How Is This Still a Thing? Creepy Boyfriends in YA

Have you ever watched John Oliver? He does this segment called How is this still a thing? where they just lay out the reasons that a really stupid thing that still exists should be long gone. And today I’d like to do one of those about possessive and controlling YA boyfriends.

I really like Buffy. (Bear with me, this is related.) I discovered it on Netflix last year, and it is amazing. If you have not watched it, do it. (If you’re Canadian, I know it’s still on Netflix. If you’re not, I can’t help you.) Like all Buffy fans, I have strong feelings about who Buffy should be with. And it really surprised me who I liked.

Image result for spike buffy gif

If you’re not versed in Buffy, this is Spike. He’s a terrible person. (Ish. It gets complicated. But, for the sake of the introduction to this article, let’s just go with he’s not a great option.) (Although, for the record, I don’t like the other option.) There are many reasons why Spike and Buffy are not good. One, the actor who plays him was born the year before my mum and ICK I’M ATTRACTED TO HIM. Two, he tries to kill Buffy a bunch. (And there’s more stuff, but I’m hoping you’ll watch and I don’t want to spoil you) Three, their relationship is highkey toxic.

“LEO!” I hear you scream. “WHAT THE FRICKITY-FRACK DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH BOOKS?” Well, it does, my friends. Because I recently read a book called Roar and the romantic relationships annoyed me. Annoyed maybe isn’t the right word. Disgusted me might be better. (You can find the review here.) The love interest was gross and controlling and wouldn’t let the protagonist do anything and it was bad, bad, bad. In my reaction to this problematic problemness, I was wringing my hands about the State of the Youths today and why we keep on forcing this stuff onto Them Kids.

And then I remembered that I am a Darn Youth and started thinking about this dumbass.

Image result for spike buffy gif

Okay, I’ll stop with the Spike gifs!

But here’s the thing: I knew that Buffy and Spike’s relationship was Not Good Shit. The TV show makes that very clear. Neither of them are good for each other. But I still kept on trying to justify why I was shipping it to myself. (*retroactive face palm*)(*quietly ignores that I still kind of ship it*)

But this is my point! I know that this was Not Good Shit because a) it’s right there in the text of the show and b) I was mature/informed enough to realize that it was. But what if those two things hadn’t been true? What if the show had portrayed it as the kind of relationship I should want? What if I had believed that?

And that is why I worry so much about books like Roar. Part of the cycle of abuse comes from women not realizing that they are in abusive situations. And, honestly, that shouldn’t be surprising. The self-important, controlling, abusive but written to be romantic boyfriend sometimes feels like a trope. And it is icky.

It also begs questions about the writers behind these books. They’re usually women. What does that say about the relationships in their lives? What does that say about what they would be willing to put up with? Sure, I love enemies to lovers. But there’s a line somewhere between belligerent sexual tension and abuse.

Take it from a teenager: we’re dumb. Even if we’re smart, we’re stupid little dipshits. We are being influenced by the media we consume, whether we realize it or not. I’m not in favour of censoring books because I think they glamorize unhealthy relationships, but I’m kind of worried about how willing the book community seems to be to accept them. (Roar has a 3.98/5 star rating on Goodreads.)

I’ll be honest. You can pry Spuffy from my cold, dead hands. I understand why people will ship Rey and Kylo and Alina and the Darkling. There’s a dangerous edge to those relationships that make them so intoxicating. But I know they’re problematic ships. The same can’t be said for other girls who might finish reading a book and think that good boyfriends tell them what they can and can’t do. So, in proper John Oliver style… Romanticizing abuse in literature for literal kids: how is this still a thing?

Have you ever found some really terrible book boyfriends? Do you have a problematic ship? Do you have Buffy opinions? (Please have Buffy opinions.) What do you think should be done to combat this is the book community? Or do you think I’m overreacting?


