I try not to form opinions of anything I haven’t read or watched for myself, because it doesn’t feel fair to judge someone else’s work on another person’s perspective. But, having never read 50 Shades of Grey, the reviews I’m seeing everywhere indicate that it paints abuse as romance. This is the same problem I had with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which I couldn’t finish. It’s not that violence occurs in the story – I can handle a fair share of grit. But when a reader is asked to find it SEXY that a character enjoys forcing pain on their lover, I just… can’t.
I’m a pretty live-and-let-live kind of person, so I’ve had to think long and hard about what it is that bothers me so much about this. When millions of women read a book and swoon over how romantic it is to be helpless in the hands of someone who enjoys hurting you whether or not you agree to it, it’s disturbing. “I’m going to do this to you and there’s nothing you can do about it” should be terrifying – in real life, it never turns out well – yet it seems many women have this sense that it’s exciting, even reassuring. Maybe even a reason to feel compassion toward their abuser, or feel special for being the one who’s going to rehabilitate them (a potentially romantic concept that is SO easily a slippery slope…) And it’s horrific to think about, because this has got to be the root of why many people can’t find it in themselves to acknowledge an abusive relationship, when a part of them is insisting “but isn’t it kind of nice to have someone else in charge?” Or worse – “It’s okay, because my suffering makes this person feel good, and that makes me feel like I matter, which is worth the pain.” Just typing that sentence made my stomach turn over.
Don’t get me wrong – while BDSM isn’t my thing, I definitely understand the dark-sexy potential of power and control games in a romance. Heck, Branded Ann is loaded with them, and it’s true there’s something thrilling about the way attraction can put a person who’s usually perfectly in control on the other side of the fence for a change. And I can get how, in a relationship founded on mutual adoration, it might be sexy to submit to or dominate your lover to the extent that physical pain is involved. But trust is what makes it hot, because the “submissive” has to be the one who’s really in control, who decides what the boundaries are and when it stops. And he/she needs to have absolute autonomy in deciding those things, free of any manipulation on the part of their partner. Otherwise, the fantasy goes from sexy to scary in a heartbeat.
BTW, it makes no difference whether the characters in either role are male or female, except that it is disturbing how many female readers hail abusive male characters as sexy. You don’t see a lot of romance novel covers where a tough woman has some scantily clad dude bent back over her arm. (Google images couldn’t find me even one…) In fact, the guy-equivalent of romance novels (porn) actually has more diversity in terms of which gender gets to dominate. How weird is that?? But the bottom line is, no one should be overpowering, manipulating, hitting, tying up, or otherwise controlling their lover without mutual enthusiasm for the situation. And if it happens in fiction, the consequences need to be adequately explored. A story about a damaged character finding connection and love through BDSM will work as a romance, but never JUST as a romance – it’s a deeper journey of healing and hope, and if those things aren’t adequately addressed the novel becomes a tragedy instead. (Want an example of this being done well? Try Radclyffe’s shadowland.) To write a fluffy, fun BDSM romance, the characters can’t be using the lifestyle as therapy for past trauma. And that means they have to be healthy, fully self-aware people who treat themselves and each other with respect from beginning to end, and know the difference between fantasy and reality.
To be fair to EL James, I haven’t actually read her books, so as far as I know she may have intended her stories as erotica thrillers – dark, intentionally disturbing – and it’s her readers who labeled them romance. Maybe Outlander was meant to be a historical saga, and it got stuffed into the romance genre because people like to categorize things. (You know what else isn’t romantic? Gone With the Wind.) But the way the books and movies are marketed, ladies are supposed to swoon and bite their lip at the “dashing” cruelty of these men. AND THEY DO. And while 50 Shades is the current buzz, what with the movie coming out this week and all, its domestic violence themes really aren’t that unique to the romance novel world. It’s just taking the heat because it’s SO popular, but the truth is you could probably grab a trashy book off the shelf at any grocery store and have a 50/50 chance that it, too, would contain some measure of this stuff in it. Most of these books, by the way, are written BY WOMEN FOR WOMEN. Which means, ladies, that we are perpetuating this stuff against ourselves. Against each other. Not cool.
All I know is that I’m not going to see the movie, and I have no desire to read the book either. I think my lady and I are going to go see some shoot-em-up sci-fi thingy for Valentine’s instead, cause that’s how we nerdy-girls roll…