Mysterious Stranger Danger: The Troubling Case of the YA Love Interest

A boy in a horse mask

Pictured: Google image search’s definition of a “mysterious stranger.” (from channel4.com)

EDIT: Because there has been some confusion on this point, I want to clarify that this post is not meant as an attack on individual authors.  Rather, it’s a criticism of the social milieu that allows “aloof, mysterious boy” to be a major selling point in literature aimed at teenaged girls.  Within the context of the stories themselves, these boys may or may not be as distant or scary as the marketing claims.  The marketing may, indeed, run completely counter to the author’s intention.  That’s a given.  However, I believe the way literature is marketed says at least as much about our society as the literature itself.  I’ve edited the post to make that point less ambiguous.

I finally got a library card last weekend!

I know what you’re going to say: it’s more than a little shameful for an alleged writer to have traipsed about for nearly a year without a library card.  In my defense, I was working through a massive backlog of Kindle purchases, and there was no room on the docket for additional books from the library.  Also in my defense, the library’s like, a whole ten minutes away.  Who has the time, am I right?

At any rate, one of the first things I did when I got my card was comb through the electronic catalog in search of Young Adult fantasy novels.  I’ve been writing one for a few months now, and a familiarity with the field never hurt anyone.  As I went through the listings, though, I began to notice something.

Check out these blurbs for popular YA fantasy novels:

Shocked by the brutality of her new life, Tris can trust no one. And yet she is drawn to a boy who seems to both threaten and protect her. The hardest choices may yet lie ahead….” –Amazon summary for Divergent, by Veronica Roth

Hmmm.  I’ve yet to read Divergent–from what was shown in the movie trailer, I gather it involves a totalitarian society, a boy with tattoos up his back, and teens getting classified by the worst substitute for the sorting hat this side of an unexploded bazooka shell–but I’m willing to take the blurb writer at their word when they say that Tris’ life is “brutal.”  One wonders, of course, how a child fighting for her life in a brutal police state would have time to feel “drawn” to a boy.  Ah, but that’s YA, isn’t it?  You need a little romance to hook the teen and pre-teen girls who make up the bulk of your audience.

But wait…what’s this about the boy seeming to threaten her?  That doesn’t sound like fruitful soil in which to plant puppy love.  The last time I associated with a boy who both “threatened” and “protected” me, he suggested I stop seeing my friends and told my parents I was too emotionally unstable to survive without him.  Maybe that’s just the marketing, though.  I doubt Ms. Roth was aiming for anything so sinister.

Ever since her sixteenth birthday, strange things keep happening to Seraphina Parrish.  The Lady in Black burns Sera’s memories.  Unexplainable Premonitions catapult her to other cities.  The Grungy Gang wants to kill her.  And a beautiful, mysterious boy stalks her.” –Amazon summary for Wander Dust, by Michelle Warren

Hang on: a mysterious boy stalks her?  That’s not a recipe for romantic tension; it’s a recipe for winding up locked in a rotting attic with a maniac who rubs doll clothes on his nipples.  I know people who have been stalked, and there was nothing exciting or fantastical about it.  If, instead of being “beautiful,” said mysterious boy weighed three hundred pounds and was constantly whittling tiny swords while staring Seraphina directly in the face, I guarantee the story would end with a call to the police instead of a grand adventure.  Hey, marketing team: maybe reconsider using the “beautiful stalker” angle to drum up interest in a novel.

When Emariya Warren learns enemy forces have captured her father, she’ll do anything to save him. Anything. Even marry a mysterious prince she knows nothing about in order to rally the strength to arrange a rescue.” –Amazon summary for Cornerstone, by Kelly Walker

Again with the “mysterious.”  I don’t know of Emariya and the prince end up together, but I rather hope they don’t.  Young women need to understand that “mysterious” doesn’t always mean “fascinating, with a greater depth of feeling than the shallow boys at my middle school.”  At best, “mysterious” means “shy,” or “in the witness protection program.”  At worst, it means “I have exhaustively cataloged more than seventy ways to make your skin into an infinity scarf.”

Kara needs an ally, or she might not survive Ourea’s monsters. She drops her guard when Braeden, a native soldier with a dark secret, vows to keep her safe.” –Amazon summary for Lichgates by S.M. Boyce

All right, I’m getting annoyed now.  I understand that a love interest sells novels, but does it always have to be the same love interest?  And does the love interest have to be so instrumental in the female protagonist’s personal journey?  Society has already convinced many young women that they cannot be complete without glomming on to the closest be-penised thing they see.  Why use marketing to play into that dysfunctional world view?

Well…because it sells books, of course.  But I like to think we humans are capable of taking the high road every once in a while.  Surely it would be preferable to offer an antidote to all the boy-craziness, to lure intelligent girls with the promise of an equally intelligent protagonist who succeeds or fails on her own merits without worrying about what some dumb (potentially unbalanced?) boy thinks.

