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What's Love Got to Do With It, Got to Do With It?

Confession time: at the ripe old age of 20, I've never had a serious romantic relationship. In high school, my most formative and fulfilling relationships were platonic - in my case, with other girls. Looking back, I think being romantically active then would've created unnecessary trouble for me. Plus, the pickings weren't that great (no offense to anyone from my school).

To be honest, though most of my friends were in the same boat as me, I still felt like a lonely, unhappy weirdo for not having a sweet babe monkey booboo. At school, this was basically an everyday, unavoidable topic of conversation. During every lunch period my friends and I would be all like:

Friend 1: "I want a boyfriend so, so badly."
Friend 2: "Ugh, me too."
Me: "If I just had one my life would be so much happier."
Friends 1 & 2: "Right?!"

I'm 98.72% sure my friends and I didn't come out of the womb thinking this way. In society as I've experienced it, teenage girls are encouraged to believe - whether by the media, their peers, or other forces - that they're not whole without a love interest. There's always a greener pasture, and that pasture is riddled with uberhotties professing their love. In her awesome blog post, Female Friendships in Fiction, the awesome Riley Redgate writes:
I think part of the reason girl friendships are so rare [in literature] is that society is only just starting to adjust to the notion of women with agency, who can be strong and important and psychologically fascinating on their own. […] I'd argue that the most important questions we ask about our characters is how accurately they represent real humanity, which means we need to remember the importance of including ALL realistic situations, like, say, supportive lady friendships that can stand alone. Otherwise we face the glum potentiality that all literature will have the same types of characters and relationships in the spotlight until kingdom come.
There's no denying that romantic love can be an exciting, fascinating, and mind-blowing thing, whether experienced or read about. But, as Riley points out, there are so many possibilities for spotlighted relationships that aren't romance between two (almost always straight) characters. (Let's not even get started here on the lack of relationships between marginalized characters. There can one trans* character, but two trans* characters who have a complicated friendship portrayed throughout the book? Whoa geez, unimaginable!)

I don't think every YA author should just throw up their hands and stop writing romances. That would suck (some of my favorite books are romances). But I do think, as Riley says, that we must consider what's realistic, what needs more representation, and what can be just as exciting and fulfilling as a romantic relationship if written well. 16-year-old Emilia really could have used that. And I'm guessing a lot of teenage YA readers out there could use it too. What is your most favorite book that sticks romance to the side in favor of a less-represented relationship?
Emilia Plater

Emilia is a YA author who avoids studying, food that isn't covered in cheese, and waking up before 10:30AM whenever possible. A bundle of confusions.

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  1. Love this post! I'm 25 and I've only had one serious relationship, and it ended badly and left me kind of jaded. I've never been "boy crazy" or felt the need to have a boyfriend just for the sake of having one. I'm perfectly fine with being single or with someone (whenever that happens). But now that I'm getting older and a lot of my classmates are getting married and starting families, I'm feeling the pressure.

    Even though it's a TV show and not a YA novel, the first example of friendship that comes to mind is Summer and Marissa on The O.C. Even though there was a LOT of romance on the show, I love their friendship and how they stick by each other through everything.

  2. I've always found it interesting how many YA novels I read where our female protagonist doesn't seem to have any friends. Does this happen? Of course. But when I think back to my teen years, my friendships were so important to me. It's nice to see that reflected as well, regardless of whether there is a romance.

  3. Great post. My blog partner and I have also been keying in on this and we completely agree with you. I am a teenager in high school right now and I can tell you that a good 60-70% of us are single. This statistic is not well represented in YA and that may be a contributing factor as to why our teenagers feel that they are not whole without a boy/girlfriend. Now a days everything in our society teaches young girls and boys that they should want/have a romantic interest.

    Haha got a bit excited there :) If I Lie by Corrine Jackson, I feel is a great one as it shows a great friendship between the MC and an old army veteran at the retirement home she volunteers at.

    -Mari @ The Sirenic Codex

  4. Thanks so much for this excellent post. The idea of female friendships is one that many, perhaps most, women embrace from an early age, but at the same time we're pushed to believe that a romantic relationship--as early as possible--is desirable, will complete us. This basic socializing bit of bullshit has long been used to ensure women identified themselves as (a) incomplete without a romantic partner--which is hugely sick--and (b) usually in relationship to a man (happily, the choice of partners is broadening). I bought into it when a teen and in my 20s--I had and have wonderful women friends--but was always on the lookout for the 'right' man. Good and bad romantic relationships followed, all of which helped me leave (a) and (b) behind, and I am SO much happier . . . and I ensure good friendships are portrayed in the stories I write.

    That said, some publishers insist on a romantic element in YA stories, even in older MG, because they believe that's what sells. How many YA bestsellers do NOT have romance in them? It's a tough prejudice to fight, given that publishing is a business focused on the bottom line, not necessarily the veracity of YA/MG representation.

    This is a topic worth continuing and deepening. Thanks again for the post.

  5. Love this post - I wrote my last ms because I felt the exact same way, that female friendships were sorely missing in YA and I hated both missing them in books and the way I felt that lack was marginalizing the most important part of my teen experience. Most of my best friends now, at nearly 30, are girls or guys I've been friends with since I was a teen.

    I'm really looking forward to ROOMIES by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando, and though it's obviously a friendship with its own twisted issues, I love the way Blair and Ardith are there for each other when they have no one else in LEFTOVERS by Laura Wiess.

  6. I totally feel you. The MC in my last MS didn't embark on any romantic relationships (though there was a decent opportunity to do so), and I'm glad that it was more friendship orientated. Or lack of friendship oriented in some cases. I do love love, but I feel like the problem in YA is instalove. Lately, it seems so contrived. Many books do have series, so I think they could make it come natural--introduce it more at the end of the first book, and then have it take a more active role in the second/third installments. The last book that I can think of that handled the romantic angle well was DIVERGENT. Very natural and believable. And I wish people would realize that believability is what sells. At least in my opinion. :)

  7. Great post, on something that is missing in YA. A lot of so-called women's literature celebrates women's friendships as essential parts of a healthy life. Of course, readers of high school and college age are focused on their romantic lives, but their friends are their lifelines at a time when romantic interests may be more likely to come and go.

    I loved Absolutely, Maybe by Lisa Yee. The MC's friendships are with male and female characters, and the book also focuses on familial relationships. All in all, very well-rounded.

  8. In my book Consequence, although there is a strong romantic element, one of the main themes is friendship. My main characters, Phoenix and Persephone have (sometimes difficult) friendship that is one of the main themes of the book. Even in the sequel, Amend, when one of them isn't around anymore, the other is still incredibly affected by the friendship they had.


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Item Reviewed: What's Love Got to Do With It, Got to Do With It? Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Emilia Plater