Since Twilight and The Hunger Games, love triangles have been all the rage in young adult literature, and readers are sick of them. Except for the readers who love them, and the readers who don’t care either way. I’m saying there are strong feelings about love triangles in YA lit, except in readers who don’t have strong feelings on the matter.
This week writer S.E. Sinkhorn wrote a thought-provoking post contending that love triangles are empowering and those who roll their eyes at these stories are doing so for sexist reasons. Too often that second point is true. Certain readers say things like, “Ugh, Protagonist is such an annoying whore! Why doesn’t she just pick one already? Bitches be fickle.” Other readers hate not only love triangles but all love stories, because romance is unimportant girl stuff, as opposed to important boy stuff like football and punching.
So yeah, some readers have sexist points of view about literary romances and love triangles. But I also think it’s wishful thinking to suggest love triangles are inherently feminist or empowering. Just because a heroine gets to make a choice in a story, it doesn’t mean the story is pro-choice and therefore feminist.
You Must Choose!
I think the issue is that we expect all stories about a young female character to end with the heroine in a stable heterosexual monogamous relationship, and in many stories female leads have no choice in whom they end up with. They end up with the male lead, because that’s the way these things go. In comparison, a love triangle seems exceptionally feminist. Now the heroine has some power over the conclusion of her story. She can end up with Edward or Jacob, Peeta or Gale, Stefan or Damon. She is a sexually-empowered woman in control of her romantic destiny.
Doesn’t it follow, then, that she would be even more empowered if she had even more choices? How about instead of a love triangle we start writing harem stories? I’m referring to the anime subgenre of harem anime, in which a young everyguy somehow has three or more beautiful women wanting to become his girlfriend. The story ends when he finally chooses his girl: the hothead, the domestic, the shy one, the robotic one, the ditz, the “slut”…
I always thought this genre was silly wish fulfillment, but maybe if we switched the genders it would somehow become empowering. Like how The Bachelorette is empowering. I know every time I watch The Bachelorette I feel more empowered. Equal pay? Control over my reproduction? Nah. Give me a choice of 20 pieces of man meat and I am good.
In all seriousness, there is a realistic way to give heroines choice when it comes to men: have them date several people over the course of their trilogies. That’s how things sometimes work in the real world. It’s not always, “Meet a guy; marry him” or “Meet two guys; marry one of them.” Sometimes it’s, “Meet a bunch of guys, date one, break up with him, have a friends-with-benefits situation with another guy, meet a third guy, have an open relationship with him, find out it doesn’t work for you, go on okcupid and date five more guys, and then maybe get married.” Maybe that’s not as romantic as finding your one true love on page 2 of your life story… or maybe it is.
Obvious problem with this solution: If you give the heroine five choices, there will be at least five different kinds of shippers in your audience, and if she ends the series with Guy A, the fans of Guys B, C, D, and E will freak out, which means they might not buy your next book. I have no solution to this problem, unfortunately.
There’s another kind of romantic choice a heroine can have: she can decide to own the fact that she doesn’t want a guy at all; she wants the girl. Consider Malinda Lo’s Ash, where her version of Cinderella (quite wonderfully) passes up any princes for a huntress. Or what about a heroine who exercises her choice by dumping both guys in the triangle and going home to masturbate? (Sorry, I’ve been watching too much Adventure Time.) Fans might revolt, but this does happen in real life sometimes. Just because two guys come after you, it doesn’t mean you want to date either of them. The love triangle model all but forces women in this situation to choose one of the two no matter what, which in my opinion is a terrible lesson to give to teenagers.
Nice Guy vs. Bad Boy
I’m sure I’d like the “choice between two guys = empowering” construction better if YA fiction had more variety in the kinds of guys the heroines get to choose between. Unfortunately many love triangles are paint-by-numbers, pitting a stereotypical bad boy against a stereotypical “nice guy.” That gives me pause. Any love story that seems like an example in a book for pick up artists might be problematic from a feminist perspective.
Consider the Bad Boy of YA lit. He’s mysterious. He’s ripped. He’s humorless—no, strike that. Emotionless. He has few ties—no real friends, likely no family. He’s violent. He might have even been sent to kill our heroine. But once he’s met her in person, he knows she is meant for him. It is insta-love and nothing, no one, will get in its way. And anything that does will be dealt with.
