I wrote this one year ago today, but I never posted it because I felt self conscious about my writing. I have been very introspective and grown a lot over the past year, and one of things I focused on specifically is my self-esteem. So I'm posting this because I don't feel any of what I felt this time last year.
I went to the DMV this morning to renew my driver's license. If you've not been recently, let me reassure you that nothing has changed. They still only have 5 people working even though they have 17 windows. The employees still take ages to complete simple tasks, whether it is to make a single page copy or get change from their supervisor. And yes, the people in line still stew in silent rage.
I sat down and pulled out the book I started last night - The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches - and waited. Save for the elderly gentleman a few seats down, I was the only one reading. People of all ages around us passed the time on their phones.
Fast forward to my kitchen table two hours later.
Andrew read "Please Stop Marrying Fictional Characters to People They Met as Children, It's Creepy" aloud as I finished a breakfast smoothie. In this rant piece (hey, not my words - it is labeled as such), author Katherine Trendacosta claims that a character marrying someone he or she met as a child is not only a "trope that is nigh ubiquitous in YA novels," but that it is also "creepy as hell."
I have very strong opinions on the matter for several reasons. First, I loved the Harry Potter series and delighted in the romantic pairings of Ron & Hermione and Harry & Ginny. Second, I am disgusted by our culture's current views on and portrayal of love, marriage, and sex. Third, my husband and I met 20 years ago on the first day of 4th grade.
Young Adult Fiction
As a voracious reader, lover of YA fiction, and English teacher, I have strong opinions about the options available to young readers. Not every YA story depicts romantic relationships, but given the raging hormones of the audience, it makes sense why many authors incorporate a romance into other fiction genres.
While Harry Potter is only one example, let's look at it closely. Harry and Hermione are friends for years with no romance between them. I think it is very important for people to see an example of opposite sex friendship, since it is very possible. Harry has two girlfriends during his time at Hogwarts. He dates Cho Chang and later Ginner Weasley. He breaks up with Ginny and leaves Hogwarts to find Voldemort's remaining Horcruxes. Ron dates Lavender Brown for a few months. Hermione dates Viktor Krum and Cormac McLaggen. Ginny dates Michael Corner and Dean Thomas. Although these relationships are not serious, they are important because they are typical teen romances. The characters make silly choices, have petty disagreements, and sometimes have dramatic breakups. The characters are playing at relationships. This is true of a high school campus. Teens "play" at relationships just like they used to "play" house in grade school. I believe that these immature relationships lead people to find out who they really are and what they really value. Someone can believe that looks are the most important thing until they find out what it means to date a beautiful moron or a gorgeous jerk. Sadly, some people never get away from this and actually base a marriage on superficial qualities. Man, will they be in for a huge shock! More on this later. For now, back to the Hogwarts gang. Readers don't actually get to see the growth of the relationship between Ron and Hermione or Harry and Ginny when the characters are in their 20s or 30s. Instead, Deathly Hallows' Epilogue is a flash forward to the two couples some time in their late 30s or early 40s with preteens of their own.
What these relationships actually communicate to young readers is not that a first love is a forever love. Instead, it reveals a true, lasting love is a connection that stands the test of time. Quite beautifully, this story depicts that love - whether it is a friendship or a romance - endures long after excitement and adventures end. Literature is not alone in this depiction either. Whether it is the Bible or Shakespeare, True Love is almost an entity unto itself and it does not fail. Ever.
What is Love?
One of Katherine's qualms with this pattern in YA literature is the depiction of love. She balks at the idea of friends-turned-lovers because it is "as if love is some kind leveled-up friendship." Well, that's exactly what love is. Love is a friendship set on fire. We all know that looks fade, but only some people are aware that passion is not sustainable beyond a relationship's honeymoon period. The real secret to a lasting relationship is whether or not it is rooted in true friendship. Some days, you will hate your significant other. Modern culture will tell you that not only do you deserve to be happy, but also that your happiness should come before anything else. While there are truly people who should not be together because the relationship is toxic or a partner is dangerous, most marriages fail because people did not expect that they would have to work at their relationship. When things get hard, people bail out. Here's what Disney and your mama never told you; happily ever after doesn't just happen effortlessly. Being an adult is hard work. Having the career of your dreams is hard work. Having a healthy marriage is hard work.
Quite rightly, Katherine asks, "What percentage of the population marries their childhood sweetheart these days?" I have to agree with her on this. Marrying a person you met when you were young is rare. But what does it say about our culture when swiping left is more legitimate a dating method than falling for a childhood friend? I have lost count of the number of articles I have read where millennials are complaining about the current dating culture because it's confusing or unfulfilling. So many people are tired of flirting through social media because it's lazy. Liking or commenting on a photo takes very little effort. And let's face it, a clever comment on Instagram is not as impressive as a clever comment in person. Most people, when given enough time, can come up with the "perfect" thing to say. It takes both wit and guts to say something amusing to your crush's face. In an age of "Netflix and chill" and "sliding into the dms," it's really nice to have a sincere and meaningful interaction with someone. However, meaningful interactions seem to be on the decline.
Let's revisit the relationship based on superficial qualities. It simply cannot stand the test of time. Washboard abs don't pay the bills. Bedroom eyes won't take out the trash. Unfortunately, the media emphasizes, and modern dating reinforces, that physical attractiveness is the single most important factor. Unfortunately, the media portrays a very one-dimensional romantic relationship. It's exciting and it's hot because it's based on chemistry. Sure, a romantic relationship has those things going for it, but those are not its foundation. A straw house that is not tied into a foundation will fall over in the slightest breeze, while a fortress well entrenched in the earth will stand tall. Likewise, a relationship built on mutual respect will weather the storm.
The Future of YA
Katherine finishes her article by proposing that YA authors "reduce this trope’s prevalence to how often it happens in real life. Or at least closer to a generous 10 percent of the time." I don't know about you, but I think movies, television, and music glorify hooking up enough already. I don't think there is anything that great about fiction reflecting life with precision.
Today's preteens will have their own set of issues, unique to their generation. Thankfully, there are plenty of authors who write realistic YA fiction and tackle issues beyond finding a soulmate like having an unhealthy body image, substance abuse, rape, depression, bullying, and unhealthy relationships of all sorts. Stories like Before I Fall, Looking for Alaska, and Speak are powerful and necessary. Love stories that don't depict the two main characters falling for one another also need to exist.
But I also hope that there will also be a place in the world of fiction for tender love stories where love and friendship overlap. There is something quite nice about getting lost in a fictional world where things are just a hair unrealistic, ever so slightly out of reach. Unfortunately for today's millennials, a lasting love seems to be the one thing that taunts them because is just a hair unrealistic, ever so slightly out of reach.