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Not Safe for Wellbeing: Toxic Relationships in Teen and Adult Fiction

Trigger Warning: Relationship, emotional, and physical abuse; self-harm; gaslighting; suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts and romanticization of suicide (relating to fictional characters and plot), non-consented behaviour during BDSM Content Warning: Toxic relationships and behaviors, relationship abuse, blood relating to fictional characters and plot, BDSM Introduction Picture this: A female protagonist experiences a change in her life and suddenly has her world turned upside down when she meets the powerful yet dangerous male protagonist—one too brooding and chiseled to kick in the groin, run, and call the police. What title do you think of when you read this compelling plot? Too broad? How about the fact that the female protagonist is inexperienced, and the male protagonist has deep-seated issues from their past? No, that still doesn’t narrow it down. What about the fact that the male protagonist is not interested in long-term commitments such as marriage? Nope. A love triangle featuring another (more attractive) man that is undeniably more appealing than the main male love interest?… Hmm, there seems to be quite the overlap for a lot of romance titles. To end the guessing game, I’m going to name two titles: 1. Twilight. 2. Fifty Shades of Grey. Whatever your immediate reaction—slow realization, confusion, or abrupt bodily repulsion—they are all valid. These two titles have solidified themselves as bestselling titles both on bookshelves and in the cinema—either as guilty pleasures or as titles deeply ridiculed in pop culture, depending on how much cringe your brain cells are willing to resist, particularly when it comes to the term ‘toxic relationship.’ My initial list of vague yet applicable tropes to multiple titles in the romance genre might bring up an interesting point: many titles in romance fiction share a narrative formula that works to their benefit, as do many storytelling structures. However, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are connected by the indulgence of fanfiction with a key difference in the age groups of their targeted audiences. If there was a Venn diagram, the shared section between these two titles would involve a lot, if not all, of the aforementioned tropes—which arguably makes it more interesting why their audiences differ. With Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey as the main case studies (alternatively, the main suspects of literary crime), this piece is going to examine and analyze the following:

  • What would we consider a ‘toxic relationship’ in the context of fiction?

  • What are the criticisms of main romantic couples in fiction targeting teens and fiction targeting adults?

  • How do the criticisms of ‘toxic relationships’ in fiction differ depending on the target audience’s age group?

To begin this, we need to have a baseline understanding of ‘toxicity’, what it means and how we use it to talk about pop culture. What is ‘toxic’? Defining ‘toxic’ To some, a song released in 2003 by Britney Spears offers the only meaning of toxic that matters. However, Oxford University Press’s definition is slightly different. According to the press’s webpage ‘Oxford Languages’, ‘toxic’ was the word of the year in 2018. The word is defined as: “The adjective toxic is defined as ‘poisonous’ and first appeared in English in the mid-seventeenth century from the medieval Latin toxicus, meaning ‘poisoned’ or ‘imbued with poison’.” Arguably, it is necessary to understand the definition of ‘toxic’ because it is commonly used to refer to relationships. Additionally, it can help identify the difference between ‘unhealthy relationships’ and ‘toxic relationships’. Toxicity is synonymous with poison, something capable of injuring or killing. Therefore, a ‘toxic relationship’ can be defined as a relationship that isn’t just unhealthy, it is poisoning one or more people and can cause physical, mental, or emotional harm. For the most talked about topics in 2018, Oxford Languages states that “It is the sheer scope of its application, as found by our research, that made toxic the stand-out choice for the Word of the Year title. [...] Our data shows that, along with a 45% rise in the number of times it has been looked up on, over the last year the word toxic has been used in an array of contexts, both in its literal and more metaphorical senses.” This is evident with their top 10 ‘toxic’ collates in 2018, where ‘masculinity’ and ‘relationship’ were the 2nd and 6th most frequently used words in conjunction with ‘toxic’; “Toxic relationships are not exclusive to the workplace, however, and whether it’s partners, parents, or even politicians, [2018] has seen so much discussion of ‘poisonous’ relationships across our society that ‘relationship’ is the sixth most-seen toxic topic for 2018. [...] With the #MeToo movement putting a cross-industry spotlight on toxic masculinity, and watershed political events like the Brett Kavanaugh Senate judiciary committee hearing sparking international debate, the term toxic masculinity has well and truly taken root in the public consciousness and got people talking in 2018.” This assessment