let's get the seven lines. (bookshop ) wrote,

Bad Romance (or, YA & Rape Culture)

Once in a while every girl has to do something she knows is bad for her, even though she knows it's stupid and she'll probably regret it later. Last night I started reading the bestselling YA fantasy Hush, Hush, which friends and the internet have repeatedly assured me that I would hate. I had no intention of reading it until I randomly picked it up and kept reading. To be honest, I kinda enjoyed it, the way I enjoy movies about super-intelligent sharks who want to take over the world, or episodes of Stargate: Atlantis. The way I enjoyed Twilight until I threw it across the room.

That said, let's face it, it sucks.

Hush, Hush is the story of a Bad Romance: quite literally, the heroine is caught in a bad romance with a stalker who shows up, will not leave her alone, refuses to leave her life, and tries to kill her. All of this is made acceptable by the fact that he's hot.

I. Actual list of stuff that happens in book, which will probably piss you off. (Warning: may be triggering to victims of sexual assault, harassment, or abuse.)

Hush, Hush is readable, even though it does twenty things a minute that are hallmarks of bad YA fiction, including but not limited to: telling us about the characters' magnetic personalities without actually having them do anything magnetic, or anything at all; hideous amounts of telling-not-showing in general, like when a character is introduced to us as "having a charming and outgoing personality" when he's literally only just shown up and uttered the charming, outgoing words, "hey, i'm elliot"; having the sluttily dressed head cheerleader be predictably slutty and awful; having the overweight best friend/sidekick be predictably dieting and predictably cheating on her diet. There's also a thrilling moment where a biology teacher tells his entire class that sexual attraction is all about producing children. Wow, really, thank you so much, Becca Fitzpatrick, for the lovely implications there. To pharaphrase Zanzando, GAY PEOPLE EXIST, THEY FUCKING EXIST, except not in your YA novel apparently.

Hush, Hush also feels so much like Twilight - events unfold not just in the same order as Twilight but with exactly the same pacing, and the events themselves are... exactly the same, you see where I'm going with this -- that it's impossible not to compare the two of them. And also, of course, impossible not to compare Hush, Hush's problematic issues with Twilight's problematic issues. Since the entire world has heard about how Twilight is a model of anti-feminist Fail, Hush, Hush has decided to hang a lampshade on its own Fail: since its plot involves a heavy amount of Twilight-level destiny-disguised-as-stalking, the author has decided to a) call herself out for stalking before anyone else does and b) turn the whole stalking thing into a recurring joke whereby characters repeatedly call out the guy who's stalking, whereupon everyone eyerolls at the notion that any actual stalking is occurring--aka Hipster sexism.

The problem with this is obviously that there is actual stalking occurring, and that the main character is terrified by it. Unlike Bella, who just sort of dreamily accepts that a guy in her class is breaking into her house at night to watch her sleep, Nora, the POV character in Hush, Hush, spends the first third of the book trying to get the fuck away from the dark brooding guy. She goes to her biology teacher, not once, but three times, to tell him explicitly, "I don't feel comfortable sitting beside this guy, he's harassing me, please let me move." He tells her each time that she's overreacting.

The biology teacher also allows the brooding guy to harass the girl openly, in class, in front of other students, in a scene where her mortification and embarrassment are used as examples of how to tell when a girl is turned on, which for some reason is part of the curriculum in Maine's public school system. Yes, you heard this right. There's a scene where a teacher allows a girl to be sexually harassed in public as part of her education.

After the harassing-in-class, Nora brings the teacher a copy of the school code and points out to him that he's ignoring her basic right not to be stalked in his class. His response? "Let's just give it a few more weeks. Oh, and I think you should spend more time with that guy who's stalking you, so why don't you tutor him? :D"

In desperation, she asks the guy who's stalking her if maybe he can use his powers of persuasion to get their teacher to stop seating them next to each other. His response is predictably, "but why would I want to do that?" at which point she all but gives up. Which brings me to my point.

