Friday, August 7, 2015

Tragic Love Interests: Tortured Pasts and Abusive True Loves

Author: Dennis Skley  Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs License

What makes for a really hot male love interest?

If we’re feeling restrained we would mentioned kindness, compassion, understanding, willingness to listen, patience.

If we’re less… high brow… we’d mention bulging muscles, smoldering eyes, a firm backside and a massive… personality. (Though I still think some of these men have “personalities” that can rupture internal organs, which is sexy apparently. But we’ve already looked at the bizarre things that are considered sexy).

But there’s one other trait that seems to be even more required for your hot love interest to truly make everyone’s knees buckle: a horrendous tormented past

Yes, nothing makes your hot guy truly smoking like knowing he is dealing with some terrible trauma. Knowing your man is fighting off desperate PTSD symptoms seems to really get people going.

Of course part of this just an extension of the same writing habit that kills off the parents of protagonists at a truly alarming rate. A traumatic past is quick and dirty characterisation. When you’ve created a walking penis carrier who you don’t especially want to define nothing allows for quick and dirty characterisation like a huge whack of angst. Instant characterisation, life goal and general motivation and attitude in once, nice, tear-stained package.

Traumatic backgrounds are not inherently a bad thing (though there are many issues with a traumatic background being slightly more common than completing high school in the genre) if it’s done well (and not just lazy characterisation) and it’s certainly good to explore issues like PTSD, triggers and other manifestations of trauma as well as careful well written road to healing. Unfortunately, we rarely see this - and especially not with the sexily brooding love interest. Instead, all too often their oh-so-sad lives are used as a reason for them to be arseholes - and even abusive.

And because they have a tragic past we’re expected to accept that - or even find it romantic.

At the mildest level, your super sexy guy with his oh-so-special personality is (or believes he is) cursed/tortured/hunted/just-too-tortured and simply is bad for the girl (who he loves beyond reason, of course). This inevitably leads to that common and aggravating trope - driving her away for her own good! Of course, the idea of actually letting a woman decide whether she wants to take a risk or plan her own life or decide what is actually good for her or not. That would involve respecting her decision making.

Like many tropes, Cassandra Clare uses this in both her Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices series (this could have something to do with the stark similarity of the characters) draw upon this with Jace/Will both of whom, for various convoluted reasons, decide they need to drive Clary/Tessa away from them because they’re so terribad awful.

Or there’s Gabriel in the Spook Squad Series who sends Sam so many mixed signals that it’s amazing he doesn’t make himself dizzy. Again, convinced everyone he works with dies, he simply has to drive her away, sabotaging not only any relationship but also pretty much hammering at her career, quality of life and willingness not to just stab everything she sees. For her own good of course. Keri Arthur’s Damask Circle also loves this trope - with Jon trying to drive Maddie away for her own good, as does Doyle who thinks his job is just too dangerous for Kirby.

This toxicity is exacerbated by these love interests sending out a whole lot of mixed messages as well because despite their decisions to protect their loves they simply cannot resist her charms. We end up with storylines that parallel abusive relationships - with the love interest being vicious to our protagonist - interspaced with sweet scenes meant to draw her back in; like an abusive partner who is nice sometimes with the underlying message that he could be nice all the time if she just persists and endures

This repeated trope almost drives me to the unthinkable - praising Twilight. Sure Edward decides that Bella can’t handle how dangerous he is (which isn’t unfair - I don’t think Bella could handle the dangers of a pet rock) but he deals with it by leaving or, at worse, being standoffish: not by trying to drive her away with deliberate cruelty.

Would it really be too much to ask for these oh-so-cursed men to decide the best way to protect their true love is to tell her the truth and let her decide whether she’s willing to face it or what precautions she can take against it? Is it actually too much to ask to have a true love based on respect rather than paternalistic manipulation?

This protective “I’m too dark and tortured so have to drive you away” is just the thin end of the wedge - because the true depth of this trope comes from the vicious, hateful and even violent true loves whose actions are “justified” by their terrible pasts.

Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter World must be a silver star example of this. Zarek may be the most abused and Aidan is the biggest arsehole for the smallest reason. Why is she only silver star? Because JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series exists - and never have so many men had such terrible pasts and been so unpleasant because of it with Zsadist standing head and shoulders above the rest as his terrible, horrendous past makes him such a tragic, misogynist, vicious love interest.

While these series are epic examples they are, sadly, not alone. The Circle of Desire series has Ethan who had a bad past relationship and now dislikes all women but still becomes Katherine’s love interest. Beyond being incredibly attractive (as we’re told at ridiculous length and a ludicrous number of times) the whole reason I’m supposed to tolerate Reye’s appalling behaviour towards Charlie in the Charley Davidson series is because he has had such a terribad tragic past - much as I like that series my brain rebels at the idea of this terrible man as a viable love interest. Or, indeed, someone Charlie shouldn’t just shoot in the head. Twice.

This often repeated cliche comes with a terrible message - endure. If you want true love, you need to endure. If he’s lashing out, treating your cruelly, being vicious and spiteful and vile you just need to endure, persevere.

Not even as far as abuse! Even a guy being completely indifferent to you (as could not be made clearer in Fallen) then all you have to do is KEEP TRYING. Endure, persevere, stalk him every moment you can eventually break through!

If you endure enough, tolerate enough, keep pushing hard enough then eventually that true love will be yours - and at love is cast as even more romantic for the hardships she’s had to endure because of it. Her suffering is proof of her love as much as his viciousness is proof of his pain. She is rewarded for her endurance by finally finding true love - she stayed the course and had her romantic happily ever after

We cannot emphasise enough how toxic this is. Intimate partner violence is epidemic, in the light of this it is terrifying to send the message to anyone, especially young women, that abuse is romantic. Enduring abuse should not be the price we pay for romance, venomous attacks are not the tragic sign of a tortured but beautiful soul and we need to stop presenting this as sweet, enviable romance - and we should definitely not be upholding this as a path to a happily ever after.