In Defense of the Teen Romance, or a Valentines Day rant by yours truly

How many times have you, dear reader, casually heard some ignorant person try to diss YA/teen literature by bringing up Twilight? Too many times to count? Well, we have too–and this is our retort. Teen romance is just as necessary as any other genre for teens–or adults, for that matter–and this is why. 

In Defense of the Teen Romance

Back when I was on dating apps, I had a surefire way of weeding out the weak. Especially because I usually said I was a librarian-in-training, the inevitable question would be what did I like to read–and the inevitable answer, of course, was young adult literature. The people who said ‘oh, like Twilight?’ ,’oh, so romance?’, or dismissively made some comment about preferring more highbrow literature were immediately struck off the list of potential dates–although I usually also gave a long-suffering answer about how YA is just literature that caters mainly to teens, and isn’t just romance, and how Twilight is a bad example of YA, let alone romance. (FYI, the person who I’m currently dating won me over by having an in-depth conversation with me about YA, the nuances of the genre, and the writing world in general).

(this is the kind of message I’m talking about–only let’s face it, I never had NEARLY as good a zinger).

But something that I started asking myself after the first five of these conversations, was why did I constantly feel on the defensive? Why did these retorts of ‘oh, so Twilight then?’ always feel so dismissive? Why did I start hesitating when answering truthfully about my reading habits? Why did I have to resist saying something that I knew would come off more ‘scholarly’ and ‘adult’? In short, what the hell is wrong with saying I like teen romances? Or even YA?

OK, I know what’s wrong here. A number of recent articles about the romance genre specifically mention that it’s largely dismissed as being ‘literature’ because, in a nutshell, it’s by women for women–despite being one of the highest-selling genres. And I feel as if YA suffers the same fate, only from a more ageist perspective–YA isn’t taken seriously because of the implied age of its audience, regardless of the fact that it’s as literary as any other. The teen romance gets the short shrift because it’s both–teen girls get NO respect, y’all. A lot of the people I was talking to about YA hit on Twilight as the stereotype because it embodies the worst of the teen romance–the angsty love triangle, the weird purity obsession, the damsel in distress MC. Oh, and of course, the army of teen girls and their mothers who genuinely loved it despite its faults.

I’m not saying that there aren’t things to dislike about some teen romances. Angsty love triangles, purity obsessions, and passive MCs are all tropes that I will happily bash, and at length. But to think that all teen romance is like Twilight is doing a grave disservice to the genre. And to straight-up dismiss teen romance as having any importance is ignoring the power it holds. I read a NYTimes article titled ‘We need bodice-ripper sex ed’, arguing that adult romance is powerful not just because it teaches women about things like female pleasure and the notion of enthusiastic consent, but also because it shows off what a positive, equal sexual relationship can look like. My argument is that teen romance can, and does, do the same thing: it can show teens what a good, positive and fulfilling relationship looks like. It can provide a ‘road map’ for how to get there, as well as the potential issues that might come up and potential solutions. YA can be touchy-feely about the issue of sex–but I’m not just talking about sex here (I mean, I am still talking about sex, just not exclusively). Teen romance is also about, well, romance–and what that means, and what it entails, and what you should expect and feel. And this is powerful.

Take Sarah J Maas, for instance. One thing that both of her series are lauded for is the fact that she doesn’t use a typical teen romance trope, that of finding your soulmate at 17. Both Celaena/Aerin and Feyre don’t find perfect love with the first male they meet. Celaena goes through three different iterations of romance before she meets her One. She has a first-kiss romance that’s alluded to, a flirtation with Dorian, a relationship with Chaol, and finally Rowan. Pop culture has a weird way of trying to impress on teens that their soulmate is someone they go to high school with, and–as someone for whom that DEFINITELY wasn’t true–it was a profound relief to read about a character who finds love on the third/fourth go-round. Similarly, Feyre and Tamlin have a relationship that is important to both of them, but that isn’t perfect–when she finds Rhysand is when things ‘click’.

