“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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Eleven things that will definitely happen during the general election campaign

History is repeating itself, as the 2015 general election campaign is echoed in the 2017 snap vote.

The last election is happening all over again.

Here’s how:

1. Michael Fallon is wheeled out to link the opposition leader to nuclear war

2015

The smearer-in-chief Michael Fallon, or Minister for the Today Programme as he has sometimes been labelled, was unleashed by CCHQ to warn that as Ed Miliband “stabbed his own brother in the back” to lead Labour, he was “willing to stab the UK in the back” and threaten national security by doing a deal with the Scottish National Party to cancel Trident. It was nasty, untrue and sadly political rhetoric has only worsened since.

2017

The Tory Terminator is back! This time, aiming his nuclear wordheads at Jeremy Corbyn. But with essentially the same script as last time. Yes, the Labour leader was branded a “security risk” on Trident by the same Defence Secretary who was accused of keeping Parliament in the dark over a failed nuclear weapons test (which suggests no threat to national security at all, of course).

Fallon says Theresa May would fire Trident as a “first strike”. So once again in British politics, to prove you can be trusted with national security you have to be more committed than your opponent to starting a nuclear war.

2. The Conservatives will conjure up the prospect of coalition to scare voters

2015

In what appeared to be a rather risky strategy of constantly putting your opponents on your campaign literature, elegantly playing the recorder, the Tories banged on for weeks about Ed Miliband potentially doing a deal with the SNP in government. And somehow, despite actually being in coalition themselves, the Tories managed to make coalition sound scary enough for this strategy to work.

2017

Guys did you know that there is the chance of a “coalition of chaos” after the election? A “coalition of chaos”, yeah. What’s that, you say? We don’t know either, but it sounds good doesn’t it? “Coalition”. “Chaos”. Alliteration. No, we know there’s no chance of it happening either and that Labour is refusing to work with other parties anyway but stiiiiill “coalition of chaos” is definitely a thing. “Coalition of chaos”.

The good thing about this is that the coalition bogeyman may have less traction this time round because so few people see there being much likelihood of a Corbyn premiership.

3. Someone will photoshop the opposition leader incongruously wearing a flower crown and people will ask if it could affect the election result

2015

#Milifandom was the symbol of a more innocent time in our politics. “Whilst The Sun attacks the 17-year-old behind the Milifandom craze, young people have found an arena of their own in which to have political discussion without obvious tabloid bias,” one fan told the Independent on the eve of the election. “This will obviously have a bearing on the election.”

It didn’t.

2017

But don’t let your flowers wilt just yet, oh admiring youth of the ironic web! For Corbyn became a cult figure loved and memed by many, young and old, the moment he began campaigning to be Labour leader.


Not since flower-crowned Ed had Britain seen a politician so revered. Will this have a bearing on the election? Perhaps, but not in the way some fans may wish…

4. Russell Brand will say something and people will ask if it could affect the election result

2015

That thirsty thesaurus Russell Brand interviewed a number of politicians ahead of the general election campaign for his stressful YouTube channel The Trews and none was more anticipated than when Ed went round to his house a few days before the election. A performance filled with glottal stops and nonchalant shrugs, dropped tees and aitches left an audience clenched in cringe – and a Labour party without the endorsement it wanted. Brand went for the Greens in the end.

2017

He hasn’t had a cosy chat with Corbyn yet but Brand has just returned to live radio with a new show, and it looks like he won’t stay quiet for long as he’s already gatecrashed Katie Hopkins’ LBC show on live radio to lure “Hatie Hopkins” back to humanity.

5. A politician will be caught having the audacity to consume food

2015

Ed Miliband ate a bacon sandwich, and it made front page news. Read my colleague Amelia on why politicians eating in public is such a global preoccupation.

2017

Jeremy Corbyn has had many a food-based controversy. Giant marrow-wielding aside, he has angered Mumsnet with his dislike of biscuits, and called kebab shops “a place of great discourse and discussion” yet implored their owners to serve salad too to provide “the balanced diet that everybody needs”, further riling them by supporting the sugar tax.

6. People will trust or dismiss polls depending on whether they confirm their political bias

2015

Polling: The polls are neck and neck = the Tories will win it/Labour will win it.

Result: The Tories won an outright majority.

2017

Polling: The Tories have a historic poll lead = the Tories will win it/Labour will win it.

Result: We know now never to make predictions because…

7. Every single one will be wrong

2015

For a while after the result, everything looked like this…

2017

…so guys why should we believe the polls this time round saying Labour will be destroyed?

8. Apart from the ones that show Labour doing badly

2015

2017

Oh.

9. Which will be extremely accurate

Great.

10. Well-timed colds will cover up difficult policy positions

2015

Luckily, then Green party leader Natalie Bennett had a cold, which meant she was able to casually cough and sneeze her way through LBC’s questioning on her housing policy. So smooth. No one noticed. Cough.

2017

Not strictly part of the election campaign, but Labour’s shadow home secretary Diane Abbott was thought to have a bout of “Brexit flu”, hence missing the first Commons vote to trigger Article 50.

11. Nigel Farage will lose his seat

2015

In a beautifully degrading snapshot beside Al Murray’s Pub Landlord little Englander caricature, the then Ukip leader Nigel Farage lost in South Thanet – failing to be elected to Parliament for the seventh time.

2017

Will there be an eighth time? With his successor Paul Nuttall apparently preferring to lock himself in a room away from journalists asking whether he’ll be running for a seat, it looks like Farage is still the party’s main hope.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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