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.  


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  5. One must remember, that in Katsa's country of Middluns, all gracelings are legal property of the king for life, no more that glorified slaves at best if they but prove useful; Katsa was one too, till the moment she choose to rebel and no longer serve as the king's butcher and torturer.
    So many readers tend to forget that the story of this epic fiction is set in a time period that roughly correlates to our Middle Ages; in a world setting of Graceling a wife is, in legal terms, to her husband the same as his horse or a dog in means of property. It is not Katsa's hatred or fear of commitment that is the issue when it comes to being with Po, her issue is again being a legal property of a man, only this time it would not be her uncle,the king, but a husband. Said husband being Po does not warm her up to the idea; even though she knows that Po would never see her as such, she would still be thought of as another person's property by all their peers and not her own person.
    Being a mind reader, Po was in the best position to understand Katsa's said views as well her other feelings and worries. Making her see that as long as they love one another there ought to be no obstacles to them being in a happy relationship even without getting legally married, Katsa accepts him as a lover and a partner in life.
    This is by no means casual relationship based on sex, because there is no denying that, even though she was unsure how to handle her emotions and act on them at first, Katsa deeply loves Po and, once she comes to terms with that, she wants to be together with him as much as he with her.
    They had their issues at some points, but they easily overcame them, since trust between them was never an issue even before they started a relationship. After Katsa accepted the fact that Po never had intent to 'purposefully steal' her thoughts from her as the truth that is was, she and him had no lack of understanding and trust for one another.
    Their only imbalance, if there was any, was Katsa's emotional crippledness, which was heavily due to her being treated all her life as a rabid dog of her uncle's, a monster devoid of all human sentiment. Once she comes to terms with her own shortcomings on that field, Katsa starts to grow as a person and soon becomes equal with Po when it comes to handling her feelings for him.
    In today's world no one would even expect or demand of them to marry and have sex of the sake of making babies first, when she's still but a 18 year old girl, no matter how mature in other areas she seems, and he 19 or 20 old boy and its their first time being in love. They would be considered as being a couple even without being legally committed to each other. In that sense, I don't understand how can anybody see Katsa as uncommitted or uncaring to the boy she clearly loves, simply because she feels that she doesn't need his ring on her finger to be in a relationship together or want kids with him at this very moment in time.

    1. I understand that Katsa comes from a place and time very different than my own. And I do understand the way she relates being married to being a man's property. That doesn't change the fact that I found her relationship with Po unhealthy. To be married to someone who thinks you are their property is unhealthy. Any relationship where one person holds all the power is unhealthy, and I found in Katsa and Po's relationship that she was the one who had all the power. I think the way their relationship began, just like how Bella and Edward's was unhealthy.

      It's fine with me if Katsa and Po never get married, but a healthy relationship is based on commitment and trust. They have this at the end of the story, but not at first. Katsa does NOT initially accept Po as her "partner in life". She holds all the power in their relationship telling him she may just up and leave one day. I was trying to point out in this post that much of how she treats Po is accepted because Katsa is a woman, but had the roles been reversed it would not have been accepted.

    2. But, it was not possible for her at first to accept Po. Not immediately. She is a girl who grew up thinking herself a monster, one that is unworthy of feeling and receiving basic human emotions, love amongst other thing. She was extremely fragile and crippled emotionally as a result, trying to deny herself the right to feel for others and express herself. Other’s treatment she had to put up with only cemented the fact for her. The fact that she started to feel for Po unraveled her and threw her of balance.

      You say that for a relation to be healthy, from the very first start there has to trust and commitment. You refuse to admit that they had trust between them before they got together. Trust between was there long before she even realized her feelings for him. First and foremost, she trusted him as a friend and the fellow human the moment she found out he hadn't betrayed her to the King Murgon of Sunder after the rescue of Po’s grandfather.

      I don't know why she comes out as the one who has ‘all the power’ in that relationship to you, when she started as the emotionally weaker one. You say it's because she at one point told she MAY up and leave him one day. You have to remember that at that point they were not together yet, romantically.

      They were still just good friends who happened to be traveling together and enjoying each other’s company, and nothing more. Soon they discovered there was mutual attraction as well. At the point of that conversation when she ASKED him how he would feel if she no longer felt she could stay with him as a couple, Katsa was still very much afraid to act on her feelings for him. Why she seemed reluctant to commit herself to him at that exact moment in that exact spot, I already explained, but I'll say again.
      She loved Po and desired him as strongly as he did her, but in the world they come from it is not commonly accepted for a young man and a woman to be lovers outside of bonds of marriage. There sex = marriage and for a woman to be with a man means she would have to become his wife first.

      But, Po himself also cares little about marriage in general and only wishes to be with someone he loves as long his love is returned. At which point Katsa gives herself a two days or three to contemplate about her feelings and what would it mean if she should act on them, before she does so. Or maybe you thought that she should’ve ‘jumped on his bone’ the very moment she realized the extent of her feelings for him…

    3. I certainly don't think she should have "jumped on his bone’ the very moment she realized the extent of her feelings for him". That would go against everything I've been trying to say.

      You keep trying to explain WHY Katsa did what she did. I'm not disagreeing with you on any of that. That's not what this post was about.

      If I have a story with a male character who refuses to commit to his girlfriend and keeps himself guarded from her, but tell you it's because he's emotionally damaged you wouldn't just say "okay, because he's been through some stuff that makes their relationship healthy". No, you would say that their relationship is unhealthy because he's damaged and his girlfriend probably deserves better.

      Katsa holds all the cards in her relationship with Po because their romantic relationship began with her telling him that she may just up and leave one day. I'm not questioning whether or not she loved him. I think she did. That doesn't mean she didn't have the control (and she probably needed it from what she went through, but that's not the point -- the point is that she had it). It was clear that Po wanted commitment (I never said marriage, he wanted his feelings returned). Katsa couldn't give that to him (not until the very end). Po didn't get a say, Kasta alone decided how much of a relationship they would have (and he let her, but she was still the one who had the say). They didn't compromise. Kasta asked him if he could handle not having any say, that's it.

      I understand she was afraid to act on her feelings, again that's not the point. Kasta was emotionally damaged, fine. That only supports my point that their relationship was unhealthy. How can you have a healthy relationship with someone that's emotionally damaged? I'm not trying to knock this story. I'm just trying to point out that YA novels often show unhealthy relationships. And that's fine, it's those damaged characters that we fall in love with. But it's important to note that a relationship is unhealthy when either of those involved has all the power - man or woman. Kasta controlled their relationship (regardless of the reasons why).

      Look, you obviously really like this book, and there's nothing I'm going to say that's going to change your mind. And that's fine. I didn't particularly care for this book, and there's nothing you're going to say that will change my mind. We're two differen't people who saw different things in this story. That's what the reader experience is all about. I'm just sharing my experience with these books on my blog.


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