Can’t we just let characters enjoy their relationship without having to have it be The Greatest Love in the Universe?
People are obsessed with the concept of True Love. It’s a hangover from the reign of fairy tales, I suppose, where that was the basis and endgame of all things (well, in the less horrifying more modern versions, anyway). But, like all hangovers, it’s starting to stink up the place and give fiction a bit of a stale air.
I’m mostly talking about teen fiction, which has taken to promoting the idea that young love is RIGHT AND TRUE AND DEFIES ALL ODDS and is sweet when done well, but when not handled gracefully plunges the characters and their romance into Special Snowflake territory.
Special Snowflake (n): someone who believes, or is expressed to be by their author or creator, even more unique than every other infinitely unique human being on the planet, much like a snowflake in a blizzard wherein every flake has a distinctive shape, but still shouts that they are the most distinctive as they whirl towards earth and annoy the rest of their frozen-water buddies.
God forbid I should talk about Twilight, so I’m going to leave that for a few paragraphs later and introduce the trouble with Alex Flinn’s Beastly, which was made into a movie a year or so ago that twists the Beauty and the Beast story by setting it in modern day and having the ‘beast’ character retain a shocking amount of his sex appeal.
In the book, this was less the case, with our hero Kyle actually having claws and fur and all that jazz, and his love interest (the ‘Belle’ stand-in) was expressed to be awkward and freckled (not exactly Vanessa Hudgens, but that’s not what I’m talking about here).
If I begin to critique this novel we’ll be here all week so let’s skip to the ending: freckle-girl breaks the curse and Kyle is pretty again, and can go back to being fawned over by his fangirls. Oh, but he and Freckles know so much better than that, having matured with their ordeal and been brought together, so that now they can tut and shake their heads at the other couples and hopefuls they see because they can never hope for a love as true and strong as theirs.
They were even blessed with luck by the witch, who was an unfortunately unexplored character (such is always the way, isn’t it?), and given the promise that their love would last forever and now they’re living together despite being only seventeen or something and they’re going to get married and have beautiful babies conceived with the power of undying magical love.
The part about the magical blessing wasn’t necessary. Like, I understand that leaving the potential for them to break up after such an adventure together (which really wasn’t that adventurous) would be a bit of a kick to the gut, but really. The fact that they now visibly hold themselves on a pedestal above other people because of this True Love was endlessly annoying.
Every relationship is different. Every single one is unique in its inner workings. That’s how we can have so many love stories! Expressing to death that your fictional couple is super special and magical and true and ~SOUL MATES~ is not necessary. It’s just a cheap and annoying way of announcing how special your characters are as they do something that billions of people have already done.
When you think about it, it’s not that healthy of a message to be beaming to the youth. Telling them that their romances must be world-shattering and dramatic and last eternally will only make them feel put-out if and when they have a break up. We need to put less emphasis on the whole “find your soul mate with your first love” thing and express that a lot of relationships do come to an end and aren’t involved in uniting feuding families or saving the world or breaking magical curses.
This is one of the reasons I like John Green—he hands the YA audience the message that relationships don’t always work out, whether they last for five minutes or five weeks or five years, and that’s okay. Just because it ended it does not remove the emotional weight from it or mean that it wasn’t important. We should acknowledge that, like friendships and jobs and school, love can come to an end and for a good percentage of relationships it’s inevitable, and that’s just the way things are. It’s a chance for the characters to grow and learn.
Obviously we don’t want to force the cynical message that romance is futile because we’re all going to die alone, but fiction for teenagers shouldn’t rely so heavily on the characters finding the love of their lives. And when they do, resting on their laurels and knowing deep in their smug little hearts that their relationship is the Truest of True Love and thus they are better than everybody else.
And most of the time these aren’t even healthy relationships. To hell with it, I’m talking about Twilight. The amount of times Bella laments the fact that other people do not understand her perfect relationship with Edward makes me want to shout at kittens. First of all, of course they don’t understand it because with the whole sparkly blood-drinking night-crawler thing covered up, it looks like he’s a handsome psychopath that’s emotionally and physically abusing you and slowly inducting you into a cult.
(My friend has a theory that Bella is actually just in an abusive relationship and her tormented, delusional mind is making up the vampire thing as a coping mechanism. I can’t work out if it’s more or less disturbing than the actual books.)
But of course, Edward and Bella’s love is so very true and the mere mortals cannot possibly understand it. And so their love will go on forever as they become immortals and make endless, obviously highly superior, sparkly vampire love on the floor of their private cottage while their perfect, beautiful, intelligent and magically low-maintenance baby does her own thing.
Is this really the picture we should be painting for our young readers to aspire to?
For one thing, it’s impossible, and for another, it’s mildly creepy. The idea that the ultimate romantic experience is to attach yourself to one person for the rest of your life because your souls are aligned or whatever is… inaccurate to life and rather dodgy. Do we really need to give pre-teen girls any more unreachable goals?
While there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to find a partner to be happy with for the rest of our days with the assurance that the love will never end, beating people over the head with the idea can only lead to trouble. Expressing that all other relationships pale in comparison to the True Love that fictional people obtain is little more than a punch in the self-esteem for many readers.
Romance in teen novels isn’t going away. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I really hope that more people start writing it in ways that don’t leave people who can’t live up to the Specialness of the Special Snowflakes feeling like failures.