highlights not only how ‘toxic relationships’ have become more of an accessible term for people to identify and label what they see in relationships, but also how events in modern history culturally impact our language. One can imagine why so many people find something toxic in real and fictional relationships—the harm of toxicity can either be instant and overt, or gradual and covert. The latter can appear the most dangerous as it is harder to spot in fictional relationship dynamics, especially for younger audiences that may not have developed enough experience to identify overt and covert signs of toxicity. With this in mind, what do people criticize in teen and adult fiction as examples of toxic behavior and relationships? Criticisms of Popular Teen Media One major pillar of pop culture is Twilight, famously known for its paranormal love triangle. An ordinary girl with extraordinary facial expressions, sparkling blood-suckers seductively playing baseball, and a relationship dynamic that was often more dangerous than immoral thirst. An example of this is when Edward attempts to end his life by exposing his sparkling body to a crowd of humans because he did not want to live without Bella in his life… The immediate red flag here is that Edward is risking and threatening his own well-being because he no longer wanted to live after the break-up. If anyone needs to hear this: no romantic relationship you have in your teen years or onwards that risks your well-being and safety is ever worth keeping long-term. Personally, I believe attaching romantic attraction to life-or-death circumstances is dangerous if normalized. Fiction is fiction. It can take those risks with characters, but people shouldn’t be placed in a similar position in real life. One of the things that Twilight also managed to pioneer is the franchising of fanfiction: turning Wattpad stories into live-action movies with more sequels than green flags. Fifty Shades of Grey exemplifies the indulgence of fanfiction with adult themes, in this case for Twilight; however, it managed to become a book and later a published media phenomenon. We’ll talk more about the Fifty Shades saga later on, but first, we’ll focus on Netflix’s attempts to indulge teen audiences with fantasy, false hope, and falling in love with emotionally-wounded twenty-five-year-old teenagers. One of my favorite online content creators is Kennie J.D., who has a series on her YouTube channel called 'Bad Movies and a Beat' where she talks about bad movies while putting her makeup on. A common theme throughout this series, when Kennie discusses a romance movie for a teen audience, is that there are tropes in teen romance you do not always realize are toxic. In other words, Kennie critiques these 'bad' teen movies for potentially younger audiences to learn red flags from the perspective of someone who was in the same position but is now older. An example of this was when Kennie discusses how they used to be a huge fan of the Twilight saga. Not only that, they used to love the trope of feeling like you are going to die without a person, with Edward trying to end his life as an example. Kennie explains in her video about Twilight: New Moon that, "I would like to call myself a [recovering] toxic romance enthusiast. [...] I loved the second book because of one particularly disturbing element. [...] I was going through puberty and all types of angst. [...] it was so unhealthy and so twisted and just so damaging—and I loved it." Essentially, it was a trope where the female love interest got hurt or died, giving the male love interest a moment to realize his undying love for her. He would be: "Beautifully tortured. A story's a story but when you start to focus so much on that, because I did, you start to kind of idolize this idea that [either] this is an appropriate way to gauge someone's love for you, like would they want to kill themselves if I died [...] this is the extremity of a relationship, this should be that extreme; or, it also messes with your perception of how love should be actualized, how it should be performed. [...] You can live without people. [It] kind of romanticizes just really unhealthy ways to coping with relationship breakdowns, it's just what happens, you know. Let's not act like this is cute is what I'm saying." The romanticization of illness at a minimum and death/suicide at the maximum was a trope she loved in her younger years, so she was in a position to understand the allure of consuming romantic fiction at a young age, to then explain why it isn't alluring at all. When explaining the part of the film where Edward essentially says he loves Bella so much he is willing to die for her, Kennie says, "This movie [New Moon] and so many other movies like this, this trope, is so dangerous [...] it's not just simply we're watching entertainment, especially ones that are targeted towards me when I was, like, eleven years old, eight years old [...] I got to stop and make y'all realise that this is not cute. [...] There is nothing romantic about hurting yourself, killing yourself, at all. There is nothing romantic about being in such a place that you would want to kill yourself." As Kennie mentions, it is not just about consuming these tropes for entertainment, it is (often) the