Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mere Mortals

I've been reading a lot of young adult fiction lately. I've been doing other things, too, of course. But this has been my brain candy of choice since the end of the summer. It's mostly of an alternate universe, dystopian or supernatural variety and I enjoy seeing how the authors create these worlds and decorate and inhabit them. It seems that there's been a kind of hunger for these alternate universes over the last several years and different series have become wildly popular and then there are all the imitators as well. I have my theories about what that says about our current culture and perhaps some deeper hungers that we have as people, but I'll leave those thoughts for another time. Today I've got a bee in my feminist bonnet that must be released before my brain starts to go all anaphylactic.

One of the things that all of these books have in common is some kind of romantic arc, and sometimes two or three at the same time. Truth be told, I'm guessing that's part of the attraction for a lot of readers. But I'm noticing a disturbing trend in the way these relationships are depicted because in spite of the unique worlds, or the abilities of the author, the romantic components always seem to have the same story. It goes something like this:

Boy meets girl / girl meets boy / girl meets girl / boy meets boy.
Boy is oddly and powerfully attracted to girl. [Extrapolate this across all permutations from here on out.]
Boy expresses attraction to girl by avoidance, abuse or anger. Girl gets confused and butt-hurt.
Boy and girl finally confront each other, fight, and then kiss.
Boy and girl go their separate ways and are confused and repeat avoidance/abuse/anger phase, but usually with roles reversed.
Some kind of giant, tragic situation throws them together in which they magically work it all out. Previous differences and abuses and mean things they've done and said to each other are forgotten or dismissed. They make out and confess their undying love for each other.
Wackiness, mayhem, impending apocalypse ensue.

Does this sound familiar? The more I've thought about it, the more I realize that it turns up in just about every romantic comedy that I've ever seen. Where it shouldn't turn up, though, is real life. Not really.

I understand that from a literary perspective, there needs to be some tension in a relationship to keep the reader or viewer interested. We all watched Friends for a decade because of that very tension. Will they or won't they? When will that Ross and Rachel ever figure out that they belong together? It's the near misses, the bad timing, the roadblocks and miscommunications that make it all so exciting and romantic. It's a literary device that has worked since there was literature. Freshmen in high school read Romeo and Juliet every year because ol' Bill Shakespeare literally wrote the playbook on romantic tension.

Look at that beautiful girl! I must have her! I won't eat or sleep until I do! Oh no! We are from different families! We are supposed to hate each other, but we are in loooove! What shall we do?! [This may be paraphrased.]

But somewhere along the line in the last decade or so, that tension has moved from external forces that drive the star-crossed lovers apart to internal forces. It has been a while since I last visited fair Verona, but I don't recall Romeo seeing Juliet at the party, falling in love with the sight of her and then spending the next few acts pretending he hates her because he loves her so much. But that has been the basic theme in a lot of the books I've read lately.

In the Mortal Instruments series, Clary meets Jace and there are sparkling eyes and animal magnetism and increased pulses and all that, but then the remainder of the book is spent with both of them being awful to each other, insulting each other and behaving very much as though they hate each other, but always with a tingling undercurrent of sexual tension. Even in the much beloved Hunger Games Trilogy, Katniss spends most of the trilogy being extremely cold and prickly to the two boys in her life who love her and would literally die for her. Ditto Twilight. Edward loves Bella so much that he keeps himself maddeningly aloof from her (all the while sneaking in and watching her sleep - creepy!) and then leaves the country without a word to her for all of one book while she sulks around feeling like there's a hole in her guts and messes with that poor werewolf boy's head. These are just a few of the more popular examples, but the genre is rife with them.

Why does this matter? It's just pop fiction. Who cares?

The target audience of these books and movies and TV shows (bored housewives, notwithstanding) are young girls. Pre-teens and early teens. At precisely the age when girls start to learn about their own sexuality and how it relates to other people, this is the literature that is marketed to them, consumed by them, adored by them and discussed by them with their peers. They don "Team Edward" and "Team Jacob" stickers and pins and T-shirts. They are old enough to get a nice little funny feeling when they read the spicy bits, and young enough to lack the experience to discern fact from fiction in this area. They really buy into this stuff and identify with it. It's a matter of background and parenting and emotional makeup of the girl that determines exactly how much they buy into it, but even so, it's there and they consume it.

At a time of life when young girls are slurping up all the knowledge they can about their changing bodies and worlds from whatever sources available, these tense and dramatic romantic plots really appeal. But what are they learning? That true, undying, eternal love is expressed through avoidance, anger and sometimes abuse? That it's romantic for a boy or girl to act like he or she hates you because that just shows how much he or she really, really loves you? They love you so much they can't stand it. They love you so much they can't stand you. Or vice versa. Katniss Everdeen is held up as a strong female literary character for young girls to emulate. And she is, as far as that goes, a much stronger female character than some of the other offerings. But her main mode of communication throughout the series is a kind of surly snarling and keeping any positive emotions she might have completely to herself, thus confusing and hurting most of the people who care about her most. This is not a particularly strong or healthy way to relate to people.

