“After” is a novel made famous through Wattpad – a publication website where typically young authors take to write a short (or long) fictional story, either of their own imagination or more commonly fanfiction. The book was published for real outside of the website, when the author, Anna Todd, was still in her 20s. The book was published chapter by chapter onto Wattpad when she was only 24. And her leading men? Inspired by none other than each member of the boy band One Direction.
The story follows a young woman named Tessa who is beginning her first year of college. She has an overbearing mother, a high school boyfriend who has been her best friend since childhood, and no father figure. When she’s dropped off at her dorm, her mother isn’t pleased with her roommate’s “edginess” and insists she asks for a new roommate because she is a bad influence. Tessa asks her mom to trust her and says that she’s not going to do anything. Her boyfriend seems shy but is insecure about having a girlfriend who’s now in college without him.
When the movie goes on, we meet Hardin (based on Harry Styles). A typical, overly used and cliche bad boy with tattoos, wears rock band t-shirts and drives an old car. He refuses to leave despite Tessa’s request when she walks into her room to see Hardin there right after her shower. He makes a snarky comment implying that he has no interest in looking at her anyway, instead of just being a decent human and leaving the room for five seconds while she gets dressed.
For the duration of the movie, Hardin can’t make up his mind about committing to Tessa or not, she cheats on her boyfriend Noah multiple times (even when he’s on her campus visiting), and Hardin proves time and time again that he’s an abusive, toxic boyfriend. And Tessa isn’t healthy for him either. She tells Hardin she trusts him but proceeds to follow him when she suspects that he’s cheating or has a history with his friend Molly. However, this is no match for how Hardin treats her. He is arguably only interested in Tessa at the beginning of their relationship for two reasons: she’s a virgin, and he made a bet with a frat brother that he could get her to fall in love with him (and that he’d leave her right after). He also uses his troubled past and the abuse he experienced as a child by the hands of his alcoholic father to excuse his actions and poor treatment of Tessa. She validates this and understands because of what he’s been through.
While witnessing an abusive marriage between your parents or close relative in your childhood, and being directly abused by an adult in your life is entirely a traumatic experience, the best way to handle that is to seek out help so that you are able to create and maintain healthy relationships in your life; rather than ignoring your issues or abusing substances as a coping mechanism, and either becoming an abuser or being abused once more. In “romance” novels as well as in movies and television where the male lead has a troubled past, his female partner is constantly validating his experience and understanding why it leads him to act out. Whether that be through substance abuse, abusing her, or being unfaithful. However, even in stories like “After”, “Twilight”, and “50 Shades of Grey” where the women have past or current trauma they’re coping with, these experiences are rarely if at all highlighted or validated by their male partners.
For example, in “After”, Tessa gives all of her time and energy into Hardin and helping him deal with his abusive father remarrying and acting as though life is okay despite Hardin’s mom barely getting by in London. She brings up the abandonment she faced as a child when her father walked out on them, and how she had to console her mother when she was still so young and Hardin doesn’t even really respond to her. Similarly, in “50 Shades of Grey”, despite Ana being sexually assaulted by her former boss, being abused by Christian at the beginning of their relationship, and the multiple other events that occur throughout their relationship he doesn’t discuss these issues deeply with her. Despite him having more than enough money and resources to provide her with mental health care, he doesn’t extend these options out to her and resumes their everyday kinky sex life without ever fully addressing her trauma. And as in the “Twilight Saga”, despite Bella’s parent’s divorce, her depressive state when Edward abandons her without explaining why the physical trauma she experiences and having to maintain the Cullen’s secrets for her to be with Edward, she doesn’t get any mental health treatment either. I mean seriously, even while Edward was gone, they could have easily added in a part about Bella going to therapy to talk about it and we could’ve gotten some strong content surrounding the severity of mental health, and the toll it takes on young people.
It’s important to think critically about popular literature, films, television series, music, and other forms of media and think about the messages they are conveying and putting out into the world. Especially when their target audiences are certain groups; since romance novels and Hollywood productions are typically geared to different age groups of women (PG-13 romances being targeted at 13-18-year-olds, and R & MA being targeted at women in their 20s and above) we must think of the themes they’re portraying. Observe these relationships on-screen and within the pages of your books; write on the pages, watch the film or show with your friend and ask “does this seem healthy to you?” Ask yourself if the way Hardin, Edward, or Christian treats their partner is the way you’d want to be treated. Look beyond their wealth, status, “sexy hair”, muscles, and puppy dog eyes. Ask yourself if anybody is excused from abusing their partner. Because if you look deeper into it, you’re probably going to find that you wouldn’t want your partner to be possessive or untrusting of you. You wouldn’t want them to be physically or sexually aggressive. It’s okay if a couple fights, that doesn’t make the relationship abusive. What makes the relationship abusive is how they react to their conflicts, and how they treat one another when they’re in a disagreement. Couples like Monica and Chandler (Friends), Jim and Pam (The Office), Michael and Jane (Jane the Virgin), and even Peter Parker and MJ (Spiderman: Homecoming & Spiderman: Far From Home) are all wholesome, healthy, and excellent portrayals of healthy relationships on screen that we can use as examples of writing new and improved romance-based entertainment. They can also set the bar we have when critiquing and watching/reading romances unfold.
While people can change, and the idea of fixing a Bad Boy has become a dream for some people, it’s not our job as partners (or as women) to fix men to be good for us. You can improve and grow together as individuals as well as within your relationship without having to “fix” someone to be good for you. Just look at the couples listed above, they came together at the right time in their lives when they were ready to be a dedicated and loving partner.