When people pick up a book to read for fun, often they want to escape the problems of their current lives for the more manageable problems of a character who will, surely, save the day. However, authors need to be careful to not cause more problems for their readers.
No author would want to cause issues for their readers, but when teenagers read a young adult (YA) book without thinking critically about it, they open themselves up to repeating the problems the protagonist faces, especially if the author does not acknowledge that the protagonist is facing a problem. The issue most often ignored in YA books is abusive romantic relationships, and when an author does not criticize the harmful relationship as such in the book, the relationship can be normalized, and even romanticized, by young readers who do not know better. When most YA books aimed towards girls feature romance, the author’s job changes from simply entertaining the reader to making sure that the reader understands the difference between a healthy romantic relationship and an abusive one. Unfortunately, many authors fail at this job.
Take Sarah J Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series, where the protagonist, Feyre, ultimately marries an abusive man who had previously assaulted her and who is still extremely violent. While this alone is a huge red flag, the fact that the burgeoning relationship happens after Feyre escapes a previously abusive relationship that was condemned by the author only to dive into a different abusive relationship that is romanticized makes it much worse. One could write an 11 paged junior year research paper on how surprisingly similar the relationships are despite one being (rightfully) condemned and the other being (shockingly) romanticized.
It feels wrong, though, to focus only on Sarah J. Maas when other authors, like Holly Black, creator of The Folk of the Air series, are equally guilty of these crimes. In the first book of the series, The Cruel Prince, protagonist, Jude, is raised by a faerie nobleman who had killed her parents when she was young. Jude spends most of her life living in the faerie’s world and finds herself powerless with all of the beyond-human faeries. Jude is often bullied by the faeries at school, particularly by Prince Caradan and his group of popular friends. Jude finds herself oddly attracted to her tormentor, Cardan, who apparently had been bullying her because he had a crush on her the whole time. This is not ultimately the reason that their strange relationship ends, but rather, because Jude uses the prince as a pawn to gain power. While Jude is understandably conflicted about briefly dating her former bully, she forgives him surprisingly easily. Their relationship is not healthy and it sets a romantic model that is, at best, adversarial. But, most readers do not care. The book’s Goodread page confirms this. Disturbingly positive, the reviews, give The Cruel Prince 4.16 stars out of five, with only two reviews on the first page acknowledging the issues with Jude and Cardan’s relationship (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26032825-the-cruel-prince).
Lastly, there is Amber & Dusk by Lyra Selene. The main character, Sylvie, aka Mirage, wants to be accepted into the empress’ court in the capital city. When she manages to win a temporary place in the court, she is rejected by everyone, but a boy named Sunder seems to particularly hate her. Sunder is the typical bully that tortures Mirage at every possible moment. As the book progresses, he and Mirage both find an odd attraction to each other that develops into a relationship. Ultimately, Mirage decides to forgive Sunder for all of the bullying and humiliation that he has forced her to endure, because she decides that the two of them are similar (In the interim, Mirage’s morality has taken a dive, and Sunder’s previous actions are haphazardly explained as for Mirage’s benefit). At no point in the story does Selene address how harmful the relationship is. Not only is Sunder a bully, but he is also much more politically powerful, which is a fancy way to say that he could do anything to Mirage and no one would care. In fact, Sunder essentially owns her, since he is sponsoring her to stay at the court, and she is at his beck and call. Fortunately, people seem to like Amber & Dusk less than Maas’ and Black’s books, but more for a lacking plot because of the relationship dynamic that readers seem to want to ignore. (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/37825423-amber-dusk?from_search=true&qid=bqPrBbIdXX&rank=1).
Now, why does all of this matter? This review of Amber & Dusk (which mentions Cardan from The Cruel Prince), depicts why it is important:
The point here is that readers adore these abusive love interests. Many readers compare Rhys, Cardan, and Sunder. And for good reason. In each case, the power dynamic of the couple is imbalanced in favor of the male character. In each case, the romantic interest’s heavy-handedness is brushed aside, simply, because the character is hot and the protagonist loves him. These characters, these “perfect” love interests for the protagonists, are terrible, abusive characters whose idealization by readers threatens to encourage readers idealize abusive relationships beyond the page.