Jan 8 2014 9:30am

With Sticks and Stones, Can Romance Bloom?: Bullying in Romance

Bully by Penelope DouglasMost little girls are told at some point that if a boy is picking on her, that means he likes her. But what happens when bullying goes from juvenile to adolescence to adulthood? A few new releases are tackling the topic.

Penelope Douglas's New Adult book, Bully, tells the story of Tate, a young woman who has been tormented by her former friend, Jared (Douglas has donated part of the profits from the book to, an anti-bullying organization). At its heart, Bully is the story of two friends whose relationship becomes tempestuous and rife with angst. Jared previously went out of his way to make Tate’s life unpleasant and her only real reprieve was when she was studying abroad in France. Since it is a romance, love blossoms and readers later find out the reasoning behind Jared’s actions. Douglas follows up with Jared and readers are even given further perspective in a follow-up book, Until You.

Lovely Vicious by Sara WolfSara Wolf's Lovely Vicious is another New Adult book where the protagonists pull no punches in antagonizing each other. Isis Blake is a girl with past issues and Jack Hunter is a complete and total tool who pushes her buttons in the wrong way. After literally punching him in the face, Isis and Jack begin a war that test the limits and sometimes goes a bit too far into the pasts of both characters. The actions are much harsher than those in Douglas’s Bully. Again, readers discover Jared has a reason for being a tool and that even Isis has a sordid past. Word to the wise, this novel ends on a major cliffhanger.

It’s not only the New Adult novels that see protagonists in competition with each other; R.L. Mathewson’s Checkmate finds childhood opponents working together as adults. Rory James and Connor O’Neil cannot stand each other, but end up working on the same construction project. While the “bullying” is portrayed as more comedic and pulling pranks, readers can see the obstacles that adolescent rivalry puts in the way of the two protagonists from falling in love.

The Nature of Cruelty by L.H. CoswayL.H. Cosway’s The Nature of Cruelty is probably the strongest example of how bullying affects a potential romantic relationship. Lana falls in love with Robert at first sight, but Robert acts like an ass and consistently teases and belittles poor Lana while the pair are growing up. Now that Lana is visiting Robert’s twin sister and the two have to live under the same roof, old insecurities and the teasing pattern of behavior continues to be a hindrance from Robert getting anywhere romantically with Lana.

Most of these titles were published in the past year or so, but the bullying trope is persistent in romance novels, whether it be the best friend’s brother teasing the awkward heroine or the rich billionaire blackmailing his way into the administrative assistant’s bed. Perhaps the bullying trope isn’t so shocking to readers because it isn’t necessarily visual. If you look at the classic manga, Boys Over Flowers by Yoko Kamio, the heroine Tsukushi Makino is bullied to the point of near abuse by her potential romantic interest, Tsukasa Domyoji. This is a literary example where the main focus for the bullying is class rivalry (Tsukushi is poor, while most of her classmates are wealthy), but somehow even though the torment of the heroine is illustrated, the manga is considered a classic shoujo manga or girl’s romance comic.

Bullying is growing in popularity as a romance trope, but how much is too much, and are there any books that cross the line?


Sahara Hoshi reviews for Wicked Lil Pixie and is a lifelong reader of romance. Favorite genres include new adult, paranormal romance, contemporary romance and erotica.

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1. Mo
Courtney Milan's Unlocked was actually the bully story that opened up the trope for me. After that I read Love and Relativity, and then Bully and Until You. I really want to read The Nature of Cruelty but haven't bought it yet.

As an adult, and one who was bullied for 14 years (yes, you read that right), I wasn't too sure about it at first. However, with the exception of Love and Relativity, I have really liked all these books.

The huge difference between Unlocked and the Fall Away series, though, is how Elaine and Evan come to adult conclusions and understandings about their roles and culpability in the bullying and its aftermath. Because the Fall Away series is YA/NA (marketed as NA with high school age protags), adult understandings do not follow and there is less of a meta discussion about bullying than there is in Unlocked.