lack of life experiences that allows toxic tropes of extreme circumstances to be idolized or viewed as a benchmark for romance. More recent examples of teen media that get heavily criticized are conceived from the corporate womb of Netflix: After and The Kissing Booth. In an article for the Independent, Roisin O’Connor discusses Netflix’s allure with producing teen romances that have a rosy tinted hue spackled over toxic behavior. O’Connor discusses how Netflix “found a goldmine in the shape of Wattpad” when they decided to turn The Kissing Booth, Welsh teenager Beth Reekles’s debut novel on Wattpad, into a summer feature film on the streaming site. According to O’Connor, it was panned by critics due to its “overtly misogynistic tone” and moments where the male love interest (Noah) is violent or instigates physical fights. However, this teen romance is not the only poisoned arrow in its quiver to be shot at audiences unprovoked. At the time O’Connor’s piece was published, “After, another Wattpad sensation by American author Anna Todd, was just released on Netflix UK as a feature film. [...] [I]t follows the same pattern: a naive, wholesome girl leaves home for university, where she encounters Hardin, whose friends describe him as “complicated” (when really, he’s just an arsehole)[...]”. Some of the key points I found when researching critiques of Netflix’s attempts at teen love are the idea of normalization, framing harmful behavior as romantic, and giving teenage girls the will to ‘fix’ their broken boyfriends. An example of this, which can be easily found in The Kissing Booth or After, is the male love interest having a strong disconnection or ‘broken’ relationship with at least one of their parents, someone who self-sabotages with various vices, has a quick temper, and insults people to appear edgy, mysterious or alluring. Another reminder especially to any girls and women reading: being a good girlfriend is not synonymous with mending a poor partner. Young people are not stupid. Young people are not idiots. Being young is a complicated miasma of physical, emotional and mental fluctuations that no one can ever prepare you for; therefore, we need to acknowledge that fiction with toxic tropes may not objectively help young people learn about the importance of their well-being, their safety, their boundaries, and their worth in relationships unless that fiction consciously makes an effort to convey toxic behavior without romanticization. Observing toxicity in teen movies from an adult perspective can provide that guidance if and when needed. With this in mind, does this guidance differ if it is fiction targeting an adult audience? Criticisms of Popular Adult Media When the fateful day arrived that Kennie J.D. published her thoughts about Fifty Shades of Grey in an episode of ‘Bad Movies and Beat’, she first addressed that she held the movie to a different standard in terms of its toxic tropes because of the target audience; “It's not targeted to pre-teens or even people in their late teens so much, it's garnered towards people in the age bracket of the character; twenty-two, thirty-ish. Arguably, it;'s not even then, I feel like the audience is actually just very sexually repressed suburban housewives in their forties. Because the prime demographic is not, say, high schoolers or teenagers, I don't mind it being as much of a toxic relationship. Primarily, I would imagine this is supposed to be targeting people that have life experience and are better at differentiating between desirable and undesirable traits and being able to decipher between reality and fantasy—in theory." Of course, the toxic trope is important to identify and discuss, especially in the context of bondage, domination, submission/sadism, and masochism—BDSM. However, this assessment of the film’s target audience suggests that because adults are (in theory) more likely to differentiate between fictional relationships designed for indulgence and the reality of relationships based on their personal experience, then criticisms about toxic relationship tropes don’t necessarily have similar weight or gravity in comparison to fiction designed to target teens. Quips about “very sexually repressed suburban housewives” aside, Suzanne Braun Levine corroborates this suggestion that women over thirty are a key demographic of the franchise. She argues in a Huffington post article why the vast majority of people that are purchasing, reading, or talking about Fifty Shades of Grey are this specific age groups by stating, "It's the talking about it part that interests me, because as I travel around the country meeting with groups of women to discuss my latest book How We Love Now, the subject of sex inevitably comes up, and when it does, the consensus is that while many women are having great sex and many others are having sexual problems, we are not sharing our experiences the way we do on most other topics. [...] By talking about the book, we are also able to gauge whether other women are exploring the same territory. 