Welcome to Smugglivus 2012! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2012, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2013.
Who: Foz Meadows, YA urban fantasy writer, author of the novels Solace and Grief and The Key to Starveldt.
Foz is also a prolific blogger, writing about feminism, pop culture, politics and more both at her own place Shattersnipe: Malcontent & Rainbows and over at The Huffington Post. Foz’s posts constantly blow our minds away so we just had to invite her over for this year’s Smugglivus.
Please give it up for Foz, and her brilliant piece on Bad Boys!
Image taken from tumblr.
Whenever we engage with a narrative focussed primarily on a single protagonist, we instinctively adopt their point of view – at least to begin with. We’re predisposed to sympathise with their decisions, problems and motives because their perspective is our window onto the story, and as such, we tend to be less questioning of their judgement. After all, the author has chosen this character as their vehicle, which surely means we’re meant to be on their side: even if our empathy falters, this metatextual knowledge frequently prompts us to give both creator and character the benefit of the doubt, not because we necessarily agree with what’s been said, but because we’re sympathetic to what was intended. For example: in real life, waking up to find a strange boy in your room in the middle of the night would doubtless be creepy and frightening, no matter how cute he was – but in Twilight, because we know that Edward and Bella are destined to be together, we’re more inclined to accept his behaviour as romantic (or at least, not overtly threatening) because the story itself is telling us it’s OK. There’s nothing inherently wrong with making this sort of exception: fiction being a form of escapism, it’s only right and natural that it encourages us to embrace ideas, rationales and scenarios we might otherwise reject, or which could never realistically happen, as a way of broadening our perspective. Stories are the ideal space in which to explore our fears and fantasies precisely because their impossibility makes them safe. But ultimately, the barrier between fiction and reality is a permeable one: just as our real-world beliefs will influence our perception of narrative, so to can our narrative beliefs affect our actions in the world.
Recently, I wrote a piece on levels of reality in SFF stories, detailing how our base assumptions about normative human behaviour can stop us from accepting the validity of progressive elements in stories if we unconsciously assume that the only realistic cultures are those we find familiar. Our preconceptions about people matter hugely to our interpretation of narrative – but by the same token, our interpretation of narrative also influences our preconceptions about people. For instance, a recent series of studies into whether the portrayal of race on TV influenced the racial beliefs of viewers found that:
“Exposure to pro-white nonverbal behavior increased racial bias among viewers, as determined by a test that measures unconscious biases, even though viewers did not report noticing patterns of biased behavior on TV. This study suggests that subtle nonverbal behavior on TV can influence racial bias in the real world.”
Other times, the influence of stories is more overt – the recent spate of racist, anti-Asian tweets spurred by audience reactions to the Red Dawn might seem an extreme example, but by the admission of the tweeters, the link is clear: regardless of how many participants held anti-Asian views prior to seeing the film, it’s undeniable that they construed the narrative as an endorsement of their prejudice, and subsequently felt vindicated enough to say so publicly. This holds with the findings of another new study into the social consequences of sexist, discriminatory humour, which found that:
“…exposure to sexist humor can create conditions that allow men – especially those who have antagonistic attitudes toward women – to express those attitudes in their behavior… The acceptance of sexist humor leads men to believe that sexist behavior falls within the bounds of social acceptability.”
Clearly, then, there’s a documented correlation between the stories and social narratives we consume and the beliefs we hold, even when we’re not always aware of the relationship. And that’s why it’s so important to be a critical reader rather than a passive one: not because there’s anything wrong with escapism, but because we need to be conscious of when and why we’re escaping – and into what.
Which brings me back to the issue of romance: and specifically, to the often troubling portrayal of male love interests in far too many YA, PNR and urban fantasy novels. While hardly a requisite attribute for inclusion in the genre, it’s nonetheless demonstrably true that a large percentage of such stories are written either from a first person female perspective or with a heavy third person emphasis on the actions of a single heroine; many, too, involve love triangles, and place a high premium on both true/predestined love and relationships whose significance derives in large part from being taboo. Combine these elements with life- or even world-threatening danger, warring factions, old grudges, hormones and magic, and you have the perfect setting for bad boy heroes and love interests – men and youths whose dubious motives, shady allegiances, uncertain morality and badass proclivities pose a threat to both the heroine’s former emotional innocence and, potentially, her literal wellbeing.
