I was reluctant to post this piece because I use this as a creative space, not as a space to sound off on serious issues -unless you count which Salvatore brother is the sexiest as a serious issue.
But calling domestic violence a “serious issue” almost sounds like an understatement. I hope you join me in the “Love is…?” campaign to help spread awareness of domestic violence (and thanks to those of you who already have!).
Today’s post relates this issue to the main focus on this blog: Literature, particularly romantic or erotic literature. Do the relationships depicted in the recent surge of paranormal romance and erotic literature promote unhealthy relationships? Although these are certainly not the only examples, due to their recent popularity the Twilight series and Fifty Shades trilogy come to my mind. Do these books depict domestic partner violence and/or imbalanced gender roles? Will reading them alter your view of how a relationship should be and/or your role in the relationship?
Although my “short answer” is no, I can certainly see both sides of it, which I will present below. So, here is the long answer:
1. I think it’s first important to point out that, no matter what you may think of the content of these books and what you think they promote, I certainly do not believe that the authors were intentionally advocating for violence against women or are somehow anti-feminism or something. [A side tangent: Although there are some strikingly traditional themes in the Twilight saga (Bella and Edward get married after she graduates from high school and before they consummate their relationship), from what I understand Stephanie Meyer's hubby became a stay-at-home dad while she was on the road promoting her books. How's that for a little traditional-gender-roles reversal?]
2. Further, I think people are too quick to blame the authors, to accuse them of promoting such relationships. If there really is something to worry about here, is it really these authors, these particular books? Or the culture in which such material is marketable and sells like crazy?
3. Reading the Fifty Shades trilogy was admittedly a guilty pleasure for me. (I’ve reviewed all three books; read the review of Grey here.) When I read it, I didn’t feel in advocated for violence against women, although now that I’ve read some commentary from those that think it does I can sort of see where they’re coming from. Instead, I believe it’s a peak into a world of tastes that many people don’t have, or at least not quite to the extent of Christian’s. Anastasia consents to explore Christian’s world. In fact, I found Christian’s personality -not the violence -to be the most disturbing aspect of the books: Like another character we’ll talk about next, he’s very controlling and possessive. So perhaps in this case it’s Christian’s need to control Ana rather than the lifestyle itself that could perhaps mislead an impressionable reader.
4. I also thoroughly enjoyed reading the Twilight saga. Heroine you love to hate? Check. Sexy alpha males? Check. Suspense? Check. But I was also firmly on Team Jacob. Why? Because, again, I thought Edward sounded like a control-freak -not an aspect of a healthy relationship. It seems one of the common themes between these books is not the outright violence in them but the man’s extreme possessiveness. As far as violence goes, though, I’ve heard people point out the honeymoon scenes because Bella is left basically looking bruised and beaten after having sex with Edward (and then goes back for more). I’m not necessarily arguing against this interpretation; I just didn’t think of it that way while I was reading it. It makes a twisted kind of sense that that’s what would happen if a supernatural being with supernatural strength had sex with a mere mortal. Anyway, to me it was again depicted as an S&M-esque lifestyle and not Edward hitting Bella because he thought and told her she was worthless (which he doesn’t).
5. As I alluded to in the beginning, these are by far not the only two books to explore a relationship between an innocent girl and a tragic antihero. I had heard of the Byronic hero but never really knew the connotation until I looked up “antihero” on Wikipedia: Among other traits, he is arrogant, moody, has a troubled past, mysterious, charismatic, seductive, sophisticated, self-destructive…
In other words, has the qualities of pretty much every fictional male character I’ve ever had a crush on, or written about myself. Spike of the Buffy/Angel universe, Damon Salvatore of The Vampire Diaries, L. J. Smith’s other antiheros (Gabriel, Nick, Julian), and more recently Hook on Once Upon A Time. And I know, much to J. K. Rowling’s disdain, that there are fangirls salivating after Draco Malfoy. [As another aside -I wish I could remember where I saw/heard that she said this so that I properly cite it -Ms. Rowling was pretty much disturbed about this because she intended for Malfoy to pretty much be an undesirable, mean person and that thinking you can change/save a man is a dangerous idea.] And I certainly know that I’m not the only woman who gravitates towards the bad guys in fantasy.
That’s just it: It’s fantasy. As long as you can separate that from what you look for in a real-life relationship, in a real man, I don’t think it’s a big deal to daydream about being the woman who reforms Spike, or Damon, or Hook, etc. In fact, writing about an anti-hero is exhilarating because they’re very complex characters: Maybe brooding, cynical and dark but still with sparks of light, kindness and the ability to love within them. But again, what is fun to explore in writing or fantasy would not be as enjoyable in real life. In reality, it would probably be too emotionally exhausting to deal with someone like that.
And as a woman who sometimes (but not always! PEETA!!!) likes the bad boys in literature and on TV, I’ve had two serious relationships and both were with kind, open, good-hearted men.
I think it’s quite possible to keep these two worlds separate -to read a dark book without applying it to your own life or relationship (on a literal level, not role-play or something). I’ll admit, though, that although I don’t think they’re promoting violence against women, Twilight and Fifty Shades perhaps take male dominance/possessiveness a bit too far. (It can be sexy when your boyfriend/husband tells you you’re his for a little naughty talk. It wouldn’t be sexy if a handsome multimillionaire you barely know shows up at your place of work. Or the bar at which you hang out.) Should we be advising women not to read them? I’m not really sure about that, but I’m still leaning towards no. Sometimes an impressionable person will read such books and may take them more literally, for lack of a better word, but really I think she would already suffer from self-esteem and self-image issues that must be addressed through therapy and even population-level interventions (which are outside the scope of this post).
In other words, I don’t think the books are the problem, I think there are other underlying cultural or social issues that should be addressed. We are a culture in which there was almost this unspoken expectation that Rihanna “make up” with Christ Brown -a market that still buys his music after he hit her. A society that apparently doesn’t hold him to as high standards since he’s a sexy pop star. This situation stands out to me as more of a problem than anything in Fifty Shades or Twilight.
So what do you think? Do you think such books are anti-feminist, promote violence, promote unhealthy relationships, etc.? What impact do you think they have on women, on our culture (or is it the other way around)? I’d love to hear from you!