Tuesday, January 8, 2013

IS ABUSE BEING MADE TO LOOK SEXY?

DISCLAIMER:
Please note, this is a sensitive area of discussion and I'm sure there are those who may not share my opinion, so please accept my apology beforehand. I do not intentionally mean to offend anyone (in particular my friends who write the edgier stuff) and certainly respect your right to disagree with any part, or all, of my take on this subject. This is my personal opinion and not meant to be taken out of context, but is a topic I  have strong feelings on, and dear to my heart on a personal level. With that said . . .


I ran across this blog from Twitter the other day and it is exactly what my editor (whom I adore emphatically) has accused me of with my male characters in Designer Genes. Wow! First it felt like a slap, but then more like a bonk on the head to get me to realize . . . damn she's right!

http://tinyurl.com/a4poxe6

In the above article posted on "The Blog" from the Huffington Post, Vanessa Van Edwards makes some alarming points to support this concept many authors are guilty of (moi included, unfortunately). She targets the Twilight Series mainly because this is where the shift in Young Adult romance happened . . . or I should say exploded.

A note here. I write Young Adult Romance through many sub-genres from futuristic/dystopian (which is the platform for my"Designer Genes" trilogy), historical/time travel, to contemporary love stories. This blog (or soapbox) was meant to focus on the Young Adult/New Adult (whatever the hell it is) fiction books. However, some of the Adult fiction novels stealing the limelight, may be guilty of the same things discussed in the Huffington Post blog. While BDSM is a lifestyle choice, it is being portrayed through the literary platforms as the "norm" for sexual relationships. "Sexy." (Wait . . . don't stone me yet.)

The scary thing is young readers (our children and grandchildren) read books far older than their age and  may get a false impression that this lifestyle is what will be expected of them in a physical relationship. And this isn't just our girls. Boys are reading this stuff, too, and the messages they receive are confusing. Do girls want this? Should I do this? Do I want to do this to a girl? The list goes on-and-on and I've never been more grateful that my kids are grown because if I had hormone-crazed teenagers maneuvering this phase of life, I'd be scared as hell. We'd be having many long rides in the car. (This is what I did with my teens when we needed to discuss delicate matters - they can't jump from a vehicle traveling 70+ mph down the freeway).

In my books I have the sexy, flawed heroes and heroines who surrender their hearts (and sometimes a little more . . .), but I didn't realize that some of the strong character traits I gave my heroes may, in fact, reflect unsolicited dominance -- a form of abuse.  When I found my new editor/therapist/literary trainer she immediately called one of my stronger male characters a "douchebag." She even said I should just "throw glitter on him and stick him in the sun." Yeah, I had to lick my wounds on that one. Now when I send her revisions, I specifically make reference to having hopefully removed all "douchebaggery-stalking-injunction-worthy traits."

But to me, what I wrote sounded romantic and sexy. Wrong. Here's the points Van Edwards touched on, some that I was guilty of and my editor suggested I change. These are only highlights, with my personal slant. The blog goes into further detail using examples from the Twilight series and movies.

1.  "Love scars are cherished."  Bella proudly wore her bruises as badges of her lover's strengths, admiring them in the mirror, and in the movie, each black & blue dot holding a "cherished memory." Recently, I've ran across a couple YOUNG ADULT BOOKS that associated physical pain with sexual arousal. Yep, rubbing shoulders with Harry Potter on the bookshelf, are stories written about other "special powers." I am proud to say I'm not guilty of this one in my teen reads. Now there are books that refer to cutting, hair pulling, and other drastic measures used to relief emotional pain, and these are real life, sadly, but they're not projected with any sexual connotation . . or shouldn't be.

2.  "Smothering behavior is romantic." Okay, this is where my editor caught me. I had my male character following my heroine out of a sense of wanting to protect her . . . but she wasn't really in danger. It was more from a misguided issue of jealousy, which I had not established grounds for in the story. "Douchebaggery-stalking-injunction-worthy" behavior. By showing my heroine spineless and blindly accepting my hero's stalking and dominating behavior as romantic, she looked "weak," not "vulnerable," which is what I didn't want. Weak characters are boring and death to a story.