None of which, I hasten to add, is inherently problematic. Certainly, my own list of favourite characters includes more than a few bad boys, while magical danger and political grey areas are two of my most-loved narrative elements. It’s not the individual devices, or even their use in confluence, which unsettles me. Rather, it’s the context of their usage, and the extent to which that selfsame tendency to sympathise with the protagonist while giving the author the benefit of the doubt combines with our sense of romantic predestination to encourage us not only to excuse or rationalise a love interest’s objectively unacceptable behaviour, but to fail to notice that it is, in fact, unacceptable in the first place.
For readers and authors both, it’s an easy a trap to fall into. After all, tension and antagonism are to romance what spice and salt are to a good meal; and what better way to set your hero and heroine at odds than to place them on opposite sides of an ancient conflict, or else to ensure their relationship violates some deeply significant principle? It makes perfect narrative sense – as does giving your characters tortured backstories, thereby adding to their general air of mystery, angst and magnetism. But here’s something I’ve noticed about how having a Dark, Unpleasant Past leads to different outcomes depending on whether you’re male or female: while tortured heroes are frequently excused their abusive behaviour on the grounds of being traumatised and therefore sympathetic figures (or because they’re monsters who can’t help it, or both), the tortured heroines they end up with are not only held to a higher behavioural standard, but shown to excuse their lovers’ abuse for precisely the same reasons. And that bothers me: because once you strip away the various sympathies built around first person perspective, authorial intention and fated love, you’re left with a deeply gendered trope that not only depicts women who’ve either survived or are actively experiencing abuse as being completely unable to identify abusive behaviour, but which denies such behaviour is abusive to begin with.
And by abusive behaviour, I mean behavioural patterns which are listed by domestic abuse authorities as warning signs that you’re in a toxic or dangerous relationship. These are all clear indicators that something is seriously wrong, especially when they appear in confluence; and yet these are exactly the same characteristics which, time and again, I see being displayed by the male love interests in YA, PNR and urban fantasy novels, as though aggressive behaviour somehow becomes sweet and acceptable when the abuser loves their victim, or vice versa. As has been well-documented by now, one of the worst offenders is Patch in Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush series. The heroine, Nora, is afraid of Patch – in fact, she’s pretty sure he’s trying to kill her. Her suspicions – or rather, the extent to which they’re ignored by others – start to make her feel crazy; and in the mean time, Patch frequently belittles her, embarrasses her in public, puts down her accomplishments, threatens her physically and tries to control her actions. Alone, any one of these habits would constitute a danger signal; in confluence, they’re a lighthouse-strength beacon warning of violence, instability and danger. But because the story is built around the idea of Patch and Nora as soulmates, the reader is encouraged to view Patch’s actions benevolently: he might be aggressive, but he’s also tormented and sexy, and somehow, that’s meant to make it all OK.
Here’s what angers me most about this trope: the extent to which the eventual Happily Ever After relies on the female characters never calling the men out for their behaviour, let alone worrying about it – or, on the rare occasions when this happens, their concerns either being gaslighted by those around them or dismissed as a case of the lady doth protest too much. Most commonly, though, the narrative doesn’t acknowledge the behaviour as problematic, and in instances where the story is tightly focussed on the forgiving, excusing heroine’s POV, that means that, more often than not, the audience doesn’t stop to question it, either. And that’s decidedly problematic: not only because, as per the undeniable influence of narrative on behaviour, it makes me wonder about the extent to which readers might be internalising such behaviours as being romantically acceptable, but because it serves to confuse the distinction between what (for lack of a better term) I’ll call classic bad boys and actual, bona fide abusers.
