The Night Circus and Amatonormativity

Whaaaat Are You Talking About

Amatonormativity: the prevailing belief that romantic relationships are universally desired by all people and that they are preferable to other, nonromantic relationships

Sucky for a lot of reasons, but mainly because there are aromantic people in the world. That’s people who don’t feel romantic attraction, or who feel romantic attraction rarely or only in certain contexts.

For a nice, concise, fairly topical, real-life example of amatonormativity in action: did you watch the ice dancing? Did you see Virtue and Moir? Did you see all the ravenous speculation about how even though they’ve always said that they’re not a couple, they must be dating, they must be having sex, how could they not, it’s not like acting is a major component of ice dancing or anything…

I roll my eyes, but I also understand, sort of. I get it, you got swept up in the dances. They’re very good. They make us all feel things. Great. But hey, if it really does turn out that they’ve been telling the truth this whole time and they’re just a man and a woman with a super close, supportive, platonic friendship that can remain a platonic friendship even during occasional three minute stints in which they stare at/touch each other like they really wanna so that they can up their artistic score, well, that’s good. Because When Harry Met Sally was wrong and men and women can and should be friends, close friends, even. Not everything needs to be a romance.

In Fiction

So, there’s this article talking about how Voldemort, with his infamous lack of interest or perhaps even lack of ability to love, is pretty much the aromantic character in Harry Potter and he’s also the guy who wants to murder a baby so that he can adequately chop up his own soul.

I don’t really agree with the thesis here, because I’ve always read Harry Potter as centering, first and foremost, friendship. Harry’s survival is thanks to his mother’s love for him, and after his parents are gone it is Ron and Hermione, neither of whom he is attracted to, who are most important to him. He has a special bond with Molly Weasley as well, who treats him like he’s her own son.

When Harry finally reveals himself to Voldemort in their final battle, it’s to stand in front of Molly when Voldemort turns to kill her. He’s saving Molly, not Ginny. After the battle, Harry sees Ginny but lets her be for the moment, choosing to seek Ron and Hermione out instead. Friendship and the love between a parent and child. That’s they key thing Voldemort doesn’t have time for – or, actually, that’s the stuff he devalues so completely that he thinks it’s a good idea to spend much of his time killing peoples’ friends, children, and parents – and why, according to Dumbledore, he is ultimately defeated.

People asked JK Rowling throughout the years whether Voldemort ever dated, and her answer was always, “Um, no. He totes wouldn’t even ever have been interested.” The thing is, people who do evil things in real life often do form romantic and sexual attachments and relationships, but in literature it always seems strange to have the evilest of the evil date someone. And that is probably absolutely entirely because of amatonormativity. If romantic relationships are the best thing ever, even, maybe, the only thing that really matters, why would evil people take part in them? Surely they would be too evil to understand how great they are, and, if evil people did get into a romantic relationship how could they remain evil?

So. Even though I think every time Dumbledore said, “Harry it’s cool, you’ll beat him because you can love and he can’t,” he wasn’t talking about romantic love, yes, Voldemort being so very clearly aromantic is kind of a buzzkill.

Buuuuut I love Harry Potter for its depiction of friendship. It’s top notch on the topic of friendship, and bless JKR for that. Harry PotterIt, and AvatarThe Last Airbender/Legend of Korra are stellar for friendship. Sure, there’s romance and sometime sex, sometimes even eleven-year-olds having sex, but it’s mostly about how great and important and life-saving and world-saving friendship is and I’m giving them all props for that.

(also I think Charles Weasleton and Sirius Black are aroace and awesome, but only Charlie’s ID was *sort of* confirmed, in an interview, post the Deathly Hallows release, so I guess they don’t count)

(but they’re totally aroace and awesome I don’t care)

the night circus 3

The Night Circus: Sales Pitch

Hi.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is one of the best fantasy/magical realism books I’ve read in a long time. It’s stylish, in it’s chic third person present tense, with the occasional chapter in second person present tense. When I read third person present in other books, and so far the only other books I’ve read in third person present are the Sidekick Squad books by C.B. Lee, it drives me up the wall. But not here.

