Teenage Dating in a ‘Twilight’-‘Hunger Games’ World

The effects of romantic role models in young adult fiction color whole generations’ ideas of who they want to be and to love.

Quick, without thinking about it too much, which are you: Luke Skywalker or Han Solo?

Guys my age had to answer this question sometime around first grade. I try not to think too much about the fact that I identified with the whiny, inexperienced, eventually-kinda-priestly kid who turned out to be the brother. Meanwhile, one of my best friends was taller, darker, more dangerous, and eventually went to college to become a pilot. Well, there it is.

Girls had to wait for the second set of movies before being offered the choice between Leia and her mother—these movies tried not to get cluttered with too many women. Even in a gold bikini, Leia was a much better action hero than Padame, whose fighting credits include closing her eyes to shoot her gun and getting precisely half of her shirt bitten off. Notice (assuming you’re back from checking those links), though, that these women have more in common than differences. For example, their peculiar speech-patterns—as Harrison Ford said, “George, you can type this shit, but you can’t say it.”

For young men today, it’s as likely to be: Edward/Jacob, Peeta/Gale, Harry/Ron. The fact that first names are entirely sufficient in this conversation (and on t-shirts) is telling.  As a high school teacher, I know that the relationship dynamics in The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Twilight impact students’ lives, even if they haven’t read the books or seen the movies. Expectations and assumptions are made, frustrations are intensified, and power is balanced based on the influence of these characters.

Twilight richly deserves criticism for its adverbs, as well as its perversions related to age and gender roles—more of which you’re about to read here. However, the fact that Twilight and its sequels are so successful is testament to the fact that Stephenie Meyers depicts unquenchable desire really well (see also: abstinence porn). Instead of Edward vs. Jacob, we should focus on the unhealthy and stupid things that happen when desire becomes an all-encompassing fixation.

Meyers’s books can alter young people’s perceptions if it makes them believe that:

  • It’s okay for a man to push a woman around if:
    • she is unreasonably refusing to get into the car.
    • he’s just kidding around.
    • she wants to use her hands, and he doesn’t want her to.
  • Watching a girl while she sleeps is sweet, especially if he wants to date her, especially if she talks in her sleep, especially if she talks about him.
  • Driving too fast is okay if he’s immortal, even if she’s not.
  • It is sometimes the girlfriend’s job to talk him out of killing people.
  • Breaking into a girl’s house and digging through her laundry hamper to find her keys is romantic.
  • Physical attractiveness is a great prophylactic for the consequences of acting like a complete asshat––gorgeous people have more rights than everyone else.
  • Being consistently nice is optional, if on occasion you are especially nice.
  • If she’s too slow when they’re hiking together, he should just carry her. Against her will if necessary.
  • A significant age-gap isn’t a problem if he looks like he’s the appropriate age.
  • A girl should make her father’s dinner, even if:
    • she’s not eating.
    • she’s already eating.
    • he’s not all that hungry.

Though more-or-less equivalent in popularity, the relationships in The Hunger Games are entirely different. The remarkable thing about the male love-interests in these books is that Katniss isn’t really offered a bad choice. Gale and Peeta aren’t perfect, but every woman should have such men to choose from:

Gale:

  • Relationship began as a friendship and a partnership based on mutual respect
  • Physically attractive to her
  • Recognizes things that she does better than him (think hunting and survival skills, not housekeeping)
  • Makes grave personal sacrifices for her family
  • Is generally gracious and civilized, allowing her space to make her choice
  • Interested in her, but not so overwhelmed by it to make things weird between them
  • All of this, and still not gay

Peeta:

  • Harbored a long-term unspoken and unrequited crush
  • Managed to keep the crush from making things too weird between them
  • Relationship began with a covert act of kindness
  • Physically attractive (she at least recognizes that he is objectively attractive)
  • Recognizes things she does better than he does (think moving stealthy and killing people, not…)
  • Participates in acts of physical intimacy on her terms without taking advantage
  • All of this, and still not gay

And then there’s Harry Potter. Remarkably, the romantic options for the students at Hogwarts are all pretty good. Harry, Ron, or Cedric; Ginny (book version only, mind you), Hermione, or Cho––any combination could have made generally good matches (well, not the brother and sister, but you get the gist), based in friendship, mutual respect, and genuine attraction to something deeper than sparkly skin-tone. Harry Potter and The Hunger Games place romantic love within the larger context of young people’s lives, alongside their wide variety of interests and talents, all in a world that’s just about to end.

Authors are not obligated to provide good dating choices in their works, but it’s not a bad idea for readers to analyze these choices anyway. For one thing, choosing one of these people (either to have or to be) is a much lower-stakes game than doing it in real life. Be careful, however, that there is a good choice available in the first place. In other words, if you’re looking for a healthy relationship, make sure that you’re in the right story before you go trying to find the right character.

 

—Photo credit: Perfecto Insecto/Flickr

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About Sean Hackett

Sean Hackett teaches high school music in central Pennsylvania and is a part-time farmer. He is married with a fifteen-year-old daughter and a baby girl just born in July. He blogs about school, teaching, and lots of other things at The Slacker’s Guide to School.

Comments

  1. wellokaythen says:

    I had never heard the phrase “abstinence porn” before. That’s the perfect phrase. I love it!

  2. Young Swedish Viking says:

    As being a 17-year-old guy without any clue who Edward, Jacob, Gale and Peeta are, I suppose it is a pretty good thing?

    Anyway, good article and even though I ain’t a man yet, I still find a lot of stuff on TGMP very interesting, keep it up!