So it plays out on playgrounds and in malls and on social media, but there is no author there to nicely offer the third person omniscient or to tie up the loose ends and sweep hurt feelings under the rug. Consider this with me: say you (or better still, your daughter or little sister) have a crush on a boy. The boy is aloof, avoids your presence. When he does speak to you, he is often sarcastic and never forthright. Sometimes he grabs you when no one is around and kisses you, but then goes back to acting like you don't exist. What advice would you give that girl? Does that sound like someone who treats you with respect? Is that romantic? or is that abusive? But imagine that you are thirteen and your head is full of Twilight and your body is full of hormones and you looooove him. How much abuse are we subtly teaching our young girls to withstand in the hope that their true love will eventually come around and express their undying love for them?

I mean, sure he grabbed me so hard that he left bruises on my arm, but that's just because his love for me is so intense he can barely control himself. I will longingly cherish these bruises as a reminder of how much he loves me while he's not speaking to me or has mysteriously disappeared.

Yeah, he belittled me and made me cry in front of a whole bunch of his friends, but that's just because he's protecting me from the intensity of his passion for me. He's very sweet and tender when no one is around.

or there's the Katniss response:

This boy is kind and generous and treats me with respect and makes sacrifices for me. He must be trying to hurt me somehow.

If you put these thoughts into the mouths and actions of real people, it's startlingly clear how dysfunctional it all is. It's frightening to imagine how much damage these scenarios can actually do, both emotionally and physically.

As adults, we have hopefully developed the experience and the ability to discern between fact and fiction; to understand what makes for juicy and salacious reading and what just will not fly in real life. I read all kinds of dark and dysfunctional books. In part, it is an escape for me because it's not real. It's a sublimation of darker urges, it's an exploration of something other, and it's entertainment. But for younger minds, who have already been saturated since birth in conflicting messages about sexuality and healthy relationships, who have yet to determine completely who they are and how they will relate to the world, those lines are less clear. In a culture that is on a desperate search for heroes and strong role models, that with one breath tells girls to be strong and accepting of who they are and with the next tells them what ideal they must resemble, the onus is on us to actively teach the difference between fact and fiction. Most of our culture is fiction - from air-brushed advertisements to celebrity marriages to 24-hour news channels. The difference between how we grew up and how our daughters are growing up is not that the potentially harmful ideas are particularly new, it's just that they're so much more readily available. We live in a petri dish of bad information in a constant stream, day and night.

I am not suggesting sheltering kids. It doesn't work. There isn't a cave deep enough or dark enough in which to hide that these things won't penetrate. Anyway, even if you found one, your kids would be all pale and bug-eyed and creepy when they did venture out into the world. But I do think we need to be aware and we need to be vigilant. We need to teach them that these things are not OK. And more importantly, I think we need to fill them with the right information.

Love is born of respect and honest communication and mutual affection. It is born of shared interests and experiences. It is born of enjoyment of each other's company. And yes, real love is hard and sometimes you hurt for and with the people you love. Sometimes, regrettably, you hurt people that you love. But that should never be mistaken for an act of love; it should never be an intentional, calculated expression of love. And when we do hurt others, there are consequences and there is damage that must be healed, not just glossed over with a heavy make-out session. Real love is a source of peace, of solace; not constant turmoil to the point of physical illness. There is more than enough external tension in this world to try relationships. There is no need for manufactured drama to create that tension. Finally, and probably most importantly, while physical attraction is definitely a component of love, it is not the sole sustaining feature of it, nor can it be the basis of any kind of lasting relationship.

Great strides have been made in feminism over the last several decades. Our girls now find themselves in a world where they can't even imagine some of the discrimination and oppression that existed not that long ago. I am proud to be raising a little girl who has no idea that her femininity could possibly be considered a factor that would hold her back from anything she wanted to do. I think the feminist work that needs yet to be done is in the macro sense. The up close and personal, day in and day out kind of way. The kind of way that teaches young girls that they deserve respect in all of their relationships and how to recognize it when they see it. Love isn't a tingly feeling in your pants, it's a series of actions and if those actions are hurtful and belittling, they are not love. The kind of way that teaches boys respectful openness with affection and expressions of genuine admiration, rather than continuing to foster the macho, predatory myth. It is not wimpy to be kind and generous and it is not strong to be rude and aloof. Above all, for both genders of all ages, abuse is never all right. Whether it is emotional or physical or verbal: it is not romantic, it is not a special circumstance that no one understands, it is not a sign of great passion, it is not love.

I have hope for a world that does not resemble the dystopian fantasies that I read. I like to read about vampires and star-crossed lovers sometimes, but I don't want to be one. I am trying to teach my kids to do the same. Whether it's explaining to my daughter that the boy on the bus who mocks her braces is not someone she needs to have a crush on, or insisting that my son resolve differences with kind words and hugs. I know a lot of parents who are actively doing the same and it gives me hope. These are small things that are a big deal to me. As long as there are teen-aged girls and boys, there will be silly romance stories. They will not mirror real life, and that's kind of their point. We need to remember also, though, to avoid trying to make real life resemble these stories. Because in real life, real people don't have supernatural healing powers, the ability to read minds, or neatly tied-up happy endings. We are mere mortals and we need to be handled with care.