Love triangles are among one of the most commonly used plot devices in modern young adult fiction, and the source of their popularity and implications irk me to no end. The overused, run-in-the-ground love triangle has a long history, recognized in fictional work as far back as Shakespeare. Typically, love triangles were impartial to gender roles and strayed from portraying women in a negative light. The narrative did not rely on the decision a woman must make to spend her life with one love interest or the other. However, this has shifted in recent media, setting a slew of terrible expectations for younger generations while effectively pandering to them through popular media.
Katniss, Peeta, and Gale
The reason why The Hunger Games is one of my favorite novels is because of Katniss’ strength and willpower. She’s selfless, kind, and fights for her family and survival. But as the series progressed, it became engrossed in an unnecessary love triangle that left her uncertain of what she wanted. The love triangle clashed with her character and felt forced. It did little else besides creating false drama because Gale never so much as stood a chance to win her over. It’s a given that the love triangle – irrelevant once the series ended – did manage to strengthen the bond between Katniss and Peeta, but that isn’t the point. The fact is, the love triangle existed simply for the purpose of placing Katniss in an unnecessary position of choosing the love of her life, even though that shouldn’t have been the purpose. The purpose should have been Katniss’ survival, not who she wanted to marry later in life.
Bella, Edward, and Jacob
I’m going to be upfront – I loathe this series with every fiber of my being. Aside from the childish plot and questionable writing, Bella is certainly at the top of my most hated female character ever written. She’s spineless, pathetic, and her reliance on a man makes my blood boil. Her defeatist, depressed attitude whenever a gorgeous man isn’t around emphasizes her lack of confidence and her selfish need to feel complete, but only when a man is by her side. She even deliberately puts herself in dangerous, life-threatening situations just to feel a rush to make her forget her loneliness that a man isn’t with her to make her feel good about herself. Since when do women in the modern age ever behave like this?
Both of these love triangles are a problem tied to embedding sexism in society, with Twilight being the largest transgressor of this issue. Bella’s personality is paper-thin and unremarkable until Edward arrives in her life. With a heavy hand, her love triangle teaches young girls that they don’t have any worth until a hunky man comes into their lives. When the entire premise of a novel series encourages a harmful behavior from teenage girls, it is the polar opposite of having a role model for girls to admire, but rather for girls to imitate in their personal lives. It sets a negative standard for how young girls should behave and adds to the pressures that many teenage girls feel today.
In this age of commoditization where women are objectified in every imaginable way and expected to have gorgeous bodies, teenage girls are under the most pressure to meet these ridiculous expectations. And if trying to attain an unrealistic means of beauty isn’t difficult enough, the most popular forms of entertainment encourage girls to find the man of their dreams because of the expectation that a girl is incomplete without their soul-mate.
Love triangles are a source of false drama, and by placing girls in situations where they have to choose one love interest or the other, it’s as if the act of choosing is what really matters. By choosing one or the other, it reinforces this idea that a “woman needs a man”, because apparently that is the 21st Century’s summation of a girl’s existence.
A girl should never feel the need to find a love interest for the sake of feeling complete. After all, identifying your personality and character – free of the binding influence of others – is a basic, essential part of human growth. Once this important growth is sacrificed in favor of false, unrealistic drama, what is that teaching teenage girls?
This leads me back to what I mentioned earlier, this notion that love triangles pander to teenage girls. However, it’s impossible to “pander” to an audience with any plot device unless the idea isn’t already a part of their psyche to begin with – in this case, the idea that a girl’s existence is determined by whether or not she finds a man. This is the result of cultural implications that reach much deeper than just young adult fiction. Societal standards have been teaching girls that they aren’t worth anything, their existence revolves around men. Even in media with strong female protagonists, this message persists and undertones the story – including media that was written by women, emphasizing how heavily integrated this expectation is in our culture and just how deep the roots run.
It’s part of the reason that franchises such as The Hunger Games and Twilight are popular in the first place. Teenage girls are taught that they are worthless if they cannot attain certain standards of beauty or have a boyfriend, and these franchises are able to profit off of this weak self-perception by targeting this select audience. It stops being about “girls like these novels so we must be doing something right in order to reach out to them”, but more along the lines of “girls are taught that they shouldn’t like themselves if they aren’t enamored with a boy, and these novels exploit this lack of confidence through the forced decisions that love triangles emphasize”. As much as I enjoyed The Hunger Games series and Katniss’ strong character development, even it suffers from meeting this status quo by distracting her from life-or-death circumstances in favor of the burden to choose one love interest over the other.
Instead, girls should be encouraged to be self-sufficient and independent. Finding a partner is not the summation of a girl’s existence, let alone having to choose between two candidates. It’s unfortunate that this idea of a girl’s purpose is so integrated in our culture because the choice to be with someone or not is a personal one. Assuming that every girl should be encouraged to find a partner because that’s all they’re good for should not be the status quo, and it’s absurd to me just how deep this problem stems. The love triangle plot device needs to be eliminated from use in popular media and young adult fiction for the sake of teenage girls and the pressures they already face in our current society.