Book Chat: Abusive Love Interests vs. Morally Grey Love Interests

This isn’t so much a post as a collection of thoughts and a discussion piece. I’d really love feedback and comments on this one, because I find this topic interesting to discuss.

I am an avid hater of the “asshole guy who treats girl like crap is a suitable love interest” trope. But I’m also an avid lover of morally ambiguous main characters. So where’s the line?

Many books nowadays focus on the sex appeal of dating a bad boy. We’ve talked to death about the guys in November 9 by Colleen Hoover or Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire.  This video by booktuber WhittyNovels sums up my feelings on ya-type bad boys very well. There’s nothing good about a guy who treats you terribly; in fact, seeing major romantic interests who abuse their partners, harass their partners, or touch their partners nonconsensually can send bad messages to girls about what should be considered acceptable and romantic.

EDIT: This is not referring to relationships that are explicitly portrayed as abusive. Portraying abuse is not the same as romanticizing and idealizing abuse.

I usually see one of two issues with male romantic interests in YA literature. Either they harass the girl in a sexual way, hitting on her creepily, or they are actively rude and terrible towards the girl. This essay will mostly focus on rude romantic interests, but a note about guys who constantly hit on girls: THEY ARE SO COMMON. A few examples I can think of off the top of my head: Julian from Caraval, Ben from November 9, A from Every Day (although they are nonbinary), to some degree Nick from Gemina (to give credit, he develops somewhat) and Ren from the Tiger’s Curse. That last book is pretty much a furry fantasy disguised as a book, but the other three are popular YA and no one complains about the romantic storylines. It’s gross.

But there are plenty of love interests in books who are morally grey, and I love morally grey characters.

So what’s the distinction?

Samantha over at ThoughtsonTomes did a really interesting video on this, creating a distinction was between bad boys in fantasy and bad boys in contemporary. This video is well-explained and definitely interesting, and there are parts I agree with, but I don’t totally agree with the video’s thesis. Fantasy series deserve critique for having bad guys too. Guys like Clay from Article Five come to my mind as top examples of abusive relationships, despite being in fantasy.

I think the difference between abusive guys and morally grey guys falls partially in his relationship with his major love interest; the way he treat her, or rather, in the power imbalance between the guy and the girl.

Take some of my favorite books with morally ambiguous main love interests. Akiva from Daughter of Smoke and Bone does terrible things, but he never treats Karou as if she’s subservient to him. His actions are also not excused by the book’s narrative. This trend also follows with Kaz and Inej from Six of Crows. Despite the fact that they’re both fairly bad people, they have a very healthy relationship that’s clearly beneficial for both of them. But back to some negative examples; Clay from Article Five shakes his girlfriend multiple times, yet is portrayed as in the right because he’s doing it “for her own good”. This one is an extreme case, but it’s a trend I hate. Romanticized relationships in which the guy emotionally or physically abuses the girl are never okay with me.

It would be one thing if the relationships were shown as unhealthy, but they’re not for the most part. Many very unhealthy relationships in YA are treated as gold standards, and it really rubs me the wrong way. Possibly the one counterexample I can think of is Lada’s relationship with Mehmed in And I Darken. This relationship is toxic and unhealthy, but it’s not romanticized by the narrative. My issue isn’t with unhealthy relationships, it’s with unhealthy relationships being shown as healthy.

Anyway, I don’t know exactly how to close this off. I think this topic has too many issues for a perfect send-off and wrap-up. But I’d love to hear your thoughts!


8 thoughts on “Book Chat: Abusive Love Interests vs. Morally Grey Love Interests

  1. Such an interesting discussion! I feel like we see a lot of unhealthy relationship shown as the ultimate love story, especially in New Adult or Romance genre. And most times these things are subtle, so when young girls read them, this idea that someone who is annoyingly persistant, or looks down on you or keeps you guessing about his intentions, is portrayed as the ideal relationship, which is quite disturbing. However, I think the line between morally grey and abusive is not that blurry. Like you said, when there’s balance and equality within a relationship we have a healthy portrayal, outside of the fact that that person may or may not be a jerk to other people 😊

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  2. Ugh, I totally agree with you! I’ve never read November 9 but Whitney from WhittyNovels on Youtube has made a discussion video about it which I recommend watching! I have absolutely hate it when books (or even movies/TV shows) romanticise toxic relationships!

    Take 50 Shades of Grey for example, it’s SUCH a big hit all over the world, people would die for Christian Grey but nobody really talks about how creepy and manipulative he is! He literally stalks her and finds out where she works and lives, he sells her car and buys her a new one without asking… I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that people don’t realise that this behaviour is not acceptable! People really think that it is cute and romantic. UGH.

    Anyway, fantastic post and I agree with all the points that you made!!! ❤

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  3. Honestly, I don’t read a lot about “Bad boy/sweet girl” relationships because they’re just really boring. But, now if the author was to make the relationship abusive, and give light to her leaving and making a way out. THEN that would be something I would enjoy. I like when there is a realistic portrayal of abusive relationships (does that make me gross? i don’t know, I’m not saying I agree with it, but I like seeing how someone emotionally copes with it, if that makes sense) because this whole “bad boy treats her like trash but she can’t help but love him anyways” troupe is trash and I hate it. But then also, some people are really into that stuff, which is kind of creepy, but I don’t kink shame soooo…

    ALSO, (dear God, i’m annoying, you’re warned) I hate almost every guy in YA is considered to be this punk who is a terrible person. Like I don’t know any guys like that, it’s just wrong and not accepted nowadays. I feel like authors want to stick to stereotypical guy/girl roles in society and its aggravating as HECK. Every single contemporary ever written is just filled with cliche situations and stereotypical gender roles. #breakgenderroles2017

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    1. Hey Solo! No, I actually forgot to clarify that – I’m absolutely fine with abuse if it’s not romanticized. Abuse is a realistic and important issue and I’m fine with books that deal with it. I just get annoyed when abusive characters are portrayed as romantic heroes.

      And yeah, I totally agree. Where are the shy nerdy boys and annoying bad girls of YA lit?? Give me romances like that. Except with less stalking and emotional abuse and ALL THOSE ISSUES. #breakgenderroles2kforever

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