[being human: the absence]
As I was planning out my next post (which should be around sometime soon), I realized that there was an article I’d written a few months ago but had forgotten to put up here. It goes very well with the theme of the next one – what it means to be human – so I thought I’d present them in loose connection. When supernatural stories extol the glories of non-human creatures, we can become muddled in what it actually means to be human.
Earlier, I saw a Facebook ad for yet another teen-novel-turned-movie. I wonder if it’s any good, I thought. What followed was a dinner’s worth of entertainment as my friends and I read its cheesy quotes out loud. I considered it harmless entertainment, the equivalent of a dime novel or an amusing television show.
However, as I continued to peruse the teen romance section, my laughter began to subside as I realized it wasn’t as harmless as a poorly-worded sentence or characters clearly designed for self-insertion. When it comes to how we look at love, these books are warping our perceptions in a disturbing and even dangerous way.
If you walk through a typical “paranormal/dark romance”, there’s a formula that applies for nearly every book. The protagonist is a “normal” girl, klutzy and a little socially awkward. All of a sudden, a dark, broody, devastatingly handsome boy swoops into her life (who may or may not stalk her or watch her sleep at this point). He seems to hate her, but secretly, he’s just fighting his profound attraction to her and has to keep it a secret for (x) reason. There’s a deep, sudden, sometimes literally electric connection, and they are plunged into a passionate romance that seems oddly serious for two teenagers. Enter a possible love triangle or vague villain, and we’ve got our story.
Am I generalizing? Sure. There are some gems in the teen section that deal with real-life issues, beautifully written histories, and a more balanced view of love. However, they are few and far between. As a real, live teenage girl myself*, this is an issue that worries me, especially when I notice that the Classics section in my local Barnes and Noble has been moved to accommodate the newest Paranormal Romances.
What are these books teaching? It isn’t “just a story” because literature carries a heavier burden than that. It pumps more fuel into the cultural engine of perception and expectation and shapes the way that we think about our world, for better or for worse.
The relationships described in these novels might seem exciting, but they definitely aren’t healthy. In reality, you will be disliked without that aloofness masking any great affection. The idea of stalking or very forcefully approaching the girl is written off as romantic in the books due to the fact that the two are “fated” to be together. In reality, though, that’s called “breaking and entering” or possibly “assault”. It’s assured us that behind the broody, mysterious stranger lies a deep secret. If you’ve ever read Wuthering Heights you know that this isn’t a new invention, and although this kind of person might seem interesting in novels, they’d probably be a dangerous partner in reality. These novels continue to perpetuate a culture in which violence against women is written off as romantic; it’s possible that young readers, internalizing these themes, will mistake abuse – whether physical or emotional – for “secret” affection.
Additionally, teen romance novels focus on a relationship centered so heavily on physical attraction that the personalities or character qualities of the characters are diminished or even destroyed. These authors, as Faulkner would say, write “not of the heart but of the glands”. Here, love is built on nothing but the lovers’ baseless passion for one another, and in reality, a relationship spun like cotton candy out of sickly-sweet infatuation quickly dissolves when faced with any sort of storm. Metaphors aside, half the marriages in our country end in divorce. When books like these are telling us that in order for love to be real, it must be electric and filled with drama, is it any wonder we end up confused in reality’s romantic endeavors?
As the two begin to say things like “you are my life”, they become so mutually obsessed with one another that their relationship is the only plot point that matters. And while romance is an important part of life, there’s more to our own stories than a relationship with our significant other – our relationships with God, our jobs, our callings, and our adventures. The kind of love depicted here might seem selfless because it’s other-obsessed, but upon closer inspection, the character is operating out of his or her own desperate craving for relationship. As humans, we tend to idolize things, and this does not exclude worshiping other people. When we derive all our meaning from another equally fallible human being and expect them to be as perfect as the characters we envision, they won’t be able to fulfill that need. They will disappoint us, fail us, and let us down. We are human.
I think this is why such a huge percentage of the love interests in teen fiction are inhuman creatures, whether that describes vampires, werewolves, angels, or demons (which presents a whole different brand of theological stickiness). Because they aren’t programmed to fail like we humans are, they can be perfect, finally fulfilling the void that we’ve felt in our lives. Young adult fiction is overflowing with supra-human partners because, as humans, we desire a personal relationship with a perfect, protective Divinity who can finally grant us the fulfillment and purpose that we seek.
If we want to know what true love really looks like, we should not look to paranormal romance; instead, we should look to this Divinity who came down and sacrificed himself for us. When we become filled with God and worship Jesus instead of our significant other, we’re freed to participate in a relationship without the pressure of perfection. For followers of Christ, we can look at a relationship as a partnership of two people striving toward the same goal – to glorify God – and reacting gently, sacrificially, and intentionally with one another.
Although it requires physical attraction (Boaz first found Ruth attractive before he fell for her, and take a look at Song of Songs) romantic love doesn’t center on that, but looks at the heart – the “unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). It isn’t other-obsessed but other-serving. It doesn’t need to be forceful or dramatic because there is freedom and grace. Take a new look at the oft-parroted 1 Corinthians 13. Love may not always be dreadfully exciting, like when your spouse leaves hair in the shower drain or forgets to flush the toilet. But truly caring for someone means seeing them for who they are, flaws and all, and loving them in spite of it. That is, after all, what our God does for us.
Read this: Jane Austen. The subtlety of her love stories is dazzlingly refreshing (and perhaps an acquired taste). Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey are my favorites. Ask me about it!
John Donne. Is Austen too chaste for you? Donne (the cad!) strikes a glorious balance between body and soul with his witty, sacred, and profound poetry. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/donnebib.htm (Take a special look at “The Extasie”, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, and “Holy Sonnet XIV”.
*I was 19 when I originally wrote this! I’ve just turned 20 a few weeks ago.