On “romanticizing” unhealthy things in fiction
This is a loose elaboration on @tanannariva‘s excellent post about anti-shippers’ tendency to sling around words like “romanticization” and “normalization” like they’re magic incantations that mean “QED, you are making this happen in real life!” I’m going to leave “normalization” aside for the moment because my contribution would basically be an incoherent snarl of “shrieking that we need more taboos on something that’s already taboo, and has its roots in shit that’s already normal, is just doubling down on the reasons the entire subject is such a stigmatized clusterfuck and it’s the fucking opposite of radical or progressive.” Let’s talk a bit about romanticization, using the original post’s definition of “to describe something as being better or more attractive or interesting than it really is.” In particular, let’s talk about stories whose portrayal of fucked-up, abusive relationships does romanticize them, and where exactly the connection is with real-life abuse apologism.
The thing is that stories, by their very nature, tend to portray things as more attractive and interesting than they really are. When you go through something harrowing and console yourself with “well, at least it will make a great story to tell later,” you’re explicitly planning on distilling the interesting parts from an experience that was a grinding nightmare slog of misery at the time. Many stories are also ways to rehearse the various kinds of shit life might throw at you and transmit models for how people deal with it–and in order to actually be transmitted, they have to be in a form that is interesting, memorable, and engaging.
Also, people fantasize all the time about stuff that’s attractive but too dangerous, costly, or immoral to actually pursue. A cliffside with a spectacular view is attractive. Sleeping in on a weekday is attractive. Taking gory revenge on people who’ve hurt you or cut you off in traffic is attractive. The problem isn’t the attraction. The problem is when people’s idea of the real-life consequences gets skewed. You don’t fix that by telling them to stop finding the thing appealing, you fix that by saying “hey, I know this is fun to imagine, but I feel like we need a reality check on how disastrous the non-fictional version is.”
And of course these two things–dramatizing and fantasizing–are often combined, in the form of stories where obstacles are downplayed or the extent of what people can accomplish is exaggerated. Which is generally OK and understood. Sometimes the execution is criticized for breaking suspension of disbelief or for the implications of what’s downplayed and what isn’t, but even little kids learn pretty early on that just because they read it in a book or saw it on TV doesn’t mean they should try it at home. When they don’t, that’s when the reality check becomes necessary.
In the specific case of stories about abusive relationships… a lot of the most compelling ones are about taking something wild, something that hurts people and would happily hurt you, and domesticating it. Not just taming it, not just making its dangerous qualities work for you, but befriending it and loving it and incorporating it into the fabric of your everyday life. It’s a story that humans find perpetually attractive because that’s what we do, that’s what’s behind a lot of our success, we’re the crazy fuckers who turned wolves into border collies and wild horses into Shetland ponies. The more resistant something actually is to domestication, the more we like stories about the crazy fucker who pulled it off anyway. The attraction isn’t the problem. The problem is that in real life, when it comes to human personalities and relationships that will probably hurt you, there is widespread denial of how dangerous, harmful, and resistant to change some types can be. There is widespread playing-up of the romantic appeal and widespread ignorance of how illusory and manipulative the appealing parts are. And YOU WILL NOT FIX ANYTHING BY DENYING THE APPEAL OR TELLING PEOPLE TO STOP FINDING IT ATTRACTIVE.
Yes, it is helpful to tell stories about how the cycle of abuse really works, but not because they’ll refute or replace the romanticized fantasy, or destroy its appeal. They won’t. What they’ll do is similar to what an out-of-story reality check or an “abusive relationship” tag will do: they’ll say “hey, when this does happen it’s actually pretty awful.” And they’ll go beyond that to give people models for what shit looks like and possible ways to deal with it. They’ll do that even if some of their edges are filed off and some of their agony is distilled into drama, which is why it’s the opposite of helpful to lump everything you think is flawed/ambivalent/insufficiently realistic into the “romanticizing” category and try to exterminate it all. That actively suppresses resources that might actually reach people who are into the romanticized stuff and have picked up distorted ideas about abuse.
(By all means, criticize and discuss the depiction… but with the goal of illuminating nuances the original story glossed over or bungled, not making the bad thing go away. That’s the other thing that’s so nonsensical about focusing these book-burning campaigns on fanfiction of all things: not only does it come with built-in warning labels, it comes with a built-in book club and author Q&A session. You want context, author clarification, cautionary notes about the narratives the story seems to be pushing, alternate narratives, education about the realistic outcome? They’re all just as easy to attach to the work itself as screeds about what a terrible person the author is.)
Basically, the world is full of stuff that’s great fun in stories but wretched IRL for everyone except the 1% of freaks lucky enough to be Into That Sort Of Thing. Wilderness survival. Swordfights with no safety gear. Extreme painplay as kink. Emergencies where a non-pilot somehow has to land the plane without killing everyone. And since society is messed up, “whirlwind romances with brooding, jealous, obsessive antiheroes” only make it onto the list intermittently, often with vehement blowback. That’s what’s out of whack and needs fixing.
You will not fix it by trying to convince people that swashbuckling duel scenes aren’t fun if the characters aren’t wearing safety gear. You will get even-more-vehement blowback if the people who enjoy the romance equivalent of swashbuckling have even the slightest reason to suspect your PSA about safety is a front for an attempt to take away their unrealistic fantasies, replace them with fencing-tournament footage, and make them watch gory cautionary tales about what will happen to them if they leave their protective gear off. The only way to get anywhere is to accept that it’s okay to see the appeal in romanticized depictions of relationships that would be abusive IRL, because the appeal is separate from understanding how the IRL consequences would play out. Work on people’s understanding of the consequences. In the end, all the hand-wringing about the appeal boils down to worrying that it will distort people’s understanding of the consequences. So focus on what really matters.