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Is Fantasy Enough? Reconciling Different Aspects of Toxic Obsession Through the Books Twilight and Ugly Love 

June 17, 2023

      In my third year of university, I took a class called gender, communication and culture, in which we were assigned to write a paper dealing with course themes on a topic of our choosing. After my professor's advice to write about something we are personally interested in, inspiration immediately hit- it was almost too obvious. I had to write about the book series Twilight. After starting my research, it quickly felt like I had to investigate the toxic aspects of the books. I love Twilight, I always will, but at the same time, I will be the first to admit that Edwards' relationship tendencies are less than ideal in real life. And in an academic, critical paper, it's always best to poke holes in the thing you cherish. It wouldn't be interesting any other way. 

      After speaking to my prof, she pointed out to me that while this would make a good paper, a great one would delve deeper into the why. She thought I should ask why Twilight had a complete and utter resurgence in 2020. I agreed, and also realized that this begged the question, why is Twilight something so many feel comfortable coming back to with its fanbase now adults, who have the foresight and life experience to know red flags in relationships? How can we, as women in society, continue to enjoy something that may or may not have negatively shaped our views of love as preteens? Why, in the first place, did Twilight not only connect with preteens, but our mothers? He literally stalked her! 

      When I set out to write and continue my research, I genuinely didn't have an answer. In the end, I found not only a why, but a newly ignited set of value systems. To cut to the chase, sometimes the thing we love in media is a thing we love because it is fantasy. It is pleasure. It is pure, unadulterated, escapism. We are not lesser women, or lesser feminists for consuming things that may be a *little* toxic. It is not a crime to escape yourself, especially when it comes to a hot, passionate, and dramatic romance. It is okay to find pleasure in things you would never allow into your real life. 

      I feel this way about all the romance novels I read, all the media I consume. I feel this way about women's culture. It is now a core belief that it is actually distinctly un feminist to shit on yourself, or let others shit on you, for finding pleasure in things that others may think are bad for you. My critical thinking doesn't get any worse because I like to read about hot men. This isn't to say I don't have my own distinct tastes, and agree that others can have theirs, but let's give women a little more autonomy here. 

      I say all this to tell you, that around a year later, I had an epiphany. After months of walking into Indigo and seeing a full display of Colleen Hoover books, many raving reviews on Instagram reels, and general societal love for her, I was a certified Hoover Hater. I hadn't dived deep into the negative reviews of her books, but after watching a couple videos that explain that her writing basically romanticizes super abusive relationships, I was out. I vowed to myself to never read a Colleen Hoover book. That's not my jam. A horrible thing to support. I rolled my eyes at everyone who loved her. Do you see the irony here? How could I spew my newly grounded belief system without ever putting it to the test! I never doubted for a second that Hoover's books actually crossed a line, but, I cant judge without getting on the stand! It is with this epiphany that I decided to read, Ugly Love. I was going to put my money where my mouth was. And, yeah, it sucked. 

      To give context, Ugly Love follows the story of Tate and Miles. After moving to San Francisco to live with her Pilot brother Corbin while she obtains her masters in nursing, 23 year old Tate is immediately enamoured with Miles, one of Corbins Pilot friends. A Pilot friend who lives across the hall. A Pilot friend who is also so consumed with past heartache and trauma, that he has not been in a relationship, let alone had sex, in 6 years. He's 24, extremely attractive, dark, reserved, and super mysterious. Tate, of course, is obsessed and wants to know more, hoping desperately he picks her. A few chapters into the book they end up kissing, solidifying that the attraction is mutual. But there's a catch. Miles wants to have sex (and only sex) with Tate, but there can be no friendship, no asking about his past, and absolutely no falling for one another. Tate agrees, knowing full well that she is not going to be able to uphold her end of the bargain. She knows there's no reality where their situationship doesn't turn into something more for her. But, she is so attracted to him, so enamoured by him, that she still agrees because she genuinely believes that with enough time, effort, and good sex, he will change and fall for her. Within this storyline, we also jump back chapter to chapter to six years in the past from Miles' perspective. It is within these chapters that readers slowly peel back Miles’ hard exterior, learning about the very heartbreak that forced him to become who he is at present. 