Which is a hugely important distinction to make. The classic bad boy – the rebel – is defiant, confident, anarchic; a counteragent to the conformity, he breaks rules, laws and established social mores alike, both on principle and for the joy of it. Such danger as he poses to women is neither physical nor emotional (or at least, not emotionally toxic), but rather inherent in his ability to make them aware of their own sexuality in settings that would otherwise repress it, and to make them rebel in settings where modesty, obedience and chastity are heavily gendered virtues. Which isn’t to say that women take no risks in pursuing a classic bad boy: they might get their hearts broken, or encounter more dangerous situations than usual by dint of stepping beyond the safety of the familiar – and certainly, they risk their reputations. But they’re not exposed to possessive, violent jealousy; they’re not stalked, controlled or threatened. Note, please, that there’s also a meaningful difference between classic bad boys and the heroes of classic film and literature, most of whom, while exemplifying some of the characteristics mentioned above, are also defined by the sexism of the eras (and, in some cases, genres) which spawned them. James Bond arguably falls into this latter category, as do any number of serial liars, cheaters and manipulators in fiction who see women primarily as objects to be possessed or protected rather than as people in their own right. But they’re still bad boys, of a sort: neither rebels nor abusers, but users – an uneasy, amoral midpoint between the two.
No bad boy is a perfect saint: that’s key to their appeal. But whereas the classic bad boy allows women to escape from patriarchal control, new bad boys – abusers – reinforce it. Where rebels are too cool to show they care and so appear jaded or standoffish, abusers both show and mask their love through manipulation, stalking, aggression, threats and belittlement. And at some point in the not-too-distant past, the cultural default seems to have switched from the former to the latter. Tentatively, I wonder whether the shift can be linked to the rise of heroes and anti-heroes who are, literally, monsters, and whose bad deeds are therefore viewed with the same sort of appalled but nonetheless sympathetic tolerance extended to sharks and lions: it’s in their nature, coded to their species and their method of survival, and therefore somehow less morally repugnant than if they had only human excuses. And yet the comparison doesn’t quite hold: such characters still have free will and sentience, are still capable of empathy. We give them greater leeway because of the violence they’ve invariably suffered or been raised to, but ultimately, that shouldn’t excuse their own abuses in turn.
All of which is a way of saying: if a hero’s incredible physical hotness is the only thing that keeps his actions from being villainous – if it can reasonably be assumed that a character who expressed a similar disregard for the heroine’s privacy, autonomy, safety and wishes (but to whom she wasn’t attracted) would be viewed as threatening, dangerous or unsympathetic – then that hero is not a rebel, but an abuser.
Which isn’t to say that love doesn’t make a difference: after all, a defining characteristic of being in a relationship is your ability to do and say things to your partner that would be utterly unacceptable otherwise. But love, no matter how passionate, is not a get out of jail free card. Love can be unhealthy; it can be violent, toxic, unstable and imbalanced. Simply saying “But he/she loves him/her!” neither excuses nor overrules the presence of abuse: instead, it requires us to ask why the characters care for each other in the first place, and whether or not that history is solid enough to be worth fighting for. Obviously, YMMV on this point: there’s a massive amount of leeway in terms of personal preference. But that only applies when the narrative acknowledges the problem; and in far too many instances, not only doesn’t this happen, but abuse is construed as courtship at the beginning of a relationship – like Edward’s stalking of Bella, or Patch’s belittlement of Nora. When that happens, the romance is shown to derive, not from chemistry, shared interests and/or compatible personalities, but from some unnamed, apparently intrinsic and inevitable “connection” – an amorphous, all-consuming attraction that conflates lust with love, antagonism with flirting and outright abuse with affection. And I’m sorry, but that’s just not the same as love at first sight; because love at first sight still has to evolve beyond the immediate – the characters have to connect, not just on an abstract level, but on an actual one. Something in the relationship has to make sense, and if all it really consists of is the hero intimidating the heroine despite his intense desire to sleep with her, suddenly grabbing, kissing or otherwise manhandling her when she’s vulnerable, and then expressing strong anger, regret or revulsion at his actions such that she ends up feeling shamed and upset, I’m not going to find that remotely romantic: I’m going to want her to call the fucking cops.
As characters, bad boys have a lot going for them: they’re sexy, transgressive and interesting, and when they’re done well, it’s hard to resist their charms. But it’s important to distinguish the rebels from the users and abusers, regardless of how sympathetic a light they’ve been cast in. Because even in a literary environment, there’s truth to the adage that actions speak louder than words.
Thank you so much, Foz – this is brilliant.