Because here’s the thing: when a male protagonist has a love interest, she’s usually treated as an added bonus, something he gets as a reward for facing his demons and blowing up the secret jungle base or whatever the heck.  When a female protagonist has a love interest, he is usually presented (by the marketing team if not by the author) as a necessity, someone she needs in order to complete her mission.  Pepper in the wildly incorrect notion that boys show their interest by stalking or remaining aloof and mysterious, and you’ve got the ingredients for a pretty pathological view on love and what role love should play in a young woman’s life.

I apologize for this heated scree.  If it caused you any undue distress, you know who to blame…

…the Farmington Public Library.

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4 thoughts on “Mysterious Stranger Danger: The Troubling Case of the YA Love Interest

  1. rachelarp

    I see what you’re saying – and based on the included blurbs I can certainly agree with you. However, having read Divergent I can disagree that the love interest is someone that Tris needs to complete “her mission”. Rather, he spends the majority of the novels trying to convince her not to do what she feels she is destined to do because he wants to keep her safe and you know – not die at the hands of a big government conspiracy. I think the problem with love interests for girls does lie in the way they are presented. It’s hard to have a YA novel without one because teenagers kind of fall in love a lot, you know? Most of my teen years were spent trying to figure out that part of my life – what I liked and didn’t, what kind of person I wanted to be with, how to kiss and all that good stuff – so I don’t think a book without a love interest would read as authentic unless it really served the plot not to have one.

    I agree though, that in most novels with a female protagonist, it does come off as kind of a necessary thing for the character. They need the guy to do something or be something or get them somewhere – and that isn’t really serving our characters or our readers. And the language that marketers and publishers are using in this blurbs isn’t anything short of problematic – but it still sells. If we could convince the young ladies buying these books not to buy them based on these blurbs perhaps then we could change the system…

    Reply
    1. joannalesher Post author

      Ah, I figured I would be hearing from Divergent fans at some point. Thank you for being so polite about it.

      Point well made about Divergent. My issue with the book isn’t so much the story (which, again, I haven’t read) but with the language used to market it, as you mentioned. “Mysterious,” “threatening,” and even “protect” really rub me the wrong way. Obviously, this kind of language works, or novels like these wouldn’t sell as well as they do. Its efficacy speaks to something rotten in our society–why is it so common, so easy, to sell young women this fantasy about an aloof, often scary guy who may be their true love?

      Convincing women not to buy the books may be focusing on one tree at the expense of an entire forest. We need to determine what it is that makes them WANT to buy books with problematic blurbs and address that issue. For my money, the culprit is systemic sexism, internalized by young women who have never experienced the alternative. The feminist movement is doing everything in its power expose how screwed up our culture is, but women (and men!) still face a long, hard climb out of the ditch society has dug for us. We need to do more.

      I understand your point about teenagers falling in love a lot (they do), but I don’t think it would necessarily be inauthentic to do a YA novel without a romantic pairing. For all that I mooned over boys in high school, I never had a serious relationship, and romantic love didn’t play a huge role in my day-to-day life. That said, I didn’t mean to suggest that YA novels should do away with love interests. Love interests are fine! I just wish the love interest wasn’t always Beautiful Boy Who is Mysterious and Threatening (TM).

      Reply
      1. rachelarp

        You’re welcome! I think it’s important to note that blurbs are not created by the authors of the books – but by marketing teams. They use buzzwords to sell books, even if they aren’t necessarily true to the story. For example (using Divergent again because I am familiar with it), Tobias isn’t actually threatening to Tris – it’s a lot of her own insecurity and unfamiliarity with intimacy and the new place she is that causes her to interpret him that way. Also, it’s part of Tobias’ nature as her trainer to be that way with EVERYONE, not just Tris.

        I might add, as kindly as possible that in order to have a truly constructive discussion on the way blurbs are written by marketers it might be helpful to know the context by reading the books you mentioned. Sometimes the blurbs aren’t entirely truthful and that is a problem in itself.

  2. joannalesher Post author

    I fear something is getting lost in translation. I can only reiterate that I was indeed talking about the marketing, not the stories themselves. Of course the blurbs aren’t written by the authors–that isn’t their job. And of course buzzwords are used in marketing. I hope I haven’t made it seem as if I’m denying any of that.

    I can tell you really love Divergent, and I’m sure it’s a terrific story. I hope my disdain for the way it’s marketed hasn’t led you to believe that I’m picking on Veronica Roth. I’m not. (Indeed, I believe my post contains a comment to the effect that I’m sure the marketing runs counter to Ms. Roth’s intentions.) And anyway, the best defense one could make is that Divergent has made everyone involved approximately seventy gazillion dollars, while I myself remain a lifetime member of the working poor. So really, what do I know?

    Reply

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