17 thoughts on “How Is This Still a Thing? Creepy Boyfriends in YA

  1. Ugh yeah I totally agree and hear what you’re saying. And I do have some ships that are *not good* but a lot of them KNOW they’re not good and the characters are hugely aware of it. But like holy heck!?? Some of the things in YA are so not okay! I think teens are smart and can decide things for themselves but there is a thing behind “normalising” it. We shouldn’t think it’s normal to have a guy be rude/cruel to you and then call it ” romantic” and “it’s because he likes you.” Yeah that needs to find an early grave. 😒

    So I think with problematic ships, as long as the content is SAYING it’s got problems!


    • I think that’s the important distinction: knowing that it’s problematic. When I think it gets kind of dangerous is definitely when it’s being normalized and not enough people are calling the behaviour out. If you read a book with a problematic relationship and decide you want one like that, then… honey, no. I know people who read Twilight when they were ten and still wish they could find an Edward Cullen and just… nononononono.


  2. I completely agree, and if I did have “problematic ships” in the past, as you said, I was aware of it, and most of all, I think what makes it “acceptable”, for the lack of a better word, is how the author is dealing with it in the first place. See, what I can’t stand – and I agree, it’s still too prevalent in YA – is the way some authors want to convince me that the love interest is bae when he’s… definitely NOT good at all but creepy and abusive. That’s why I like antiheroes & villains : because they’re MEANT to be morally ambiguous. Those love interests borderlines stalkers DO NOT. They’re sold as the ultimate bookboyfriend and I do have a problem with normalizing abusive behavior and coding it as “romantic” in that way. We need to tell young women that nah, that’s not okay to be overly possessive, that it’s not “romantic” in the slightest. I don’t think fiction lives in a void and we should be wary of romanticizing such awful behavior. If the author makes it clear that it’s not okay, I can go behind it, but otherwise? Nooope, I will most likely rage.

    Sorry for the rant *hides* That’s a subject I feel fiercely about XD


    • Do not be sorry about the rant! I’m the one who wrote an entire blog post about this. And I personally love how you’re always really good at calling out problematic behaviour in relationships when you review books. And there’s such a big difference between having a toxic relationship and being aware of it (for example, the Grisha trilogy is far from perfect, but I feel that it deconstructs this trope quite well) and coding an abusive relationship as something romantic and desirable. Especially because teenagers are already just trying to get into any relationship because they don’t want to be single (at least in my experience), it’s so important that what we see around us in the media is aware of what toxic relationships look like.


  3. This post is awesome. Because it is SO, so true. I think it definitely speaks to the larger societal problem in which women (and obviously men) accept this as just “how things are”. And just… NO. I will admit that when I read Roar, I didn’t fully get the problems. Like- I think part of it was that the FIRST dude was so utterly problematic, that he made Dude #2 look less problematic by comparison? But yeah, it definitely IS problematic. And yep, WHY are these books being written for teens, exactly? Because now that you mention it, like you said, it was made very clear in Buffy that Spike was the bad guy, but in Roar… Locke is supposed to be the GOOD guy, so that message seems even worse, in hindsight.

    I definitely don’t think you’re overreacting at ALL. Hopefully the (slowly) increasing awareness in the publishing community about this sort of stuff will help prevent some of these toxic relationships from being published. But sadly, I think it will take a lot of pushback, because I don’t think a lot of the authors are doing it intentionally- it’s like you said, they don’t even realize it IS abusive. Such an amazing, thoughtful post!!


    • I actually found Dude #2 ickier… Because at least with Dude #1, the author and the main character were aware that his behaviour was not okay (I think… There’s something about how it was written that was making me wonder if it was being set up for a love triangle, which would be all kinds of no.) Dude #2 felt way more insidious because it was so easy to forget the problematic stuff and some of it just felt so normal to me (the way he was completely against her doing anything even when he admitted to herself that she was perfectly capable and the MC never challenged him on it beyond what would be considered “flirty banter”) that it took me a moment to really realize how weird that is. And I totally think that the most tragic thing is how unaware I expect the authors are, because I know that at a certain point in time, I would have excitedly wrote a love interest in the mold of Spike. And thank you for the compliments on the post! It just felt random and off-the-cuff at the time, so it’s nice to know that people liked it.


