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How BookTok Promotes Toxic Ideals And Problematic Behaviour

TikTok has a constant stream of trends and dark corners, one of the most prevalent and long-standing sub-sections being BookTok, which also exists on Instagram as Bookstagram. This community of social media enthusiasts is passionate about exactly what it says on the tin: they’re readers.


The content they make and consume is book-related, trends and viral audio clips revolve around this and it comes with its own set of book-related influencers. Within this accepting and warm community exist other pockets of readers, classic’s lovers, YA fanatics and literary fiction girlies, to name a few. 


The worlds of Booktok and Bookstragram are welcoming places, with influencers creating content for avid readers (typically those reading upwards of thirty or forty books a year) to those just starting who haven't picked up a book since their school days. And, like is common with TikTok and Instagram, there is a crossover between these communities that further extends to YouTube, where fans can find longer content that delves deep into new books, recommendations, reviews and the like. 

Historically, books have had the capacity to be dangerous and divisive. Beloved and teachable classics such as ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ have been banned in the past, deemed scandalous and far too inappropriate to be on shelves or available to the public. Whilst these novels were banned long ago, in a more conservative time, we still see the same criticisms levelled at many books today. 

Sarah J Maas book

Within the book community are multiple sub-communities, divided by their reading habits and tastes, so the popularity of books is unpredictable and fluctuating. Novels written many years ago can do better than books published within the year, and whilst some plot lines, devices and writing styles work for some, this is not a rule of thumb. But regardless of whether a reader or BookToker is into ‘sad girl books’, classics, ‘dark academia tragedies’ or classic chick lit, within these subcommunities, we see books rise and fall consistently. 


Authors can also find acclaim and popularity in these communities. Notable and popular ‘booktok’ authors include Collen Hoover, Sally Rooney, Taylor Jenkins Read, Sarah J Maas, Holly Black and Ali Hazlewood. New releases from such popular names are hotly anticipated, their works are dissected and, in a few instances, adapted to the small screen. 


But, as with books of the past, popular books discussed online can still be scandalous and inappropriate. Some feature illicit themes, from abuse, incest, sexual assault, controlling relationships and toxic dynamics.


These tropes can be roleplayed and recreated on social media, from something as innocent as the ‘book boy lean’ to the not-so wholesome ‘mafia arranged marriages’. Books and videos can be made dedicated to certain tropes or themes and influencers can create content to promote and discuss certain, problematic books or plot lines. Videos recommending books based on sexual kinks such as knife play or the main characters' likelihood to ‘knife someone’ are possible to find on this side of TikTok, by anyone of any age.


It could be argued that stories that do feature troubling or triggering topics such as abusive relationships or self-harm help to bring awareness to such subjects, normalising the conversation around them and helping to represent those who have struggled with such issues in their past.


However, not every use of these topics is for the purpose of normalisation and representation, often these tropes and subjects are romanticised, promoting harmful behaviour or depicting abuse as attractive. The line between bringing awareness and glamorising issues, such as mental health disorders, violence against women or toxic relationships, is often crossed and the promotion of this is regularly shown to young, impressionable people with no warning of the graphic content or any disclosure that such behaviours are not acceptable. 


We see influencers advertising books with step-sibling romances, and professor/student romances and even create content sexualising stalking and sexual assault. Not only can this content be incredibly harmful to impressionable individuals, but it can also trigger those who have lived through and experienced such traumas.


One such influencer promoting content like this declined to comment for this article. “I’m not sure why you would want to write about the book community and/or authors in a negative light, I feel like this will not go over well,” she said. Yet, graphic content of this nature which she regularly posts receives outrage from followers and consumers, with users commenting on the disturbing content and the tropes they romanticise, arguably proving that such posts are not well received and deemed harmful by the most significant critic, the audience. 

Comments on tiktok

It may be argued that it is not the job of an influencer to hold an open discourse about the harm of such tropes in a book. However, if they choose to promote these books, then trigger and content warnings should be a natural part of this promotion and dissemination. Awareness is not the same as romanticisation and those creating or promoting such notions should be aware that there are ways to keep that line from being crossed.

The simplest solution would be to ban such notions and books that explore them, but previous efforts to ban books deemed to have a negative influence have proven this is not possible. As with many issues we face in society, the solution lies in education and transparency. Books that include such themes should be written in a way that doesn’t romanticise them but rather brings awareness to the toxicity. Book influencers and book-related content online should be transparent, with content warnings, as influencers need to be aware of the wider audience, who may be younger and more impressionable than their main demographic. Readers should be mindful of what they’re consuming and not overexpose themselves to this harmful content at the risk of normalising it for themselves internally.


Ultimately, we as a society need to bring awareness to these issues portrayed, and thus educate those who may be susceptible to these tropes and subjects. Creating content for a wide audience that could be as young as 13 should be done so mindfully, and discussion or promotion of toxic or problematic tropes should be done sensitively.

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