“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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