Digital Culture

Stop Romanticising Toxic Relationships in YA

Mary Karayel

“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same” – Emily Bronte 

I wish I could say I was a cultured 13-year-old reading Wuthering Heights, quoting Bronte. In reality, I first read this quote in the One Direction fanfiction After by Anna Todd on Wattpad.

First released in 2013, After follows ‘good girl’ Tessa as she moves away to college and meets the typical bad boy, Harry Styles, now named Hardin Scott in the published novels. Despite the bad boy cliche, I was enthralled by After and the rollercoaster of the relationship that is presented.

After now has over 1.5 billion reads on Wattpad, becoming one of the most read fanfictions on the creative writing site. Todd, labelled “the biggest literary phenomenon of her generation” by Cosmopolitan, has become a New York Times bestselling author, selling over 10 million print copies worldwide under Simon and Schuster. Clearly, my obsession with the series was universal.

But with Paramount releasing the After series as films and the latest teaser for the third film being unveiled recently, I decided to revisit the books I used to re-read often and love. Instead of experiencing nostalgia for my fanfic obsession and enjoying the intensity of Hardin and Tessa’s relationship, I was shocked by the blatant romanticism of toxic behaviours in the novel. 

Whilst love stories must have the unadulterated intensity to capture the reader’s interest, the power imbalance in After is explicit and worrisome. Tessa describes Hardin as a “drug” and how she is a “moth to his flame, and he never hesitates to burn [her]”. 13-year-old me probably saw this as passionate, whilst 21-year-old me is reeling from Hardin’s misogyny and manipulation: “I want you and I should be able to have you whenever I want to”. 

But it’s okay that he is emotionally abusive, possessive and cruel – it is just because he is “hurt”! Every excuse is made for Hardin’s terrible behaviour and Tessa is expected to fix him, at her own expense just because he “needs” her. What sort of message is this sending to young people?

Anna Todd responded to such criticism in an interview, arguing that she is not “writing books to be a good example” and does not valorise their relationship, although her retweets of #HessaGoals edits and describing him as “perfectly imperfect” suggests otherwise. 

There is also the argument that the novel is for ‘New Adults’ and is targeted at 16-year-olds,  who should know that this relationship is not the ideal. However, 80% of Wattpad users are either Millennial or GenZ and the lack of safety features on Wattpad fails to protect younger viewers from accessing stories with mature content. 

Fundamentally, whether a teenager is 13 or 16 – they deserve more. Authors, like Anna Todd, have to take some responsibility for their creations and recognise the potential negative effect their literature can have on young readers.