Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fifty Shades of Dark Realities

Despite the title of this post, I’m not necessarily discussing Fifty Shades of Grey, but in general terms romance novels as a whole, and this “type” in particular. We’ve all heard about these novels, it’s impossible not to be bombarded with some form of awareness of this specific set of books at this moment in time. While many, many millions of readers, male and female, adore the books and proclaim them wonderful, the reality is, there’s an insidious and darker aspect to the story E.L. James has told here. I think we’ve forgotten some of the more obvious negatives represented in this narrative given from the perspective of an innocent and virginal young woman just graduating from university.

Romance heroes are as a rule larger than life men, mostly strong, independent, alpha males who are often arrogant and enigmatic. While this is meant to be alluring, in the real world, it’s just as often a source of frustration for women who deal with this kind of man daily. I like this kind of romance hero myself, they’re my stock in trade. I also enjoyed aspects of Fifty Shades of Grey–but there are also aspects of it that are somewhat frightening, too. Let’s take the “hero” of this story, Christian Grey. He’s a megalomaniac, a control freak of amazing proportions, and he likes to practise a less-than-reality-based BDSM lifestyle. Oh, and at the tender age of 28, he’s richer than god and inspires fear in businessmen twice his age. To offset this apparently “privileged” life we learn that his childhood was less than blessed, he was beaten and abused by “the crack whore” who was his mother, and in his teen years, his adoptive mother’s friend stepped in and began a Dom/s relationship with him before he was even of legal age.

Anastasia Steele is presented as the “all-American girl” who catches the eye of Mr. Grey. She's impossibly naïve, to the point of annoyingly stupid at times, and while we are told often of her strength, she exhibits precious little of it throughout the tale. She is, in fact, the kind of “heroine” that some editors refer to as TSTL–Too Stupid To Live. When she’s not falling on her ass clumsy, she’s chatting with her Inner Goddess or the voice of her conscience, neither of which shows any real sense. She swoons over Christian, she moons over Christian, she attempts to say no to Christian… All of this we’re told makes her more appealing to him.

Ok, story aside, let’s look at a few points that go unspoken in all this. Fifty Shades of Grey and books like it, those that present an unrealistic and romanticized view of unbalanced relationships, are influencing the perceptions of romance for an entire generation just waking up to their sexuality, both men and women. Hell, older men and women well-versed in relationship interactions are being influenced by these books. We’ve all heard about how they’re saving marriages and all that, which is great if it’s helping you open up to your partner about the intimate aspects of your relationship. BUT, why aren’t we hearing about the other side of all this? Because it’s ugly, and it spoils the fantasy that’s being sold to us all. How many people have bought the “toys” with no real understanding of their use? How many men have hurt their partners with whips, floggers, plugs, anal beads, and all the other trappings of BDSM? Instruments that give pleasure in the right hands, be it laced with pain or not, but in the hands of the inexperienced and uninitiated can cause real injuries. How many women have asked their mates to tie them up, or spank them, or cuff them, only to be left feeling utterly used and terrified by the resulting experience? How can any of this be perceived as romantic or loving?

How many women, realistically, want to be told what to wear, who they can see, where they can work, when to eat, when to exercise, etc.? The enlightened, average woman calls that emotional and psychological abuse when her girlfriend tells her she’s met a guy who does this to her, doesn’t she? At what point in time did all that’s been fought for in recent decades with regard to women’s rights become disposable? Is this really romantic? Most of us if faced with this in our real lives would tell the guy to bugger off and find himself a doormat to walk over. But, if you’re young, inexperienced, and impressionable–which is a state we all, men and women, go through as we grow into our adulthood–and this, you’re told by books and movies, is an expression of love, not an abuse of your trust and love, are you so quick to tell your Prince Charming to take a hike? Unlikely. Therein lies a problem. The vulnerable have just become even more vulnerable to those who see this as an opportunity to take advantage, to get what they need or want, and do it in the guise of romance and love.

There is a huge difference between a dominant male and a domineering one, but the distinction comes with life-experience to a large degree. And, how many “bullies” will pass off their aggressive tendencies as their Dom side, especially to those who haven’t a clue about the fine-lines? Are we encouraging weaker women to allow men like this to take control of their lives? It can happen easily enough. Maybe for some, they don’t want to be responsible for the choices that make them unhappy, so allowing a “Dom” to take over removes that burden for them. Who knows? The true nature of BDSM, or indeed, Dom/s is that in its truest lifestyle form, it is a loving partnership based on incredible trust. With the watered down and irresponsible presentation given in Fifty Shades, it’s a young woman being taught that what she wants is what Christian wants. A virgin heroine no less, and she’s not even had the pleasure of bringing herself to orgasm when she meets Mr. Grey and he begins to teach her his version of passion and sensuality. He freaks out on a regular basis, stalks her, terrorizes her on emotional levels at times, and yet she is drawn and calls this love.

