Mar 16 2012 2:30pm

From Wuthering Heights to Twilight: The Appeal of the Abusive Hero

Edward, Jacob, and Bella in Twilight: New MoonStephenie Meyer’s Twilight series not only brought us sparkly vampires and sexy werewolves but it also romanticised, what is in reality, an abusive relationship. Edward, Bella, and Jacob are all a part of a love triangle which pits vampire Edward against werewolf Jacob with the winner getting the quiet, stuttering, human Bella. There are many instances in the book that shows Edward controlling what Bella does under the guise of wanting to keep her safe. Breaking her truck so she can not go see her friend Jacob is one example. But we defend Edward because, he loves her and comes from a different era. Even with his condescending attitude towards Bella, his belittling comments about her fragility, his family having to babysit her, even the lullaby he writes her doesn’t make a dent in our love for him. Throughout the book Edward demands, threatens, and eventually forces Bella to do things she does not want to do and we all quietly sigh and exclaim, "Now THIS is love.”

Eventually, the books morph and we see Bella covering up injuries that she sustains from Edward and from their relationship. Still, Edward is considered da bomb and most readers think Bella is a klutz. Jacob isn’t a much better hero with his constant threats and trying to force himself on Bella, convinced if they just share one kiss, she will dump Edward and come to him.

There is a fine line between being a confident male and being a controlling male. The dangerous, sexy, bad boy has always been a delish protagonist that appeals to many readers. It appeals to me, but what happens when our “hero” crosses the line and goes from delish to abusive? What does it say about us when we defend our hero, giving numerous excuses, as acceptable reasons for flying fists and cruel words? More recent YA romances seem to follow the same objective: Our heroine will do anything, give up everything, to be with their hero. Even their lives sometimes.

City of Bones by Cassandra ClareIn Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, the hero Jace is an ass. He hates humans and treats them like dirt beneath his feet, but our human heroine, Clary, cannot stay away. She defies everyone to be with him. Even when they are thought to be brother and sister. Rather than be disgusted, most readers were fascinated and some of them STILL wanted Clary and Jace to be together.

In Clare’s Clockwork series, a companion series to the Mortal Instruments series, we have Will, a gorgeous albeit rude young man, who pushes his love interest away by insulting her repeatedly. At the end of Clockwork Angel, he propositions her, insinuating she is nothing more then a prostitute and not worth having an actual relationship with.

Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush series centers around the relationship of Patch, a fallen angel, and Nora, a human. Throughout the series, Patch both pushes away and stalks Nora, even reminding her at one point that he could kill her anytime he wants. Then he kisses her and our hearts melt. The series continues with one of my least favorite situations. The ’I do things to hurt you because I love you’ and while telling you why I’m acting this way would certainly make things easier, it wouldn’t sell more books.

Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering HeightsThis is not a new trope. Tragedy and romance have always gone hand in hand—Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet are prime examples. Both portray obsession, abuse, and eventually death. It’s only recently that the stories went from the intended adult audience to a teen audience. All the above examples shows a romanticism of violence. Our heroines love our heroes not in spite of their violent, stalker tendencies but because of them. It’s as if volatility of the heroes love proves to the heroine that she is indeed worthy of him. It also helps that said hero is a hottie.

The Urban Dictionary sums it up in a nut shell.

A hot girl who follows you around and shows up at your door is a friend. An ugly girl who follows you around and shows up at your door is a stalker. A hot guy who gives you flowers is a romantic. An ugly guy who gives you flowers is a stalker.
— Urban Dictionary on stalkers

So, if you’re’s romantic, but if you’re’s creepy.

What I find interesting is the common denominator for these popular teen books is the supernatural theme. Our hero is already considered a “monster” in his own mind and the storyline. Does that make it easier for us to accept their abusive nature because they aren’t human? Does this essentially give us an excuse to “forgive” the hero, knowing that it will never touch our real lives?

Dreamland by Sarah DessenThat is not to say there are not plenty of teen romances that feature abuse, stalker themes with human protagonists. In Deb Caletti’s Stay, our heroine Clara embarks on a relationship with the sexy, quiet Christian only to realize that his declarations of love are really attempts to manipulate and control her. Sarah Dressen’s Dreamland shows how an abusive relationship starts and why. Jennifer Brown’s Bitter End has a more realistic look at teen relationship abuse: Alex is a fairly stable teen who meets new boy Cole and the sparks fly. When he begins to abuse her, we see how her feelings of love for him and shame at being considered a domestic abuse victim color her perceptions and actions. Yet, in each of those above books, the hero is just as sexy and domineering as their supernatural counterparts, but we are not as an enamored of them. They aren’t on our top ten book boyfriend lists. We aren’t writing serenades to them or trying to explain our preoccupation with them. We don’t want a Christian or Cole in our lives. And that begs the question, why? Are we more forgiving because of the supernatural aspect?

