“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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Jeremy Corbyn speech on terrorism and foreign policy: full text

The Labour leader laid out his vision for British foreign policy. 

Our whole nation has been united in shock and grief this week as a night out at a concert ended in horrific terror and the brutal slaughter of innocent people enjoying themselves. When I stood on Albert Square at the vigil in Manchester, there was a mood of unwavering defiance. The very act of thousands of people coming together sent a powerful message of solidarity and love. It was a profound human impulse to stand together, caring and strong. It was inspiring.

In the past few days, we have all perhaps thought a bit more about our country, our communities and our people. The people we have lost to atrocious violence or who have suffered grievous injury, so many of them heart-breakingly young .

 The people who we ask to protect us and care for us in the emergency services, who yet again did our country proud: the police; firefighters and paramedics; the nurses and doctors; people who never let us down and deserve all the support we can give them. And the people who did their best to help on that dreadful Monday night – the homeless men who rushed towards the carnage to comfort the dying, the taxi drivers who took the stranded home for free, the local people who offered comfort, and even their homes, to the teenagers who couldn’t find their parents.

They are the people of Manchester. But we know that attacks, such as the one at the Manchester Arena, could have happened anywhere and that the people in any city, town or village in Britain would have responded in the same way.

It is these people who are the strength and the heart of our society. They are the country we love and the country we seek to serve. That is the solidarity that defines our United Kingdom. That is the country I meet on the streets every day; the human warmth, the basic decency and kindness.

It is our compassion that defines the Britain I love. And it is compassion that the bereaved families need most of all at this time. To them I say: the whole country reaches out its arms to you and will be here for you not just this week, but in the weeks and years to come. Terrorists and their atrocious acts of cruelty and depravity will never divide us and will never prevail.

They didn’t in Westminster two months ago. They didn’t when Jo Cox was murdered a year ago. They didn’t in London on 7/7. The awe-inspiring response of the people of Manchester, and their inspirational acts of heroism and kindness, are a living demonstration that they will fail again.

But these vicious and contemptible acts do cause profound pain and suffering, and, among a tiny minority, they are used as an opportunity to try to turn communities against each other.

So let us all be clear, the man who unleashed carnage on Manchester, targeting the young and many young girls in particular, is no more representative of Muslims, than the murderer of Jo Cox spoke for anyone else. Young people and especially young women must and will be free to enjoy themselves in our society.

I have spent my political life working for peace and human rights and to bring an end to conflict and devastating wars. That will almost always mean talking to people you profoundly disagree with. That’s what conflict resolution is all about. But do not doubt my determination to take whatever action is necessary to keep our country safe and to protect our people on our streets, in our towns and cities, at our borders.

There is no question about the seriousness of what we face. Over recent years, the threat of terrorism has continued to grow. You deserve to know what a Labour Government will do to keep you and your family safe. Our approach will involve change at home and change abroad.

At home, we will reverse the cuts to our emergency services and police. Once again in Manchester, they have proved to be the best of us. Austerity has to stop at the A&E ward and at the police station door. We cannot be protected and cared for on the cheap. There will be more police on the streets under a Labour Government. And if the security services need more resources to keep track of those who wish to murder and maim, then they should get them.  

We will also change what we do abroad. Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.

That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.

But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.

Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.

Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform. And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre. But we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.

That’s why I set out Labour’s approach to foreign policy earlier this month. It is focused on strengthening our national security in an increasingly dangerous world.

We must support our Armed Services, Foreign Office and International Development professionals, engaging with the world in a way that reduces conflict and builds peace and security.

Seeing the army on our own streets today is a stark reminder that the current approach has failed. So, I would like to take a moment to speak to our soldiers on the streets of Britain. You are doing your duty as you have done so many times before.

I want to assure you that, under my leadership, you will only be deployed abroad when there is a clear need and only when there is a plan and you have the resources to do your job to secure an outcome that delivers lasting peace.

That is my commitment to our armed services. This is my commitment to our country. I want the solidarity, humanity and compassion that we have seen on the streets of Manchester this week to be the values that guide our government. There can be no love of country if there is neglect or disregard for its people. No government can prevent every terrorist attack.  If an individual is determined enough and callous enough, sometimes they will get through.

But the responsibility of government is to minimise that chance, to ensure the police have the resources they need, that our foreign policy reduces rather than increases the threat to this country, and that at home we never surrender the freedoms we have won, and that terrorists are so determined to take away. Too often government has got it wrong on all three counts and insecurity is growing as a result. Whoever you decide should lead the next government must do better.

Today, we must stand united. United in our communities, united in our values and united in our determination to not let triumph those who would seek to divide us. So for the rest of this election campaign, we must be out there demonstrating what they would take away: our freedom; our democracy; our support for one another. Democracy will prevail. We must defend our democratic process, win our arguments by discussion and debate, and stand united against those who would seek to take our rights away, or who would divide us.

 Last week, I said that the Labour Party was about bringing our country together. Today I do not want to make a narrow party political point. Because all of us now need to stand together. Stand together in memory of those who have lost their lives. Stand together in solidarity with the city of Manchester. And – stand together for democracy.

Because when we talk about British values, including tolerance and mutual support, democracy is at the very heart of them. And our General Election campaigns are the centrepieces of our democracy – the moment all our people get to exercise their sovereign authority over their representatives.

Rallies, debates, campaigning in the marketplaces, knocking on doors, listening to people on the streets, at their workplaces and in their homes – all the arts of peaceful persuasion and discussion – are the stuff of our campaigns.

They all remind us that our government is not chosen at an autocrats’ whim or by religious decree and never cowed by a terrorist’s bomb.

Indeed, carrying on as normal is an act of defiance – democratic defiance – of those who do reject our commitment to democratic freedoms.

But we cannot carry on as though nothing happened in Manchester this week.

So, let the quality of our debate, over the next fortnight, be worthy of the country we are proud to defend. Let’s have our arguments without impugning anyone’s patriotism and without diluting the unity with which we stand against terror.

Together, we will be stronger. Together we can build a Britain worthy of those who died and those who have inspired us all in Manchester this week. Thank you.

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