There’s something special about teenage romance. The butterflies, blushing, jangled nerves whenever that special person is close enough to touch. It’s intense, all-consuming, and when it’s good, it’s great. Holiday romances, one week flings with a classmate, stolen kisses with a friend in a moment of confusion, or unrequited infatuation, they all have one thing in common. Teen romances – usually – end. And that’s a good thing. It’s hard to acknowledge that at the time, but it’s nevertheless true. Teen romances are rites of passage that bring us one step closer to self-definition, something we strive towards throughout our teens and early twenties. So why do so many contemporary YA books portray teen romances as lasting a lifetime?
Okay, I know what some of you are thinking. “YA fiction doesn’t have to be realistic!” and “I don’t want the reality, I want the fantasy/ love the happily ever after.” Sure, I understand the appeal. But hear me out. As adults, we can suspend our disbelief and decipher fact from fiction. However, the trend for Forever Love in YA movies, TV, and books is having an impact on how teens perceive romantic relationships. As literature teacher Cheryl L. Dickson points out in The ALAN Review:
Adolescent and adult relationships are different. The motivation behind most teenage romance is not emotional intimacy, but convenience, status, and appeasing their egos. Admittedly, that sounds negative, but it’s all part of growing up. Teens are hardwired to seek relationships that benefit themselves and aren’t normally willing to put another’s feelings before their own. It’s well established that teenagers are more susceptible to media influence. Consistently offering unrealistic representations of teen romance in mainstream books, TV, and movies isn’t just irresponsible, it’s harmful.
It all comes down to expectations. If there were enough depictions of realistic teen romance in popular entertainment, then adolescents would have a better understanding of what to expect from a relationship. Instead of adopting a wait-and-see approach, many teens enter their first romance assuming it’s the love of their life. As a result, they’re more likely to forgive mistreatment and abuse for the sake of maintaining their relationship. Especially when male love interests in YA are portrayed as controlling liars who’re excused for their behaviour because they’re super hot (I’m looking at you, Twilight). I could list a plethora of YA books which conform to this type, but I want to avoid giving away any spoilers. Because of this unattainable aspiration for Forever Love, teenagers will go to lengths to hold the interest of their girl/boyfriend, compromising their appearance, character, and sense of self-worth. Of course, when the relationship inevitably turns bad or fizzles out, the impact can seem life-altering. As adults, we know this isn’t the case, but as teens, almost everything seems like it will change your life forever. Their feelings are valid and should be respected when representing teen romance in fiction and entertainment that's specifically aimed at them. They shouldn’t be made to feel as though they’re incapable or not deserving of a relationship when in actuality the relationship is an ideal which doesn’t exist.
You might be wondering if YA and teen fiction have always been this way. Simply put, no. The concept of Forever Love rose in popularity around the start of the noughties and is yet to see a decline. As a 90’s teen with a voracious appetite for fiction, I can confirm none of the contemporary books aimed at my demographic had lifelong romances. At least, not the ones I read, and I read a lot. Of course, the market for teen/YA fiction is relatively new, and the general acceptance of teens as a demographic originated as recently as the 1950s. Social standards were different then, of course, and the legal marrying age drops the further back in history you look. Yet, celebrated books considered suitable for adolescents such as Little Women (1868) the Little House [on the Prairie] series (1938), rarely portray protagonists in long-term relationships before their twenties. In Anne of Green Gables (1908) it takes five books before Anne’s married, and by then she’s twenty-five.
There are contemporary YA books out there with more accurate depictions of teen romance, and they need to be championed. I just have to find them first. If you have any suggestions of great YA with a believable romance, please get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.