What do you think?


Tori Benson, Smexybooks and at Twitter.

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1. KateNagy
It's a fine line between "bad boy" and "straight-up asshole," but once that line is crossed it's crossed and there's no going back. My (least) favorite example is Christine Feehan's Dark Prince, one of the few romances I was simply unable to finish; I got about a hundred pages in and was so disgusted with vampire Mikhail's behavior toward Raven, which was punctuated only by Raven's slightly desperate mewling that she was a strong and independent woman, that once it became obvious that the book was not going to end with Raven staking Mikhail through the heart with her nail file, I slammed it shut and never opened it again. So, no -- I, for one, am not particularly likely to overlook ill-bred behavior in a PNR.

Another instructive example -- in Myself and I, the final book in Norma Johnston's Keeping Days series (tragically out of print now), teenaged heroine Saranne is involved with moody bad-boy Paul, who is not physically abusive but is manipulative and controlling in the extreme. Although Saranne wises up by the end, it's a disturbing novel on many levels and in the next couple of years I fully intend to hand my battered old copy to my (currently) nine-year-old daughter with this directive: "Read and take notes: This book describes behavior you should NEVER put up with in a relationship."

Awesome post!
Darlene Marshall
2. DarleneMarshall
Thanks for sharing this. I do find the rise of the abusive male protagonist in YA literature disturbing. It doesn't bother me so much when adult women choose books like this, but I worry that teenage girls don't always have the life experience to see through the bs to the abuse.

And I've never found Wuthering Heights to be romantic. Too often I wanted to shoot Heathcliffe myself for being such a prick.
3. Sarah M. Anderson
What makes this trend even more disturbing is the recent rise of dating violence and, sadly, young women being killed by boyfriends. I wonder if these kinds of YA romances are feeding into this problem--or merely reflecting it back?
Christopher Morgan
4. cmorgan
The idea was put forward by a friend of mine and I kind of like it. She argued that the rise of the hostile hero in YA is possibly an attempt to re-mystify sex for young readers. The perception, with no clear social consensus on how to approach sex ed, is that sex is without its dangers.

With the use of an abusive/dangerous protagonists, you're not telling readers that it's ok, you're convincing them to be on their guard. Often times these heroes do have their soft spots, they are just keeping the ones they care about at a distance to protect them. Think Beauty and the Beast without looking closely at the hostage situation.

I really don't think that books are encouraging abusive relationships. Very rarely, except in Bella's case, are these heroines powerless. Most of the time YA heroines are strong and quite kick-ass. It is only after they face something critically wrong with their own life that they are able to meet the hero on equal ground.

...I hope that made sense...
5. Lege Artis
Great post, Tori!
I don't read YA and this sounds little alarming for me... Those are signs of abusive behavior. My mother is lawyer and she is specialized in cases of abuse. She brings a lot of work home and even now some cases can make her cry . She said to me once: Hollywood can't make a monster as scary as humans can be sometimes. And reading this article, I came to realize that Hollywood has its ace up its sleeve: They can make monster beautiful. And we'll fall for him.
There is a great movie with Mark Walberg and Reese Witherspoon called Fear which portraits abusive relationship quite well.
And, the best for the end: Tom Hardy pic! I. Love. That.Man.
Tori Benson
Lege Artis-I have watched Fear and wow, it was certainly an eye opener. Walburg was a nasty, nasty boy in there. Tom Hardy is DA MAN!

cmorgan-An interesting view and I can certainly see her point.

Sarah Anderson-I spoke to a cop friend of mine and they say the high numbers also reflect more girls reporting the crimes and not sweeping them under the rug our of shame.

darlenemarshall-I HATED Wuthering Heights. I thought both Heathcliff and Cathy were insane and deserved each other.

KatyNagy-Feehan's 'heros' skeeve me out. There are few she has written that I liked.
7. Annabel
Wow, I had no idea this was going on so broadly in YA books. Kind of alarming. At the same time, I tend to read books like Twilight and not perceive the control or abuse at all. Not that I don't agree it's there...I just get so caught up in the romance of his intense feelings for her that the control starts to feel romantic too.

