Your Book Boyfriend is Abusive

A Critique of Popular Romance Novels

If you’ve ever scavenged through a thrift store or antique mall, you’ve probably come across a dusty bookshelf full of harlequin romance novels from the 80’s that have a ripped, shirtless man on the cover and smell like old paper and stale cigarettes. These “bodice rippers” as they’ve been coined have been praised for their role in publicly embracing female sexuality, but also condemned for their unsavory depictions of relationships. 

When it comes to these novels, they have a tendency to depict relationships between men and women as an unequal power dynamic, where the “alpha” male lead is emotionally unavailable, physically violent, and has a habit of undermining the consent and agency of the heroine. The female protagonist, on the other hand, is typically a pretty, naive girl with a perfect body, but she’s “different” from everyone else.   

Though this genre is synonymous with the 80’s, the archetypes seen in those books have leeched their way into modern romance. Despite the progress the feminist movement has made in empowering women to de-center men from our lives and the public education we’ve received about recognizing abuse, why are so many men in romance books abusive jerks? Why are we so accepting of these books that glorify the worst behaviors in romantic partners? 

With romance being one of the most popular genres, and with many of these books being in the Young Adult sub-genre (and are marketed towards kids as young as 13), I think it is important to discuss the way we are representing what a relationship looks like. 

Now, I acknowledge that fiction as a genre is supposed to take you out of your comfort zone and place you into a situation that may be uncomfortable in real life, but we may want to escape to it for a few hours. However, when the “fiction” is supposed to be something we find romantic, idyllic, and something we want to model after, unhealthy depictions need to be scrutinized. 

 That being said, I would like to provide examples of what I’m talking about when I say that many love interests in books are abusive. “Abusive” is a very strong, serious word that I do not intend to use lightly. Here are some examples I can pull from popular romance novels. Please, don’t burn me at the stake for my takes. Please keep in mind that this is the opinion column and don’t hunt me down. 

First on the guillotine: Colleen Hoover and what she passes off as “romance.” 

The cover of one of Collen Hoovers popular romances
Photo Credit | Simon & Schuster

Where do I begin: The fact that in early prints of her book “November 9” the male lead sexually assaults the female protagonist by continuing to kiss her and make sexual advances after she tells him to stop? Or should I start with the fact that it’s revealed at the end that he’s an arsonist who burned down her house? 

Should I bring up the fact that the male lead in Nov9 also fantasizes about physically attacking the protagonist, pushing her to the ground and pinning her there against her will when she threatens to leave him? Or should I bring up that her book “It Ends with Us” profits off of her mother’s real story of abuse, which Hoover then made into a coloring book

In my humble opinion, the way Colleen Hoover consistently writes and romanticizes men who are physically violent, emotionally unstable, and more toxic than the Elephant’s Foot at Chernobyl is beyond disgusting. But they’re hot and good at sex, so it’s okay that he has the emotional intelligence of a cantaloupe, right? She writes modern day trashy bodice rippers: change my mind.              

Second on the chopping block: “Twilight” by Stephanie Meyer

This one seems like a no-brainer to me. Edward actively stalks Bella; he follows her around without her consent and literally crawls through her bedroom window and watches her sleep. Super romantic. 

He controls who she sees, he puts her in danger when he leaves her alone in the woods, and threatens to kill himself to scare her. I know he’s a vampire and all, and he’s supposed to be “protective,” but don’t try to convince me that what he does in those books/movies is cute. 

Don’t celebrate, Team Jacob, I’m getting to him. It really disturbs me how he goes from being Bella’s close friend to being needlessly aggressive, selfish, and a complete asshole to Bella once he realizes dating her is out of the question. He constantly tries to force a relationship and oversteps Bella’s boundaries to try and get what he wants. 

“But he’s in love with Bella and doesn’t want to stop pursuing her!” Um, Ew. Continuing to pursue someone after they’ve made it clear they do not want to be in a relationship with you is creepy and utterly disrespectful. Jacob doesn’t even get the excuse of being socially inept like Edward, he’s just bad (and falls in love with a baby later in the series, gross). 

Third to the blade: “After” by Anna Todd 

First of all, it was based on a fanfic about Harry Styles, and making fanfic about real people is weird, period. Second of all, Harry Styles has since apparently blocked Anna Todd on social media because of the horrible way the character Hardin, who is supposed to be him, is portrayed. 

Hardin Scott, as he is called in the book/movie, is the Bad Boy (meaning he has the emotional stability of a baking soda volcano) to Tessa, an unbearable Not Like Other Girls girl whose internalized misogyny makes up most of her personality.

The plot of the book is that Hardin and Tessa “fall in love” after Hardin is dared by his gross friends to take Tessa’s virginity. Despite the fact that virginity is a made-up concept and born of sexist Putriy Culture, virginity was something that Tessa valued, and she had sex with Hardin under the guise that he loved her and they were in a relationship. Hardin does not see her as a person with feelings, but as someone he can have sex with as a bet because he finds it “fun.” Scummy. 

That’s not even getting into the fact that throughout the book, Hardin creeps on Tessa by showing up in her dorm uninvited, and bullies Tessa in her own room by throwing her stuff around. He goes into rages and breaks things when he gets angry, yells at Tessa, drinks heavily, and acts like an actual toddler throwing a temper tantrum. It supports the delusion that man-babies can be “fixed” if you just “love” them by being a punching bag. 

But don’t fret! Sprinkled in between the scenes of emotional abuse are gratuitous sex scenes, because sex is the only thing that matters in a relationship. Remember, if your partner is constantly yelling at you, breaking your things, calling you names, being emotionally unavailable, and generally acting insufferably, you can patch up the whole relationship by just having a lot of sex! This is sarcasm, of course. 

Why These Critiques Even Matter

As in real life, pointing out abusive behavior is the best way to stop it. Nothing about the relationships seen in these books are cute, no matter how much you may try to convince yourself otherwise. If you are someone who enjoys these books, I want to ask you something: What exactly about the way these men act is cute? 

Is it that fact that they are “alpha,” patriarchal men that soften when they meet the “perfect girl?” Why are we trying to negotiate with the patriarchy instead of uplifting men who are emotionally intelligent, kind, and don’t have to be “fixed?” 

Perpetuating the idea that men have to be violent, cold, and domineering to be “manly” is harmful to men and boys. Men can be emotionally sensitive, gentle, and loving without having to be total assholes to rectify their masculinity. 

If it’s not obvious, I’m not a fan of most romance novels. That does not mean I’m cynical about love, though. Love is an important part of the human experience, and it is completely normal to yearn for. However, I do find myself suspicious of the fantasy being sold on the BookTok table at Barnes & Noble.  

The more we normalize abuse by calling the horrible men in these books our “Book Boyfriends,” the harder it gets to put a stop to actual abuse. Dismissing this behavior as cute or sexy does legitimate harm to real victims of abuse who are further gaslighted into believing that what happened/is happening to them is okay and/or normal. These books normalize abuse, plain and simple. This is what we get for trusting TikTok with literature.      

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