3.  "Dangerous sentiments are romantic." Whew. Dodged that bullet. I never fell for this line of crap as a teenager, so it never crossed my mind to write it in this context. Van Edward's recall of Jacob's behavior ("Eclipse") is a prime example, though, and I had one of those "I could-have-had-a-V8" headsmack moments when I realized as a reader and Twihard fan, I thought this was acceptable, if not adorable! Poor Jacob! Gag.

4.  "The most desired women don't eat." Again, I was found "not guilty." Anyone who has suffered, supported, or been through the emotional trauma eating disorders cause (and death is a consequence of starving your organs) knows how dangerous this thinking is. Again, Van Edwards points to Bella never eating in front of Edward...always having butterflies that stole her hunger, blah-blah-blah.

"Skinny is sexy." "Boys don't like fat girls." "If you gain weight, you'll lose him." Garbage! And any girl (or woman) who succumbs to this convoluted way of thinking needs their head examined. Also, any boy (man) who would dump someone they care about because she gained weight, and then believes such shallow, selfish crap justifies their d**k-brained behavior, needs serious help. It's shameful and disgusting.

5.  "Lying to parents is justified and unpunished." I'd even add to that "lying is justified and not accountable." Van Edwards again points the constant instances where Bella is always sneaking around and lying to her father...and not getting caught? Life-threatening situations (um, she ends up in a hospital because she just happens to run off to Phoenix without a word; disappears for 3 days and there's no "Amber Alert" even though she's a minor; and in "Eclipse" where she's camping overnight on a mountain side in freezing temperatures while her father is investigating suspicious deaths and yet Bella can only think about her "douchebaggery-stalking-injunction-worthy loverboy") and yet again, we Twihards accepted the whole package . . . and swooned.

Yes, I was found guilty of this, but not pistol-whipped by my editor because I do show my characters getting caught and suffering consequences for their bad choices. I also show my characters learning something from their mistakes that help them when faced with a crossroads in the future.

A lot of today's popular Young Adult/New Adult (and some adult) romance fiction do not portray "learning experiences." In fact, there's usually entire chapters where heroines, especially, repeat the same mistakes and then stand there, usually scantily clothed, scratching their head and wondering "how did this happen?" And the reader thinks "oh you sweet thing, he just loves you so much."

6. "Violence is shown as acceptable behavior and a sign of masculinity." A romantic symbol of strength. Isn't the world we live in violent enough? Do we really need to paint it as a revering quality in our characters? Yes, Romance's greatest conflict is the love triangle and when you're dealing with hormonal overloads and raging jealousy that clouds commons sense (and I'm talking teenagers, although adult men seem to revert to adolescent behavior under the same circumstances) there's going to be the fist fights; the parking lot brawls. But these should be the result of defending another's honor or a shield of protection for an immediate danger, not as a way to "keep" someone close to the heart.

Peer pressure used to be the mainstream in YA, but now it's boyfriends' (and girlfriends') manipulative/dominating influence, and while there are great stories that show how young adults come to recognize this behavior as unacceptable and get help ("Dreamland" by Sarah Dessen; "Stay" by Suzanne Colasanti), lately more stories portray it as the preferred, "sexy and loving" behavior girls (and boys) should WANT in a romantic relationship.

So here's my point to all of this. First, I'm grateful to my editor for catching me adding to this dangerous, yet popular trend, and while she never forces me to change anything in my writing (always, "it's your story"), she made me realize this isn't something I'd find acceptable in a relationship, or would want my daughter, granddaughters, or friends to believe acceptable behavior either, so why would I write it as such. It's not sexy. It's dangerous on many, many levels.

Second, I wholeheartedly believe, support, and defend an author's "right to write" anything. ANYTHING. I do NOT agree with censorship, boycotts, or vicious criticism of any author's work, and will rally to defend any of my writing comrades who fall prey to such simple-minded antics. While that might sound a bit contradictory to what I've posted, it's not. I'm not opposed to what someone writes, I just worry how it's being portrayed, especially to young readers. A very thin line, and as I've discovered in my own writing, one that's a faint gray and easily crossed.

