There’s been talk on the blog lately about romance and “strong female characters,” which got me thinking about a genre I was an avid fan of in high school. It all started when my mom took Twilight out from the library, and after that I was a frequenter of the “Teen Paranormal Romance” section at Barnes & Noble. Vampires were big in the mid-2000s. While I was big on Twilight, a friend of mine was obsessed with Vampire Academy and House of Night. From there, I moved on to fallen angels, getting hooked on the Fallen and Hush, Hush series. There are countless other books that fell into this category, but I’ll stick to the ones I was most loyal to. The formulas of these books were basically:
- girl meets mysterious boy whom she’s inexplicably drawn to;
- he tries to shut her out to protect her from his dark, tortured past;
- girl, in trying to learn something about said dark past, winds up in trouble;
- boy comes to her rescue and they embrace the inevitability of their impassioned, undying love.
More often than not, a love triangle was thrown in for drama.
Thinking about it now, I cringe.
Let’s face it. A lot of the time, the love interests in these books were jerks. Bella’s first encounter with Edward consists of him literally looking at her murderously for an entire class period. Patch is pretty much an asshole to Nora for most of Hush, Hush, but that doesn’t make her inclined to stay away from him at all. I’m kind of annoyed with myself for thinking stuff like that was romantic. Now, I would rather read subtle romance that’s more believable, rather than a meet cute (or not so cute) individual that leads to a baseless yet frighteningly passionate romance that we’re supposed to believe will last a literal eternity. So why the heck did I like these books so much, and why were they such a sensation?
I can’t speak for every teen paranormal romance fan, but for me, reading romance was my way of experiencing it for myself. But, since I grew up reading fantasy, regular romance just wouldn’t cut it for me. I needed that fantastical element to satisfy my imagination. Plus, there were stakes! Not the vampire hunting kind, but the kind where the state of the world literally hung in the balance of the characters’ relationships. To me, it seemed more “mature” than the problems of my peers’ relationships. They were also a taste of what I thought were “strong female characters.” The protagonists were in high school, but they recklessly went off to save their brooding boyfriends from the very trouble the boys were trying to keep them out of. They didn’t care about their own safety, as long as they had a chance to save their pouty paramours.
As an adult looking back on these books, I recognize that this portrayal of romance is dangerous. However, I do think this genre still has worth. Most of the teen paranormal romance books I’ve read were well-written and, most importantly, extremely engaging. Even if the protagonists weren’t always rational, they were proof of what girls can accomplish when they set their minds to something. I also think it’s supremely cool how something marketed towards teen girls came to influence media so much. Shows like Teen Wolf, Shadowhunters, and The Vampire Diaries aired for years. Movies like Warm Bodies and Beastly brought in huge numbers at the box office.I can’t give teen paranormal romance all the credit, since paranormal romance has been around for a long time, but I’d like to think the teen genre gave it an extra push into the mainstream.
I’m a little embarrassed by how hard I went for Team Edward, but I can’t deny that, at the time, I really really enjoyed Twilight. Between you and me, I’ll probably always have a tiny (I’m talking small!!) spot in my heart for it. But I appreciate how people have realized that what we were expected to see as romantic in these Byronesque babes don’t really make for good boyfriend material. I would like to see this genre shed its slightly cringey connotation and leave its negative tropes behind. Although I admire how crazy determined many of the protagonists are, there’s plenty of opportunity for actual strong female characters here.