February is the month of valentines, when love is in the air. A cold winter month, perfect for cozying up with a good book. It’s also Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (#TDVAM). With all of these in mind, it seemed like the perfect time to talk about how domestic violence is presented and romanticized in literature.
Intimate partner violence and many forms of abuse are often represented in literature. It is easy for the reader to identify toxic behavior when the abuser is the villain of the story, or at least the rival to the romantic hero. But what about when the abuser is the romantic hero? Abusive and controlling behavior is often portrayed as an expression of love and, therefore, desirable. It is “romanticized” into something positive that the reader should root for and idealize in their own relationships. In addition, the victim is often shown as loving or forgiving for sticking with or taking back an abusive partner.
This romanticizing of abuse can come from three sources. The author may use language designed to make the reader feel that controlling or violent behavior is a heartwarming illustration of love. In a 2019 issue of the Seattle University Undergraduate Research Journal, Emily Boynton points to specific examples in Stephanie Meyer’s supremely popular Twilight series: “…the emphasis on Bella’s injuries highlights their visual appeal and minimizes their harm through artistic language: in addition to [bruises] ‘blossoming’… ‘the rest of [her] was decorated with patches of blue and purple’… Meyer’s word choice depicts Bella’s bruises as beautiful embellishments to her skin, aestheticizing Edward’s abuse as enhancing Bella’s body instead of injuring it.”
Alternatively, whether or not it was intended by the author, the reader may interpret the text through that lens. In Letters from the War Zone, Andrea Dworkin posits the notion of a “bad reader”: someone who “romanticizes the sadist and reads the rapist, the abuser, the violent man, as a romantic hero.” Beliefs and experiences in an individual reader’s life can color how they construe fictional situations.
Thirdly, this understanding could come from critics, scholars, and media portrayals romanticizing abuse so frequently that it is generally accepted in literary culture and taught to students. Citing another example, Boynton contends, “By distinguishing Wuthering Heights as a romance, teachers and scholars—trusted guides and models for students—ultimately (and unintentionally) take part in the larger cultural movement that glamorizes and reinforces domestic abuse.” With so many retellings, the original intent and/or reader reaction can be superseded by modern sensibilities. In her 2015 Trinity College senior thesis, Allison Stegeland suggests the 1939 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights (from the 1847 Emily Bronte novel) is the origin of “depict[ing] Heathcliff not as an abusive figure but as a scorned, misunderstood, overly passionate Romantic hero.” When popular novels are turned into films, it often results in both a simplification of the plot and a wider audience being exposed to its romanticizing.
The Problem with a “One True Love”
“My one true love”, “my soulmate”, “true love conquers all”. These concepts seem epically romantic and passionate, adding drama and gravitas to a story. All too frequently, however, they are taken too far and veer into obsession, stalking, smothering, and other controlling behaviors, even self-harm. In an American University case study, Kyrie McCauley Bannar points out, “…literature has a tendency to romanticize behaviors such as obsessive love and suicide. Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet, even Anna Karenina and The Awakening, all exhibit female characters that sacrifice everything for love and either commit suicide or experience an untimely death as a direct result.”
In many works, “true love” is represented as justified reasoning for the controlling partner to exhibit their control, which only demonstrates the extent of their devotion. On the part of the victim, believing that “true love conquers all” is represented as the ultimate trump card, overpowering any reservations they may have or abusive behavior they may recognize in their partner. Discussing recent Young Adult (YA) adaptations of Wuthering Heights in Cleveland State University’s Engaged Scholarship, Brianna R. Zgodinski notes “When the young women [in these books] begin to question how secure they are around their partners, they ultimately decide that fidelity to their ‘soulmate’ relationship is more important than safety or autonomy…”
In a blog post lamenting the romanticizing of emotional abuse in many YA works, Aine provides another example: “In [Hush Hush by Becca Fitzgerald], the [main character], Nora, spends most of it hating Patch. She spends most of it scared of him… And yet, he’s her ‘true love’, and you know they’re going to get together. And people ignore that it’s an abusive relationship. They ignore that when Nora says ‘no’, Patch takes it as ‘yes.’” Ignoring warning signs and abusive behavior is just the beginning. The tendency to glamorize and idealize unhealthy relationships in the name of a “soulmate” connection is troublingly common.