Authors in general are not moral gatekeepers, but as a Young Adult/New Adult author I personally feel a sense of responsibility to portray romance through the emotionally charged phase of life where kids morph to adults, in as positive light as possible and still keep it realistic. "No glitter" and definitely no abusive behavior represented as an acceptable form of "love." Again, there are certain lifestyle choices, but they are just that --  "choices" and should be written as courses mutually decided and consented to within an already meaningful relationship -- not forced or manipulated, and not represented as the "only" way to have a satisfying, "sexy" physical relationship.

Personally, I don't believe it should be ever be written as a character's "first" experience either. I think they should be shown stumbling through clumsy, awkward, sometimes heartbreaking, but more innocent romantic scenarios before choosing anything alternative. Again...just my opinion. It's "your story."

Okay, feel free to "stone" me. I've thrown my hunky "douchebag" in front of me to take the blows. Isn't that romantic? Sexy?

As always, thanks for stopping by.


21 comments:

Sandy L. Rowland said...

that is quite a take. Good for you. I love how you write the real deal of life with the consequences as part of the story. We live in a world that skates past this. I applaud your efforts to tell it like it is even in a paranormal.

sandybruney said...

Very thoughtful post. I think Ya writers should take some responsibility for what they write, more than those writing for the adult market, simply because teens are both impressionable and vulnerable. Good for you for recognizing this.

Jewel's Gems said...

Really great post! Absolutely no stones coming your way:-)

DoreeAnderson.blogspot.com or Doree.anderson@wordpress.com said...

I like the way you've administered to the guilty. I'd rather read that the young girl was watching his back as he walked away because of her strength, not because she has a torn up face and cows down to him and the jerk finds it repulsive. Come on ladies, let's put the wimpy timid Fraulein back in the cupboard, behind every box of Wheaties you can find, its time to return our female characters back to self serving. Great post, Joelene.

Melanie Meadors said...

I thought this was a GREAT post. Echoed a lot of my thoughts. And I do agree that writers have the right to write anything they want, but I think there needs to be a little thought put into who reads them. I'm not for censorship, but I am for another angle--teens need to know that healthy is GOOD. Sure, these books are out there, but there needs to be another channel saying the more positive things so people recognize "that might not necessarily be a good thing," etc.

Calisa Rhose said...

I've never really thought about it, but you're right. As a fellow Trihard...you are right, or rather Van Edwards is. I think I do take these things, or some of them at least, into subconscious consideration in my adult writing, though. I tend to keep violence--actions and thoughts-- to a minimum, if not nonexistent so that's good. Right? If I ever do write a YA, this is very good research info, Joelene. Thanks!

Sonya said...

GREAT post! I personally think a man who's gentle is by far sexier than a man who's pushy, forceful or domineering.

PJ Sharon said...

Brilliant post, Joelene! I agree whole heartedly.As a YA author, I struggle with this a lot. Beyond the steaminess factor of a book I'm putting into the hands of teens (some who will undoubtedly be 12 year-olds reading books meant for 14+)I worry about other content. I reference the trade of cannibis in my future dystopian world of Lily Carmichael in Waning Moon. I don't want readers to think I'm advocating its use or making a political statement when in fact, it simply fits the picture of what "my imaginary world" might look like in fifty years. The characters called for it and I wanted to be true to that. We all have to follow our writer's conscience. But first we have to know when we are stepping over a line. Kudos to your editor!

Joelene Coleman said...

PJ, I think there's some boundary bending in writing futuristic/fanstasy, especially in an apocolyptic aftermath. Hunger Games was attacked for too much violence (and I admit I had an issue with that when I started reading the trilogy) but in the context of the story and the world as it exists in the story, violence, unfortunately, was a part of life. I think those books were meant to make you think about how "now" can become "then" very easily. We'll have to compare stories. Designer Genes is also about 50 yrs in the future!

Clancy said...

Joelene, This was a good post and I agree with everything you've said except this one statement, "While BDSM is a lifestyle choice, it is being portrayed through the literary platforms as the "norm" for sexual relationships." I don't the norm you reference here has anything to do with BDSM because BDSM IS ALL about consent. The douche-baggy behaviors you reference are douche-baggy and not sexy at any age or for anyone. They are abuse. They are not BDSM. The difference between abuse and BDSM are consent and intent. Abuse is about controlling another to the abused persons detriment. BDSM is about mutually consented to activities that are for both participants benefit. I don't think writing that glamorizes abuse is ever a good thing and writing that is about BDSM should be targeted to adults and labeled as such.

