Hero or stalker?
Team Edward or Team Jacob, Team David or Team Zane, Team Gale or Team Peeta? Young adult paranormal romance, like YA urban fantasy and dystopian science fiction, is currently dominated by love triangles, but this hasn’t always been true. Paranormal romance for teens arguably began in 1984, when New Zealand author Margaret Mahy published The Changeover: a Supernatural Romance. There’s no love triangle for Mahy’s heroine Laura Chant, though there is the darkly dangerous, older, wealthier, and supernatural Sorenson “Sorry” Carlisle. Sorry, like many of the current paranormal swains, has behavior that occasionally verges on the stalkerish. He sneaks into Laura’s locked bedroom, watches her breasts as she breathes, pins a photograph of her to a poster of a naked woman in his bedroom.
Every year, I assign Twilight and The Changeover side-by-side, and every year, I find that while some of my students find Edward’s behavior romantic, those same readers think Sorry’s behavior is exceedingly sketchy. As we closely read the text together to learn more about what provokes these reactions, we discover the difference is that Laura herself, and the text, disapprove of Sorry’s less-savory choices. The Changeover invites readers to disapprove of Sorry for his behaviour:
“Why would you want to make me tremble?” Laura cried out in irritation. “What a male chauvanist sort of idea.”
Even Sorry’s defense of his actions makes it clear they’re unacceptable. When Laura finds Sorry in her bedroom at night, she accuses him of sexual harassment:
“You’ve been reading Woman’s Weekly,” Sorry replied. “Never mind—as harassment goes I expect it’s the best sort there is.”
“It’s not fair,” Laura hissed.
Contrast this with Bella Swan’s reaction when she first learns Edward has been spying on her at night:
“You spied on me?” But somehow I couldn’t infuse my voice with the proper outrage. I was flattered.
He was unrepentant. “What else is there to do at night?”
Bella sees her erstwhile lover’s nighttime spying as flattering, while Laura sees it as harassment and unfair.
The Changeover is a romance, not a didactic warning about dangerous boys. Sorry Carlisle is unquestionably written as a romantic lead. When my friends and I read The Changeover as teens in the 1980s, we read him wholeheartedly as an appropriate romantic object, despite his unquestionable flaws. The novel, to us, was a passionate one; it set our hearts all aflutter. When Laura stands up to Sorry’s questionable behavior, it made their relationship seem all the stronger to us. Yet in the context of the modern YA paranormals, with their often flawless Byronic heroes, my students—even the students who think Edward Cullen is thoroughly harmless and respectable—find the open admission of Sorry’s spying to be outrageous.
Changing YA genre conventions may have changed the way readers can see an openly flawed hero.
Deborah Kaplan is the digital resources archivist at Tufts University and a literature, archives, and technology blogger. Find out more about Deborah Kaplan.