The enemies-to-lovers trope has been a hot topic this past year. In the wake of Avatar the Last Airbender‘s quarantine revival, the internet exploded with discourse about new enemies-to-lovers (relation)ships such as Zutara and Zaka. In its last season, She-Ra‘s main relationship, a slow burn friends-to enemies-to-friends-to-lovers, was immensely popular in online spaces. Booktok has been reeling with excitement over The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong and Renegades by Marisa Meyers, all young adult fantasies focused on an enemies-to-lovers relationship. What does this motif say about society?
The trope is controversial, and for good reason. The existence of enemies-to-lovers oftentimes falls into the beauty and the beast archetype: A woman meets an extremely flawed, emotionally infantile, antagonistic man who aggresses her in some way. Through work and occasionally circumstance, she softens his hard exterior, using her womanly wiles in order to civilize a brutal being. The woman then falls in love with the new and improved man because he is her creation, and the man falls in love with his creator. This iteration of enemies-to-lovers is obviously harmful: It teaches young women that they can fix abusive personalities and it teaches young men that it’s their lover’s duty to force personal growth upon them.
The Victorian moral imperative that women ought to civilize their lover leads to the idea that all people can be changed with passion and feminine charm. This conception is an example of cruel optimism. Oftentimes one can not drastically change people in real life. Bringing this ideal out from fiction and into real life is dangerous, especially in the young adult genre where it is highly popular because it could drive those without an idea of how a relationship ought to be into a partnership with an abuser. This is the source from which most of the critique against the trope swells.
However, the enemies-to-lovers trope also holds hope. Hope for the malleability of human relationships, hope for the potential for someone to change. The possibility of enemies-to-lovers reminds us that human relationships are not static nor essentialist. Two people can grow together via working through their issues, understanding one another and then fostering something beautiful. If one makes a bad impression, they are not trapped in a fatalistic fortress from the other.
Enemies-to-lovers reminds us that villains can become heroes, in a culture in which the hero-to-villain pipeline is more often explored (think of anything from Satan’s Biblical Fall to The Joker). When used in conjunction with redemption arcs, the trope becomes more moving. As long as the story does not imply that the ex-villain ought to receive a love interest as a reward for becoming good (an implication which is marred with its own problems) a story can show that one need not be perfect to be deserving of love.
The key difference between a toxic enemies-to-lovers rendition versus a healthy rendition is whether or not the object of affection has agency. A toxic enemies-to-lovers puts the onus on one partner to fix the other, a healthy enemies-to-lovers relationship stems from two people fixing themselves, for themselves. The message that one’s partner is not their therapist, nor their tamer, is important to communicate. The picture painted by the journey from being in abject suffering alone, to being happy with someone in love is a critical one to be displayed. This story type gives hope to those who have made major mistakes in the past, those who feel as if they are not worthy of love and those who are in the process of working through their intersocial issues. Yes, enemies-to-lovers is a trope that can teach harmful lessons to the youth, but also one that, when executed well, has high therapeutic potential for those who are striving for human connection.
Sophia Gottfried is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]