“Ghost Stories”: The ubiquitous anti-feminism of young adult romances

Teenage girls are being told that romantic desirability is the proof of, and the reward for, individual worth.

In a Guardian article last November, Tanya Gold condemned the Twilight franchise and the paranormal progeny it has spawned, calling them sado-masochistic “disempowerment fantasies” masquerading as fairy tales, normalising abuse in the name of risqué romance. But her argument – though apt – hardly goes far enough. To focus criticism of the now-ubiquitous “YA (Young Adult) paranormal” genre on the relationship between its heroines and their “bad boy” lovers is to ignore the more insidious, perhaps more dangerous message the genre sends to teenage girls: that romantic desirability is the proof of, and the reward for, individual worth.

I view the genre with an insider's perspective: I paid my way through university by ghostwriting YA romances for various publishing houses. It was an easy job at first: padding chapter word counts through the judicious use of erotic ekphrasis, mentally calculating how many pennies each adjective added to my bank account: (“His rippling, supple muscular chest, shimmering in the bright sunlight. His smooth, almost preternaturally marble-white skin...”). Yet, after over twenty such books – each written to my employers' chapter-by-chapter outlines – I began to feel increasingly uneasy about the message such tropes send to the genre's young, largely female readership.

Certainly, there is something to be said for the way in which these books provide teenage girls with an opportunity to explore their incipient sexual desires. My typical heroine (let's call her Mary Sue) not only experiences arousal; she, like Twilight's Bella, is often the sexual aggressor, her numerous suitors holding back at a safe distance, non-threatening objects for adolescent sexual curiosity. (There were no Mormon vampires, but various plot devices often barred the way to consummation; in Mary's world, blood-letting and psychic mind-melds often serve as unsubtle metaphors for sex, providing her virginal readers with a fantasy sanitized of unfamiliar appendages).

Equally promising from a feminist perspective is the notion that our heroine can not only desire two or more suitors, but also act on that desire (up to a point) without condemnation. If Twilight's Bella vacillates slightly between husky werewolf Jacob and lethargic parasite Edward, Mary Sue is usually juggling up to four warlocks or mermen, passionately kissing one in Chapter Five before succumbing to the smoldering stares of his rival in Chapter Six. (Jealousy is rarely an issue; her love interests are usually so desperate for our Mary's affections that they're willing to wait on the sidelines: a fantasy of puppy-dog devotion that belies their purported dangerousness; these are “bad boys” in name only.)

Yet this proves problematic when this devotion not only replaces, but informs, character development. The typical “character pack” provided with my outline tells me that Mary is “nice, smart,” and other vague adjectives; she rarely gets narrative space to prove it (I'm lucky if I can sneak in a scene of her reading a book). Her qualities are informed ones, emerging not from the story itself but from the lips of Mary's besotted suitors, ever quick to reassure her (and the reader) that she is the single kindest, most beautiful, worthiest girl in the world.

It is this concept of worth I find most troubling. Mary Sue doesn't find love through common interests, through shared experiences, through long conversations or walks along the beach. Her relationships are not predicated on the idea that two people, with all their flaws, might discover themselves operating in emotional synchronicity. Rather, Mary is loved because she is the best (often, the plot demands that she be extra-special, possessing a secret royal lineage, or magical powers exceeding that of even "ordinary" mermaids). That she is the best is proven, somewhat circularly, by the love she inspires: heroes, villains, and minor characters alike must prostrate themselves at her feet: a vicious circle of affirmation.

Worse still is the genre's treatment of the girls unlucky enough to share space on the page with Mary Sue. Having established that love and worth are inextricably intertwined, any girl who appears on the scene must of course desire one of Mary's love interests; for this, invariably, she must be punished. Each outline I received featured three or more such characters – ditzy, shallow, usually blonde, existing only to salivate over Mary's harem before promptly being rejected or killed off. Genuine female friendship is nonexistent – Mary might, at best, have an anodyne hanger-on to make her look good in comparison – in the world of the YA novel, other women are stupid, jealous, or evil; they exist only to affirm Mary's sovereign desirability.

