book talk

Trope Tuesday: My Love-Hate Relationship with Romance in YA

Trope Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by A.J. @ Lacy Literacy. The goal is to discuss a trope you are indifferent to, love, hate, or think is problematic.

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Fair Warning: I’m gonna be on my soapbox like crazy for this (but that’s what Trope Tuesday is about, right?)

I grew up on YA fiction back in the 2000s. I lived for every new Sarah Dessen book. I lived vicariously through girls who, unlike me, were able to talk to their crushes and turn their feelings into actual relationships. I loved these books because they enabled me to imagine what it would be like to fall in love—which was my main goal since the ripe old age of six.

My parents have been married for going on 44 years now and they’ve always been ridiculously in love. Not just in love either: my parents are partners. They are the exception to the rule that is divorce in America, and as long as I can remember I’ve wanted what they have. As long as I can remember, I’ve had intense, long-term crushes on guys I was often too terrified to even interact with, much less ask out. So yes, romance was a big deal for me growing up.

But obviously I’m not a kid anymore. I’m 27 now, and I’ve been in a committed relationship for almost two years—my first real, loving, healthy romantic relationship. It took me 20 years to get what I’d always wanted. And never once did I find a book that reflected my experiences (notable new exception: The Upside of Unrequited, which focuses heavily on the experience of having almost debilitating crushes—but *spoiler alert* even that  book has a happy ending).

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how I want to see better representation of female friendship in YA. This week, I want to talk about the problematic representations of romance in YA—and what I’d like to see instead.

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The Over-Emphasis on Romance

I know I’m not the only one who gets tired of reading all the YA contemporaries that focus heavily on romance. There are too many books like this to list, some of them more well-written and nuanced than others—and I’m not going to go into that. What I want to talk about is why emphasizing romance in books for teenagers is problematic.

Romance can alienate our ace/aro friends. I can’t speak for those on the ace spectrum, but I can imagine what it would be like to be constantly surrounded by books that leave out your experiences. Ace and aro identities aren’t yet well-known unless you personally seek out the information, but those experiences deserve to be represented. By focusing on romance and sex in YA and NA, we’re leaving out people who are sex-repulsed or just disinterested in sex. We’re also leaving out aromantic folks who don’t experience romantic attraction—and by leaving them out, we’re not just erasing them, but making them feel that their feelings are less important, less valid, than people who are interested in romance.

On top of that, the emphasis on romance in YA makes it seem that dating and romantic relationships are the norm for high school students. I didn’t date in high school (I didn’t even have my first kiss until I was 18), but I was surrounded with books that made me feel like dating was something I should focus on. By the time I was a senior in high school, I felt like I’d missed the bus, like I was weird because nobody was interested in me romantically. Which obviously didn’t help my already basement-level self-esteem.

InstaLove: It’s Gotta Go

I think we can all agree InstaLove needs to go. It’s clichéd and often over-written, but more than that, it’s downright problematic. It sends a message that when you meet someone, you just know, which is counter to all of my experiences. Even back in high school, my crushes didn’t hit me in the face; they unfolded slowly but surely, and it was only when I looked back that I could really see where they began.

The bottom line is that love takes time. When I first met my current partner, we were coworkers, and he was in a relationship with someone else. We got to know each other as friends, learning to trust each other on a work level and on a personal level. It was only after a long time that I even acknowledged my attraction to him; and it was only when I was completely comfortable with him that we actually got together.

A moment of attraction, that moment when your stomach flip-flops and you can’t stop thinking about the person, is only the beginning of love. I would so much rather read about a slow unfolding rather than an instantaneous attraction. And I would so much rather read a book about what happens down the line, when the relationship isn’t so new anymore and you’re struggling to maintain what you started. Love should feel natural, absolutely, but romantic relationships take work. I want to see some couples who disagree, who argue, and who decide to keep fighting for each other.

Let’s Not Talk About The Future

So often in YA contemporary, a couple gets together in high school without really talking about what happens in the future. At 17, you certainly feel like everything in your life is permanent, from where you live, to where you go to school, to the people you spend your time with. And I’m not trying to say that every single high school relationship is doomed, that they won’t last through college or adulthood. What I’m saying is that there should be some recognition that high school is only the beginning of your life—including your dating life.

Let’s take my best friend, for example. She started dating her now-husband senior year of high school, but then they both went to different colleges for several years before ultimately transferring to be close to one another again. Those two years were absolute hell for them. They hardly saw each other, and it’s surprisingly difficult to find time to talk when you’re busy with classes and maybe a job and your friends. It’s not impossible, but I’d really like to see a story about that struggle—because it’s something my fiancé and I went through as well.

I especially hate this idea that if a couple goes to the same college, that solves the potential problem of growing apart. This is completely naive. College, out of my entire life, is the time when I changed the most—even more than when I moved to New York City, to be quite honest. College is when you learn your limits (and I don’t just mean alcohol), when you learn how to juggle the various aspects of your life. College is when you figure out who you are more than anything—by learning who you don’t want to be. When I started my freshman year of college, I was this soft-spoken bookworm; I was so shy I thought I wouldn’t even be able to hack it as a barista (a job I did pretty successfully for 8 years). By the time I graduated, I was an angry feminist grappling with the possibility that I was some sort of lesser represented queer—because back in 2012 we didn’t have as many amazing bi YAs that we have now.

All I’m trying to say is that I’d like to see teenage relationships that are beautiful, nuanced, and flawed; relationships that recognize their possible impermanence; relationships where the two people have to fight to be together, even if they ultimately fall apart. This is such a big part of growing up that I feel gets left out of both YA and NA, which both seem to focus on seemingly permanent relationships.

Codependency: Love & Mental Health

(Here comes my soapbox.) I am so tired of romance in books with mentally ill main characters. There, I said it. I’m tired of this idea that falling in love can cure depression or anxiety—because this idea is what fucked up my adolescence, more than anything else.

Remember when I said I was obsessed with romance as a teenager? By the time I was diagnosed with clinical depression at age 17, I had this fanciful idea that if I just found the right person, I wouldn’t be depressed anymore. This idea that seems so silly to me now, but wasn’t so silly about a year and a half ago when I experienced my first depressive episode while in a long-term, committed romantic relationship with someone I truly loved. I found myself thinking, “how can I still be depressed when I’m finally really in love with someone who loves me back?” Because depression doesn’t work that way.

Mental illness doesn’t have an easy cure—and even if it did, it wouldn’t be love.

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There are hundreds of romance tropes I could talk about, but these are the ones I personally find to be most problematic.

Still love romance, but want something more realistic? Check out my recommendations!

romance with complications

romance & mental health

queer romance

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What are your least favorite romance tropes? Got any good YA books that portray romance realistically? I’d love to hear what you think. As always, thanks for stopping by! 

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6 thoughts on “Trope Tuesday: My Love-Hate Relationship with Romance in YA”

  1. YES YES YES AND YES! I genuinely don’t think a post could have summed up how I feel about romance in books more. Don’t get me wrong I love the occasional bit of romance, but far too often romance is really problematic and unbelievable. I love reading a book where while there is romance it isn’t the main aspect of the story and great friendships are shown as well. I think it’s important for teenagers to understand that having a partner isn’t the be all and end all of the world! Really great post 💖

  2. Instalove always gets me, I know it’s a book and technically ‘their’ story but I always feel it’s attraction not actual love that’s being portrayed, Great post

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