Are Fictional Love Triangles Hurting Young Adult Readers?


Spoiler alert for Twilight, The Hunger Games, and The Mortal Instruments

On August 21, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young adults will have a new OTP.

If your homepage isn’t bookmarked to Tumblr, you don’t know that OTP stands for “One True Pairing,” or in a fandom (a group of individuals who all enjoy a book, movie or television series), the couple OF ALL COUPLES. Your OTP might be the two characters you KNOW belong together, though their relationship has yet to take hold (think Jim and Pam of The Office before the fourth season, or Ron and Hermione of Harry Potter). Your OTP might not have a chance in hell of ending up together, but you’ll ship (or root for – please keep up) them, through thick and thin.

This new OTP is not so new – You might have shipped them since 2008. That was the year City of Bones, the first book in The Mortal Instruments series, was released. On August 21, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones will open in theaters. Lily Collins of “The Blind Side” and “Mirror Mirror” stars as Clary Fray a teenager who finds herself thrust into a world of demons and magic when her mother is kidnapped by the father she thought died in her childhood … a father who is hell-bent on the destruction of life as Clary knows it.

Or, more than likely, our new Katniss or Bella.


It’s not unfair that the girls of young adult fiction-turned films have their non-romantic traits pushed to the side for the boy they’ll ultimately fall for – it’s downright disgraceful. And worse, it isn’t surprising anymore. The fact that more media attention was given to the first Disney princess without a prince to fall for than the changes in storytelling that forced “Hunger Games” viewers to pit Gale against Peeta much earlier in the series proves it.

And on that note, I present your new OTP: Clary and Jace! … or is it Simon?

I’m shocked that Hot Topic has yet to stock “TEAM JACE” and “TEAM SIMON” T-shirts (for the record, should they appear in Hot Topic after publication of this editorial, I will insist on compensation.) It appears there are three key ingredients for a successful young adult series turned film franchise: A straight, white, female protagonist, at least three books (the last of which can be split into two films for maximum profit), and two boys who want to make out with her.

How did we let this happen? Sure, there was plenty of feminist outcry over Twilight’s Bella passively allowing herself to be swept into danger and a controlling relationship. And we were all so stoked to have a non-gender conforming, badass heroine in Katniss that we mostly let it slide that eventually a movie would twist the book’s minor romances into a love triangle on steroids. But we need to seriously examine how the prevalence of love triangles in media affects girls and women (I just read the The Mortal Instruments series at age 22).

I first read Twilight in 2005, when I was a sophomore in high school. This is not my way of saying, “I knew about Twilight BEFORE it was cool,” because that sentence is ridiculous. In the past seven years, three more books and a novella, and five movies, Twilight hasn’t become “cool” so much as compulsory: If you were a teenage girl (or her menopausal mother), you read the Twilight saga. And, more importantly, you picked a side: Team Edward or Team Jacob.

Team with a capital ‘T’ Edward meant you wanted Twilight heroine Bella Swan to marry Edward Cullen, the perpetually 17-year-old vampire. Team Jacob favored Bella’s werewolf friend Jacob, who mended Bella’s broken heart when Edward left her.

“But it was for her own good! Edward only wanted to keep Bella safe!” “But JACOB was the one who was there for her, and he is the much safer option for a human girl!” “But werewolves can totally lose control too, like that one guy and his girlfriend –“


With a plot that makes Romeo and Juliet’s star-crossed plan sound rational, and unfeeling, awkward acting turned multimillion-dollar box office success, Twilight went from teenage fantasy to laughably cringe-worthy for the first several generations of readers. The second part of the final movie came out the winter after I graduated college, and I have yet to rent the “epic conclusion” to my delusional pubertal addiction.

Because I was Team Edward. I was one of the girls who bought all four books in hardback – I even attended a book release party for Breaking Dawn (in costume … I know, I hate me too.) I saw the first film at midnight, perhaps one of a handful of audience members of age to have consensual sex. And while even a high school advanced English student could tell the caliber of author Stephanie Meyer’s writing was not to be admired, it took several years of growing up (and an intro Women’s Studies course) to see just how toxic the depiction of Bella’s romantic relationships could have been to my real life.