(I'll pause to let you get a handle on your feminist rage. )


II. Hush, Hush & rape culture:

Hush, Hush repeatedly and systematically reinforces rape culture, not just blatantly through scenes like the one mentioned above, but through all the ways Nora behaves early on as she's dealing with the stalking. She is both a victim of rape culture and a perpetuation of it.

"Another post about rape" is the best outline I've ever read about how women are taught from childhood on to behave in ways that perpetuate rape culture. Since reading it I've become more aware of the ways in which, when a man is making me uncomfortable, I traditionally opt for polite silence instead of setting a clear and firm boundary (which I've also noticed the men around me have no problems setting with women who make *them* feel uncomfortable). How whenever I try to set clear and firm boundaries in social settings, I'm laughed off or dismissed, or my concerns are treated as joke fodder and added to a list of things I can be teased about. This is real; this is happening, to me and countless other women like me - when I mentioned the "biology teacher makes girl spend *more* time with the guy who's stalking her" thing last night on twitter, one of my friends responded sadly that she knew someone that exact situation had happened to in real life.

So no, not so much joking here.

Throughout Hush, Hush, Nora is a textbook case of the behavior Fugitivus describes:
If women are raised being told by parents, teachers, media, peers, and all surrounding social strata that:

* it is not okay to set solid and distinct boundaries and reinforce them immediately and dramatically when crossed (“mean bitch”)
* it is not okay to appear distraught or emotional (“crazy bitch”)
* it is not okay to make personal decisions that the adults or other peers in your life do not agree with, and it is not okay to refuse to explain those decisions to others (“stuck-up bitch”)
* it is not okay to refuse to agree with somebody, over and over and over again (“angry bitch”)
* it is not okay to have (or express) conflicted, fluid, or experimental feelings about yourself, your body, your sexuality, your desires, and your needs (“bitch got daddy issues”)
* it is not okay to use your physical strength (if you have it) to set physical boundaries (“dyke bitch”)
* it is not okay to raise your voice (“shrill bitch”)
* it is not okay to completely and utterly shut down somebody who obviously likes you (“mean dyke/frigid bitch”)

If we teach women that there are only certain ways they may acceptably behave, we should not be surprised when they behave in those ways. And we should not be surprised when they behave these ways during attempted or completed rapes.


Hush, Hush is a textbook reinforcement of nearly all of these messages. Early on there's a scene where Nora, who's been trying to avoid her stalker, sees him in the library. Her first instinct is to leave immediately, but she doesn't: "I realized that if we left now, we'd probably meet him at the exit doors. And then I would be expected to say something to him." In another scene, she deflects a guy's interest in her by lying about needing to leave, but, "in a remote way my rudeness bothered me, especially since (the guy) hadn't done anything to deserve it."

    And then, all of a sudden, when women are raped, all these natural and invisible social interactions become evidence that the woman wasn’t truly raped. Because she didn’t fight back, or yell loudly, or run, or kick, or punch. She let him into her room when it was obvious what he wanted. She flirted with him, she kissed him. She stopped saying no, after a while.

When Nora has to sit through another class next to her stalker, she thinks, "Maybe if I ignored him, he'd eventually give up initiating conversation." Which of course is exactly the opposite of what happens. Later on, when he asks her to go with him to a party, her initial shutdown of him ("if it's a party you're interested in, i wouldn't be") is made confusing by her attempts to be polite to him ("I don't mean to seem rude." "Sure you do"), until it becomes clear that this story's idea of "chemistry" between two characters translates to her stalker wearing down our heroine's resistance despite her repeatedly saying no.

Coupled with her passiveness is the complete lack of agency she has, with every guy around her directing her actions, from her stalker to the bio coach who enables his harassment, to the guy-who's-not-her-stalker: "besides, going out with Elliot seemed like a good way to escape my uncomfortable attraction to Patch." No, honey, no. READING A BOOK OR TAKING A BIKE RIDE OR GETTING INTO HARVARD OR FILING A RESTRAINING ORDER, THOSE ARE GOOD WAYS TO ESCAPE YOUR ATTRACTION TO THE GUY TRYING TO KILL YOU.