  4. Pingback: Book Review: Roar by Cora Carmack | Death By A Thousand Paper Cuts

  5. Well, now I’m sort of ashamed to admit that I apparently didn’t notice all the problematic things with the relationship in Roar (and I actually loved the book). Now, eight months later, I’m trying to remember enough about the characters to write an educated comment here, but I’m finding that I’m failing. I did write in my review that Locke’s “spent his whole life avoiding getting close to anyone because of a tragedy in his past,” so that should probably tip me off to the fact that he’s one of those typical “broken-souled” YA heroes, though. But I agree that creepy boyfriends that we actually root for shouldn’t really be a thing. I’ll have to pay extra special attention when I read the sequel.

    As for Buffy, oh boy, do I have opinions. This is one case where I root for the bad boy all the way. I will never lose my love for Spike—even though I know he’s the absolute worst. Just … yep, I adore him.


    • I feel you on the Spike thing. He’s so not great… But like hhhhgh season seven? But THE FRIKKIN END OF SEASON SIX? BUT I STILL SHIP IT? So much. Send help.

      And I’m glad you enjoyed Roar. I went into it really in the mood for something fun and romance-heavy, so I get how people would like it. (And it’s so much easier to overlook problematic stuff when you ship it. See: me and Spike.)


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  7. I think this is a great topic and there’s a really fine line here. I mean, bad relationships happen. Part of existing is learning how to tell the good from the bad. For me, the line is between how the relationship is presented in the work. Is it presented as ideal, or is it presented as unhealthy and problematic? If a bad relationship is pushed as romantic and ideal and what someone should strive for, yeah, I have problems with that. I know too many young women who should have been old enough to know better but had no one in their lives modeling positive relationships and they stumbled into books with these sorts of couples and just started swooning. They found themselves the real-life versions of the couples they loved, and it didn’t end happily ever after.

    But if you present the relationship as not a healthy one and it’s obviously not a healthy one, I have no problem with that. That’s realistic. As long as it’s not being held up as a paragon of romance, I’m cool with it.

    As far as Buffy, it’s been a loooong time since I watched it, but I was all for Spuffy, even though I knew it would logically end horribly. But not as an endgame romance. Buffy was awesome enough on her own without a man. I just wanted Spuffy to be a sort of fling and then they go their separate ways. Maybe that’s not a good sign and says a lot about teenage me? xD


    • I completely agree with you. That, the modelling of relationships, is exactly the issue. We emulate what we see around us – especially what we’ve seen when we were just beginning to think about what we want out of life romantically.

      And on the Spuffy side, I’m the same. I definitely don’t think that was or ever would be a completely healthy relationship, but they just had so much sexual tension that I needed? To see it happen? I mean, I think we can enjoy watching those sorts of relationships as logged as we dissect and stay aware of what they are. (But then again, I’m the girl who just got back from a high school performance of Phantom of the Opera and is already trying to figure out how many books would fit in a cave under a Paris opera house if she moved in, so…)

      Liked by 1 person

      • So, uh, just out of curiosity and not because I would totally consider it, how many books exactly is that? I mean, enough for half a lifetime? One lifetime? Maybe three?

        I think there’s a bit of a difference between recognizing an unhealthy relationship and wanting to pair two fictional characters, because in that instance, it seems like you already know it’s both not healthy and not real. So were Buffy a real person, I’d be the first to steer her away from these creepy men in her life lol. But she’s not real, and neither is Spike, and they’re both sexy and slightly awkward and, I mean, like you said, so. much. sexual. tension.


  8. If he can fit that many candles in there, there’s more than enough space for all the books I’d ever want.


  9. Pingback: So Buffy Is Getting A Sequel | Death By A Thousand Paper Cuts

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