      All in all, Ugly Love had the potential to be a really powerful, thoughtful, and realistic story about the imperfections of falling for someone. The bones were there. I'm not mad at the message. The problem however, is that Hoover wrote two of the most insufferable, emotionally immature characters I have ever read. A lot of my criticism falls on Tates lap, and the most concise way I can describe her is this: “pick me hot boy, I know you're hurting, and I know you're hurting me, but I have devolved so far self respect wise that I don't care, I will do anything just for you to continue to pick me”. From the moment they meet, he is all she can think about. She will do anything for him against her better judgment, even though she admits to herself time and time again that he is hurting her and will only continue to. 

      The book is basically just sex, arguments reminding Tate that for Miles, it is just sex, yearning, obsession, and more sex. Smut aside, I just couldn't conform with how Tate lacked any and all self respect. If this was a teenage romance, I would have had more empathy. But because Tate is 23 years old, it's disheartening to read a character who gives up everything she supposedly stands for because she is wildly attracted to, and has chemistry with a guy. 

 

Tates perspective, pg 217 

 

“If any other man ever treated me like he did, it would be the one and only time. I don't put up with the things I’ve seen a lot of my friends put up with. However, I find myself continuing to make excuses for him, like something could actually justify his actions last week. 

I'm beginning to fear that maybe I'm not so tough after all.” 

 

      I mean come on. I cannot empathize with a character that is seemingly self aware, yet lacks any backbone to do anything about it. The point of this book is that love hurts. Love is ugly. It's not always a meet cute, a rom com, it's not all peaches, roses or unending, immediate commitment- and I agree with that. I empathize with that. Hell, when I was 17, 18, 19, even 20, I acted in ways in regards to love that I would never emulate again. But the point is that I learned. I put my foot down. I gave up when I knew something would no longer serve me. The problem here is that this is not a story about learning for Tate. It's a story of accepting what she is given, without ANY push back towards Miles. It's the complete and utter unthoughtfulness through which Hoover writes these characters that makes a completely unsatisfying story. 

      On the topic of Miles, the reason why he is so emotionally wrecked is because when he was 18, he fell in love with a girl named Rachel and got her pregnant. Stepping up to the plate to keep the relationship and the baby, he becomes a faithful boyfriend and soon to be father. The day after the baby is born, they get into a car wreck where Rachel lives, but the baby unfortunately passes. This is obviously heartbreaking, and after Rachel leaves him because the trauma of it all is too much, Miles vows to never love again. 

I understand why Miles wants to have casual sex. What I don't understand is why he had to continue on with Tate when he knew how much he was hurting her. I think this predicament could have worked if written better, if situations and the plot of the book were a bit different. Maybe if we had his current day perspective for longer than the last few chapters. But, what gets me is this argument: 

 

Tates perspective, pg 223 

 

“You act like it's such a bad thing for us to like each other.”

“Maybe it is,” he says. 

I kind of want him to stop talking now, because everything he says is just causing me more pain and making me even more confused. “So you brought me here to call it off?”

He sighs heavily. “I just wanted it to be fun, but… I think you might have different expectations from mine. I don't want to hurt you, and if we keep doing this.. I will.”

 

      At this point, I would enjoy either for Tate to take the hint that this would have been a great time for acceptance and choosing herself, or for Miles to actually stick to his word. Recognize for himself that this is toxic, and to have the maturity to come to terms with the fact that he is not ready for something like this, especially because he suspects Tate has feelings for him. Spoiler, this is not the end of their situationship. They take the reality of hurt and “ugly love”, and continue on in their escapades, for about 150 more pages. It's honestly just annoying to sit through as the reader. 

      We go on and on in the obsession, sex, and yearning phase, both unable to, for lack of a better term, man up and grow up, until their different expectations reach a climax. After Miles can't even admit he missed Tate after days of not seeing her, Tate is fed up and asks about his past. Miles starts crying. 

 

Tates perspective, pg 301 

 

“Oh, God,” he whispers. His voice is completely pain ridden. 

“What am I doing to you, Tate?”

He walks to the wall and falls against it, then slides to the floor. His knees come up, and he rests his elbows on them, covering his face with his hands to stop his emotions. His shoulders begin to shake, but he's not making a sound. 