Yeah, to me, this guy sounds like an abuser. Oh, sure, he’s not hitting the heroine yet, but look at that list. Emotionally-stunted, violent, possessive. Oh, boy, do I ever want to date him!
Luckily we have another option: the Nice Guy. He has emotions. One emotion. He’s compassionate. To the heroine. He listens to her. He sacrifices himself for her, because she is the only thing that matters. Like the Bad Boy, he probably has no real friends. Nice Guy understands the heroine without her having to say anything. She doesn’t need to. He knows her. How does he know her? As I mentioned in this post, he’s probably stalked her once or twice, but he swears! It was only so he could protect her! He deserves the heroine because he idolizes her. And at least he’s not abusive like that other guy. Well, not until our heroine falls off her pedestal. But that won’t happen until after the book is over, so readers won’t have to see the fallout.
These are our choices. In this love triangle the heroine gets to choose between the guy who’s throwing up red flags for abuse and the other guy who’s throwing up different red flags for abuse.
I’m over-exaggerating, I admit, but I’m not far off from reality. This story isn’t fair to guys, either. If you’ve read my book and futzed around with my female character flowchart, you’ll notice I’m not a huge fan of treating entire genders as symbols. In my mind, it’s just as unfair to split the entire male gender into Nice Guy/Bad Boy (or idealism/cynicism) as it is to split all women into Madonna/Whore (which is another way of saying Nice Gal/Bad Girl).
So what is to be done?
My hope is that instead of deriding love triangles as annoying or praising love triangles as empowering, we continue criticizing books with problematic love stories and praising those that do romance right. There are many YA love interests out there with actual personalities who are neither abusers nor stalkers. They communicate. They are not emotionless assassins. They have flaws, but not scary flaws like “might murder you.” I’m talking about flaws like “sometimes awkward” or “sometimes too proud.” They have lives outside of the heroine. They love her, but not so much you’d fear they’d kill someone or themselves if they broke up. A few even have a sense of humor and friends, like humans do!
And let us praise the great female protagonists of YA who do take control over their love lives. That doesn’t only mean making one simple choice between two guys (one of whom is usually presented as the lesser option) but by looking at a whole range of people, as well as herself.
[What do you think about love triangles? Sound off below in the comments!]
The love triangle thing is pretty rampant in YA fiction, and I think in film, too- a number of the cutsie Disney movies I sometimes watch for guilty pleasure (cough…) involve love triangles. (And if there isn’t a love triangle, it’s a love story- I’d love to see more about, I dunno, friendship or winning a contest without getting a dude in the end on top of it, etc.) And I agree, the message being sent to young girls/women is that they aren’t whole without a guy.
About Twilight and The Hunger Games. I actually thought those endings were both even more explicitly dis-empowering. Sure, the author made the decision of which dude the leading gal would end up with (which could, indeed, result in ire directed at them from fans), but in both series, there were circumstances written into the stories that eliminated the dude she didn’t end up with from being a viable candidate in the first place. In other words, the decision (within the series) was ultimately made for her- going with the opposite guy wouldn’t have worked out in either case, had all other story details been retained. Sure, there was more active decision-making on Bella’s part, but ultimately, Other Dude wasn’t even an option because of what ended up occurring. Katniss just kind of went with one because she didn’t have much else to do.
This is actually an interesting contrast between the two “heroines,” too- Katniss is (supposedly) a very active, strong-willed young woman, etc., and Bella is (so it goes) a total ninny. But at least when it comes to the love stuff, Katniss was very much just going through the motions and basically doing what was most convenient the majority of the time, not necessarily what she truly wanted (and I’m sorry, even though it was written in first-person, I couldn’t figure Katniss out at all- but I’ve ranted about those books elsewhere on this site), while Bella is consistently “choosing” Edward throughout the series, even though he keeps rejecting her, and even though it’s “dangerous” and yadda yadda.
But anyhoo, point: Those two exceptionally popular series both choose the guy for the gal, pacifying them and making them even less autonomous or empowered than other stories where the gal at least makes an active decision in the end.