I've read a lot of research-type articles about women's sexuality, and many of them say that the most powerful sexual need of women is the need to be desired--passionately, even irrationally desired. In real life we don't want to experience kidnapping, control, force, overprotection, but in a way these things are the most intense possible manifestations of desire and adoration for a female. So I think that factors into the amazing success of books like Twilight. We know intellectually that it's bad behavior, but in some way we still crave the fantasy of a man going to such extremes because he just wants us that much.
8. ChelseaMueller
Really wonderful post, Tori.

I've read most of the books you've mentioned, and really the only one that skeeved me entirely was Hush, Hush. I like scary/sexy heroes -- the men who could be lethal on the heroine's behalf. But stalking and threatening are the bad scary. I don't care how great a hero looks with his shirt off if he feels the need to remind the heroine that he could kill her and has considered it more than once.

But I would also say it's not just YA. I had a hard time making it through Kresley Cole's A Hunger Like No Other because the hero coerces the heroine into sexual acts by offering her the chance to call family if she preforms sex act A. Later he feels bad about it and they fall in love. Just... not okay.
Tori Benson
Annabel- I agree. I just think how weird it is that if it's a pnr hero, we are more okay with it then if they are human. And I'm just as guilty of not looking past the romance. *sigh*

Chelsea- Yes, adult fiction heroes can be just as alpha-hole and abusive. Case in point-Lothaire. He was quite the jerk and very abusive all the way through. He treated our heroine very, very badly. It really wasn't until he spoke to a friend did he take his head out of his neither region and really think about his actions.
10. Jessn1017
I do read these books, and rarely do I see these behaviors as "abusive". Rude, yes. In most cases I see them as immature, and on the part of the heroine who accepts it as well, but, in my opinion, it is precisely the growth that leads to a change in the hero's behavior, and the heroine's growth to no longer tolerate being treated that way, that makes for a compelling story. The heroines who just accept it and never do anything about it, and the hero's who are still treating the heroines badly by the end of the book? Definitely not my style. But that turning point where the heroine stands up for herself, and the hero realizes that this person is more important than everything else and he needs to treat her as such if he wants to have her in his life? Love that!
On the other hand (and I know a lot of people are going to angrily disagree with me over this), I feel that as a society we have, to some extent, emmasculated our men, and in turn, set ourselves as women up to take on many masculine roles and qualities, leaving our men out in the cold. While I think the intent was good (we needed the pendulum to swing far to the other side so that it could eventually land in the middle), it has led to some negative consequences - one being that we are now looking for men who are a bit more masculine, amidst a plethora of men who come across as weak, indecisive, or unable to take on a leadership role. I think this frustration (for lack of a better word) on the part of women is what is being expressed through our desiring these types of heroes. There are straight up differences in how men and women are wired mentally and created physically, and as such, I don't see a problem with there being a difference in the roles we take on in society, as long as it is not a REQUIREMENT or EXPECTATION, and as long as one is not treated as lower, weaker, or somehow less important than the other. It is possible to be treated as equal in quality or importance, while still embracing and celebrating our differences, and I think this should be the ultimate goal of feminism, not setting ourselves up to take on both masculine and feminine roles in this world, leaving the men out of the equation.
Rakisha Kearns-White
11. BrooklynShoeBabe
All excellent points. I hated Twilight. I enjoy the movies for the shirtless wolf boys. Even the soaps have given us that abusive hero type. (Luke raped Laura!) I don't like it.
I think this should be the ultimate goal of feminism, not setting ourselves up to take on both masculine and feminine roles in this world, leaving the men out of the equation.
I don't think this was ever the idea of feminism.
12. Mo
I know that everyone loves to dump on Heathcliff (and some like to dump on Cathy as well), but it really goes back to something I said on a different blog. Love is not without its thorns - it can be ugly and hurtlful too. It's not all rainbows and kittens. Heathcliff lashes out because he loves Cathy. And Cathy, the dumb girl, loves Heathcliff but refuses to be with him because of social status. The choices they both make cause great harm to the people around them.

For some people, they love one person. If they can't have that one person, they will never be with anyone else. That's just the way some people are wired. So what happens when they can't be with that person?

As Tori put it, via the Urban Dictionary, a stalker is someone who is interested in you when you are not also interested in them. Food for thought.

I think it is way easier to accept more controlling behvior in pnr because it usually has a "helpless" man, except for his controlling behavior. In the case of Feehan's books - and I have read every single Carpathian story - her men are controlling for one reason. They lose that woman and they become monsters. They are helpless without her. That seems to be a recurring theme in pnr. Take one of my favorite Dark Hunter books, for example. Vane Kattalakis has 3 weeks to convince his human mate to be with him, or he faces the rest of her life sterile and unable to have sex. Talk about Bride having power over him!