Sexuality in young adult fiction is nothing new. I was reading about masturbation courtesy of Judy Blume years before Twilight found its way onto my bookshelf. Nor should it be censored or shamed. Judging by the fact that it took until 2011 for New York City to mandate its schools teach FACTUAL sexual education, kids had to have been using other sources to validate how they felt as new sexual beings.

But to that extent, is it the responsibility of young adult authors to be a sexual resource for their readers? According to Maria Nikolajeva, the director of the Cambridge/Homerton Research and Training Center for Children’s Literature, it is.

“Writers who address young audience should, in an ideal world, be very careful about what they say. Exactly because teenage brains lack the ability to make judgments,” Nikolajeva told The Washington Post in 2010. “In plain words, they may get wrong ideas. Not because they are stupid, but because their brains are wired like that. Because they are socially and emotionally unstable.”

Nikolajeva led a conference on how young adult novels affect the teen brain, which is still growing in ways that could make permanent connections based on their reading. Meaning reading book after book where competition over affections is seen as romantic could create a generation of young women who aspire for a tug-of-war relationship, which ends in the “friend-zoning” of one potential paramour.

Feminists cringe over the concept that a woman owes someone sex if that someone has romantic feelings for them – even romantic feelings that aren’t returned. In these novels, the “friend-zoning” always works out for the best: Jacob imprints on Bella and Edward’s daughter, keeping him bonded to the family without any hard feelings that Bella didn’t “choose” him. Katniss sees Gale as partially responsible for her sister’s death, and Gale’s new governmental aspirations replace Katniss in his heart.

As for Simon and Jace, the shooting of The Mortal Instruments: City of Ashes is set for the fall, so if the first film succeeds in the vein of its predecessors, you’ll soon see how Clary’s love triangle plays out.

While I grew out of high school, I never grew out of reading — even young adult fiction. I just tackled the first two books of Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and was utterly delighted to find only one love interest for main (white, female) protagonist, Tris.

Because I don’t think having crushes or even love in young adult novels is problematic. It isn’t fair to assume that every high schooler is obsessed with getting to promote that they’re “In a Relationship” on Facebook. It also isn’t fair that the women in these relationships, despite their varying levels of sexual behavior, are slut shamed to the point of bullying, self-inflicted injury and suicide.

Katniss isn’t slut shamed for her mostly media-glorified relationship with Peeta – but she does feel pressured to keep up a loving façade when she is clearly dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after, you know, killing a bunch of kids her age and watching her friend die. Bella isn’t bullied by her classmates for marrying right after graduation – but she finds her boyfriend’s controlling behavior problematic not because it’s abusive, but because it’s annoying. And in her guilt for “friend-zoning” Jacob, she sees his “passionate” sexual assault as her fault.

In my senior year of high school, my English class was assigned to write ourselves a letter to be received in five years, or a year after our presumed graduation from college. Reflecting on my own high school experience, how did Twilight, which I wrote was my “favorite book,” affect how I acted with my boyfriends? Did I stay with the boy I didn’t really like more than a friend because he liked me? Did I stay in an emotionally abusive love triangle (it was actually a love rectangle, but the same rules apply) because I saw myself as the star of my own young adult story? I didn’t know the ending, but I remember hoping it was me who was “chosen” in the end, and the depression and self-slut shaming that resulted when I wasn’t.

I like the way John Green, New York Times bestselling author of The Fault in Our Stars, puts it, “I don’t think my readers are less capable or intelligent than other humans.” Sure, I was in advanced placement courses and accepted to a four-year college where my worldview would significantly alter — but when I was 15, the same age as The Mortal Instruments’ Clary, I was fighting my own demons. And without young adult fiction, my notions of romance were about as useless as a Shadowerhunter without a Steele.