    The way men and women interact on a daily basis is the way they interact when rape occurs. The social dynamics we see at play between men and women are the same social dynamics that cause men to feel rape is okay, and women to feel they have no right to object. And if you accept those social interactions as normal and appropriate in your day to day life, there is absolutely no reason you should be shocked that rape occurs without screaming, without fighting, without bruising, without provocation, and without prosecution.

And this is exactly what happens to Nora: she continues to display passive non-resistance even when her life is actually in danger. She is attacked repeatedly by a man in a black ski mask, and even though someone is very obviously trying to kill her, after the first attack she tells no one. Even though she strongly suspects that her stalker might be behind the first attack, she continues to talk to him, to be polite, to be friendly to him.

"I don't like sitting beside you," she says at one point. "I don't like being your partner. I don't like your condescending smile. I don't like you."

"I'm glad Coach put us together," is his response.

III. You and me could write a bad romance.

Many, many, many reviewers have commented about the fact that they find the hero creepy, that they failed to see what redeeming characteristics he had to begin with, that the relationship between the main characters is "psychotic." But I have yet to see anyone point out that this is not necessarily a flaw of bad writing.

It's easy to single out Hush, Hush because it's one of the worst examples, and it's also a runaway bestseller, which makes it, like Twilight, an easy target for hate. But it's not alone. In another one of last year's bestsellers, Nina Malkin's Swoon, the only consequence for a boy who's repeatedly taken over and possessed the mind and body of a teenage girl without her knowledge for weeks is that when the possession is over and he's moved on to another host body, the girl he's just possessed decides he's hot and sleeps with him. Her cousin, our heroine, also has no problems with him mind-raping her cousin even though she watched it happen (and told no one), so she sleeps with him, too. The moral? Raping girls makes them want you more *and* gets you EXTRA sex!

In the first book of Claudia Gray's bestselling Evernight series, there's a scene where a girl has been attacked by a dangerous boy attending her boarding school. She is nearly killed and afterwards is clearly terrified. Since no one witnessed the attack, the boy goes unpunished, and the girl is immediately brought back to continue going to school with him (whereupon he continues to stalk, harass, terrify, and attempt to kill her). Our heroine, who witnessed the aftermath of the attack, ponders these events over lunch the next day, but decides that her friend is possibly confused or exaggerating the nature of the attack, and that her attacker is "probably not that bad." The moral? If at first you don't succeed in raping your victim, try, try again, because no one's going to stop you! eta: in the interest of fairness, here's a different take on this sequence and Evernight as a whole.

One thing I love about the bestselling Vampire Academy series is that Rose doesn't take shit from anyone. But repeatedly throughout the books she lets guys continue to show interest in her because she is too polite to let them down, and in some cases she appears to be playing coy with guys she's clearly disinterested in and distrustful of, or flirting with them in order to get them to do something for her. Each of these examples are all off the top of my head, but we all have read scores of books with heroines who do this -- keep the boy at arm's length while deflecting their potential interest with cool humor and disinterest. The disinterest, of course, can be feigned or real, but the expression is the same each and every time.

The complication is that so often, in Twilight, Swoon, Hush, Hush, Vampire Academy, and countless romances dating back to Pride & Prejuidice and Pamela, we're asked to accept that the outward facade of "I dislike you immensely" masks a subtle underlying attraction. Certainly Pamela has to go to extreme lengths to get her would-be rapist to accept that she does not want to be raped, no, really, no, please no. Darcy is so led astray by Lizzie's attempts to be polite to him in all of their mutual social interactions that he assumes she's welcoming his attentions, when really she would welcome a chance to serve him a restraining order on behalf of everyone she knows. And of course Pamela was an attempt to show the proper way for a young lady to maintain her respectability and the boundaries of politeness while still struggling to maintain her virtue (whereupon she's rewarded by getting to marry her rapist!); while Pride & Prejudice is the model for 200 years of love-hate relationships, and it's generally argued that Lizzy is attracted to Darcy the entire time.

