I read a variety of literature. For the most part recently I’ve concentrated on Urban Fantasy, or YA Fiction. Generally, these are books that I can quickly read, which is important as once I get into a novel I can’t put it down, and I just don’t have the time to devote myself to extensive tomes at the moment. Unfortunately, my recent forays into the genre have been somewhat disappointing, and have caused me a great deal of concern. Yes – there are gems in the genre. There are some truly lovely protagonists, fascinating plots, and well-developed relationships. But when you examine a lot of these books, the plots are the same. You have a girl who for some reason doesn’t fit in with the world around her. Inevitably – generally because of the interference of a “special” man – she goes through a period of “I don’t deserve this, I’m not good enough” before finally getting in touch with her “Inner Goddess” and riding off into the sunset with her dark knight.
I understand that “fantasy” is an integral part of urban fantasy. I know that one of the most primal, involving fantasies for women are fantasies about men – specifically, “bad boys.” It only stands to reason that urban fantasy is going to milk this trope for all it’s worth, and I’m OK with that. But unlike the days of old, stories like Pride and Prejudice or North & South, these aren’t your “harmless” sort of bad guy. These men are often vampires, werewolves and other variety of supernatural creature. And while these supers aren’t intrinsically “bad” in all urban fantasy mythos, the characters that the female protagonist fall for often are. Of course, they’re all rich, powerful, incredible attractive. But many of them are distant, and controlling, with a common theme being the man stalking the girl – as that’s what these women often are. Because another common theme of course is virginity – a theme that’s truly deserving of its own post one of these days. Many of these women are young, naïve, self-conscious; eager to grasp onto anything strong enough to support them.
Of course, the reason for their lack of self-worth is often a set of “non-flaws” – traits that under most circumstances wouldn’t be considered flaws. One of my favorite is the ever popular “pale, skinny and clumsy” trope. I can speak from personal experience – none of these things are flaws. And if they are regarded as flaws by some men… well, everything is. Not every man likes everything, and that sucks, but that’s life. Chances are, that’s not the guy for you.
Let’s focus on the men for a moment. I accept that the male love interests in these stories are going to be “better” than average. But the scenarios that these novels present are simply unhealthy, and set extremely unrealistic standards for women. First, many of these men act in a way that is barely a step above abusive. They often put the leading women in positions where their physical and emotional well-being are at risk. They get our protagonist involved with the often-deadly realm of the supernatural. They often expect her to change or adapt to either be “better” for them, or to handle the environment that they exist in. And while often there is a “reason” why these men are brusque, or distant, or controlling, and the protagonist often finds the “secret” to getting him to open up in the end, these things rarely happen in the real world. Teaching young women that a man that’s cruel to you can be changed is only going to result in women chasing toxic men in real life, hoping that lurking within is an “inner Edward Cullen” who is deeply in love with them. But let’s look at Twilight a bit more closely. Sure, Edward was in love with Bella, but in the end she had to change to survive the half-Vampire child he’d placed within her. She gave up her very humanity – arguably the thing that was her sole redeeming trait as a person – so that they could have their “happily ever after.”
But let’s table that for a moment. Let’s forget about the “darker” sides of these men, and consider the reason for our protagonist’s interest in the first place. Invariably, these male love interests are nearly godlike in appearance, ludicrously wealthy, and in control of the world around them. But they rarely actually have common interests with the protagonist. Let’s take Christian Grey from Fifty Shades of Grey, for example. His hobbies are all extremely risky, adrenaline chasing pursuits – flying planes/helicopters, gliding, driving fast cars, and of course playing the piano, because that shows us just how classy he is. Anastasia, well, she likes reading, and turning down dates from the other guys around her for reasons that aren’t ever really explained. They have nothing in common. She’s attracted to him for completely superficial reasons. Do we really want to send the lesson to young women that the most important traits in a man are his wealth and his looks? It’s bad enough girls seem innately attracted to bad boys, and that often the people who suffer as a result of this are nice guys. Can’t we have a male who actually has something in common with the girl that he’s interested in? Can’t we stress that it’s more important to have someone in your life that understands and appreciates you than it is to have someone that’s ludicrously wealthy? Can’t we have conversations that focus on the character’s common interests, and not “I’m not good enough for you” and “Let’s talk about how my life is constantly in danger because of my affiliation with you.”
The most obnoxious thing about this is the fact that these relationship-centric plot lines are completely unnecessary to sell millions. Look at the Harry Potter books. There was nearly nothing romantic at all in the first few novels (obviously partially due to the character’s ages), and the series still sold extremely well. And when the relationships did come about, they were healthy, and developed amongst friends who already knew and cared about one another. Or let’s see a story where our protagonist is actually a strong enough woman to save herself, and doesn’t need to have someone who barely seems to respect her to get her out of trouble.
We women are the current and future mothers of the world. Do we want to send our daughters, our nieces, our friends, into the world with the belief that what matters the most about a man is how much money he makes, or how his abs appear to be sculpted from marble? Do we want women in the world who think it’s irrelevant if a man treats her poorly because “he can change?” Do we want girls racing into a marriage with someone who they have nearly nothing in common with? We deserve better.