Jenny Han’s young adult trilogy The Summer I Turned Pretty, and its Amazon Prime TV show adaptation, depicts a classic love triangle, with a few notable twists. Teen protagonist Belly (Lola Tung) is caught between the love of two brothers, Conrad (Christopher Briney) and Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno). In season one, Belly was deeply in love with the quiet, brooding Conrad: the ultimate symbol of the unavailable boy you just have to have. Because Conrad was reticent about his feelings, Belly ended up making out with his brother Jeremiah — a bubbly, blond, Abercrombie model-esque boy next door whose affection came more easily.
I’m a huge fan of love triangles, but even I have to admit that The Summer I Turned Pretty is a little … intense. All this romantic turmoil happens while the boys’ mom, Susannah (Rachel Blanchard), is dying of cancer. Add to that Belly’s mother, Laurel (Jackie Chung), is best friends with Susannah. They raised their children together as fictive kin, and it makes the whole thing feel slightly incestuous. Still, while it gives me a tummy ache, that tension and taboo is partly why this series is so beloved and why viewers are locked in. As viewers and readers of romance, many of us are drawn to love triangles more than any other trope.
For writers and showrunners, there’s a clear financial benefit in feeding our hunger for love triangles. It’s more likely to lead to more books, TV seasons, and movies, and it increases reader/audience engagement. This is what Ethan Calof, PhD candidate in English and Comparative Media Analysis and Practice at Vanderbilt University, calls “social community formation.”
“If you’re drawing out a tense, emotional love triangle plot through multiple books, it strengthens community formation by encouraging readers to join teams for a ship war. And ship wars are not an accidental happenstance,” they say, citing Twilight and how Team Edward and Team Jacob generated countless fanfiction and merchandise opportunities. (Remember Nordstrom’s Twilight clothing line?) Even in The Summer I Turned Pretty, the fourth wall is broken a bit when Belly’s brother Steven (Sean Kaufman) and her best friend Taylor (Rain Spencer) argue about whether they’re Team Conrad or Team Jeremiah, echoing online fan defenses of the respective love interests.
Calof says that literary binaries and tropes provide readers with “a sense of comfort, a clear debate to weigh in on, and a digestible sense of conflict that keeps a story propelling forward.” They explain, “Joining a broader team is just a manifestation of this instinct — the comfort of being part of a large group, and an exploration that deepens as each sequel is published.” So that callout to the fandom, while a bit ham-fisted, was purposely meant to continue the lucrative communities that can build around love triangles.
Despite how this shows up in the digital age, love triangles are a centuries-old obsession. “When reading a love triangle plot through a monogamous lens, each potential partner represents an aspect of the protagonist’s personality, or a moral choice, or one side of a binary,” Calof says. “Most of Jane Austen’s novels feature a female protagonist choosing between two or more men, one virtuous and one immoral, with her protagonists eventually choosing the virtuous side and resolving a moral dilemma,” they point out. “Anne Elliot from Persuasion chooses the clever but less pedigreed Wentworth over her manipulative cousin William, Elizabeth Bennett chooses the shy and wealthy Mr. Darcy over the charming adulterer Mr. Wickham, Emma chooses the honest Mr. Knightley over the shallow Frank Churchill.”
Despite our love of building community around uniting behind one love interest or the next, or our general consensus that one love interest is superior — no one likes Wickham over Darcy — some might say that our interest in love triangles might point to a wider cultural desire to explore polyamory. While I don’t doubt that many are curious about exploring options outside of the dominant form of monogamous relationships, I disagree that the classic love triangle is a good example of this. For the most part, love triangles are the antithesis of what most people say polyamory is intended to be about: loving multiple people equally and simultaneously. In contrast to this definition of polyamory, love triangles are hyper-focused on the act of choosing, the ebb and flow of affection and attraction. Aimée Lutkin, an entertainment writer for Elle magazine and author of The Lonely Hunter: How Our Search for Love Is Broken, says, “There’s still a real monogamous bent within these love triangles. They have to choose one. It’s very rarely that the ending is like, ‘Yeah, I’ll date both the brothers.’”
Many forms of polyamory are also centered around the idea that love shouldn’t be hierarchical. But the love triangle as a trope is about the constant battle for primacy. As one potential lover rises in esteem, the other falls. It’s either a roller coaster or a steady, depressing road trip of rejection for one party (Jacob from Twilight never stood a chance), not a stable and equal development of love for all involved. In fact, the person in the middle of the love triangle (in this case, Belly) usually doesn’t love both equally. One is usually a more comforting, safe love (ahem, we’re looking at you, Michael from Jane the Virgin ) and the other is their fated lover that their heart can’t live without, the OTP, or One True Pairing, like Joey and Pacey from Dawson’s Creek. And, spoiler alert, in this series, it’s so obviously Conrad. Keshav Kant, romance novel consultant and executive director of Off Colour, says that love triangles are reminiscent of “fake open relationships where you want to test the waters to see who else is out there because the one you got at home is starting to get a little stale.”
In other series too, the brooding older guy usually wins over the younger, more exuberant one, a pattern that might suggest that love triangles are often about leaving youth behind for adulthood. One notable exception is Outlander, where Claire rejects the love of her serious dark-haired academic husband Frank, going back in time to 18th-century Scotland and falling in love with the younger, red-haired, mischievous Jamie Fraser. In that case, Claire’s choice might reflect a desire for adventure and youth, and a rejection of the traditional trappings of adulthood and womanhood.
