A Case For Cheating In YA

Earlier this week, in my Top Ten Tuesday post, I wrote that I am bemused by the blogging community’s response to cheating in YA books.

Today, I am going to discuss exactly what I meant by this.

I have noticed that a lot of people will give a book a bad review, or perhaps not even read the thing at all, if it features characters cheating on their partners.

I totally accept that different people have different sensitivities. For example, while some people dislike Stephanie Perkins because of Anna and Etienne’s cheating, I dislike her because of her tokenistic use of Asperger’s in Isla and The Happily Ever After. Well, for everything about that book, honestly.

(Today is a day of unpopular opinions, apparently).

That said, I find the total rejection of books featuring cheating puzzling.

We all read and enjoy books about murderous vampires, heists, wars and identity-stealing shapeshifters without blinking an eye. But if one of those murderous vampires, criminals, violent soldiers or identity-stealing shapeshifters happens to cheat on their boyfriend…. Well, then a line has been crossed.

Weird, right?

It might be oversimplifying, but I think part of the reason for the resentment that comes with this particular moral waver might be that, for some people at least, cheating addresses the elephant in the room. That elephant being the probability of two seventeen year old’s staying together forever.

(it’s low, guys)

Spending your life with your high school boyfriend is an extremely unlikely outcome that the enjoyment of most YA romances is predicated on. Just Listen couldn’t be Just Listen if Annabel and Owen broke up five months after.

(they totally didn’t and I won’t even entertain the possibility).

The introduction of a character cheating on an existing partner shatters this illusion. The presence of a cheater is an acknowledgement of the fact that new people come into our lives all of the time, new people who might actually be a better fit for us than that boy from our physics class ever was.

None of this is to say that cheating is okay, so much as it’s kind of inevitable. And that fact does not sit well with the unconditional ‘forever’ love of the YA couples we think of as our OTPs.

As such, I would argue that cheating is a totally natural – maybe even obvious – subject for YA fiction to delve into, because books are a safe environment to explore these concepts.

Approach it like you might a really violent TV show. We witness the horrors (or, if you’re me, close your eyes until the worst is over) in the entirely safe environment of our couches. Most of us are in the very privileged position to be able to process the existence of real life horror by fictionalising it. We’re pretty much doing the same thing with cheating. Whether it’s an abject criticism of the concept of monogamy as a whole (the idea that someone would actually publish a YA book that does this is, admittedly, laughable, but bear with me), or an exploration of sexuality, or even just a way to analyse what does and doesn’t work for you in a partner, fictional cheating is a safe no-heartbreak way to explore a concept without, you know, wreaking havoc on your actual life.

In addition, isn’t the very point of reading to explore a life that’s different from your own? To me at least, reading a constant stream of books about girls who look and think in the exact same way as me couldn’t be more boring. I want to feel my personal limitations being stretched and to immerse myself in moral relativism before heading back into my day of trying not to be mad at strangers who jostle me on the train. I don’t think that it is a story’s job to make us comfortable. Stories make us think, stimulate us and broaden our horizons.

People don’t always make what we perceive to be the right decisions, in life, or in fiction. One of the key arguments against cheaters in YA I’ve seen is that readers don’t feel that they are learning anything from the experience.

I call that the no lesson lesson. And it’s one of the hardest ones to take. Sometimes the people that we love (and the people that we hate) will do things we think are wrong. Sometimes, they will do them over and over again. Sometimes they will even continually express the same pain over having made the same mistake. Again.

Realising that we ultimately have no control over the actions of others is something we learn to live with every day.

It makes a lot of sense to me that people would want to write books about the phenomenon.

That people wouldn’t want to read them? That idea, I struggle with.

(because I too, am still learning to cope with having no control over others)

In the end, all you can really do is throw in your own two cents.

So that’s what I’m doing.

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Author: Lydia Tewkesbury

25. Loves a good story.

13 thoughts on “A Case For Cheating In YA”

  1. This was actually a really thought-provoking post for me to read and I’m glad you brought this up. Anna and Etienne are the perfect example to mention. I think my main problem with Etienne is that I have a hard time reading about other bloggers swooning over him. I just want to be like, “Guys! He cheated! The WHOLE TIME. Not dreamy!” At the same time I get how your argument can apply to this situation. Why does cheating make Etienne not dreamy when other characters who are out killing people in the name of whatever are considered swoonworthy?

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  2. Big fan of this entire post. Cheating is something that goes on in real life, so why should it be taboo in books? Humanity has it’s flaws and so do characters, so it wouldn’t make sense if the people we’re reading about never make mistakes, etc. Besides, characters can get to become boring (to me at least) if they’re too perfect.

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  3. This is a really interesting post! I haven’t read either Lola or Isla, so I can’t speak on the tokenism, but that worries me. I think my biggest problem with cheating in YA is that I’m usually in one of the characters’ heads, so I can feel the justifications they’re using also seep into my conscience, and I can feel myself accepting their choices. If you’ve ever read anything about the halo effect, a communication theory, it kind of applies here because we like the characters, and we like their story, but they’re doing this thing, so maybe we’ll like cheating too.That being said, cheating is a thing that people do, as hurtful as it may be. I may not understand it, I may not like it, but it’s a part of many peoples’ lives, so it should be shown.

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    1. Thank you! This is such an interesting perspective. I get where you’re coming from. I guess in the end it might partly be a personal preference thing. I just love morally ambiguous characters. In real life I would avoid them, but fiction has always felt to me like a safe place to explore some of the more contentious aspects of people.

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      1. I think its absolutely a personal preference thing. There are some things I don’t read if I know about because they bother me so much, but for the most part I like reading about other peoples lives.

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  4. I just had the time to read this and this is a great post, Lydia! I’ve also wondered that about myself – cheating is a HUGE no-go to me and I immediately hate on a character that does so, but I’m OK with characters murdering others in YA fantasy, for example.

    I’ve thought about it for a bit and I think the reason is very simple: “cheating” is an action I can very easily apply to my life. It’s a reality in my world and I’ve seen it happen to people close to me, and therefore, as an action it’s just reprehensible. Murder, for example, is so far removed from my every day reality that its moral consequences are on a whole new level of ‘fictional’ for me.

    That being said, I can really only speak for myself. I know my BF has more trouble accepting murderous characters more than I do even though it’s also quite far removed from his reality, haha. I guess at the end of the day it’s just a very personal preference. 😛

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