“Fixing” a “Bad Boy”
In the same vein as “the one”, even if the victim does recognize the wrongness of their partner’s behavior, they are regularly shown to be “the only one who could change him”, “curing” a “bad boy” of his abusive ways through love. It’s an actual fairy-tale trope, Beauty and the Beast being a prime example. Originating in an 18th century French fable by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, this story is best known to modern audiences through the animated Disney movie – a film whose target audience is children. The beast is violent, a literal monster with complete power over a beautiful young woman. Yet, it is her kindness and perseverance that “changes his ways” and turns him into someone she is romantically interested in.
“It all comes down to the fantasy of being made to feel special,” argues Caroline Bohra in an article for the University of Virginia’s Iris Magazine. The mistreated parties are shown as the only ones who truly understand their partners, their real motives, their troubled past. Bohra continues, “Abusers are fantastic at making their victims feel like they are the best thing in this world, the only one who can change them, the exception to the rule.” Relating this concept to popular YA literature, she suggests, “…these were not love stories, but stories of abusive relationships. They were stories of teenage girls who were expected to fix and save the ‘bad boys’ in their lives, and whenever these girls tried to leave they were emotionally manipulated at every turn.”
In the University of Toronto’s European Journal of Cultural Studies Laura Beres expounds on this familiar storyline, “… in serial romances… and in narratives like Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Wild Orchid… just as in Beauty and the Beast, the hero is initially controlling and distant, if not blatantly abusive, and has been hurt in his past by a woman, or women, which has contributed to his distant and unloving manner. By being loved by the heroine, he can heal from his past experiences and become the perfect partner for her.” She warns of the implications of this common plot: “[For a reader] living in a violent relationship, who needs to maintain faith in something beyond her immediate situation, this story suggests that if she acts in a loving way towards her abusive partner, he might learn from her how to be loving, and might turn into a prince for her.”
Passion or Power? Protection or Control?
Sudden ardent embraces, jealous altercations with romantic rivals, always being nearby to ensure their partner’s safety. These sound like the elements of a wonderfully romantic story. All too regularly, however, these “loving” gestures cross the line into abusive behaviors such as stalking, controlling a victim’s movements or decisions, unwanted physical contact, and violence. In a 2020 article for the Highland High School Rambler, Olivia Hufford cites an example from Twilight: “Edward claims he [follows & watches Bella sleeping] because he feels ‘protective’ of her. In both instances, Bella and the author portray his actions as neither controlling or at all concerning, but romantic.” Similar acts are frequently depicted in literature as an expression of passion, an example of how much the romantic hero loves their partner. They want them to be safe, they want to display the strength of their love. It’s shown as thrilling, sensual, caring.
“But what happens when the characters in such texts – as well as their readers – confuse abuse for passion?” asks Mary Ryan in disClosure: A Journal of Social Theory, “Young women reading stories that portray controlling or over-protective men as paradigms of romance are, I propose, being desensitized to obsessive and abusive behavior.” She also uses an example from Twilight: “Under the mask of a caring statement, [Edward] emphasizes how he will not permit [Bella] to do anything that he decides is unsafe.” Ryan explains the abusive nature of seemingly lovingly concerned statements like this adding, “…he also slips a condescending message to her that she is not capable of deciding what is best for her in the matter of her safety.”
Twilight is an oft cited work in explanations of romanticized abuse because it is quite blatant to many analytical readers. It is easy to pick out examples of clear abuse. This is not always the case, however. In fact, it is often difficult to tell when a character crosses the line between passion and power, protection and control. It can be unclear whether certain behavior is abusive from either the point of view of the victim or of the reader, from inside or outside of the relationship. “Take for instance Noah and Allie from the novel ‘The Notebook’ by Nicholas Sparks,” notes high school senior Kyle Bergerson in a column for the Sag Harbor Express, “At first glance, the hardships in their relationship are always overcome by their passion and love for one another. Yet at the beginning of the story, Noah pursues Allie with a persistence that borders on harassment, especially given her repeated verbal denials. She agrees to go on a date with him only after he threatens suicide by falling from a Ferris wheel. Such manipulative and controlling behaviors constitute psychological abuse.” The novel and the popular film adaptation portray this “psychological abuse” as exceptionally romantic.
