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:
- 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
- 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