“Katniss was very much just going through the motions and basically doing what was most convenient the majority of the time, not necessarily what she truly wanted”
I kinda got the idea that that was the point. In the first book, I got the distinct impression that Katniss didn’t really care about either Gale or Peeta, at least romantically. The whole romance angle in the first book was simply a survival strategy to appeal to sponsors during the Games. Well, ok, there were times where it was hinted at that she had bigger feelings for Peeta and Gale, but that’s all they were, hints.
In the second book, Katniss just wants to be left alone as a victor, and only continues to play up the romance with Peeta to look like a non-threat to the powers that be.
The third book (which IMHO is the weakest in the trilogy) is the one that really tries hard to push a real romantic love-triangle, with Katniss stressing out at the bottom of a bunker, worrying about brainwashed Peeta and rebel Gale (guh…)
If anything, the characters who are hopeless romantics are the guys. Peeta has a crush on her, he suggests the suicide pact (I think), and he’s the one who says Katniss is pregnant in the second book. Everything Gale does is partly showing off for Katniss to get her interest.
I thought it was kind of refreshing for a character in a YA novel to focus on things like survival, injustice, and other life-threatening issues instead of high school-level romantic intrigue. That is, until the third book…
Heh, I agree, the third book is the weakest. I think that’s why she ends up “needing” to “choose” between the two guys and why the awkward romance stuff feels so forced and, well, awkward, in that one- two books without explicit romantic conundrums in Katniss’s head, and in YA novels? Perish the thought! But still, when she “chose,” she didn’t really choose anyone- she shrugged, said, “Meh,” and ended up with the one it was easier to be with, rather than even seriously contemplating the other option (I forgot how that convo went, but it was basically the guy saying, “So that’s it?” and her saying, “Yup,” and not much more). So even still, as a reader, I never felt like I knew what Katniss really wanted versus what she ended up doing. She just did things.
I actually think that, Tim Swann touches on briefly below (“that whole Panem thing”) – Katniss is a powerful character to me precisely in how she is disempowered by the society of Panem. Her motivation throughout is one of trying and trying and trying to actually be allowed to make choices, to be independent – but she ends up with Peeta because she’s been so ground down by the fact that by the end of the story, literally eveyone else sees her as a symbol or a tool and not as a person. An independent, decision-making Katniss is the one thing that no one with power wants. It’s a deeply cynical and bitter story that posits a situation where society has been so deeply corrupted that justice is literally impossible. I absolutely understand why this would bother someone of a more idealistic inclination, and I suspect this plays as much of a role in people’s relative dislike of Mockingjay as the romance stuff.
Hm… I’m interpreting this as you saying you think the character is powerful symbolically in what her lack of agency represents? If that’s the case, what’s empowering about Katniss is her symbolic significance, not her as an individual. I understand the power of symbolism, but being a symbol doesn’t make a character an active agent in their own story- if anything, viewing them as a symbol removes agency. And if that is indeed the case, Katniss herself isn’t what’s empowered, but what what people think of her. So she’s thus a symbol for readers, just as much as the other revolutionaries in the books.
Gab – this is a good point – I think that all of the characters are powerless, barring possibly Snow and Coin, two sides of the same snow.
Peeta gets brainwashed, and has already been looking for at most a good death, Gale can only fight fire with fire (just like Coin) and Katniss will do anything to survive but has no idea how to live. Romance as an entire narrative is imposed on them, but like practically all the events that’s what it is, an imposition on humans with very little agency. That’s the way I see it, and why I see the whole trilogy as so moving.
Good point- all the “good” characters are being acted upon, sometimes by each other, sometimes by the Capitol.
Everything just seems to be historical inevitability. I think the books are genuinely Marxist in the Karl Marx original sense, about the depowering of the Proletariat and the revolution coming unavoidably.
I too had a very distinct Marxist reading of the Hunger Games. I mean once you see it you can’t really unsee it, the Marxist influence is everywhere. I see The Hunger Games trilogy as kind of a post-Marxist fable. And that might attribute to the kind symbolic significance of Katniss and its importance to the story (characters in fables are only important as symbols that serve the moral of the story) and also to the seemingly heavy handed, didactic nature of the last book, which I know from reading reviews was the biggest issue people had with it. When you read it as a fable, it makes sense why everything turned out the way it did, and I think I even read the author somewhere talking about how she had to bring theme front and center for that last book. I think it is a fable, masquerading as YA fiction, and the confusion there (warranted, due to the other two books being primarily plot centered) between exactly what people were reading. When you look at the story as a fable on the nature and consequences of the class struggle and the war that inevitably results from it (historical materialism) as well as the implications that materialism has on the individual (determinism) then all her seemingly bad narrative decisions start to make sense.