'I'm reading 50 Shades of Grey" is code for "I still have sexual feelings; do you?'" In other words, Suzanne suggests that Fifty Shades of Grey was the push or topic starter for older women to talk with like-minded people, begin to embrace an aspect of sex positivity, and explore their own sexuality in new ways. I strongly believe in sex positivity and the idea of exploring desires and boundaries, emphasis on the latter. Boundaries are just as important as desire when it comes to sexuality and sex-positivity– something I would argue is overlooked by Suzanne's assessment. Desire and exploration for older women are key reasons why Fifty Shades established and grew this particular audience. However, it is also necessary to iterate that when it comes to BDSM or 'non-vanilla' activities, its representation in fiction can be portrayed in relation to toxic dynamics and behavior—which isn't necessarily representative of the BDSM community. In a post-Fifty Shades world, there are more positively received representations of BDSM in fiction such as Bonding, an American dark comedy series on Netflix from 2018-2021, and Love and Leashes, a webtoon [web comic] which later became a Korean rom-com film in 2022 that is also on Netflix. However, the criticisms of the BDSM scenes in Fifty Shades of Grey often were about the seemingly unbalanced and 'toxic' dynamic between the two love interests, or how this franchise and its reception paint a specific picture of the community that may not be the full canvas. In Psychology Today, Scott A. McGreal MSc. cited multiple papers and studies to address the discussion about Fifty Shades of Grey and glamorizing abusive relationships: "The first paper [“Double Crap!” Abuse and Harmed Identity in Fifty Shades of Grey][...] analyses the interactions between the two main characters in Fifty Shades of Grey and concludes that the story depicts stalking, intimidation, and emotional and sexual abuse of the female protagonist Anastasia by her love interest Christian (Bonomi, et al., 2013). Bonomi et al. also correctly point out that the books provide a rather distorted portrayal of the practice of BDSM noting that real-life practitioners pay much more attention to issues of consent and safety than the characters in the books." A common criticism from the BDSM community is the poor representation of the lifestyle to make it appear toxic or possibly one-sided when real-life sub-dom relationships rely on trust and ongoing consent from all people involved. Pamela Stephenson Connolly emphasizes this, stating in The Guardian in 2012 that the ‘worst’ part of the Grey’s portrayal of a man interested in BDSM is; “the implication that his particular erotic style has developed because he is psychologically ‘sick’. [...] Ten years ago, I carried out an extensive psychological study of people in the BDSM community – the largest empirical study ever done at the time – to examine their psychological attributes and determine if there was any justification for the notion, commonly held, even within my field, that they were all psychologically disturbed. After giving each of the 132 participants four hours of psychological tests, as well as a face-to-face interview, I found that, in fact, the group was generally not mentally unhealthy, and the instances of early abuse that had long been associated with the adult practice of BDSM were present in just a few. [...] BDSM, played in a safe and consensual manner, is not proof of mental or physical illness, essential badness or emotional damage from trauma or abusive parenting, and that people cannot – and should not – be treated to cure it.” This is where the context of the target audience matters when discussing toxicity; the elements of toxic behaviors in adult relationships or adult contexts differ from the circumstances or experiences of teenage life. The idea of consent is the same for all ages, but things such as BDSM add to the discussion of consent depending on an adult’s accumulation of experiences. Kat Blaque, a content creator that sometimes talks about her experience as a sub in the BDSM community, discusses in their video about Fifty Shades of Grey that she can see why people in the community argue that this is a poor representation of BDSM. However, she argues that she can see why people took issue with how the community was represented in the film and that “it isn’t a reflection of most BDSM stuff” but is “a pretty good depiction of bedroom BDSM. To elaborate, she explains, “I did not think that this was an inaccurate portrayal of BDSM. Is it the kind of BDSM I do? Absolutely not. But do some indeed people engage in this particular type of BDSM? Yes. [...] It is common for dominant men to be allured by inexperienced submissives, particularly women because they can then introduce them to BDSM and what it means to have a sub-dom dynamic.” Whilst clarifying the difference between bedroom BDSM and being in the BDSM community in her video, Kat Blaque also talks about toxicity. Not just in romanticizing the creepy ways Christian Grey violates her space and privacy (such as having sex instead of calling the police when Christain let himself into her apartment and waiting in the dark to surprise her), but also how the film sets up a story where Anastasia and Christian are clearly misaligned in the ‘vigor’ of their sub-dom dynamic. Supported by a clip of Anastasia exclaiming “why do you care so much about the contract Christian, don't you like me the way I am?”, Kat Blaque discusses an occur