This confusion may stem from a lack of understanding and education about of what constitutes abusive behavior. In a post on her eponymous blog, Sarah Hollowell relates an exchange she had on social media about Twilight: “The person I talked to on Twitter argued that [Edward] was simply trying to protect [Bella] and anyway, he never hit her or yelled at her, and that’s what abuse is.” A simplified comprehension of abuse as solely physical or verbal is common. The standard term “domestic violence” even reinforces this misconception by qualifying abuse as violent harm. “Thinking that abuse consists only of physical violence and yelling is extremely dangerous,” Hollowell cautions, “Abuse can take on many forms and some of them are subtle. It could come… in form of neglect, coercion, or maybe continued patterns of insults and put downs.”
These less recognizable forms of abuse are much easier to ignore or romanticize. In her Iowa State University dissertation, Anne Marie Preston exemplifies this more indirect and less recognizable abuse in Jane Austen’s Emma: “Mr. Knightley takes advantage of the influence he has in Emma’s life in order to mold her into a more desirable wife for himself.” She suggests that, “Through their conversations and arguments, Mr. Knightley employs techniques to establish himself as the most important figure in Emma’s life.” And that, “Emma’s changing opinions throughout the novel demonstrate the intensity of Mr. Knightley’s influence in Emma’s life.” Subtle manipulation such as Preston proposes is commonly undetectable to both the targeted character and the reader.
It’s Okay, It’s Clearly Fantasy
Especially in the YA sphere, romanticized epic pairings are often couched in fantasy, science fiction, or supernatural genres. When romantic heroes are vampires or werewolves or faeries it is easy to dismiss their toxic behavior as a fictional representation of their kind, and thus perfectly acceptable. While most readers will comprehend that events and creatures in these tales are not and could not be real, it does not mean they are any farther removed from the emotions they evoke.
Examples of possessiveness, jealousy, and control are prominent in fantasy tales, according to copywriter and blogger Maria John. “This is present in every book in the werewolf genre, often in Young Adult Fantasy,” she writes, “where the ‘mate’ or ‘partner’ has to beef up his manliness by barking to everyone that ‘his’ girl is ‘mine and mine alone.’” As 18-year-old Amy Nikita explains in a blog post, “It’s supposedly okay if bad boys stalk the heroine, treat her like she belongs to him, and even get violent with her because he’s a bad boy – it’s what he does. It’s okay to be possessive – he just cares a lot… It’s okay if he bites her – he’s Fae, it’s what they do.” (her italics) He’s not human, therefore the reader must accept his inhuman actions. When these actions are portrayed as desirable and loving, they veer into romanticized territory.
It Was a Different Time…
Societal ideas (at least in most of the First World) about domestic violence have changed dramatically since many “classic” works of literature were written. One may argue that these classics are products of their time, ie: a time when intimate partner violence was seen as commonplace and a private affair. This is true; as times and cultural norms change, the way we interpret literary classics changes, too. “Indeed,” posits Stegeland in her analysis of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, “generations of critics and readers have tended, if anything, to romanticize these scenes of hitting and hurting, to see Rochester’s feelings for Jane as nothing more than romantic desire and passion.”
Boynton argues that this romanticizing of abuse is, in fact, the modern lens we have applied to classic works. She attributes the intense popularity of the Twilight series, which author Stephanie Meyer has affirmed is strongly influenced by Wuthering Heights, for the change in perception of that nearly 175-year-old text. “When Wuthering Heights was first published,” Boynton writes, “readers were horrified by the relentless violence in the text; however, today’s audiences frequently view these acts as romantic displays of love and passion, glamorizing abuse…Twilight and other adaptations have reframed Wuthering Heights as a romance, ultimately perpetuating the dangerous notion that abuse is desirable.”
In fact, the majority of modern Wuthering Heights adaptations change a key plot point. Whereas in the original novel Cathy rejects Heathcliff as a suitor, modern versions seem to have concluded that today’s readers want the pair to end up together. “…in order to make Heathcliff a ‘chooseable’ twenty-first century hero,” Zgodinski reasons, “the writers of these works have to romanticize his violent tendencies through the perspectives of their female protagonists.” They normalize negative behavior in order to validate this tempestuous love, which Bronte’s Cathy distinctly did not do. According to Zgodinski, “…readers are expected to see the male protagonists’ behaviors as their most attractive qualities, instead of their most pitiable.”