So, in many pnr cases, when you look at the dynamic, the man is actually very reliant on the woman. His behavior is usually out of fear, perhaps even desperation. I think this is the biggest reason there is little difficulty with the more controlling aspects of men in pnr.

On the other hand, Carpathian behavior in a man in a contemp would not be ok because the power dynamic is different.
Claire Louise Thompson
13. Nefersitra
Mo makes a good point about the hero depending on the heroine in lots of paranormal romances but Vane and Bride are perhaps not the best example to use - Vane's prepared to leave Bride alone if that's what she wants, his dad tried to "convince" his mother to accept him with rape and bondage and that failed. Bryani escaped, rejected Markus and castrated him (if she wasn't crazy, I'd probably be cheering for Bryani). I'd argue this isn't a recent trope in media aimed at young women/teens. When I was in my teens, I could count on one hand the number of girls who'd read Wuthering Heights but we'd all seen Grease and lots of my friends were convinced Danny was prime boyfriend material - I think he's a borderline emotionally-abusive jerk - and that it was OK that Sandy changed to "get her man". Note the film implies Sandy's complete change will stick while Danny abandons his half-hearted attempt straight away. Then again I was horrified by Angelus in season 2 of Buffy but even in the show Willow seemed to thin it was kind of romantic that he was sneaking into Buffy's bedroom while she slept and stalking her "You're still all he thinks about".
Robbie Thornton
14. Button
@Jess1017 You will not get an argument from me (angry or otherwise) about what you say regarding feminism having the adverse effect of leaving our men confused about what their role is. While it wasn't the intention of feminism, in many cases it was the result. I majored in Sociology and wrote a paper about this very subject when I was in university (some 24 years ago). I interveiwed over a dozen men in their 20's and 30's, mainly asking them what they thought their role in a relationship should be, with follow up questions depending on their initial response. The prevailing theme was that they had no idea what their role should be. Women said they wanted a sensitive guy who wasn't threatened by the woman wearing the pants in the relationship, but that wasn't the type of guy the women actually seemed to "fall for".

It led to an interesting debate in class after my paper was presented orally. The women seemed baffled that something negative might have came from such a positive thing as feminism, but the truth is, negative side effects and "growing pains" naturally occur after any substantial societal change, even if the change itself is necessary and just.

As for the topic here, perhaps my definition of abusive is a bit narrower than some peoples definition. Physical abuse to me is one person using physical force on another, such as beatings or forced sexual situations. Emotional abuse (IMHO) is something that occurs over a period of months or years in an effort to undermine another persons self esteem. Getting told you're trash once or twice is something most people can shake off. Getting told you're trash over and over again by someone you love leaves a scar. I think when we start throwing any bad behavior into the "abuse" category, we are cheating those very real people out there who suffer from real and debilitating abuse. So possessive and even domineering men don't really fit my definition of abuse based on that alone.

YA books that do alarm me are books like the Hunger Games, where the absolute violence and total lack of consideration for the sanctity of human life. As I was reading it, I thought "Good grief, this is a YA book? I would never let a teenager of mine read this". (Yes, I'm THAT kind of mom.) It was disturbing on so many levels that I decided not to read the other two.
Candice Burnett
15. SleepyVamp
I agree that Twilight does come off as bizarrely stalkerish, however it is pretty clear from the (bad) writing that Meyer used classics like Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet as the literary basis for this trainwreck. Twilight reads as a paranormal manifesto on abstinence and, in the absence of sexual release, want turns to obsession. It just happens to be written by a desperate 15 yr old girl with a glitter pen, that's all.

Reading the controlling male hero is a safe experience of fantasy submission, and I think that is the space many of these (especially paranormal) romances occupy. The next step being RPGs, then a fully realized D/s relationship.

However in the YA genre I think it reinforces the innocent female/ experienced male gender bias, such as in PC Cast's House of Night series in which Zoe is repeatedly taken advantage of by more experienced male characters. She is sexually weak, yet supernaturally strong. This was an issue I had with Buffy back in the day as Buffy can kick ass at the cemetery yet go all weak in the knees around any boy with dimples. Buffy is finally "conquered' by Spike in a mutual sadomasochistic sexual relationship, which ends in an attempted rape, once again casting Buffy as the victim and reclaimed female innocence.
16. Lynne C
Come On we all love a bad boy!!! Alpha males in series like Dark Hunter and BDB all have their faults and we love them for it. Case in point is Christian in Fifty Shades that can be concieved as a very abusive relationship we don't forgive Christian we accept that Ana loves him just the way he is. Isn't that what love is all about accepting someone faults and all.
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