In this idea of choice, there are also lessons. Sometimes people get focused on one option, thinking that there is only one romantic partner for them. That obsession can be unhealthy, leading people to eschew others in favor of chasing someone who might not even be the best fit. That’s why dating around is healthy. Laurel speaks to this briefly in the last episode of season two, telling Belly she wants her to have many lovers before she settles down. Of course, Belly just runs to Jeremiah instead of finding an entirely new person.
It’s the toxicity of the situation that makes a portion of the Summer I Turned Pretty fandom criticize Belly, often calling her selfish and narcissistic for pitting two brothers against each other during their mother’s terminal illness and even after their mother’s death. There’s an argument to be made that perhaps Belly and the boys are engaging in their own self-destructive tendencies.
Unsurprisingly, our attraction to love triangles isn’t always a wholly positive thing. “Love triangles can sometimes appeal to our narcissistic tendencies as they place us in the center of a conquest and divide strategy,” says Avigail Lev, psychotherapist and founder and director at the Bay Area CBT Center. Who can forget Jules’s selfish scheming in My Best Friend’s Wedding, where the well-being of everyone else took a back seat to her desire to get with Michael? “We become the focal point, the object of desire for two individuals who compete over our affection,” Lev says. “This dynamic can give us a sense of satisfaction, as if we have conquered something, triumphed over others.”
An interesting part of this love triangle is Conrad and Jeremiah’s deceased mom Susannah’s culpability (and by extension, the other two dads and Laurel’s, since none of them intervened). Susannah, who considered Belly a daughter, made it clear to Belly, from her childhood, that she knew Belly was “destined for one of her boys.” It’s an immense amount of pressure to put on a child, and I pointed out to Lutkin that it felt almost like incestuous grooming to me, since they were raised as cousins. Lutkin responded, “I’m glad you said the word ‘grooming’ because I was definitely not putting that word to it, but I was thinking about how manipulative it was of Susannah. … It was incestuous and bizarre how Susannah was pushing this idea that she was gonna end up with one of the boys, especially so close to her death, which is obviously gonna be a stronger blow to Belly [if those relationships don’t work out].”
There’s also the added pressure of the beach house, an absurdly expensive home in coastal Massachusetts that Belly and Laurel have been constantly told by Susannah is their house too. Season two revolves around Belly, Conrad, and Jeremiah attempting to save the house as Susannah’s older half-sister Julia (Kyra Sedgwick) attempts to sell it. But crucially, even if they save the home from being sold, unless Belly marries one of the boys, this home will never belong to her. It adds an unspoken layer of pressure that likely makes her hesitant to branch out outside of these two boys, because if she does, she’ll have to contend with another woman eventually being the head of a household that she was led to believe was hers her entire life. Through this lens, Belly’s choice to engage in this love triangle takes on a new dimension. If she chooses the wrong brother, she loses a major part of her identity and an inheritance that ethically should be partly hers.
Within that, there is insight into why the love triangle might appeal more to marginalized groups. “Generally people go to [the romance genre] to seek what they want or what they’ve been denied,” Kant says. “If you love ‘enemies to lovers,’ [you might] want someone who’s gonna love you even if they see you at your worst. If you love ‘friends to lovers,’ you are someone that wants comfort and security because maybe that’s been missing for you.” For traditional love triangles, she says what people are likely seeking is the feeling of being desired.
Due to desirability politics that usually (and falsely) spread the idea that people of color, trans people, disabled people, fat people, and people with mental illnesses are unworthy of being these sought-after objects of desire, it might feel validating for viewers to see protagonists — especially if they exist at one of these marginalizations — being desired by not just one, but two love interests. Part of why women of color enjoyed shows like Never Have I Ever, Jane the Virgin, and From Scratch is because they featured South Asian, Latinx, and Black women at the center of a love triangle — and therefore at the center of desire. After days of people sharing on Twitter about how common the trope of the “disposable Black girlfriend” is, it’s no wonder viewers are hungry for something different. The idea of choices can feel alluring and empowering for anyone, but especially for people who’ve been told their choices are limited or even nonexistent. Still, even though Belly is half-Korean, she doesn’t really exist at many other intersections of marginalization. It’s not lost on viewers that the center of a love triangle is still nondisabled, conventionally attractive, or light-skinned.
Readers of the trilogy like myself know how this love triangle is going to end, but viewers are waiting with bated breath to see the resolution in season three. And in the meantime, despite ourselves, we’re all drawn to the drama. As Lev says, “The drama surrounding a love triangle can be addictive, drawing us in and making us feel like active participants in the romantic turmoil. It evokes intense emotions, heightens the stakes, and adds excitement to our lives.”
My confession is this: There’s nothing I love more than a love triangle. I was raised on Joey/Pacey/Dawson, Elena/Stefan/Damon, and Bella/Edward/Jacob. I was #TeamRafael for every second of Jane the Virgin, and Kal Ho Naa Ho makes me cry every time. But even though love triangles can be useful sources of life lessons, they’re probably best left in fiction. In real life, they can make things hurtful and complicated. Date around, have lots of lovers, and be polyamorous if you’d like, but resist the urge to be the center of this kind of story.
Nylah Burton is a writer based in Denver, Colorado. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine, Essence, and British Vogue.