The Dark Underbelly Of 2023’s Hottest Fictional Bachelors.
TW: Domestic abuse, sexual assault
As I enter Whitcoulls, I am met with a new “BookTok” display, showcasing authors like Hannah Grace, Colleen Hoover, and Elle Kennedy. The prominent romance novels feature hyper-masculine bachelors intended to sweep both the protagonist and the reader off their feet. However, after browsing through some of these novels and watching numerous book-took recommendations, I cannot help but notice disturbing similarities among these eligible bachelors. Specifically, I observe that toxic and abusive traits are portrayed as masculine and attractive by the authors.
The ‘Twilight Effect’ is a term I use to describe the phenomenon in which certain male characters in fiction are portrayed with toxic and abusive traits that are somehow romanticised and deemed attractive. This effect takes its name from Stephenie Meyers’s “Twilight” series, where the two male leads, Edward and Jacob, exhibit such behaviours, and yet, are portrayed as desirable romantic partners. These traits are dangerously normalised and presented as a hallmark of masculine attractiveness, leading to their perpetuation in other works of fiction.
Within this ‘Twilight Effect,’ there are two main categories of male characters:
1. The Edward Type: These characters display a lack of consent and autonomy over their female counterparts. They may exhibit possessive and controlling behaviours, ignoring the boundaries of the women they are involved with. Ryle, the male lead in Colleen Hoover’s “It Ends With Us,” falls into this category, as he shows jealousy and aggression towards Lily, the protagonist, thus perpetuating a toxic image of love.
2. The Jacob Type: This category comprises characters with violent temperaments and excessive jealousy, often portrayed as passionate and protective, but at the expense of emotionally healthy relationships. Characters like Zade from “Haunting Adeline” belong to this group, as they engage in stalking and assault while still being idolised by some fans.
It is essential to recognize and challenge the ‘Twilight Effect’ in modern literature, as it normalises harmful behaviours and sends the wrong message to impressionable readers. By understanding the impact of such portrayals, we can promote healthier narratives that encourage mutual respect, consent, and positive relationship dynamics.
Allow me to elaborate on some examples. One such instance is the upcoming movie “It Ends With Us,” starring Blake Lively, based on Colleen Hoover’s famous novel promoted on Book Tok. I want to say I’m disappointed in this, but then remembered I could write a whole article on Gossip Girl’s portrayal of masculinity and only talk about Chuck Bass. So, no, I’m not surprised really. But I am disappointed.
The story revolves around Lily Blossom Bloom, a florist, and Ryle, a brain surgeon (you can’t make this shit up).Lily meets Ryle after graduating college and being ready to start her life post graduation. She falls for him. But as she is developing feelings for Ryle, Atlas, her first love, reappears and challenges the relationship between Lily and Ryle.
As the plot unfolds, it becomes evident that Ryle, the male lead, is actually a domestic abuser, driven by jealousy. What troubles me the most is the amount of praise the book receives; Ryle’s abusive behaviour is disturbingly accepted and sought after by some readers. Even the casting of the actor for the movie caused discontent among fans who believed he wasn’t attractive enough for the role.
The discourse surrounding this abusive behaviour varies, with some blaming Lily and others granting Ryle another chance, all under the premise that his anger and jealousy are signs of his love expressed through a hypermasculine lens. I find it difficult to reconcile the glorification of abusive traits with the reality of domestic abuse being that one in three women (or even one in two considering psychological abuse) have experienced it in our country.
I struggle to situate those statistics with this book being on window displays and (soon to be) on our screens. Even if you make the argument that the book itself doesn’t excuse the abuse, you do have to recognise that some readers have. And if you’re writing about a domestic abuser, I think you’ve failed if you get this reaction out of your readers. And you know, Atlas is never critiqued despite the fact that he, an 18-year-old, waited for a girl to turn 16 to sleep with her.
In the text, Ryle’s abuse stems from jealousy, and it’s portrayed as a reasonable response. The jealousy comes from Atlas, Lily’s childhood groomer (Keep in mind that he’s 18 and she’s 15; I refuse to believe that’s not grooming) whom Lily reconnects with while in a relationship with Ryle. Anyways, this text all loops to finally Lily deciding to ask Ryle for a divorce to break the cycle of abuse, thus the title “It Ends with Us.” Then the book ends with Lily and Atlas running into each other about a year and a half after her divorce from Ryle.
Taking the example of “Haunting Adeline” from the Dark Romance genre, the book’s content is deeply troubling, with trigger warnings galore. The male lead, Zade, exhibits behaviours akin to stalking and assault, yet some fans romanticise and idolise him. While I understand that fiction can explore immoral characters and scenarios, we mustn’t overlook the young and impressionable audience on platforms like Book Tok, who lack the capacity to grasp the nuances of these discussions. For these vulnerable individuals, witnessing the glamorisation of abusive characters can blur the lines between fiction and reality, leading them to believe such behaviour is normal or even a display of affection.
A common counterargument that comes up in this discussion is that books don’t have to be good and that characters don’t have to be moral. Actions can happen in books that are simply fantasies. It’s a work of fiction. And I do agree with this. After all, what’s the difference between most of these characters and a Game of Thrones episode?
But we also must remember the young and impressionable audience that gathers in communities such as Book Tok. Those who do not have the capacity to hold the duality or nuance required for these discussions. If a 14-year-old logs into Tiktok and sees nothing but fan edits and glamorisation of Zade, she may never believe his actions to be wrong. This sets her up for failure. She’ll go through life with the impression that abuse is normal, and simply means that her future partner cares about her. It’s a display of affection. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Research conducted by Dr Emma Sleath and Dr Natalie Elphinstone from Monash University has delved into the impact of media portrayals on adolescent attitudes towards relationships. Their findings reveal that exposure to fictional characters with possessive and controlling traits influences young readers to perceive such behaviour as a desirable expression of love. This alarming trend calls for responsible storytelling that steers clear of glorifying abusive behaviours.
But it’s not just young women negatively impacted by this. The portrayal of toxic masculinity in fiction reinforces harmful gender norms, painting an idealised picture of dominant, aggressive, and possessive men. This perpetuates the notion that men should exhibit these traits to be considered “real men,” putting pressure on men to conform to these toxic standards of behaviour. In turn, it can lead to a negative impact on men’s mental health as they struggle to live up to unrealistic expectations and may suppress emotions and vulnerability.
Colleen Hoover’s books pose an even greater danger, as they are marketed as Romance texts. She’s an author who in 2022 sold more books than James Patterson and John Grisham combined and outsold The Bible by more than three million copies. Who, in one of her novels, “November 9th,” describes a sex scene involving the female character explicitly saying no, and a male character continuing without consent. The scene is presented romantically, potentially misinforming young readers about consent and boundaries. Another glorious moment from “November 9th” (and yes, these are real lines from the book,) “I’ve never wanted to use physical force on a girl before, but I want to push her to the ground and hold her there until the cab drives away.” I’m sorry but what? In a romance book? It’s giving not okay.
While fiction allows for the exploration of complex characters and situations, it is crucial to recognise the impact these portrayals can have on impressionable audiences. Glorifying abusive traits and behaviours as masculine or romantic perpetuates harmful stereotypes and can lead to dangerous misconceptions about consent and healthy relationships. As creators and consumers, we bear a responsibility to promote narratives that foster understanding, empathy, and respect, especially in a world where domestic abuse remains a significant issue.