Young adult fiction can spread unhealthy ideas about relationships

Ilana Quinn

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When I was in the seventh grade, the hit television series Pretty Little Liars starring Lucy Hale and Shay Mitchell finally made its grand debut on Netflix. The older girls at my school had been raving about the books by Sara Shepard for years, so we were excited to see what all the hype was about.

One of my best friends and I arranged a sleepover to watch the entirety of the first season in one sitting.

Since the show was not one my parents would have allowed me to watch, I lied and said we would be watching one of my little brother’s favourite kid-friendly animated movies.

We made popcorn, lugged our sleeping bags downstairs, and plunged into the fictional world of four stunning middle school students, though the cast were all in their early twenties and evidently not awkward young teenagers.

Some of the plot actually occurs in the summer before the girls attend the eighth-grade, making them far younger than they are portrayed to be. The main characters are tasked with solving the identity of the anonymous stalker who keeps harassing them after their best friend’s untimely disappearance and murder.

Even at the age of eleven, I was shocked at the amount of freedom these glamorous, crime-fighting characters enjoyed. I wasn’t even allowed to watch R-rated movies, while here they were — drinking at bars, killing people and making out with older strangers. Not that I personally wanted to do any of those things.

Looking back, there is one aspect of Pretty Little Liars that seems morally wrong for a television show watched primarily by preteen girls.

Aria Montgomery, who is played by Lucy Hale, meets an older man at a bar only to later discover he is her high school English teacher. They even hook up in the women’s washroom.

She would be around age sixteen in the show and even younger in the books, while he would be at least in his mid-twenties. Despite her obvious youth and immaturity, the show implies the illegal relationship is Aria’s fault, since she lies to the man about her age. As a result, the adult in the relationship is supposedly vindicated.

The two continue a relationship — despite the obvious predatory nature of their pairing — even while she is in his high school English class. Their relationship is often represented as a romantic, star-crossed lovers connection. He eventually quits and becomes a teacher at a nearby college, but does that make their relationship acceptable?

As I delved further into the world of young adult fiction, I realized television shows, books and movies often perpetuate unhealthy notions about romantic relationships in particular.

The glorification of unhealthy behaviours in the young adult genre

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Unfortunately, the portrayal and glorification of unhealthy relationships in Pretty Little Liars is far from an anomaly. Many of the most popular television shows marketed to children and teens not only showcase abuse, but also present romanticized versions of abusive behaviors.

For example, Riverdale, the popular teen drama show to thank for numerous YouTube “try not to cringe” compilations, features inappropriate teacher-student relationships.

Despite being ridiculed by many members of its desired demographic, the series is wildly popular. True to its name, the show is loosely based on the world of Archie Comics.

In the show, Archie Andrews, a fifteen-year-old student, has an affair with his thirty-something teacher Geraldine Grundy.

Instead of pointing out the glaring power imbalance existing between a young teenage boy and his adult teacher, the show implies such a relationship is attractive through endless montages of graphic sex scenes. Once again, Geraldine — the adult in the situation — is presented as a helpless victim, while the fifteen-year-old Archie convinces her to continue their affair.

Geraldine’s conventional beauty and marked difference from her elderly namesake in the comics suggests the abuse of a minor is acceptable if the perpetrator is conventionally attractive enough.

The concerning sexualization of young female characters is also pervasive in Riverdale.

There’s hardly a single episode without lengthy segments of highly provocative dance scenes resembling strip routines, one which takes place at a biker bar. Female characters wear outfits obviously designed to entice the so-called male gaze. As far as I can see, with the exception of one female executive producer, the entirety of the team behind the series are men.

Considering the female characters are all supposed to be around fifteen or sixteen — despite actors being in their twenties — the camera’s obsession with their sexuality is highly concerning.

As Betty Cooper transforms into lingerie and a dark wig to force a male football player to confess his crimes, young female audience members are vicariously taught they must use their sexuality to achieve their objectives.

Young adult fiction books also perpetuate inappropriate ideals

While people usually believe books are better quality than movies, current trends in the world of young adult fiction are no less disturbing.

Pretty Little Liars began as a book series, with the characters portrayed as much younger than they were in the television show. I assume producers at Warner Bros. were uncomfortable with the idea of teenage actresses engaging in adult behaviors.

After by Anna Todd, a romance series extremely popular with young women from my generation, focuses on the toxic relationships between a young college student and Harry Styles. Yes, the Harry Styles.

Todd wrote the books during her One Direction obsession, but the character in After—who was re-named Hardin Scott for legal reasons — is a far cry from the beloved boy band member.

Short-tempered and “rude to the point of cruelty” according to Todd’s official book summary, Hardin somehow captivates his female companion Tessa despite being a flat character.

Hardin also emotionally abuses Tessa, which many book reviewers worry about considering the wild popularity of the series and its young, impressionable readership.

As millions of young female readers have indulged in #Hessa’s storyline, they have also watched the veneration of a relationship where a young woman is repeatedly emotionally abused — only to be manipulated with sex. I can’t help but wonder what implications exposure to this series will have on their future relationships.

Fiction with real-world consequences

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Many people argue fiction doesn’t matter because it concerns imaginary worlds and people. When constructing a fictional world, one can supposedly write whatever they want because they aren’t hurting anyone.

The truth is, young people are impacted by fiction. This is significant considering how young adult fiction has become one of the most popular genres on the literary market.

Before youth experience life firsthand, many of their encounters with the world happen through reading books and watching film and television.

Studies show fiction exposure changes the way people view morality. If this is the case, young people with undeveloped brains are more likely to experience harm from absorbing unhealthy notions about dating relationships, beauty standards and life — all which are currently pervasive in popular young adult fiction.

It would be a stretch to say every young person exposed to the glorification of abuse in fiction will end up with warped understandings of healthy romantic relationships.

However, when sexual teacher-student relationships, emotional abuse and the sexualization of young girls repeatedly characterize the most popular young adult fiction, unhealthy beliefs are inevitable.

Thankfully, there is hope when it comes to portraying healthy growth and relationships in young adult fiction.

Many recent books, films and television shows have appropriately explored the chaos of young adulthood without promoting the sexualization of minors or fueling unhealthy beliefs about romantic relationships. The film Eighth Grade, written and directed by Bo Burnham, is proof of this.

Hopefully, more writers and producers will understand navigating darker aspects of teenage-hood does not require the glorification of unhealthy norms.

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