The cumulative effect of all this is that girls grow up learning all about how to behave politely to unwanted suitors, just as the Fugitivus article points out. At the same time, girls also learn that girls' stories--by which i mean stories who have girls' development and growth as their center and focus-- usually go like this:
If a girl is politely distant to a guy (Lizzie Bennet), it means she wants to sleep with him.
If a girl resists a suitor who's trying to take her down a peg or two (Taming of the Shrew), it means she wants to sleep with him.
If the girl manifests a desire to be single (Emma), it means she wants to sleep with him.
If a girl demonstrates outright hatred of a boy by breaking a chalk slate over his head (oh, Anne <3333), it means she wants to sleep with him.

I would never in a million years want to rob the world of the love that is Anne/Gilbert or Lizzie/Darcy or Emma/Knightley. But my point is that when faced with all of the evidence that supports the idea of girls eventually submitting to guys, when faced with the fact that stories about girls typically end in girls falling in love with guys, then it's really hard not to read Hush, Hush as sitting at the extreme end of an ongoing societal fantasy in which women go through character arcs of various types that inevitably end in heteronormative sexual relationships. The end result? No always means yes. Yes always means yes. No, No, No, always means yes. (edit: I have talked a bit more about what I feel is essentially a heteronormative pressure exerted on the literary arc here.)

Hush, Hush is extremely self-aware; it knows that its hero is stalking and sexually harassing its heroine. Its heroine complains of harassment loudly and repeatedly, but the text expects us to assume that her repeated no means "yes" -- the text wants us not to take no for an answer. The author, Becca Fitzpatrick, as well as the society that produced Becca Fitzpatrick, both want the heroine of this book to have her "no" rejected over and over, until her resistance is worn down and she gives up and gives in and starts to love the thing that's attacking her and trying to kill her. The social arc of Nora's womanhood demands that she shut up and submit to her sexual subjugation. For god's sakes, the freaking title of the book is BE QUIET.

Nora is what happens when you drag Lady GaGa's character out of the bathtub and force her to forge a male-based identity, where everything she does is seen, even in her own mind, as a reaction to the men that are controlling her lives. Did I mention Nora's stalker can read her mind? The heroine has literally no way of maintaining control over her body because he's determined to invade it, mentally and sexually. In essence, one way or another, she's gonna get raped.

And that's okay, because in the world of Hush, Hush, rape equals love. It's the natural end result of a society that grooms women for a Bad Romance.


_____

eta: Sirayne at University of Fantasy has a great follow-up post with further examples of Hush, Hush's misogynistic violence. Again, warning for possible triggers in descriptions of predatory sexual behavior.

eta2: and a further follow up to both posts by Choco at in which a girl reads: Post 1: Why YA Needs to Change; and the Follow-up Post. Both are must-reads and excellent expansions of the discussion.

eta3: a post about the intersection of vampire culture with YA literature, and how that relates to creating progressive roles for women in fiction. interesting.

eta4: callmeonetrack discusses the arc of heteronormative romance throughout literary tropes in response to this post.

eta5: Sumayyah of The Raven Desk asks: "And writers. You're not obligated to write anything but what you want to write. But take a good, hard look at what you're writing. What is the message you're sending out? What are you telling both the girls and the boys that are reading your work? Are you helping reinforce the idea that it's okay for a girl to be silent and harassed and that it's okay for a guy to harass her? That yes means no? That love starts with malicious, dangerous, hurtful acts and that this is the foundation for a healthy, lasting relationship?"

eta6: Raych at Books I Done Read has an amazing, fully accurate, hysterical take-down/summary of Hush, Hush, here. And My Friend Amy has a great post about how books like Twilight and Hush, Hush reveal and reflect social conditions rather than teach them.

eta7, March 2011: ra_black has a powerful post about the pressure to be polite. and MelindaPendulum has a fabulous and smart response to the 'YA mafia' blogosphere debate that touches on the problematic nature of trying to censor criticism of books like Hush, Hush. "don't come and write crap for me and then tell me I should be nice about it."

Thanks to everyone who's been boosting the signal on this post. I really hope we can keep talking about this. If you do catch any more discussions like these above, please let me know! :)
Tags: books, meta, politics
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