The hot topic in film and literary circles right now is 50 Shades of Grey. Love it or hate it, people are talking about it – even those who haven’t seen / read it.
Those who object to it say it glorifies rape, emotional manipulation and general abuse. Parents have spoken out, urging their daughters not to imagine the ‘relationship’ portrayed in the story is something to aspire to. Fans of the books have argued that the book doesn’t encourage the behaviour; Christian Grey comes from a tormented background and learns to love through Anastasia’s patience and endurance.
This article isn’t really about 50 Shades of Grey on its own; it’s about the wider genre it evolved from. For those who don’t know, 50 Shades began as Twilight fan fiction. Despite the adult content of 50 Shades, this places its origins in the young adult arena – and that I have an opinion on.
As a writer of young adult fiction, I have read hundreds of books in the greater genre. In doing so, I’ve noticed certain patterns, particularly in paranormal romance stories:
- The girl is often a clumsy weakling who endangers herself so much through her own stupidity that the boy has no choice but to look out for her. This involves stalking her, sneaking in her bedroom at night and watching her sleep, stealing her phone, making decisions for her, carrying her when she’s perfectly capable of walking, etc.
- The girl cannot live without the boy. Sometimes (example: Twilight or Eternal Eden) she actually tries to kill herself when she fears she’s lost the boy’s love.
- The two boys involved in the inevitable love triangle each tend to be one of two types: one is whiny, self-deprecating and (literally) suicidal without the girl, while the other is macho to the point of borderline misogyny. Both ripple with muscles.
- The boy and girl fall in love immediately upon meeting each other, without any reason behind the attraction. Depending on whether the boy is the self-deprecating puppy dog or the borderline misogynist, he will either follow the girl anywhere and everywhere without breathing room, or he will insult her, hurt her, act like he hates her, until her innocent guile breaks his defences and he admits he’s secretly a self-deprecating puppy dog, at which point he will begin following the girl anywhere everywhere without breathing room.
What readers can deduce from these patterns is:
- Girls are stupid and can’t function on their own. It’s good to let boys make decisions for you, especially about the course of your life, because you probably can’t make up your mind on your own.
- Despite how stupid girls are, boys are worse because they fight over the stupid girls like they’re meat on a bone.
- Weakness and emotional manipulation are attractive qualities in a life partner. This applies to phrases like, ‘I’d die without you,’ and, ‘I’m nothing without you.’ They encourage you to feel like you can’t leave the relationship, unless you’re willing to live with the guilt of destroying someone.
- Verbal abuse and male chauvinism are also sexy. If the boy grapples with a burning desire to kill you, despite how much he ‘loves’ you (think Twilight), that’s romantic.
- Muscles are more important than common decency. Boys are made to be looked at, not to talk to.
All sarcasm aside, I can only conclude that the portrayal of male characters in female-written novels is representative of the authors’ views and fantasies about men. This tells me a) a lot of women suffer from extreme self-hate and fantasise about being mistreated, and b) a lot of women have lost their faith in real men.
As a female author, I’ve always had strong friendships with males. I am very close to my husband and I was elated when I learned our first child was a boy. I have brothers. I love things like X-Men and Batman, and I tend to feel more invested in my male characters than my female ones. In all my dealings with the male gender, I can honestly say I have never met a real-life Edward Cullen or Christian Grey. I’m sure they’re out there, but I have enough sense and self-value to avoid such people. They’re not sexy. They’re not romantic. They’re abusive.
Admittedly, the average reader of the Twilight series was in her mid-thirties. The film adaptations brought a lot of dormant ‘cougars’ out of the woodwork. Despite the BBC scandal of pretty much all their male staff in the 1970s being exposed as paedophiles, it was accepted that women found Jacob ‘hot’, despite him being young enough to be their son. Nonetheless, the original intended readership for the series was young adult, i.e. between the ages of 15 and 20, at the oldest. Go into any bookstore and you will find the series in the children’s section – not with ordinary fiction. For me, this means we, as authors, have an obligation to the young women who might be reading our books.
To encourage such books and films is to tell our daughters, ‘This is what men are like. They use you and hurt you. The best you can hope for is someone who dotes on you to the point of losing his sense of individuality, so you can’t breathe under the weight of his constant presence. It’s okay, though. As long as there’s eye candy, you’ll get through it. That’s all men are good for, anyway.’ (I’ve even read a YA book in which a 17-year-old girl referred to a boy’s penis as ‘the best part’, after disregarding him as not worth dating, based on personality.)