Beres suggests that the romanticizing of control is a response to the women’s movement and women’s increased personal and sexual freedom in society. Men no longer have the same legal power over women that they once did and women in general are far less “passive” in relationships and all aspects of their lives. Beres concludes that men need to be more aggressive in order to impress or “win” “consent to control” their female partners, who are now seen as stronger and more capable than in the past.
Implications for Teens
Most of the example texts cited here are either literary classics often taught in high school or are classified as YA books, specifically written for teenagers and young adults. Either way, these are works teens are likely to read. “In their desire to know about relationships,” Bannar reasons, “young adults accept the books as a reflection of society, and anticipate that their relationships should mirror what they have read.” She suggests this phenomenon is due to a lack of instruction on intimate partnerships: “Without education on unhealthy relationships, and without experience in relationships, youth may be internalizing unhealthy examples as what relationships are supposed to be.” Bohra advances this position, arguing that romanticizing abuse is detrimental for both parties in the relationship: “Not only is this… portrayal harmful to young girls, but young boys also absorb this toxic masculinity mindset. The narrative that girls want bad boys, and nice guys finish last is not helpful to anyone.”
This correlation between fiction and real-life expectations has an abundance of evidence. Zgodinski cites a 2013 CDC study, highlighting that not only do “women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four experience the highest rate of being physically, emotionally, and verbally abused by their partner,” but that “almost three quarters of the women in this age group who reported being a victim of abuse said they would have left their partners earlier but, like Isabella [from Twilight], they had trouble determining if what they were experiencing constituted as actual abuse.” Blogger whyasotoxic points to fan reactions online: “Each comment and blog post highlight the melodramatic, intense reactions to the [Twilight] series, proving that young adult literature’s audience for the most part is unaware of the toxicity infiltrating their favorite romances.” Bergeson relays conversations from her teen peers: “In spite of the ever-growing #MeToo movement, I hear girls in my school commonly refer to Catherine and Heathcliff, the tragically romantic couple from Emily Brontё’s ‘Wuthering Heights,’ as the kind of relationship they want for themselves.”
The style in which YA novels are often written may increase the likelihood that teens will identify with the characters. The majority employ first person narrators, which creates “narrative intimacy”. As Boynton explains, “The use of a first-person narrator minimizes the distinctions between the narrator and reader, for the first-person singular pronouns (I, me, mine) cause readers to emotionally, vicariously experience the affect of the plot alongside the narrator.” Bannar points to the “Frequently Asked Questions” section of Twilight author Stephanie Meyer’s website where she is asked what her first person narrator, Bella, looks like. “I left out a detailed description of Bella in the book,” Meyer responds, “so that the reader could more easily step into her shoes” The text is consciously designed to influence readers to see themselves in a character who consistently romanticizes controlling behavior in her partner.
Don’t Stop Reading, Start Thinking
So what should parents, teachers, friends, and society in general do about these potentially damaging concepts being churned out in popular literature? Avoiding the issue does not help fix it. Rather, there needs to be more emphasis on critical reading. “It is not bad to read books such as ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ or ‘After’,” emphasizes Kaylee Adams in APN Magazine, rather, “As readers, we need to realize that the relationships depicted in these books should not be considered normal and should not be idolized.” Boynton progresses this point, emphasizing the need for education: “Given the tools to investigate characters’ actions, narrative structure, and stereotypes, young readers will be able to identify romanticized portrayals of abuse and resist the conflation of novels such as Wuthering Heights and Twilight.”
Perhaps a combination of critical reading and healthier story arcs will decrease the chances of readers romanticizing abuse to their own detriment. In an article for Medium, Estrella Ramirez suggests, “It’s essential to show the reality of how different types of abusive, toxic relationships manifest, and what the possible outcomes are when you stay in them. But allow the character, being abused, to find the strength to leave those relationships and realize how deserving and worthy of respect and love they are.” What it boils down to, according to Ramirez, is “Don’t paint a picture of a toxic relationship and sell it as romance.” The problem is not the books. The problem is how they are presented. The problem is how they are perceived. The problem is that too many readers are romanticizing them and are being encouraged to do so.
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