Monday, December 31, 2012

Unhealthy relationships: a Twilight, Graceling Comparison

Should we be Worried about what Young Adults are Reading?

Romance books since the beginning of time have portrayed unhealthy relationships with submissive females succumbing to their desires with controlling men, and some are concerned as these themes make their way into young adult fiction that the impressionable minds of teens will be swayed to model their own relationships after these unhealthy ones.
Since Twilight’s release it has come under crossfire for portraying the relationship between a meek female girl and her stalkerish, controlling vampire boyfriend as a healthy relationship when there are obvious unhealthy aspects of their partnership. Another book, Graceling by Kristen Cashore, takes the opposite approach to the relationship in its story with a strong independent female lead, however I find this relationship to be just as unhealthy as the one in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight.
To be fair, Twilight and Graceling aren’t the only books with unhealthy relationships in them. Literature is full of unhealthy relationships, just look at Heathcliff and Catherine from Wuthering Heights. Their relationship was (no pun intended) the height of dysfunction, however at least Heathcliff and Catherine were equally selfish, and horrible to one another. Or look at Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Twilight has been criticized for portraying this unequivocal, undying, I can’t live without you kind of love between Bella and Edward but, this concept isn’t at all new. (Though you could argue that Romeo and Juliet did it better). Also, there is a difference between showing unhealthy relationships in books and showing unhealthy relationships as if they were healthy. In Wuthering Heights it was obvious that Heathcliff and Cathy did not have a healthy relationship, this was not as obvious in Twilight nor Graceling.

Now, I don't want to comment on writing style or anything else with these books. I just want to focus on the relationships they display. So, here's a short side by side comparison.

Main Character: Bella – clumsy, weak, overly-trusting, average,
Love Interest: Edward - mysterious, brooding, overprotective, possesive, secretive
Novel’s view on sex: absolutely wait until you’re married, even if you're only eighteen or over a hundred.
Edward has the power in his relationship with Bella. In New Moon he leaves thinking he’s trying to protect Bella, but he makes this decision completely on his own without letting Bella have any say in it. He makes a number of decisions for the both of them without taking what Bella wants into account.

Edward is physically stronger than Bella.

Edward treats Bella like she’s fragile and in need of protecting.

Edward keeps secrets from Bella about what he is. When Bella finds out what he is she instantly trusts him completely.

Main Character: Katsa – strong, agile, empowered, guarded, an outcast, hot temper
Love Interest: Po - snarky, charming, bold,
Novel’s view on sex: there’s no need to have commitment of any kind with those you sleep with.
Katsa has the power in her relationship with Po. She tells him that she might just up and leave one day, without any regard to Po’s feelings or suggestion of commitment to their relationship. She only asks if he can handle this. Katsa calls the shots in her relationship keeping herself guarded and untrusting.
Katsa is physically stronger than Po.

Katsa and Po spar together until Po is covered in bruises.
Po keeps secrets from Katsa about what he is. When Katsa discovers Po’s secret she’s so mad at him she doesn’t even want to let him explain.

In neither of these books are the characters equals with their partners, though one could argue that by the end of the Twilight saga Edward and Bella become equals, as they could with Graceling. And in truth, just because one character is physically stronger than their partner does not mean they can’t have an equal relationship. The problem with the inequality of both Bella and Edward’s relationship as well as Katsa and Po’s is that one character holds all the power in the relationship where the other has none. This is unhealthy.
In Twilight Bella would do anything for Edward, she’s willing to die for him, and he becomes the only thing of any importance in her life. This all encompassing view of Edward that she has is not healthy. But, it's not healthy to get into a relationship where you're unwilling to open up to the other person either. In Graceling Katsa has no interest in relationships what so ever. She hates the idea of marriage and thinks of it as this horrible oppressive thing that has absolutely no benefits. After a few chapters she’s so afraid of giving up her newfound freedom that she offers zero commitment to Po when the attraction starts to grow between them. In both of these cases these relationships are presented as healthy when they are not. A healthy relationship has both equality as well as commitment, these things are essential for happiness and trust.
One thing I will say is that in Twilight the negative aspects of Bella and Edward’s relationship were not glorified (despite what some may say, I truly do not think they were). The unhealthy choices made, such as Edward leaving Bella for "her own good", do not turn out well and it’s obvious later that these were bad decisions to have made, though at the time they are made they are presented as perfectly normal decisions to be making in a relationship. And, as for Graceling it does seem that by the end of the book Katsa does develop some kind of commitment to Po, though she continues to hate the idea of marriage and still refuses to see anything positive about it. (I guess I just wish Bella had given Edward a little more grief for leaving her and I wish Po hadn't been so calm about Katsa's inability to give him even an ounce of commitment)
My reason for writing this post is that Twilight has gotten a lot of backlash for portraying an unhealthy relationship, however I think Graceling shows the same level of unhealthy attitude in a relationship the difference being that the roles are switched from a man having all the power in a relationship to a woman having all the power in a relationship, but no one is talking about Graceling being unhealthy. When a man gets into a relationship with zero commitment to the woman we call him a "player" but when a woman does it she's "empowered"? The truth is the relationships in Twilight and in Graceling are both unhealthy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a man or a woman who’s being controlling and holding all the power in a relationship, it’s wrong either way. Couples should work together to compromise and make each other feel supported.
Now, I’m not saying these are bad books. I enjoyed both of them, and I certainly loved Wuthering Heights. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing about a relationship that has unhealthy elements in it in a story, because let’s be honest, that’s reality. Relationships can be unhealthy sometimes. People do sometimes feel so engrossed in another person that it feels like they’d die without them, and they do build up walls to protect themselves and fear commitment. But, the young adults who are reading these books need to recognize that the unhealthy parts of these stories are not okay. And, honestly I think they will. Young adults are not going to be brainwashed into thinking that your boyfriend not allowing you to see one of your friends is okay. They’re gonna say, “Hey, that was really messed up that Bella had to sneak out to see Jacob.” Or at least, that’s what I hope.  

Indie Book Goal 2018