In evaluating the exploding teen paranormal romance genre, a lot of adults are making the mistake of writing it off as garbage, and believing that anyone who reads it isn’t educated or isn’t seriously interested in books or reading. The assumption is that all books in the genre are identical, that it represents a cookie-cutter form of fiction without any originality or intrigue, and thus it can be neatly written off—much like teens themselves, who are told to stand in the corner and be quiet until they’re grownups on a regular basis. Yet, there’s a lot going on with this genre that’s worth evaluating and discussing seriously, which requires actually reading it, engaging with it, and above all, interacting with readers who like it to find out what’s drawing them and how they are responding to it.
I’m not one to throw out any genre as entirely useless, but I do have worries about teen paranormal romance (and romance in general) and a lot of my worries overlap with my concerns about adult romance, particularly the rapey nature of so many texts, which I think has the potential to be really damaging for readers, but especially to teens, particularly girls. When you have limited life experience, the texts you read can carry a disproportionate weight, and if the model of romance you tend to see most often is deeply rapey, that sets a dangerous precedent.
Does that mean all paranormal romance is rapey? Absolutely not. Far from it. But there are definitely some outstanding entries in the genre, of which the Twilight Saga is perhaps the most obvious. This is a series where the central romance, and the thing readers are supposed to swoon over, revolves around a girl who is persistently stalked and then fought over by two supernatural creatures. Both force themselves on her, and she ends up marrying one of them. The model of romance here is that boys stalk you because they really, really like you, and that they may push your physical boundaries, but it’s okay because this is what true love looks like.
And this model is not uncommon in a certain strain of teen romance, paranormal and otherwise, just as it is in adult romance. The heroine seems incomplete until a boy (and these stories are always heterosexual) starts stalking her, persistently following her, refusing to take no for an answer. He keeps pressing her, and pushes her into increasingly vulnerable situations. He overrides her resistance until eventually, finally, she ‘gives in’ and discovers true love in his arms. Ta-da and happily ever after.
As adults reading romance, we can view these texts critically. I know a lot of adult romance fans who read a variety of romance including more rapey titles and engage with the content, talk about their concerns, explore it. Some teens may have a harder time navigating that content in a healthy way, though they are far from incapable of being critical of it. And here’s where the interesting ground lies, because I see some people claiming that paranormal romance is inherently bad and threatening for teens because of the rapey content in some books, but that really deprives teens of autonomy and is incredibly disrespectful, since it’s grounded in the assumption that they can’t be critical readers and thinkers.
Like adult romance readers, teens can be selective about what they want to read and they can engage with the content in a variety of ways. And some teens definitely are vulnerable, and these books can create a dangerous model of what love and romance looks like, and how to behave with a love interest. For them, hearing that you should be okay with having your boundaries pushed, that you should even find it thrilling when people don’t listen to you when you say no or slow down, is very dangerous. For girls who haven’t had any healthy relationships reading texts like these, the prevalence of rapey content is worrying because they don’t have a lot to compare it to and may in fact find that it reinforces their attitudes about existing relationships; their boyfriends are controlling and possessive because they love them, say, not because they’re abusive.
Other teens are not, though, and they read these books with a critical eye just like adults do. Maybe they find them entertaining. Maybe they enjoy picking them apart for fun. Maybe they spend the books gnashing their teeth at the heroines or wondering what they’d do in the same situation; not everyone reads the Twilight Saga and thinks Edward is all that. Some people read it and want Bella to nail him in the nads until he stops being a total creeper. Other people like comparing and contrasting it with more emotionally complex and healthy relationships where characters have boundaries and they are respected.
My worry with the rise of paranormal romance is not with the genre itself, but with some writing within it, and with how it’s received by readers. People wanting to ban or restrict it miss the point. Teens are going to read, and their reading will affect their thinking on the world. You have a choice between having them read in a vacuum without any input, and creating an environment where you can talk about what they’re reading. My father, for example, used to talk about Twilight with his high school students when he taught AP English, because that’s what they were reading, and that’s where he could meet them in the middle. In that environment where critical conversations could happen, students started chiming in with all kinds of perspectives and thoughts, and blew the books and perceptions of some readers wide open.
Rather than suppressing access to fiction we should be throwing the gates open, and offering a guiding hand along the way.