It has beautiful, mystical, magical, romantic prose. When I read super stylish, super romantic prose, and mainly I’m thinking of anything by Anna-Marie McLemore, it drives me up the wall. But not here.

(C.B. Lee and Anna-Marie McLemore are still very good though, I’m just a little picky. I like Rowling prose, OK? Sweet and super simple. Leave me alone.)

The prose is… it’s… it’s just flawless. Reading this book is like eating a giant piece of this cake. Or this cake. Or – oh. Oh wow. OK so it’s like all of those, I can’t decide. Just all of them. It’s very decadent, and very good, is the point I’m trying to make.

I want to go to the Night Circus. I want to live there. It feels real, it feels beautiful and magical and just a little bit dangerous, and it’s been a very, very long time since I’ve fallen so hard for a fictional, magical world.

the night circus2

The Night Circus: Alas.

Here’s the thing, though.

The entire circus itself is created in order for the two protagonists, Marco and Celia, to have an arena in which to compete. The competition is deliberately vague: they basically just have to create magic things, different tents, different showcases, and they have to keep all of the people they’ve roped into the endeavour relatively safe and happy while they battle it out. Both are set on this journey by overpowerful completely cold-hearted ancient father figures when they are powerless children. They grow up, learn their different styles of magic from their different mentors, and then they start battling it out.

But, wouldn’t you know it, they’re both super hot young adults and they fall for each other. He falls first, she’s sort of resistant until she just can’t ignore how intensely he burns for her, you know, typical stuff. And because of this, the fairly vague competition turns into basically just them writing love letters to each other in the form of circus exhibitions and being completely impressed by each other’s magical prowess. Mostly he’s impressed. Typical stuff.

I’m not aromantic, and, more importantly, I’m usually a sucker for this sort of thing. I’m pretty sure, even not being aromantic myself, that you can be a huge fan of cutesy but still extremely intense romance stuff even if you don’t feel romantic attraction or if you only feel it sometimes. Anyway, what I wanted to get at is this: this is fine. It’s fine. It’s great. I’d normally love it. I did quite like it, I guess, as it is.

But, I’d read the “Voldemort as aromantic is super problematic” article first.

And.

So.

Here’s the thing.

There isn’t… really… like… any friendship in this.

There are two sets of twins, I’ll grant.

Here’s the thing about that: in the older twins’ case, they’re two fabulous ladies, two members of the really awesome group of people who found the Night Circus. One of the other members, some guy, is trying to determine which one of them he’s more in love with. Happily for all three of them, one of them dies. She goes to that some guy and asks why none of them have aged in the ten years since the circus began, and he sends her to Marco’s mentor, who compels her to accidentally walk in front of a train. And then the second twin and some guy start dating.

I make it sound sort of suspicious, like some guy wanted one of them to die to make his choice simple. I’m pretty sure he didn’t. But it’s just rather weird to me that, well, this is what happens to one set of twins. Like. Some guy is in love with both of them, trying to choose. And then. One of them dies. Like. What?

The younger twins are a boy and a girl. Widget, the boy, says and does normal, overly precocious literary child things that no real child would say or do. Poppet, the girl, says and does normal, overly precocious literary child things that no real child would say or do, and she also falls in love with some other boy who shows up to save the day at the end.

I’ll be honest: I’d be a little less annoyed if it had been Widget falling in love and Poppet just got to do her own thing in the end. But I’d still be slightly annoyed. There are a handful of scenes with the brother and sister being together, but their relationship isn’t as real as I’d like, and most of their scenes include Bailey, the boy Poppet falls in love with. And there isn’t a reason for her to fall in love with him. From Bailey’s perspective, she’s an exotic circus girl who is super nice to him, so of course he falls in love with her. I’m not saying he needs to be the most interesting manboy in the world for her to fall in love with him but there’s no exploration of how she feels about him at all. It’s just supposed to be a given, I guess, that she’d like him.

The only other relationship that has any sort of significance and that isn’t a romance is the one between the enigmatic contortionist Tsukiko and Isobel, the woman who is in love with Marco and who Marco is not in love with but he doesn’t tell her that until near the end (of course). But we only see glimpses.

