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.

Beautiful Creatures and Sex

You will get chlamydia AND DIE.

You will get chlamydia AND DIE.

Beautiful Creatures came out in theaters recently, and I decided I should read the book. It was a fun read – definitely not a bad use of a Sunday. However, it fell into a really unpleasant trap of punishing sexuality.

The appeal of paranormal romance is supposed to be the forbidden – sex with a vampire, a werewolf, an angel, demon, etc. Sex with something that is other and often somehow bestial, a return to animal instincts. Books like Beautiful Creatures and Twilight (yeah, I’m gonna use that example) put that temptation out there but punish their characters for succumbing.

In Beautiful Creatures, only the mean girls dress provocatively. The girls at the dance who wear “slutty” dresses are the ones with babies at graduation. The only female with an active sexuality is evil and manipulative. Lena, largely virginal and modest throughout, is told that if she has sex with her boyfriend, he’ll die.

Edward and Bella (other than having a highly abusive relationship) don’t sex it up until after they get married, and after the first time Bella ends up pregnant with a vampire baby that kills her in birth. Yeah, she’s happy in the end, but first she’s literally killed by her decision to have sex and then she becomes an eternal teenage mother.

Do you see the problem here?

Punishing women for their sexuality as a warning to the other lady folk is practically tradition. Think of urban legends. Girl making out with her boyfriend? Here comes a crazed drifter with a hook hand. Woman driving alone? Oops killer with an axe in her backseat. Girl living with her roommate in that liberal college atmosphere? Bloody roommate death.

I’m in college and I still hear my female peers rise into a chorus of “eww, gross! Weird!” combined with nervous laughter whenever masturbation or porn is brought up. I still hear girls calling other girls sluts and whores and judging them for wearing low-cut tops or short skirts. There’s still that oh-so-fun double standard that guys who sleep with a lot of girls are studs and girls who sleep with a lot of guys are sluts who are decreasing their worth as a human being. And, oh yeah, if any of those “slutty” girls get raped, they probably deserved it. They were teases, they were asking for it, they wanted it.

I’m not saying that Twilight and Beautiful Creatures are to blame for this attitude. It’s been around way longer than the authors have even been alive. This is a continuing problem in our society. But it doesn’t help to put forth this message that sexuality is wrong and punishable, especially in books read by teenage girls who get told all the time that they should be ashamed of their bodies and sexuality.

Maybe it’s subtle, maybe people don’t even fully realize it when they read it, but it’s there. The good girls don’t have sex and they get the really awesome, hot, loyal guy. The bad girls that have sex? Well, they’re evil, bitchy, and shallow. Right?

Yeah. Right.

I’m also not saying you shouldn’t read these books. Beautiful Creatures really was pretty fun to read. Twilight has a lot of issues, but if you leave your thinking cap behind, it’s also a really fun read. What I am saying is that you can read books like this, enjoy them, and still confront the problems in them. You can and should talk about the messages in books that bother you.

Do you think I’m full of shit? Have other examples? Hit up the comments. Whether you agree with me or not, this is a conversation that should be happening.