Indeed, I think I tried to suggest on Psycomedia that at the end of the last movie, Katniss/J-Law will turn to camera and say “The Capitol is the 1%” and then the teens. WILL. RISE.
Twilight has so many problems beyond the love triangle that it’s hard for me to get too angry at that one particular plot detail. In The Hunger Games, I found myself pretty frustrated at the love subplot, for a lot of the reasons you mentioned. Katniss isn’t really empowered by the “choice” in front of her; two boys are being awkwardly jammed in her face, over and over again, and she has the dubious luxury of selecting one of them to be her life partner. I never feel that she has the opportunity to reject the choice altogether. If anything, she rejects one or the other’s advances, *only to be ignored*. That doesn’t feel like empowerment. That feels like someone else deciding that her opinion is meaningless.
Some of these dynamics can be excused by the fact that the characters are young adults, and handle relationships in a relatively childish manner. On the other hand, if the authors get to create fantasized ideal versions of their characters’ bravery and cleverness, why not throw some role-model-y relationship behavior in too?
Speaking of reverse harems, Ouran High School Host Club is awesome in that the girl doesn’t end up choosing a guy (at least she doesn’t in the anime) and remains friends with all of them.
I’ve had some interesting discussions with friends about this one. The ultimate message, one can say, is pretty progressive, in that when the girls the main character had been out with throughout the series all find out said character was, in fact, a girl as well, there’s still an implicit resolution that all those girls don’t care and still like the main character in the same way, meaning at least slightly romantically/ non-platonicaly. Which is to say, the message could be interpreted as, “Today, gender shouldn’t matter in relationships, but instead compatibility, how you make each other feel,” etc.
But this gets complicated by the fact that the entire basis for all these relationships is a lie- that the main character is a straight dude, and all these girls sought alone time with this “male” because they were lonely for heterosexual companionship with at least romantic undertones, if not flat-out overtones. So does that actually mean gender doesn’t matter once feelings are established? Or that the main character was so awesome, she herself made gender not matter to all the girls she had “dated” (or however you put it- I forget what they call it on the show… “hosted” maybe?)?
I do agree, though, it’s a pretty neat flip of the harem motif, especially given the gender issues already within the premise and its resolution.
The manga goes on for much longer (although time doesn’t really pass, something remarked on by the 4th wall breaking characters) and Haruhi eventually does choose, but the ending is pretty awesome in a female empowerment sense. Don’t want to be too specific incase you read the books, but she decides what she’s going to do and her boyfriend decides to follow her across the world and she makes him get a separate apartment next door.
I’ve heard the comparison made before between romantic literature and pornography. The idea is, essentially, both genres present an unrealistic but highly desirable romantic situation designed to create a feeling of catharsis in the target audience. The majority of porn is targeted toward straight men, and creates situations intended toward male sexual arousal, whereas the majority of romantic literature is targeted toward straight women, and creates situations intended toward female emotional satisfaction and catharsis.
Using that model, I’ve always seen these love triangle stories as being almost fetishistic in a way. Much in the same way that a person can be sexually aroused by S&M without being OK with domestic abuse, or a person can be into rape role-play without being into actual rape, I feel like there is a not insignificant female demographic that likes to be flattered, and finds something appealing in the idea of a man (or two competing men) who finds her perfect, practically worships her, would do anything for her, obsesses over her, etc., but recognizes the same red flags that Shana pointed out in the article. I certainly can’t speak for all women, but I believe that many fans of these sorts of romantic triangles see the archetypes that Shana presented as being a harmless fictional portrayal of that sort of narcissistic fantasy because it’s not a real-life obsession and the rules of the world prevent the male protagonist from being an abuser.
Now, granted, there’s a difference between an adult woman reading the books who is aware that real life men don’t behave like the men in these books vs. a YA reader who may see these stories as a model, but that’s a whole other can of worms.