I have since hung up the ghostwriting mantle, but the genre is still going strong: “New Adult” – YA's more explicit cousin – carries on where I left off, producing knockoffs of Fifty Shades of Grey. Its popularity, however, leaves me wary. Must our young adult fiction teach teenage girls that their self-worth is predicated on being loved, and that love in turn is merited only by being the prettiest, the worthiest, the best? Its promise of female erotic fulfillment is diminished by the implicit caveat that it is merited only by being the object of male affirmation. Why can't Mary Sue experience desire on her own terms – for an equal, a partner, a friend? Until then, Mary's world has no room for human relationships – in any sense of the word.

Photograph: Getty Images

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

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What Labour's plotters are thinking

The ground may have shifted underneath Jeremy Corbyn's feet, at least as far as the rules on nominations are concerned. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been rocked by seven resignations from his shadow cabinet, as the attempt to remove the Labour leader gathers speed and pace.

I’m told there will be more to come. What’s going on?

As I’ve written before, the big problem for Labour’s Corbynsceptics is that Corbyn won big among party members in September and his support has, if anything increased since then. Although a lot of ink was wasted over fears of “entryism” which at the outside probably contributed about a percentage point to Corbyn’s 40-point landslide, it is “exitism”  - the exodus of anti-Corbynite members and their replacement with his supporters that is shifting the party towards its left flank.

Added to that is the unhelpfully vague wording of Labour’s constitution. It is clear that Corbyn’s challengers would need to collect 50 signatures from Labour MPs and MEPs to trigger a leadership challenge, a hurdle that the plotters are confident of hopping. It is less clear whether Corbyn himself would have to do so.

But what appears to have happened is that Iain McNicol, the party’s general secretary, has received legal advice that he should not put Corbyn on the ballot paper unless the parliamentary Labour party does so – advice that he is willing to put his job on the line to follow. McNicol believes that the NEC – which has a fragile Corbynite majority on some issues but not on all – will back him up on this matter. (Significantly, at time of writing, none of the three frontbenchers who hold NEC posts, which are in the gift of the shadow cabinet not the party’s leader, have resigned.)

McNicol himself is currently at Glastonbury. Also on his way back from that music festival is Tom Watson, the deputy leader, whose political protégés include Gloria DePiero, who resigned earlier today. Stiffening the resolve of Labour MPs that they can pull this off and survive the rage of the membership is a motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn passed by Wrexham constituency Labour party. The MP there is Ian Lucas, a respected MP from the party’s right, who is now on the backbenches but resigned from Tony Blair’s government in 2006 after Blair refused to set out his departure date.  That coup, of course, was organised by Tom Watson.

Watson is respected by Labour’s general secretaries, who are publicly supportive of Corbyn but many of whom would privately prefer to see the end of him. Crucially, they are even more opposed to John McDonnell, who has been a reliable ally to their leftwing opponents in internal elections.

As for party members, having called around this morning there is certainly some movement away from Corbyn, partly due to the Vice documentary and also due to the referendum campaign. My impression, however, is that the candidate they are looking for – someone who could have much of Corbyn’s politics but with greater political nous and the ability to bring together more of the PLP – doesn’t exist in the parliamentary party. There are some lower-ranked members of the 2010 and 2015 intakes who might fit the bill, but their time is far from ripe. It's also not clear to me how significant that movement away is in percentage terms - Corbyn won by 40 points and was 19 points clear of needing a second round, so his capacity to survive erosion is strong. 

Significantly, within the parliamentary party's three anti-Corbyn tendencies, “the let him fail and strike once” and the "we're stuck with him, keep quiet and do other things" factions are currently recessional and the “strike and strike until he gives up” faction is ascendant, adding to the pressure on the leadership, at least temporarily. The prospect of what may be a winnable election post-Brexit with a different leader - as one MP said to me, "Angela [Eagle] is not that good but she is good enough [should Brexit trigger a recession] - has Corbynsceptics less inclined to write off the next election. 

At the start of the year, I thought that no attempt to replace Corbyn before the election would work. That's still my “central forecast” – but a bet that looked more reliable than a ISA now looks rather shaky.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.