Love is dangerous. Love threatens everything we are, threatens to break the world open.
There’s this great two-piece post by thejgatsbykid and Foz Meadows about Kylo Ren as a romantic figure; it suggests teenage girls are reading him as romantic because they’re taught to read abuse as love.
Abusive behaviour isn’t a new topic in the romance community. The first romance-only bookstore in the US doesn’t stock Fifty Shades of Grey because they think it depicts an abusive relationship.
I really liked the post about Ren because for the first time it made me think personally about how I’ve been trained to read romance. I have absolutely experienced what Meadows describes when reading intentionally abusive characters: ‘At times, I’d even feel frustrated that a particular story wasn’t doing what I’d anticipated – why wasn’t the heroine together with that guy? Why had the narrative set them up romantically, then dropped him off the board?’
I read romance first and foremost for an emotional experience. My adult life is so much steadier, emotionally, than my teenage life. I’m more focussed, more sure of where I’m going, who my affection and loyalties lie with, what my faults are. But my god, there is still an ocean of teenage longing in my soul. So: romance. I experience the beautiful, painful warmth of love and brand-new lust, without the chaos of being a teenager. It’s catharsis.
I wrote in my last post that the person having the sexual experience in romance is the reader. I also think it’s the reader who has the romantic experience.
All the discussion around the alphahole that I’ve seen has been about whether he’s abusive and whether it’s anyone’s place to police other readers’ sexual and emotional desires. But what about the alphahole as a literary function? What emotional experience does he give to readers?
Love is dangerous. It has an edge that cuts deep – it’s why it feels like nothing else on earth. The dark and dangerous romantic hero isn’t just a stand-in for a real-life boyfriend: he’s the embodiment of the emotional threat that is love.
Of course there are other ways to evoke the same experience, but when Edward and Bella head into the woods and they know he’ll either kill her or find some control, I didn’t experience that as abusive, I experienced it as true. In the moment of all-out love – not the resolved moment, but the moment when your blood is burning with it – it feels 50/50 that you’ll survive it.
The romance community is criticized all the time for giving readers unrealistic expectations of relationships. Our tired answer? We are grown-assed women who can tell the difference between reality and fantasy.
As one of those teens who absolutely learnt to read dangerous, violent characters as romantic, I don’t feel that ever informed the choices I made in reality. I stayed away from people who made me feel afraid, and was attracted to people I liked.
(Obviously that doesn’t guard against abuse in real life – all I mean is that I wasn’t looking for the patterns of abuse I read in romantic books.)
So I fell for a couple of wonderful people – and that lust and crazed adoration didn’t feel good or kind. It felt dark. It was untrod ground that took me away from my parents and my bright childhood. It stole my breath. It made the world catch on fire. My need to possess that someone made me feel violent.
What the Ren article showed me about myself was troubling, and I hope we keep having these conversations that shed light on our subconscious influences – and on the social assumptions we write into our books.
But I also don’t want to lose sight of romance as literature. We tell stories to reflect the deepest truths about ourselves. A romance hero isn’t a template for a real-life boyfriend – he’s a literary investigation into the emotion of human love.