All The RowboatsToday's Tune:
First, I'll get the obvious out of the way: Twilight has been discussed and dissected absolutely to death. I know. Even so, there's no denying its impact on young adult fiction, and that's the angle I wanted to explore with this post.
Love triangles are nothing new in the area of Romance. They've existed essentially since the genre's inception. This is how stories work: they need stakes and opposition. You can't let your protagonist achieve their goal in the first few chapters. There's no story if you do that. Therefore, obstacles must be placed in the way of the goal. The goal of a Romance is for the couple to get together and have their Happily Ever After. So, how do you keep the couple from achieving that for several books? LOVE TRIANGLE, OBVIOUSLY.
There are many other methods of creating obstacles and tension in a Romance, but the triangle is a tried-and-true favorite. Anyway, my point here is that I'm aware Twilight did not invent the Love Triangle. Everyone knows Dawson's Creek invented the LT. I KID. However, I do think Twilight and the subsequent Paranormal Romances did contribute to a recent trend. I often hear people complain about LTs (myself included; I hate them), but that doesn't mean I don't think it's an important trope to explore.
In Western culture, we still maintain some pretty rigid ideas about how girls/women are "allowed" to express romantic interest and sexuality. We're supposed to be the monogamist, the loyal other, the nurturer, the sexual gatekeeper. It's our job to keep the wandering eyes and penises of males in check. We're supposed to live to simultaneously please our partner and remain chaste for him, denying his amorous advances (because men are all horndogs) until he's made significant commitment to us. Until we've "tamed" him. (For the record: I do not believe men fall in line with any of these social stigmas, either. Men are not dumb animals, and that implication is old.).
If a girl strays off this well-worn path, if she dares to date more than one person at the same time, or she takes ownership of her sexuality and is unashamed of desiring sex, or she acts like anyone other than the wide-eyed virgin waiting to tame her prince? She's vilified. She's a slut, a bitch, a tease, a corrupted vessel. These archaic ideas are veeeeeery sloooooowly altering, but they still have an intense grip on us.
My point here is that Twilight, for all its potentially questionable themes, made strides toward breaking that pattern. Yes, really. Bella desired sex and Edward had to be the gatekeeper. She was given two equally attractive suitors and wasn't vilified for wanting to be with both of them. Not only that... she had several additional tertiary romantic potentials. She never gave the others the time of day, but they were there.
All of this ties into a deep, old fantasy for women: sometimes we desire the affection or sex of more than one partner, too. This seems like a revolutionary concept to many people. OMG! Some women don't actually want to fall in love with just one guy? They actually enjoy being desired by someone other than their "intended?" They actually want sex? Sometimes KINKY sex?! But these are all MAN things! Actually, no. They're human things. Some people want monogamy. Some want to date around. Some want to wrap themselves up in the fantasy of a hot vampire and an equally hot werewolf and maybe some other hot human randoms finding them a desirable partner. Of having all the boys in the yard.
Japanese pop culture is a little more up on the desires of its ladies. Granted biases still exist, but the prominence of Shoujo Manga (manga "for girls") evidences the fact that they're not afraid to cater to what girls actually want -- anything from yaoi (male-male romance/erotica) to reverse harem.
This is where Fruits Basket comes in. For the unfamiliar, this is a story about an average, plain, not-super-bright-but-very-kind girl named Tohru Honda and her adventures with... a whole bunch of supernatural boys. Who turn into animals when they're hugged by a girl. Obviously, a lot of hijinks involving romantic tension and hugging lots of cute boys ensues. Throughout the series, a significant Love Triangle is formed. I will not spoil you by telling you how it plays out, but suffice to say that I, LT hater extraordinaire, didn't totally hate it. In addition to the two main romantic interests, several other male characters express interest in Tohru or repeatedly flirt with her. She has her very own reverse harem of hot dudes to enjoy... though she tends to be flustered and bashful more often than not.
These things exist in Western culture, too -- just read any fan fiction site ever and you will find plenty of slash and reverse harem style stories. However, that material isn't coming from official channels. We're not publishing (very many) stories like these. No, these stories come from the source. These stories are coming from the girls and women who want to read them.
While recently re-reading a few of my Fruits Basket volumes, I made the connection that these stories sell so well and become so popular with young women because they explore something deep inside us that perhaps isn't fully realized. We're conditioned from a very young age to believe there's ONE perfect man out there for us, and we need to "wait" for him, both in the literal sense and in the sense of our sexuality. However, these stories are poking under the surface of that conditioning. What if we don't want to sit around waiting for one special man? What if we enjoy being desired by multiple partners? What if we want a choice?
Twilight and Fruits Basket don't completely break the bonds of the stigma -- both Tohru and Bella end up with their one "true love" and fall in line with the typical ending of happiness in monogamy. And I'm not saying that ending isn't realistic. I myself tend toward monogamy. Many people do. But this trend toward girls who are desired by two, three, four-or-more other characters may be tapping in to the idea that men and women really aren't so different. Some of us want marriage and the white picket fence. Some of us want the chance to date every pretty potential mate we come across. Some of us want both, or something in between. There's nothing wrong with any of those paths.
No, harem-style fiction isn't realistic. Ordinary, uninteresting girls don't go to school one day to find every eligible member of the opposite sex drooling at their feet. But that's part of the fantasy, and it's a fantasy girls and women are saying they want. The problematic elements are there, of course, but maybe it's time to look deeper into the subtext of femininity, desire, and sexuality that's being scratched here.
My opinion? I think this, like anything else, is girls and women saying they want choice. They want options. I think the trend toward multiple romantic interests for female characters may be an exploration of that in a "safe" sort of way.
What say you, readers?