Romanticizing toxic men

Oh, young love! Passing notes, awkward smiles, holding hands, teasing, jealousy, big apologies, cheating… Wait. When did this become the normal vision of romance?

Young people’s lives are soaked in the normalization and romanticization of the toxic male. We are surrounded by thoughtless comments from adults and a huge section of the media being taken up by the romanticization of toxic relationships.

The process of normalizing toxicity starts early, with the overused phrase “It means he likes you!” being told to young girls after they are teased or bullied by a boy. This remark is unrealistic, often damaging and unhealthy.

“In elementary school, this would happen a lot. I remember it was 2nd or 3rd grade, there was this one kid who would always steal my stuff…he was really mean but I remember I would tell my mom about it and she’d be like ‘Oh he probably has a crush on you!’” said Ava Canfield (10).

There are a few problems with this statement. It tells girls that a boy being mean or rude is a good thing and that it is an acceptable way to show affection. From there we start to see aggression, rudeness, and possessiveness as love. “It makes you more interested in guys that are mean… I feel like that promotes toxic relationships,” Ava said.

This comment also implies that a relationship between a girl and a boy has to be romantic, which simply is not true. Yet boys often grow up thinking that girls are a prize to be won. When guys make friends with other guys, they usually see them as equals. However, boys aren’t taught to see girls that way. Once a girl and a guy are in a relationship, her guy friends are often reduced to nothing but a “threat” to her boyfriend’s “possession.”

On the other hand, maybe that boy really does like her. But growing up, he’s overheard and witnessed adults saying “It means he likes you!” to the girls around him. Therefore, he thinks it’s the best way to let her know his feelings. His actions have been rewarded by perpetuating toxic male behavior.

Throughout the following years, this behavior escalates. Girls are told that abusive behavior is a sign of passion or that relationships are always meant to be difficult and scary. Many moments in relationships can and will be difficult or scary, but that’s not what we should expect to endure. They begin to see it as completely normal and don’t learn that it is not acceptable or healthy. “It’s desensitizing in a way,” Ava said.

As these girls and boys grow older, they are both exposed to media where toxic behavior is increasingly visible. Too many authors, song writers, and directors depict unhealthy romantic relationships in the wrong light, sabotaging young people’s views of romance. Artists portray jealousy and possessiveness as love and passion, blurring the lines between consent, coercion, and “loss of control.” Young men and women continue to think these behaviors are suitable ways to show and receive love.

Well-loved artist Lana del Rey is one of many song writers that have been accused of glorifying domestic violence. Ava pointed out how Lana regularly portrays men who are toxic and romanticizes abusive relationships in her music.

“I can hear sirens, sirens / He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” Lana says in “Ultraviolence.” This line depicts violence in the wrong light, interpreting it as a show of affection.

Lorde, a singer, said in an interview with The FADER, “I listened to that Lana del Rey record and the whole time I was just thinking it’s so unhealthy for young girls to be listening to, you know, ‘I’m nothing without you,’ this sort of shirt tugging, desperate, don’t leave me stuff. That’s not a good thing for young girls, even young people, to hear.”

These opinions are valid, she does talk about triggering topics in her music. However, the critics who say that we need to “protect” young girls from songs, books, and other media that deal with dark subjects are wrong.

There is an entire genre of romance novels that is dedicated entirely to toxic and/or abusive relationships. Many people, young and old, absolutely love books like this. Young women often get their hands on one of these books and are immediately sucked into the exhilarating yet sometimes alarming world of this genre.

Books can be an escape from reality, but when it comes crashing back people are often disappointed by what it brings with it. Readers find themselves yearning for the “true love” the characters portray, but that is seen through a fog of twisted mind games, manipulation, and outright abuse. These books are often works of fiction, however, people can still normalize them in their minds and start to idealize that form of romance.

Nonetheless, the things these people talk about are real life experiences for thousands of women. According to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 women (23.2%) have experienced severe physical violence by their partner and even more have been emotionally abused in their lifetime. Young women will experience some sort of heartbreak, pain or dependency at some point in their lives. Simply censoring art that talks about these experiences will have no positive effect.

We have the power to help teach these young minds to know the difference between toxic romance and healthy romance. We can help them have better experiences than these artists and many others have had. We can love and learn from the art, but we have to remember that it is not something to be idealized.

In this age where social media is so prevalent, we have the opportunity to broadly educate about healthy relationships. If we can educate young men and women on what healthy love and affection really looks like they can be more prepared to bring it into their lives. From a young age, we should teach boys and girls not to partake in, or accept, toxic behavior when it comes to relationships. Young people should be shown how to display affection and love in a healthy way, thus helping themselves and the people around them avoid the damaging effects that come from toxic relationships.

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