Oooh, I'm coming off as a bit confrontational, eh? Oh well! For so, so long I was the good girl who never said a peep. Who never complained about injustice. Who never contemplated telling people to back off or mind their own business. A lot of different things happened in my life (all good things, mind) to help me see that expressing my thoughts--forcefully, if need be--is okay, as long as it's not hurtful or spiteful or something I wouldn't say to someone's face.
Right, I'm working on that last bit, because blogging gives the illusion that there's a wall between you and the creator of the work you're discussing. I don't advocate for authors getting all het up about poor reviews and rampaging around the internet (see: Hale, Kathleen #HaleNo), but I understand that it's completely natural to feel completely craptastic when you see a negative review. But I'm trying to be better at this.
Which sort of, in an excessively elliptical way, bring me to my bone of contention of the week (day? hour? This hasn't been a horrific Monday, so let's go with week). And that is the stereotypical love story pattern that I keep finding in almost every YA book out there. It's almost a given by now. I believe very strongly in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement. However, it's not just about having non-white protagonists or bi protagonists or more POC authors. I believe it's about expressing the spectrum of the human experience in books. And that includes love.
Often, when I pick up a general YA fantasy-type book or sci-fi book that has cisgendered characters, the romance narrative is almost always the same.
First question: why does there have to be a romance in the first place?
You might say, "Well, everyone falls in love!"
Not true. For a lot of people, love/romance/lust/what-have-you does not define their lives. I don't think I can honestly say I've ever been in love with someone. Crush? Oh yeah. Majorly crushing? Yep.
Celebrity crushes? Totally normal! I don't think I can watch Sherlock because I have such a crush on Benedict Cumberbatch that I couldn't bear it. The Tenth Doctor makes me all a-flutter and I actually skipped episodes where he had a romantic relationship/feelings for someone other than Rose (I am weird. Yes. This has been established). I also find Tim Roth (YES!) and Hugh Laurie quite attractive. I have a type: older British male with small teeth.
But I don't spend my days trying to find a guy to date or marry or whatever. It's just not up there on the priorities list. And finding a YA novel wherein the main character does not form a romantic relationship is extremely difficult. To add insult to injury, this relationship often follows a preprogrammed trajectory. It goes something like this:
Strong female character has boy friend (n.b. NOT "boyfriend"). They have been friends forever and act like brother and sister. Except, one day, one (or both) of them realizes that they want to be more then friends, but this is awkward. Just when things are looking up, in swoops a) a rival for loverboy's affections or b) the smolderingly sexy mystery man who's "dangerous" and "different." The girl must then a) win the affections of her beloved or b) CHOOSE between multiple dudes who all think she's the bee's knees.
I mean, does this happen a lot in real life? Is this something that most people can relate to? I'm a serious introvert, and most, if not all, of my close friends are girls. Growing up, the boys I knew were complete doofuses, so why would I want to hang out with them?
In fact, most of the guys I know are still complete doofuses and have the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old. Where are all of these fictional teen girls finding safe, "manly","I'll take care of you"-types? Do they come out of some sort of vending machine and I just totally missed it?
The more troubling undercurrent to this narrative (aside from the tendency to skew into love-triangle territory) is the message that girls' lives are not complete without a romantic relationship. Why can't a girl be a killer shot and a fighting machine and a genius and a wit in the absence of romantic angst? Why does the dramatic tension come from a "who do I looooove?" subplot instead of focusing on her ability to make her own decisions, her own happiness, and her own destiny?
We need more stories about girls and women who better themselves and better their worlds and don't find Captain McHunkyPants at the end of the story. They should just find themselves.
Obviously, my critiques here don't apply to books specifically written as romances. That would be an excessively silly waste of time. I do, from time to time, really enjoy a sweet romance. Heck, my all-time favorite book is Pride and Prejudice, which is pretty much the best hate-to-love-you story of all time (close second is Much Ado About Nothing). I'm talking more about YA fiction in general, but this particular romance trope pops up a lot in fantasy or spec fic.
In addition, any of my cranky grumblings could apply to m/m or f/f relationships in YA books as well. I used the example of hetero couples because that's generally what I encounter in fiction, and the ones that use this particular "love" scenario the most consistently.
So, authors, when I ask for more diversity, I'm also asking you for books without romance. Without liquid eyes and muscular pecs and crooked smiles that force a girl to choose as if that choice is the only thing that truly matters. It's not.
You choose what matters most to you. And if it's not love, not right now or not ever, that's totally and completely wonderful. Own it and be you.