and accidentally get pregnant and he respects that, he doesn't try and force her to do anything anyways, he tells her it's okay they can just lay there and cuddle. Vampire Academy is actually one of THE BEST examples for young girls on dating and romance.