Joelene Coleman said...

Clancy, girlfriend, I agree. Thanks for adding this insight. I've read BDSM which has been in the adult genre, but I just ran across a YA one and blew my hair back. To me, this is a physical relationship for adults who have the lifeskills to understand it's something more, not teenagers still trying to figure out their sexuality. I hoped when I said shown as a decision made between consenting parties in a meaningful relationship, I represented it as you clarified, but I may have missed the mark. I appreciate you sharing and I'm glad you put it in the right perspective.

Huntley Fitzpatrick said...

Joelene, I've already commented on how blown away I was by how succinctly, passionately and beautifully you discussed this trend. But I must add one more thing, which is that I found it really refreshing that you discussed the effect on boys as well as girls. Sensitive, caring and sweet guys are constantly being told they aren't as "manly" as insensitive, conceited egotistical d-bags. This is confusing for teenaged boys. Might is equated with right. Being sensitive is equated with being effeminate....all so wrong and so confusing to the gentle souls that most boys have. Thank you for calling this out, in addition to the harmful effect on girls.

Clancy said...

Joelene, I'm surprised someone would write BDSM in a YA or similar genre. BDSM should only be between adults because you're right... teens don't have the life experience to understand the 'more' of BDSM.

Joelene Coleman said...

You're right, Huntley. I have a soft spot for boys. I had 3 sons and the number one rule I raised them with is you can never, ever hit a girl. Hard because their older sister probably deserved a punch with her relentless teasing. Boys are misunderstood and expected to grow up faster than girls, when emotionally, they don't mature as quickly. They are taught that expressing emotion is a sign of weakness instead of being portrayed as honest or vulnerable. They have big, soft hearts and carry a heavy mantel when society wants them molded into the protector when they need protection themselves. Thanks for stopping by.

TL Sumner said...

Joelene,
Well said. I'm so glad you mentioned how these portrayals can affect the guys as well. I think that tends to get lost in the discussion many times. I certainly don't want my son to grow up and think stalkerish, over-protective, manipulative behavior is acceptable. And I don't want my daughter to grow up thinking she needs a guy to rescue her.

Julie Glover said...

Very interesting points, Joelene. I still like the first kisses scenarios more than the the first intense-and-sexual relationship for YA. Interestingly enough, I've been watching YA TV in the form of Pretty Little Liars, and I've noticed a trend for youth romances in that show to be Forbidden Love. I guess that's been a theme since Romeo & Juliet, but it's almost a badge of honor in PLL to sneak around behind your parents or choose someone inappropriate or controversial to date. I enjoy the show and can think critically about that aspect, but I wonder whether teens do the same or imagine that this is how love should be.

Joelene Coleman said...

I secretly dated a bad boy - thought him to be "the one." Ended badly and his story is one of the reasons I feel strongly about this issue, and was the story behind the dark moment I wrote in Riley's Pond. Luckily I found someone who erased the memories and taught me to love myself again. He turned out to be the real "the one." Thanks everyone for sharing!

Suzanne Lilly said...

Joelene, thanks so much for bringing this into the open, especially since you're a Twilight fan. Don't get mad at me, but I've always hated Twilight, ever since I read the first book. Why? Because Bella acts like a wimp and lets the men around her dominate her and define who she should be, which I find abusive. But I really loved the way you went through the list of things from the Huffpost blog and checked guilty or not guilty. You made me realize I need to have my heroine in my current WIP eat something once in a while! :-)

Joelene Coleman said...

Onion rings dipped in ranch dressing and a chocolate shake with a mound of whipped cream on top. Great now I'm hungry. Suzanne are you sure you're not editor? She hates Stephenie Meyer for how she portrayed Bella, basically for the reasons you mentioned. She rides my butt to keep my heroine strong and not allow my hero (or his twin brother) run over her. Thanks for sharing!

Kacey Mark said...

Great post. Insightful as always. My tightrope just got a little tighter!
Thanks for the guidelines. Your editor really knows her stuff!

stanalei said...

Thank YOU, Joelene. As the grandmother of a teen girl...THANK YOU.