Let’s Talk About Romanticized Abuse in Books

[Trigger warning for abusive relationships, both fictional and real]

I recently got into a conversation on Twitter about Twilight. Right now, you’re probably having the same reaction I did – “People still talk about Twilight?”

Apparently, yes, and I’m now convinced that at least part of the Twilight conversation is still important to have. That’s the part where we talk about how it romanticizes an abusive relationship.

Edward enters Bella’s room without her permission and watches her sleep (again, without her knowledge or permission) and hides that from her for some time. He takes away her ability to make decisions for herself. She is so incredibly dependent on him that when he disappears, she goes basically comatose for months, with no clue what to do with herself once he’s gone. At one point, he disagrees with her choice to go see Jacob, and he takes the engine out of her car.


The person I talked to on Twitter argued that he was simply trying to protect her and anyway, he never hit her or yelled at her, and that’s what abuse is. (No, no, no no no no no, no.)

Thinking that abuse consists only of physical violence and yelling is extremely dangerous. Abuse can take on many forms and some of them are subtle. It could come the in form of neglect, coercion, or maybe continued patterns of insults and put downs. The type of extreme control that Edward exerts and the and removal of Bella’s agency is definitely abusive.

You might be thinking – okay, fine, but it’s just one aspect of one book. Why does it matter?

First off – it’s far from the only book. Let’s talk about Fifty Shades of Grey.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Fifty Shades follows Twilight in its romantic abuse, considering that it started out as Twilight fanfiction. Right from the beginning, Christian stalks Ana (even tracking her cell phone after she drunk dials him) and manipulates her. He buys her incredibly expensive gifts that she makes it clear she doesn’t want. He overwhelms her with information about a world she knows nothing about (the BDSM scene), makes her sign a non-disclosure agreement before they sleep together, and manipulates her into a total power exchange relationship – meaning that he’s her dominant not only in the bedroom, but in the rest of her life. Total power exchanges are a real thing, but they’re entered into by consenting adults who are in full understanding of what that kind of relationship means and who, more importantly, want it and get equal pleasure out of the arrangement. Ana never indicates that she understands any of it and doesn’t even seem to want it. He’s just hot and confuses her, and she signs the contract.

And it’s not just Twilight and Fifty Shades. These types of relationships run rampant in our romantic fiction – in books and movies, in paperback romances and YA. The super-hot, mysterious, brooding, controlling man is written to seem like he’s that way because he loves his partner more than usual.

That's creepy, dude.
That’s creepy, dude.

It’s all just passion, not abuse, even when the women end up with bruises they never asked for (considering that one of the books I’m talking about is Fifty Shades, I think it’s important to point out that you can consent to being bruised and hurt – but again, that comes from understanding and consent, which is rarely present).

So why does all this matter? It’s just books, right?

For the purposes of this post and to make my point, I’m going to talk about something kind of personal. I’m gonna tell you a story.

I spent most of high school in an emotionally abusive online relationship. He was incredibly controlling and unpredictable. I never really knew what would make him angry or happy. He hated most of my friends and didn’t want me talking to them. He also introduced me to the lifestyle side of BDSM, though he never actually educated me about it in anyway. I was just expected to do what he said. When I reached out online to find people who I could relate to and talk to about it – well, that made him angry, because I was going to someone else for my information instead of getting it all from him.

Around the same time, I discovered Twilight. Edward and Bella’s relationship reminded me a lot of my own, and Edward did all of those things to Bella because he loved her, right? He was so incredibly in love with her that he had to go to extreme measures to be near her and to protect her. It made my abusive relationship seem special. I became convinced that he did all of these things to me out of concern and incredibly passionate love – not out of, y’know, a likely sociopathic need for complete control of an underage girl.

This relationship was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me. It’s five years later and in many, many ways I am still recovering. I can’t help but wonder if I could have gotten out just a little sooner if I hadn’t become obsessed with Twilight and become deluded into thinking that abuse equaled love and passion. And if Fifty Shades had been out then? Well, I’d rather not think about that.

I’m not saying that Twilight and Fifty Shades are the root of all evil. (Well. Fifty Shades might be. I really hate that book.) I’m not saying that every person who reads them will end up in a situation like mine. I’m definitely not saying they should be banned (seriously, I will never say that a book should be banned). What I am saying is that it’s dangerous to ignore the problematic aspects of these books. It’s dangerous to completely ignore the problematic aspects of anything, from your favorite books and movies to things said and done by influential celebrities (even when they’re otherwise awesome people).

You can acknowledge that something has its issues, participate in the conversation, and still enjoy the book or movie or celebrity in question. Twilight has some enjoyable aspects, if you ignore the bad writing. Fifty Shades has…a lot of really, really bad writing and quite frankly there are better sex scenes written by preteens on fanfiction.net, but I guess some people are into it.

If you just completely brush off the abuse, especially in conversations about these books and books like it, it makes it all the easier for people like sixteen-year-old Sarah to think that there’s nothing wrong with these relationships. It makes it easier and more tempting for them to seek out this sort of “love”.

This is probably a whole ‘nother post in itself, but other young adult books can be really guilty of this, especially the ones that have been released in the wake of Twilight’s success. Sometimes it’s not as clear, sometimes it’s subtle, but that doesn’t make it okay. If you have any titles that come to mind, post in the comments.

It’s important to talk about this stuff. So let’s talk about it.

8 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Romanticized Abuse in Books

  1. Very well stated…so glad you shared your story and that strengthened your point!Of course, you know, you make me proud of Grandmother, femaleness!

  2. Hello! I know this post is pretty old, but I found it and thought that I should add on.
    I’m in the Star Wars fandom, and there’s a disgustingly popular ship called Reylo. If you’ve seen The Force Awakens, you might remember the scenes between Rey, the main character, and Kylo Ren, the main antagonist. Guess what? People ship them! It’s absolutely disgusting, and just another example of the affect fiction has on people. They only have three scenes together, and in every one of them, Kylo is trying to hurt her in some way. It’s truly awful.

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