He's crying. 

Miles Archer is crying. 

It's the same heart-wrenching cry that came from him the night I met him. 

 

Major eye roll here from me. But it only gets so, so much worse. 

 

(after the final 6 years previous chapter where we learn about the child's death) 

 

Tates perspective, pg 308 

 

What happened to you, Miles?

“I don't have to know,” I whisper again, shaking my head. 

His hands move to the back of my head, and he presses his mouth to mine, hard and painfully. He moves forward until my back is against the floor. His hands pull at my shirt, and he's kissing me desperately, furiously, filling my mouth with the taste of his tears.

I let him use me to get rid of his pain. 

I'll do whatever he wants me to do as long as he stops hurting like he's hurting. 

 

Yep, major alarm bells ringing from both sides, both characters, for I, oh humble reader. I'm growing more and more uncomfortable with what is on these pages. To sum up a page of text, he starts having sex with her. Yikes. 

 

End of pg 308

 

Give me your pain, Miles. 

“My God, Rachel,” he whispers. 

My God, Rachel…

Rachel, Rachel, Rachel

 

Then, Miles starts apologizing. Yet, Hoover somehow decided to make this scene even worse. 

 

Pg 310

 

“Stop,” I whisper. I don't want to hear him defend what just happened. “Just finish, Miles” 

 

… continued pg 310,

 

We're both crying harder now, and I can see that I'm more than this to him. I know I am. I feel how much he wants to love me, but whatever is stopping him is more than I'm able to conquer. I wrap my arms around his neck. “Please,” I beg him. “Please, Miles.”

 

      They then have sex. Until Miles does indeed finish. My jaw was on the floor, I mean, could it have gotten more uncomfortable? They obviously needed to have this fight, it makes sense for all of Miles' demons to spill out of him like this, but to entangle it with sex? To have Tate beg for it? For her to give, and give, and give, like that's all she's worth? For Miles to take, and take, and take, like it's what he deserves? 

      It's a little more complicated than I'm going to put it, but after this interaction Tate walks away. She does end it (for a week). But then, after one short conversation with his friend Ian, Miles comes to terms with his past trauma. He sees Rachel, sees that she moved on, and decides he's going to love Tate. He goes to her, tells her this and about his past, and she accepts. Not one fight, not one ounce of trust lost, not one “you are going to have to work for me”. Nope, She just takes what she's given. Like she's been doing the entire book. Miles demons are sad, they have merit, they would make life fucking hell, but they do not afford him the ability to do what he's done to Tate with nothing else, but a resounding yes from her. Their final fight before breakup happens in chapter 33 (starts pg 307), and by chapter 38 (starts pg 337), they are reconciling. By page 354, they are engaged. In the epilogue, Tate has their baby on page 357. The fact that after a whole 336 pages of toxic obsession, disrespect, self devaluation, and emotional immaturity, Hoover wrapped it all up with a pretty, happy ending, subordinate bow is astounding to me. For the reasons above, and how it ended, Ugly Love, was a terrible, damaging, and alarming book.

      So how does this hold up against my Twilight thesis? It's definitely murky. For one, I think it's pretty clear that Ugly Love is not my type of romance. On one hand, I know that many have written papers calling out Edwards behavior in Twilight, albeit in different ways, toxic to Bella. I can see how I'm calling this book obsessive, yet, Bella and Edwards' relationship most definitely has obsessive aspects to it. But on the other hand, I have to ask; Does Ugly Love cross a line?

      I am completely at peace with the fact that we can all have different tastes. Again, it is not a bad thing to find pleasure and fantasy in something you would never allow into your real life. I cannot argue that it is a bad thing, end all and be all, to enjoy reading Colleen Hoover books (as an adult). But something I want to point out is that this book had so much potential. The first way to make this less problematic would be to make the characters younger. I would not expect a 17/18 year old to have the foresight of a 23 year old. I would still want to implement a lot more character growth and learning in Tate, but regardless, it would be more relatable and make me feel better. The second way would be to cut the situationship period in half, have Tate come to her senses, have Miles take actual, legitimate, quantifiable time to heal and grow, and then have them get into a relationship. The third way would be to make Miles way less stringent in his no love policy, and have more of a push and pull. They would *at least* both admit they like each other, but then Miles may back off, unable to fully commit. It would still be hurtful to Tate, and to Miles, but at least the situation wouldn't be so black and white. It would also make the characters a hell of a lot more likeable