I ask you: is this really the result of the gender revolution that began nearly 300 years ago and took off in the 20th century? Is this what women like Mary Wollstonecraft fought for? A friend of mine tonight noted the word ‘revolution’ implies a circle; in other words, you end up right where you started. I think this applies, because we began the feminist movement hoping to overthrow men’s objectification of women, and today women have learned to objectify men – and many of the books out there are teaching future generations of women to carry on the bad habit. Not only that, but young male readers who happen upon these stories are getting the wrong ideas about what girls / women want from them. How are we ever to fight, say, the cycle of domestic violence when we’re telling girls and boys alike that it can be okay?
On another note, there also seems to be a degree of lascivious anticipation on the part of the 30-something readers for the moment when the hapless heroine loses her virginity. Now, I don’t know about you, but I read a book waiting for the STORY to unfold. In many indie paranormal romance books, however, there IS no story, but rather a string of scenes in which the boy and the girl almost but don’t quite manage to have sex. For instance, in Twilight, strip away the not-sex and you’re left with a really hungry vampire who finally gets to eat the girl, after spending a lot of time yacking about another vampire who wants to eat her, and they eventually live happily ever after. Without the sexual tension, there isn’t much to the story.
To take this idea to extremes, I recently came across a collection of short fan fiction in which ‘all your favourite heroines’ lose their ‘v-cards’. The implication is that is the moment you wait for all through the book. To be blunt: apparently many people who read Twilight didn’t care about the ‘plot’; they read on because they wanted to see Bella sleep with Edward. Stephenie Meyer attempted to subvert the story by making the girl press for sex and the boy insist on abstaining until marriage, but somehow this turned into Bella being pressured into marriage at the age of 18 – before she had a chance to venture into the world and discover whether Edward really was worth shackling herself to for all eternity. She bound herself to him simply because she was in a desperate hurry to get laid – and her mother approved. Once married, most of the fourth book was the sex everyone was dying to see.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with sex in a book. It can work. The Infernal Devices springs to mind as an example of a sex scene made beautiful and relevant. I’ll also admit to reading a few erotica books. One was about a womaniser cursed to turn into a zombie at random, learning to love again (I was greatly disappointed that he didn’t zombify during ‘the act’). The other was about a 50-year-old woman who accidentally stumbled into a parallel dimension in which mythic pirates sailed the high seas and the mighty Kraken disturbed the waters. The key to my three examples is they were plot-driven. I cared about the characters. The sex was the least important element of my reading experience.
Call me old-fashioned, but surely reading a collection of short stories about 16-year-old girls ‘finally giving it up’ is tantamount to indulging a fetish for watching the deflowering of innocents. Does that sound as creepy to you as it does to me? Yet, again, we’re encouraging teenage girls to fixate on the deflowering of virgins. We’re turning them away from the beauty of real life, real emotions, real boys/men, real love, and showing them an ugly vacuous mimicry. We’re teaching them it’s okay to be mean to boys because boys used to be so mean to us, and two wrongs can sometimes make a right. And we’re teaching them to accept mistreatment from the boys who never learned to be nice, because abuse somehow shows strength. How can it not, when matched with those rippling muscles?
I feel it’s important to look at our heroes and heroines and ask ourselves: ‘Is this how a boy/girl would really behave? What message am I sending to my readers?’ Because as writers, we have a responsibility to our audience, no matter how big or small it might be.
If you have any thoughts on this subject, please leave a comment below; I’d love to hear your view, even if you disagree with me! Be sure to subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss further writing insights; and if you’re a writer yourself and looking for an editor, click here for more information about my services and rates.
Vrinda Pendred originally grew up in Arizona, but moved to England in 1999, where she now lives with her husband and their two children. She is the author of the YA fantasy series The Wisdom, available from all good ebook shops. Her first novel was The Ladder, a story about two friends learning to grow through their difficult childhoods and find the light that lies inside themselves.
Vrinda also runs a publishing house for writers with neurological conditions, called Conditional Publications. Their first book, Check Mates: A Collection of Fiction, Poetry and Artwork about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, by People with OCD, was released in 2010 (Kindle and paperback), with future books in the pipeline.
In addition to her writing, Vrinda also does freelance proofreading and editing, and tutors GCSE / A-Level English. She holds a BA Hons in English with Creative Writing, a Proofreading qualification with Chapter House, and has completed work experience with Random House.