And then the villains. Mr. A H- and Prospero the Enchanter, who both enjoy teaching children how to do magic so that they can compete with the rival’s student until one of them eventually dies. Prospero is Celia’s father. After she and Marco have sex, Prospero follows her around and calls her a whore a bunch of times, telling her she’s weak, she’s better than all of that, he’s extremely disappointed in her, he’s probably manipulating her girlish heart and of course doesn’t feel anything real for her, those feelings are for lesser people to indulge in, etc.

Tsukiko is a former winner and student of Mr. A H-‘s. Her opponent was another woman, and the competition between the two of them was also basically just a giant magical romance sexytimes fest. She says something along the lines of, “It’s been great being here, it’s the only thing that comes close to reminding me of the bliss I felt when I was magically intertwined with my long lost love, etc.”

Eventually Tsukiko’s magical girlfriend killed herself to end the game because she couldn’t bear to go on living if she’d have to live without Tsukiko. And Celia and Marco do the same thing sort of. It ends with Bailey saving them somehow. I’m still very confused about how that works, because to me, Bailey seems like a competely boring blank slate moderately enthusiastic fan of the circus, so why he’s ultimately the key to saving the circus and preserving Celia and Marco in eternal ghostly love is sort of beyond my capacity to understand. But boring rando saviours are not my topic today. And if they were, I’d much rather talk about the complete and utter bullshit that was Bard the Bowman being the guy to take down Smaug randomly near the end of The Hobbit. WTF forever, Tolkein, that sucked. But the Luke Evans version of events is fine.

MORE IMPORTANTLY is that even though reading this book was freaking delightful, by the end of it I was more than a little bit tired of how central and all-encompassing all of the sickening romance of it all was. I’d have liked there to have been just a little tweaking; just give Celia maybe one friend (one that doesn’t want to bone her because she does in fact have a friend and we never see her side of that friendship, which was platonic, we only see his, and he mostly wants to bone her) (sigh); give Marco a friend instead of a poor hopelessly devoted woman he continues to lead on despite being thoroughly uninterested in her; highlight Poppet and Widget and their sibling fights and mischief, things that would be more realistic than just having two precocious literary children being sagely and dull. There’s a super old glamorous lady who is (of course) entirely desexualized along for the ride too; give her something to do other than making knowing comments to Celia about how much Marco wants to bone her.

There is one conversation between Celia and the surviving fabulous lady twin in which surviving twin has figured it out and knows that Celia is somewhat responsible for her sister’s death, and she calls her out on it magnificently. That conversation was one of the highlights of the book and left me in awe. That’s the sort of thing that’s sorely missing from the rest of it: evidence of love that exists beyond and outside of romance and sex.

Regarding the Tsukiko revelation, also, at first, I thought, “Oh good, finally, a queer romance on top of all of these straight ones,” but then I thought, “Naaaah, we don’t see it at all, and one of them is tragically dead and the other one is tragically stuck living forever without the love of her life. Typical.”

I think it’s unfortunate that the book centers the romance in such a way as to basically overshadow even the possibility of other kinds of love being worthy of mention. I’m not trying to say that romance shouldn’t be the focus; rather, if the characters had been allowed to have other relationships that made them happy, other relationships that fulfilled them in other ways, the exploration of their romance would have been enhanced.

My evidence for this is the two and a half Courtney Milan books I’ve read. And Harry Potter. Courtney Milan writes straight-up romance, and there are always friendships and family relationships while the super sexy romance stuff is the main focus, and the other relationships always complement the romance nicely.

In Harry Potter, it’s much easier to feel the pain of loss when characters die even if they aren’t, like, Harry’s lovers. It’s easier because it has been established, thoroughly established, that friendships and family bonds matter and losing people you love, even if you don’t love them romantically, is excruciating.

Adding friendships and family relationships enhances everything. It makes everything deeper, and ultimately it makes it more real, because our lives are enriched by all of the people who matter the most to us, and many of those people aren’t romantic partners.

The book is good though.

2 thoughts on “The Night Circus and Amatonormativity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s