Every romance reader worth their salt can detect a trope immediately: tropes can feel good, lived in, and familiar. Who doesn’t find immediate gratification when they dive into the story of two childhood best friends who suddenly discover their deep love for one another? Sure, we have read it a thousand times before, but, like a favorite sweater on the first cool day of fall, there is something comforting in the well-known. There’s also the classic love triangle, secret relationships/forbidden love, fake-to-real relationships (a personal fave), reunited/second chance lovers, you name it.
Of course not all tropes are good tropes, which brings us to today’s Toxic Romance quality: Jealousy. In the year 2019, if you google the phrase, “Jealousy in Romance Novels,” you will be met with truly endless lists of books featuring the “perfect” jealous, possessive (read: abusive) hero…and that’s it. While this isn’t a shock, it is a bit disheartening to find that there isn’t one result that points out that this isn’t an ideal trait in reality.
Let’s start with the one that sparked ‘em all: Twilight. For those not familiar (please email us at email@example.com and tell me HOW) the novel introduces us to Bella and Edward. From the word go Edward is devoted to Bella, simply obsessed with her in a truly unhealthy way. The girl can do no wrong, he will simply love her for the rest of time (like, literally). At first this feels flattering and comforting, but it quickly devolves into something more sinister.
Edward consistently stalks Bella, both physically (he follows her on a shopping trip to a nearby city, he sneaks into her bedroom and watches her sleep) and virtually (due to vampire “powers” he can read others’ thoughts to locate her at all times.) He is jealous of all other males in Bella’s life, no matter how tenuous the relationship may be—another way the mind powers come into play, because he is able to read her other suitors’ minds and tell her of their intentions. When Bella strikes up a friendship with an old family friend Jacob (who just so happens to be a werewolf, a vampire’s natural enemy), Edward takes matters into his own hands, disconnecting the cables on Bella’s car, making it impossible for her to visit Jacob.
Edward also persuades Bella into a marriage straight out of high school, when she herself admits to not being ready for it yet. In many ways marriage is romantic, but in the context of Twilight it is a control mechanism, used so that Bella officially and legally belongs to Edward. Possibly the worst part of it all is that Stephanie Meyer has danced around the issue, claiming she is a feminist who just wanted to write down a dream she had once. There is so much going on in Twilight, especially with the supernatural element, that the issue of a toxic romantic relationship is sometimes glossed over. A good exercise would be to eliminate the vampire theme and then examine what Bella and Edward’s relationship truly is: abusive. Do you remember being a kid and going to a birthday party where the cake had those candles that just won’t blow out? That’s what Twilight feels like: while not technically a true romance novel, Twilight sure did inspire some!
Which brings me to public enemy no. 1: 50 Shades of Grey. Originally a Twilight fan fiction, Shades eliminates anything interesting (vampires? I guess?) from the original story and gives us a BDSM fairytale. Christian Grey is a classic romance novel billionaire who is in the market for a girl to save/own. He comes across Anastasia, a virgin who needs to be saved from any man who is not Christian Grey because she cannot, under any circumstances, be trusted with herself! They agree on a literal contract between themselves, including an NDA (the biggest red flag of all time), and settle on in.
Like the character who inspired her creation, Anastasia has little to no relationships outside of the one with Christian. At first she has two friends, her roommate Kate and a family friend, José. Throughout the trilogy, Kate is either unavailable because she is sick or on a perpetual vacation to Barbados. In fact, Kate and Anastasia “share” an apartment in Seattle but never stay even one night in the apartment together because by the time Kate returns from vacation Anastasia is already living with Christian in his apartment. Though absent 99.99% of the time, Kate tries to be a good friend when she happens upon the previously mentioned NDA and confronts the two about it. They tell her they are now engaged, so the NDA doesn’t matter, and she is immediately ok with the entire thing, thereby approving of their nonsense.
As for José, he is quickly pushed out of Anastasia’s life with barely a backwards glance. Because she didn’t have extraterrestrial powers to rely on, like Meyers, E.L. James uses Christian’s enormous wealth. Christian employs full-time bodyguards and a P.I./Tech guy who will do his bidding at all times. With these resources, he compiles a dossier on Anastasia’s life (including banking information, social security number, where she works and lives) and uses this information to his advantage throughout the series. At various times he adds money to her bank account, buys her a car she doesn’t want or need (and sells her old one!), and provides her with many tech products that he clearly has remote access to. To many people this would not sound like something to complain about, but financial control is very much an element of many domestic abuse situations.
Furthermore, after Anastasia turns down a position working at his company and instead accepts an editorial assistant position at a local publishing house, Christian turns around and acquires the company, thereby making himself her boss. Like her predecessor Bella, Anastasia ends the series married and pregnant, happily the property of a very rich husband. And like the woman who inspired her, E.L. James refuses to acknowledge the themes she herself has written, saying it “freaks [her] out” that people view the relationship as one of domestic abuse.
Next we’ll tackle Anna Todd’s After. This is not exactly Twilight inspired, but stay with me. After was also originally a fanfiction, based on poor Harry Styles of One Direction fame. I believe it is also supposed to be reminiscent of Wuthering Heights, also an inspiration of Stephenie Meyer’s for Twilight (See? Got there in the end). The similarities have been noted before: for a full breakdown visit Jenny Trout’s blog where she attempts to read After and details how closely the three plots are aligned.
In a plot truly too complicated to break down completely, we witness Tessa fall for Hardin, a British boy with a troubled past. Throughout their romance, Hardin is regularly violent, jealous to the point of abnormality, and emotionally abusive. The two meet at college, where Tessa is a vulnerable freshman who knows no one. Hardin is older, with a big group of friends who are also implicit in the emotional abuse he drags Tessa through. Their relationship is based on a bet Hardin makes with his friends to take her virginity. What fun.
Tessa arrives at college with a boyfriend back at home and though they have been together for a long time prior to the start of the novel, their relationship quickly devolves once Tessa encounters Hardin. This is helped by the fact that Hardin undermines their relationship every chance he gets, even going so far as to delete messages from Noah off of Tessa’s phone before she has had a chance to read them. Throughout the series, Tessa constantly feels on edge, worried what Hardin will do next. At one point she explains her frustrations to Hardin: “Because you always do this, you say a few nice things and then you flip the switch and I end up crying.”
Hardin takes his frustrations out physically, often throwing violent, intoxicated tantrums where he breaks plates or, at one point, sets a house on fire (with Tessa inside). When Tessa eventually finds out about the bet, they break up, but she takes him back when he reveals he’s actually fallen for her for real and has written a book about their relationship. Because emotional abuse is horrific but you can still make money off of it, Paramount picked up the rights for a film adaptation, released in April of this year. Despite a clear attempt to sanitize things, the film still depicts a romanticized abusive relationship—and luckily for none of us, a sequel is in production.
Frankly, my biggest complaint about After is that it ever became anything other than a fanfiction. That this is a book, and now movie, has gained popularity (in particular with impressionable teenage girls) is quite heartbreaking. Anna Todd told Refinery29 that she never meant for Tessa and Hardin’s relationship to be emulated: “I don’t really write to send any kind of messages. It’s just the story that I’m telling.” But this, like her predecessors before her, is dismissive of real complaints that should be taken seriously.
The thing about these three novels, and later movie adaptations, is that the use of jealousy in each is such a lazy choice. A little jealousy now and then is healthy, an emotion that every single human being has experienced. Jealousy can and should be used to drive plot points, to make a character come to a realization, but it should be guided carefully and thoughtfully. If you’re interested in both homework and YouTube videos, give Parul Sehgal’s TEDTalk on Jealousy a listen.