“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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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.