Similarly, teen romance can show its readers not just what to expect from a good romance, but how to spot a bad one. Feyre and Tamlin’s relationship becomes emotionally abusive–he claims to love her, but he refuses to let her in or tell her about things that are important or relevant to her, he dismisses her emotions, he tries to push her into a mold she no longer feels comfortable in. It’s hard to read about, but it was reading this sequence of abuse that made me realize I had also experienced this before. And then in A Court of Mist and Fury, we get to see Tamlin’s abusive behavior contrasted with the lengths that Rhysand goes to help Feyre–how much he respects her, gives her room to make her own choices, and supports her actions and growth. No one, after reading the scene where Rhysand literally gets on his knees and worships Feyre, is going to miss the difference between an unhealthy relationship and a healthy one. And yes, these book do also go into what a healthy and unhealthy sexual relationship look like, and how that ties into other aspects of romance.

But (BUT!) teen romance is not just important for hetero teens. I’m going to point to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe as a perfect example of a teen negotiating his own sexuality and his relationship. Ari and Dante aren’t a couple for 90% of the book, but the book is still a heartwarming potential road map, not just for how to negotiate a relationship (of any kind, including friendship), but also things like coming out, experimenting, and various other elements. Ari and Dante both go through periods where they mess around–Ari with girls, because he’s in denial, but Dante with other boys–but both finally admit that they’re in love with each other. And although I didn’t like the book Ask the Passengers as much as I liked Aristotle and Dante, it’s another book talking about same-sex relationships, and negotiating them with the added complications of an unsupportive family/town. But I liked the relationship between Astrid and Dee, how they learn to be supportive of each other when their parents might not be, and how Dee gives Astrid space to explore, but also feel comfortable, and what their relationship looks like.

These are just a few examples of pretty exemplary teen romances, ones that show positive, empowering, healthy relationships and how to negotiate those–as well as show teens what other, less healthy forms of romance might look like, and how to spot those warning signs. If you want a full recommendation of good teen romance–well, I’m not sure I’d know where to start, but I could definitely give you a few more. The point is, teen romance in general isn’t something to be scoffed at, because it helps teens (and not teens), figure out what good romance looks like.

Am I writing this in the shadow of the #metoo movement? Of course I am. In high school, I was already coming in touch with various apparitions of sexual abuse. I saw friends dealing with unhealthy relationships in various forms, opposing pressures to have sex and to stay pure, even coming to terms with abuse that had happened long before any of us even knew what sex was. I didn’t see friends dealing with their sexuality, because the GSA in our high school was ended after too many threats against it–but I know now that they were doing so privately, painfully and silently. Even now, at 24, I’m learning things about relationships that I wouldn’t know how to handle if it weren’t for my reading examples. 

So much of the #metoo movement is not just the acknowledgment that rape and abuse is far more common than we like to think, but also that we’ve normalized unhealthy behavior when it comes to sex and relationships. And, following that, part of unlearning this behavior is emphasizing healthy behavior. It’s teaching teens what a healthy relationship looks like, and correspondingly what an unhealthy or abusive relationship looks like. It’s giving them the information they need so they aren’t vulnerable to incorrect, damaging assumptions and norms. It’s showing them that their needs (for sex as well as for emotion) matter, that they should speak up, and that their voice will be heard. It’s about refusing to tolerate the behavior that the #metoo movement is in the process of calling out. But, contrastingly, it’s about giving examples of better behavior, better relationships.

So let’s stop dismissing the teen romance genre, or even Twilight as the stereotypical example of it. Let’s stop pretending that the typical scorn for the teen romance is anything but sexist, ageist nonsense. And let’s start promoting it as a positive way for teens to learn about romance, relationships, and all the messy parts of both, with good examples, roadmaps for situations, and warning signs to watch out for.

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