I think as an industry, romance leads the way for fantasizing love and sex, making it larger than life, and for some, an unattainable dream. We’re teaching people, old and young, to want impossible things from the partners we choose. People NEED to talk and communicate, that more than anything else is what defines an honest and real relationship between people. Strip away the money and the glamour, and what would most of us see in Christian Grey? A man who uses women to soothe his anger and satisfy his sexual needs. Sure, he’s “fifty shades of fucked up” and that appeals to the need most women have to save and nurture, but how many women want to have their asses spanked and to be treated like children because their husband/boyfriend gets pissed off over some perceived transgression–like going for a drink with your best friend. Again, we’re sending some very negative and dangerous signals to young women if this is the way “romance” and “love” are being marketed by the industry.

And what are we teaching the young men of our society? That if you push hard enough, you can be a “Dom” personality? Dominant personalities are natural, they’re not bullies dressed up in Dom trappings. Money doesn’t buy submission, and if it does, you’re not a Dom, you’re an abusive bastard who’s using fear to manipulate others into giving you what you want. Young women who are insecure and unsure, they’re potential victims for this kind of abuse. Don’t kid yourself, either, unless this kind of relationship is mutually sought, it is a prime source of mental and emotional abuse. Most loving couples don’t really need to dominate, stalk, or control their partners to the point of obsession. Obsession is unhealthy, and not romantic. Time to balance the perceptions, at least in my opinion.


  1. Finally! Someone brave enough to point out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes! Bravo. While professionals who care about the craft have castigated the author, and the industry, for lowering standards to a deplorable extent, few have spoken about the psychological and social implications of the real message—that dominance and bullying and abuse are acceptable when cleverly couched and marketed as romanticism. Thank you, Denyse, for calling a spade a spade. It's time to stop grousing about the unfairness of E.L. James' success and instead turn a discerning eye to the implications for fantasizing about and legitimizing such unrealistic and dangerous behaviors.

  2. Truer words were never spoken. Good for you, Denyse.

  3. Thank you both, ladies... I thought a lot about this blog, took a couple of hours to write it and express very carefully what I wanted said. This is the result of my own views, and several discussions I've had with people about 50 Shades, and other books like it. I think it's time to revisit the power of the written word, and maybe to begin accepting responsibility as an industry for the sometimes destructive works that are put out there for an impressionable public. Artists have always had the power to influence, and it's past time that influence was examined and perhaps made more positive with some effort.

  4. I agree with what you've said. And I also must applaud you on an excellently crafted, well-reasoned article.

  5. Very well said and though we like fairytale books where the mystery and money come together and make everyone love the characters, it's not real life and if it is, I don't see anyone coming out and saying "my life is just like this"....

  6. This is an excellent article. Like others, I've focused on what I've heard about the bad writing, but you make a very strong case of the dangers of this type book. thanks.

  7. Thank you everyone for the wonderful and insightful comments. The more attention these books get, and the more widespread the acceptance, the more I see there is a very dangerous trend beginning that is going to cause a great deal of unhappiness to people. We should be concentrating on being responsible adults in our relationships, not on how best to play out dangerous fantasies that may hurt those we claim to love. I enjoyed reading James' Fifty Shades books, but took it for the romanticized fantasy it was - of course the marketing people will never want it to be tainted by reality, and therein is the monstrous danger of accepting them too easily as romance.

  8. Excellent points, Denyse--thank you for this thoughtful post!!

  9. Absolutely, Denyse. What I would like to know (a question I have already asked elsewhere), when did women start loathing themselves so badly, that these books appear romantic? There is nothing romantic about a man tying up a girl and hitting her without her consent. That's domestic violence. And yes, the use of toys in the books is both deeply unrealistic and potentially very dangerous. I wonder at what point the negative stories will start to turn the tide as women (and possibly men) are injured because they bought a sex toy without the slightest knowledge of how to use it? At the moment, reporting on these books has reached a vacuous all time low, as 50Shades is ascribed all kinds of wonders, from saving marriages to doubling the sales of sex toys, to an HP sauce fight! I hate the writing, am horrified by the content, disgusted that this was published in violation of everything that fan fiction is, and cannot find a single redeeming feature in any of it. I am suddenly looking on some poor writing in another book and thinking "Know what, at least her characters are her own, and she's not advocating domestic violence and sociopathy as romance!"


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