      In sum, if you enjoy Colleen Hoover, all power to you. As a woman, I will not, and cannot, tell other women what makes a romance good to them personally. If something like Ugly Love is satisfying to you, have at it. But remember, just because something is enjoyable as escapism, doesn't mean you don't have to critically think about it. Life is not simple, life is not easy, and relationships really are ugly, I'll give Hoover that. And often, Media tends to reflect these realities. But it’s scary to think that some people may be reading this as a heartbreaking, then heartwarming, love story. That they may just feel bad for Miles, and commend Tate for never giving up on him. Take these sections of a 5 star review of Ugly Love I found on GoodReads, 

 

“I knew I was going to like Miles (because he sounded so hot), but I had no idea that I was going to love him. That he was going to have an actual backstory… that he was going to be actually interesting in a realistic way… I had no idea he was going to break my heart”

 

“Tate was naive and normally that would make me wanna punch a B, in her case it made me love her. Unlike most leading ladies she isn't overly sassy, or has incredible lol rebuttals, she was realistic… then there's Miles and he is hands down the star of this book. The moment you meet him you hate him. He is a mysterious mess and I thought he was going to annoy me fast. He won me over once they started going into his back story” 

 

      Out of the whopping 654,043 five star ratings of Ugly Love on GoodReads (compared to 39,868 one stars), many reviewers imply the same message as the example above. A message of total adoration of the book, of seeing it as sweet, hopeful, and Miles absolved from wrongdoing because of his past. If we are not taking the things we consume, whether that be books, tv shows, movies, or music, as something to really think about, dissect, and understand from a deeper perspective, then we are doing ourselves an injustice. I can understand why this person found the book compelling, but to say that Miles' backstory allows him to treat Tate how he did is something I disagree with. To find Tate worthy of being treated that way because she is submissive, and THIS is what is realistic, is alarming. It implies that normally, she enjoys reading head strong female leads, but found Tate realistic because she changes what she stands for, and lays down, for a man. This makes me really sad. I know that these types of situations do happen in real life, but my problem with it is that Hoover successfully manipulated many fans with the happy ending. I do not believe for one second that most are capable of the type of quick change Miles went through. 

      In Twilight's second book, New Moon, Bella falls into an extremely deep and long lasting depression when Edward leaves her. To the point where she cannot function. She too, in many ways, gives up who she is because she is so consumed with Edward. As a reader, you do mourn alongside Bella, but I think it can also teach us how dangerous it can be to let relationships ruin your life. New Moon is probably my favourite book of the series to re-read, and it's not because I find Bellas behaviour relatable. The aspects of feeling depression are comforting, and can make readers feel seen, but it is also up to the reader to see it as a lesson in what not to do. How important it is to try to find connection in the wake of heartbreak, so one can heal, grow, and evolve. To start choosing yourself, even little by little, until you are okay without them. I'm not at all saying that Twilight is better than Ugly Love in terms of problematic aspects, rather, I want to convey how easy it is to love something, while simultaneously recognizing its issues and understanding how you can use them for a good learning moment. 

      If we are just reading to consume, without allowing undertones and implied messages within books to not only teach us, but point to our personal misgivings, and internalized thought processes that need fixing, we are not progressing. The whole time you’re reading, Hoover makes it abundantly clear that Miles just wanted her for sex. So, why play into the narrative that in love, you should ignore red flags and continue to believe someone will eventually give you what you deserve? It’s a way to make Miles more morally sound, undeservingly. All in all, Miles gets what he wants, when he wants it, and Tate is fuelled by a pick me girl mentality. It is imperative you recognize this type of thing when reading. It is imperative we do not let a want to appeal to the male gaze rule the way we see the world. You can have pleasure, fantasy, and escapism all you want, it doesn't make you a lesser feminist, or even a lesser person. But what does, is not allowing yourself to see the characters you read as powerful, strong, and capable of choosing themselves.

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