As for the bully/abuser to lover trope, as much as I enjoyed these books, I am very much on the fence about it.
Brie Clementine
2. Brie.Clem
How is bullying portrayed and defined in these books? Is it more like the enemies-to-lovers trope where the leads just don’t like each other at all, or is it constant and perpetuated psychological and/or physical abuse? If it is the former, pehaps we shouldn't use the word "bullying" so lightly. If it is the latter, I’m bothered by the fact that these books seem to be romanticizing bullies.
3. Mo

In Unlocked, Evan and his cousin lead a group who consistently and almost constantly make fun of Elaine and her mother to their faces, behind their backs, and cause widespread ostracism of them, unless someone wants them there to make fun of. Evan admits later than he wanted Elaine to notice him and be aware of him. She did, alright, with some horridly tragic consequences.

In the Fall Away series, Tate and Jared were best friends and next door neighbors until a seminal moment in Jared's life. After that point, he spread ugly rumors about her at school, made sure she was ostracised and excluded, "dated" her best (and only) friend, partly as retribution for an act of defiance on Tate's part, organised friends to humiliate her in the hallways at school and at the few social events she attended (always with her bestie). It was bad enough that Tate had what she called lifelines that she was never without in case he and his friends did something and she needed to escape.
5. Mo

Personally, the meta discussion and adult-ness of Unlocked was huge for me. Evan had a lot of growing up to do, growing up that was done off-page, since the story starts with his return after being away for (I think) 10 years. It's pretty clear that he was young and very immature when he did all of this. Not excusing it, of course, there is no excuse, but it was made clear he did learn. Elaine and her growing understanding of her own agency, power, and taking responsibility for her own actions was huge for me since it was eerily reminiscent of my own journey and helped me understand some of my own feelings about what had happened.

That's why I mentioned the meta discussion, because I think that the book makes it clear that this behavior is unacceptable. I didn't feel like Unlocked glorified bullying at all. I felt it did just the opposite and it was why I took a chance on other stories with bullying at its core. I highly recommend reading it, honestly.
Jennifer Proffitt
7. JenniferProffitt
@Brie and Mo, I feel that Courtney Milan in general is very good about taking tough issues or potentially unsavory characters and, maybe not making their actions or situations any more bearable, but redeeming them in the eyes of the reader. I haven't read Unlocked, but I have enough faith in Milan's talent to think and hope that she handled the bullying appropriately.
9. Meoskop
It is a very rare book that can get me to accept the bully to lover concept. A keystone of the domestic violence dynamic is that those outside the relationship just don't understand how sorry the abuser is, the pain they were in, the sorrow they feel. If only we knew the abuser like the abused does we'd understand! This makes bully to lover an incredibly difficult conceit to pull off. "I've tormented you, now love me." Is too close to the DV dynamic already present in many young relationships.

Bullying is a great topic for a writer to explore. A former bully can go on to understand his or her actions and use that understanding to grow. There can absolutely be a HEA for a former bully or abuser, but not with their victims. An important part of a HEA is trust and safety. How can the formerly bullied truly feel safe in the relationship, especially when they may have been emotionally close to the bully before the bullying begins?

Milan did do an excellent job with this topic, but it's one I hate.
10. Mo
As for Bully and it's counter POV sequel Until You (Bully is Tate's journey; Until You is Jared's.), which I highly recommend be read back to back if anyone is planning to read them, there are elements of the books that are very real (read: happened to me personally) and bad. This certainly made me feel closer emotionally to Tate. There is no doubt that the ugliness and rawness of the dynamic is all out there to see.

Like Elaine's journey in Unlocked, Tate's journey is one of discovering her own power and agency, and fighting back against Jared. From that standpoint only, there is a critical message you can take from both Unlocked and the Fall Away series. Do not allow yourself to be a victim. Stand up for yourself.
11. Amanda Don
Oh god. I am actually looking for this "genre"/trope but when people define it as something guys do, the sex-warriors come out. It's ridiculous, since girls do it just as much. They frame it as some sort of masculine anti-girl problem. I hate it. It's just a human issue. Sometimes people go too far with "teasing" people because they like them. But really, in adolscence, a brutal bully going so far just because they like someone, unless there's way more to it, it's probably unrealistic. You'd have to throw in that they need therapy or something, if not some other backstory.

I've read Bully by Douglas, turns out there's a complicated path to him turning on the protagonist, and it doesn't romanticize his bullying. It's not some masochist's story. Gonna look up other stories on here. I would prefer the male be the bully, but if we're just talking about the trope and not pandering to anyone like me, books with guys, girls, and whoever else bullying and it turning into romance should be listed. Girls are framed as bullying crushes all the time in fiction anyway.
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