Some say love and hate are the same emotion. Most of BookTok, a large book-interest community on the social media platform TikTok, would agree. The most recent literary-focused online community, BookTok has opened up a whole new space for young adults to share their opinions on literature, particularly young adult and new adult fantasy series.
Before exploring BookTok, there’s a particular phrase you should be familiar with: Enemies to Lovers. The Enemies to Lovers, or hate-to-love, trope is incredibly popular on BookTok; during the one-minute-long videos where users recommend books, creators are often quick to excitedly tag a book with the Enemies to Lovers gold star. In fact, the tag #enemiestolovers has 237.3 million views on TikTok. Why does BookTok find this niche trope so appealing?
Well, one answer is that social media is simply reflective of the humans who use it; social media reveals our wants, needs and deepest desires. This tweet by a BookTok fan gives us some insight into why we love the trope. As people, we hope to be loved for our truest selves, flaws and all. Thus, the idea that someone would see your worst qualities and love you regardless is a fantasy that many hold close to their hearts.
In this time of quarantine, many of us use art as a form of escapism. Many of us have turned to comforting yet entertaining content, which for book lovers may be young adult fantasy novels, or story and fanfiction-sharing websites such as Wattpad or AO3, on which Enemies to Lovers is a commonly used tag. As TikTok, and by extension BookTok, has grown in the past few years, more and more people are exposed to the commonly promoted trope, leading them to seek it out in the media they consume.
It’s worth asking: What actually counts as an “enemy”? How does one have an “enemy” — someone harboring just enough hate to despise you — who turns that hate into love so the relationship isn’t cruel and abusive?
Within the recommended books tagged Enemies to Lovers, it’s easy to see two different patterns. First, we have Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”: Two lovers from antithetical backgrounds overcome their families’ disdain for each other and fall in love. These characters don’t genuinely despise each other — they’re scared of what the other person represents. Often, the main characters who follow this type of pattern are from different classes, races, ethnicities or communities. BookTok often recommends books like “An Ember in the Ashes,” where star-crossed lovers meet, realize they belong to opposing communities, fall in love, fight their communities and eventually prevail (or don’t). Simple enough.
The other type is more complicated. I’ll refer to it as the “Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy”: the characters meet, interact, then despise each other based off of first impressions before inevitably falling in love. The two protagonists hold disdain and spew vitriol at each other during their initial interactions. BookTok’s favorite author (who utilizes this trope often) is Sarah J. Maas: The hashtag of her name has no less than 284.5 million views on TikTok. Maas is much-revered, or at least widely known — her books seem to always be on The New York Times Best Seller list. (Personally, I have grown to despise Maas’s work, but more on that later.)
There can be overlap between the two situations: For example, the characters may come from conflicting backgrounds and also harbor personal resentment (see much-loved titles such as “These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong). These tropes make for entertaining storytelling, as often the anticipation of romance can be more riveting than the romance itself. Additionally, during these stories, the characters develop and grow: Readers see their most vulnerable, deepest selves, and their worst sides become accepted and loved for what they are. However, aggression toward one another can lead to tense and sometimes hurtful situations, which leads to the vital question: How are authors making sure that their characters’ relationships aren’t abusive while still maintaining a level of will-they/won’t-they tension?
It’s a difficult line to walk.
The works of Sarah J. Maas have sparked much controversy. Her work has come under fire for glamorizing abusive relationships, both in “Throne of Glass” and her famous “A Court of Thorns and Roses” series. Mostly focusing on war and sex, the gritty, violent worlds of Maas’s books often lead to abusive situations. These characters live in fantasy worlds that heavily feature assassins and fae (human-sized fairies with pointed ears) trained in physical combat, murder and war strategy. Often, perceived enemies torture, drug and bully each other. The fae, especially, are known to have controlling tendencies that are passed off as “protective,” in which they take out extreme aggression on their partners. When described, the abuse is swept under the rug, and the aggression is explained as simply part of their inner nature.
Additionally, there’s often a power gap between the two main characters: see Aelin and Rowan in the Throne of Glass series. Rowan, a centuries-old fae who is seen as a combat mentor to teenage assassin Aelin, actively antagonizes and arguably crosses physical boundaries while training her. By the end of Book Four, they enter into a romantic and sexual relationship.
This raises an important point: When there’s a power dynamic between romantic interests and the character with the upper hand is awful to the other character — is that Enemies to Lovers, or is it simply bullying? Is it seen as abusive?
Many within the community go back and forth. Most of Maas’s loyal fans refuse to tolerate any slander of her work. When people inject themselves so deeply into a piece of art, it can feel hurtful to hear criticisms of said work — it feels like a part of oneself is being attacked. However, many of the romance dynamics feel, for lack of a better word, icky. Much of the pre-romantic interactions involve inexcusable, abusive actions.
Reflecting on the power dynamics within these stories feels gross. To be clear, not all stories tagged Enemies to Lovers involve such abuse (or at the very least, toxicity), but some of the most famous ones on BookTok, like Maas’s work, as well as the Cruel Prince series by Holly Black, do.
It may seem silly or pointless to analyze these relationships so deeply, but these books make a tangible impact, especially on their young readers. Young readers, more than anyone else, internalize ideas about romance and sex. Therefore, it’s important not to normalize and glamorize abuse when creating media targeted at young adults. I’ve seen countless TikToks where people half-jokingly say they’re unsure of how to get into a relationship without being mean to someone, in hopes that they receive their own Enemies to Lovers romance. In their eagerness to appreciate the trope, many readers eschew or ignore worrying plotlines.
To be clear, I’m not attacking people for enjoying Maas’s work, Enemies to Lovers or BookTok. I just think it’s important to recognize harmful character behavior in Maas’s writing, especially as the majority of her audience is teenagers who are still navigating the world of romantic and sexual relationships. I don’t think it’s harmful when teens see these relationships, but it is harmful when teens idolize them.
At the end of the day, I think Enemies to Lovers can be a fun trope in literature, as long as it’s done right. There exists a happy medium that can be difficult to achieve. Do it wrong, and you either create a story devoid of tension or a story that romanticizes toxic relationships. It’s up to the artist to portray their characters’ relationships with the utmost care. Additionally, it’s up to the reader to recognize toxic dynamics in a work of fiction and actively work against bringing those tropes into the real world.
The Enemies to Lovers trope delivers romantic yearning and sexual tension in a way that appeals to many readers, especially in a time where many feel frustrated with the claustrophobic mundanity of life in isolation. BookTok allows a place for fans to congregate and convince unsuspecting strangers to read their favorite books, a place to fall deep into the throes of incredibly enjoyable, fast-paced recommendations. Strangers turn into fans, and the cycle repeats.
With all of the issues within Enemies to Lovers, it’s still a wonderful trope. In the future, I hope to see even more mainstream book coverage calling out glorified abuse in literature, thus starting important conversations.
Social media neatly reflects and influences the desires of millions of people. BookTok is a great example of social media promoting media that has genuinely harmful effects. Ultimately, a fantasy is fine, as long as it remains just that. However, as we continue in our cycle of isolation, where we escape into imaginary worlds, we must remember to recognize this trope for what it truly is: fiction.
Daily Arts Writer Meera Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.