I guess I must have overthought The Hunger Games, because I’ve never believed that it included a real love triangle. It always seemed to me that the two boys represented the different aspects of Katniss’ life – blood versus bread, if you will – and she didn’t have to choose between them, she developed her own selfhood and it became inevitable that she ended up with the better aspect of her life – hope, nurturance, peace – as represented by Peeta. This was actually made fairly overt a few times, for example with the whole dandelion bit. We saw with Gale that violent rebellion, anger, and seeing others in terms of good/evil only led to further destruction.
I also felt that it was clear through most of the series that Katniss was an unreliable narrator and she obviously loved Peeta but couldn’t admit it to herself. The other characters could see it. I certainly could see it – the way she broke down after Peeta was captured, for instance. She never showed any genuine romantic interest in Gale, and he wasn’t in any way a main character in the story. So if this was intended to be a regular love triangle, it was badly written. The two boys may have believed they were vying for Katniss’ hand – but within their characterisation that makes sense. I choose to hope that Collins was actually working on a thematic level with these characters.
Don’t get me started on Twilight though. Or all the other ridiculous love triangles out there. I should point out mind you that they are hardly a new thing. Women’s literature is full of them – Wuthering Heights, Sense and Sensibility – even some fairy tales contain love triangles. I think its because (when done properly and really understood by a masterful writer) they work so well on the thematic level to personify the conflict within the heroine or her life.
Great article! I love your writing, Shana. I just happened to read this after watching some of Anita Sarkeesian’s new web series on women and videogames. And while what she has to say is interesting and exhaustively researched, it’s kinda dry and academic. She could use a little of the humor you always bring to the table.
I think the world would be a better place if there were more stories for girls where they didn’t need to find their true love before they graduated from high school, and stories for boys where they don’t need to kill anything.
What does the “choice between two guys = empowerment (or not)” say about our current political system?
Ha! And it’s true that one of the two guys is always the lesser option.
I’m writing a novel at the minute which although it isn’t YA is inevitably taking a lot from the fact that I’ve recently at last read the Hunger Games. What I’ve strived to achieve between the main young female and male protagonists is a sort of romantic/obsessive/platonic/non-sexual connection, that they want to sort of adventure together indefinitely, which is about viewing each other as heroic rather than sexy, and definitely doesn’t involve settling down. No idea if it works, of course. But I certainly felt Katniss follows a less patently romantic path, because her emotions have been messed up by the whole Panem thing.
Also, may I add one more thing? Kay, gonna do it.
One idea I’ve had bobbing around in my brain for a while is the wish fulfillment aspect of some YA fiction. You know, sort of like how Twilight gets called “bad fanfic” sometimes? The idea is that the books with love triangles are responding/ calling out things girls are conditioned to believe that go beyond the the “need a man” thing- it fits in there, sure. But they need a man, and all the men want them. So that’s why the two choices are often so vastly different. The difference represents the full spectrum of potential partners. Then when the character is as bland as a Bella, the reader can insert herself into that role and imagine herself being so desirable that all men want her, such as those two polar opposite ones in the book. This makes the message that she needs a man in the first place easier to swallow. I’m not saying the books condition readers to believe they’re desirable, though, no- but that by hitting on the desire to be desired girls get elsewhere (paradigms dictating that a girl’s worth is dependent upon what others think of her and that she’s an object to be admired rather than a person to be respected), authors are then able to send the message about the need for a man, which in turn reinforces that desire to be desired.
Sorry I’m late to this discussion, but it just occurred to me:
I am shocked that Charlie in NBC’s “Revolution” has not been given a love triangle storyline yet. It would be totally in line with the lazy, clichéd, exploitative writing that has come to define the series, and the fact that Charlie has been something of a Katniss ripoff from the beginning.
Why do I watch this show, you ask? Good question, one that I hope to answer in an OTI post soon…
Why do you watch the show? I assume the answer is Giancarlo Esposito, unless he was killed off. But wait, wait, don’t tell me if he was! I haven’t seen the most recent episodes of Revolution and have absolutely no interest in finding out what happened.
Let me just say that Giancarlo Esposito is so much better of an actor than everyone else on that show that I kind of feel embarrassed for everyone that’s not him.
Well, they kind of decided to go with love triangles for the adult characters instead.