  3. michelle bateman says:

    Raising daughters in this abstinence porn world can be quite frustrating for a parent. One sees all this pent up angst about love, dating, desire turns into turmoil but one tries desperately to keep the girls grounded. The TV , The movies and books all infuse this idea that if you are not in pain or yearning tortuously, then one must not truly be in love. There is nothing in our media that depicts couples in love having just wonderful communicative, simple and solid lives. Everything has to be heart-wrenching, or painful in someway to be authentic. Its maddening. and of course if one would try to explain this to their beautiful girls.. I am the crazy one. I have no idea what love is.

    • That’s true, but not new or unique to our media. Romeo and Juliet and countless other works have been romanticizing heart-wrenching love long before Twilight or Hunger Games came along. Drama without conflict and obstacles wouldn’t be drama.

      I do think it’s easier to think of examples in contemporary media of unrequited or otherwise painful love than the communicative, simple, solid kind, but I can think of at least a few to counter the impression that it’s nowhere to be found.

      Pam & Jim in “The Office” come to mind. For several seasons they had typical obstacles of mis-timed attraction or availability, but ultimately, they got together (without cheating), got married, had kids, and seem to still love each other and get along. (It’s also arguable that their story arc is more boring and gets a lot less play now, but at least it’s an example of a healthy, loving relationship in a fictional show.)

      Phil & Claire on “Modern Family” also seem pretty healthy to me. They have conflicts, but always end up talking it out or working it out and come off more heart-warming than heart-wrenching. (That goes for the other two couples in the show, too, though I think Phil & Claire are the best example.)

      In “The Middle”, Frankie (the wife/mom) and Mike struggle to raise their three kids and scrape out a living for the family, but the marriage itself does not come off as unloving or tortuous. They argue in some pretty gender stereotypical ways, but as in “Modern Family”, the end result is usually finding some common ground or understanding that strengthens their relationship, rather than wallowing in how miserable or heart-wrenching marriage is. I would say they make it look hard at times, but not bad, which seems like a pretty respectable balance for a tv show. (It reminds me of “Roseanne”, but without being so focused on one character, and I enjoy it more.)

      In “Up All Night”, there’s the mom who still has her career going, while the dad gave up being a lawyer to be a stay-at-home dad with their daughter. I’m not sure a tv producer mom and former lawyer SAHD qualifies as “simple”, but they communicate their way through conflict and seem to have a pretty solid marriage and love for each other.

      I still agree that angst-ridden love dominates fiction, especially in drama, but there’s at least a few decent relationships going in popular fiction, especially if you don’t mind sitcoms.

      • I agree that Katniss handled the whole triangle thing badly. In fact, Katniss acknowledges throughout that she’s handling the whole triangle thing badly. She was in a very stressful situation with lots of needs, and used each guy to fulfill those needs when she could. She’s a good role model in lots of ways, including that she recognizes her flaws, even as admits she’s powerless to correct them.

        I also agree that good relationships don’t tend to have a central place in story lines., though they do exist if you look for them–like the ones you mentioned. Our goal, I guess, is to be the annoying, happy neighbor couple, whose greatest conflict comes from having to cancel plans at the last minute because the sitter falls through. Hardly interesting from a story-telling point of view, but a much happier existence.

  4. I loved Hunger Games for having a realistic, complex, and strong female protagonist presented with two very good potential male partners. Twilight is a ridiculous, misogynist horror all the way around and Harry Potter, sadly, didn’t deal with its love themes all that well. I guess I’d consider the Harry Potter love stories to have no real harm in them, while Twilight is actively a poor example doing harm to young readers, while Hunger Games is actively positive all the way around.

    • How did Katniss handle that love triangle that you thought was positive? I loved the trilogy and her bad-assery, but I didn’t feel like she was any kind of role model when it came to the love triangle with Peeta and Gale.

  5. wellokaythen says:

    I see the Harry Potter stories as more of a children’s fantasy than a teenage fantasy, despite what the actors look like by the final movie. I’d say it’s a totally different kind of fantasy than the Twilight books. The magic/vampires/werewolves similarity is just a superficial commonality.

    The early Harry Potter is at heart the basic fantasy that just about every kid has: the people raising me are not my real parents. My real parents are wonderful, heroic people, and I am meant to be powerful and famous and popular. I am in fact a superior human being who will get respect wherever I go just for being me, and I’ll follow the rules I want to follow and ignore the ones I don’t want to follow. In reality I am like a prince who’s currently being raised by filthy peasants.

    Twilight seems like more a teenage girl fantasy. Into my boring small town will come some beautiful yet troubled young men who have old souls and gorgeous bodies. They will fight over me, and the power of my love will bring one of them out of his shell, show him what love is, and he will protect me as well as bring adventure into my life. Our love will be refined because we won’t have sex but it will be so hot he can’t stand it that he’ll want to eat me. I will make the brooding bad boy love me. He will love me so much he would rather stay in Forks, Washington with me and hang out with me in high school than travel the world. Riiiiiight.

    • Tying Harry Potter in here may be a *bit* of a stretch, especially for the first few books. However, since wizards come of age at 17, isn’t the whole thing is sorta accelerated for them? It’s an aspect of the series that I’ve always had some trouble wrapping my mind around–picturing the 17-year-olds I work with going immediately into real careers in a ministry of anything. Since they go directly from Hogwarts to real life, the person they’re dating senior year is pretty much it.

      I like your comparison of the little kid fantasy vs. the teenage fantasy. The fact that even in Bella’s fantasy she’s still nothing more than a fairly decent cook and housekeeper is just so sad. In my fantasies I’m taller, and can fly, and other cool stuff.

  6. Twilight needs to be shot. Revolting stories (if you can call it that)

  7. They are interesting articles, with some perspectives I hadn’t encountered–I especially like the map. Thanks!

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