For all the success of the Twilight and 50 Shades series, in terms of their central romantic theme, there was nothing novel about either. In fact, they merely mirror the sexism and misogyny long contained in the Romance genre. What’s worse is that the plethora of fanfiction and erotic romance books spawned by the commercial success of these two series merely continues to perpetuate the same antiquated stereotypes surrounding virginity, patriarchy, and the imbalance of power between men and women in relationships.
These books and others like them serve to brainwash women into thinking that a wealthy man will save them, or that love in the form of sacrifice will redeem them, all the while reinforcing notions of their own lack of self-worth and inequality.
A recent study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior surveyed 715 women between the ages of 18 and 24 and found that those who had read some or all of the books in the 50 Shades series held more sexist views than those who hadn’t. The study found that women who had read 50 Shades and described it as “hot” and “romantic” were more likely to exhibit “hostile sexism”, or the belief that women are inferior to men, while those who described it as “romantic” were more likely to exhibit “benevolent sexism”, or the belief that men should provide for women.*
What I also find upsetting is that the women in this group ranged from 18-24 years old, which indicates that yet another generation has already been brainwashed into believing that unequal partnerships are a good thing if the man has money and can take care of you or that if he’s abusive and controlling, all the better, because that’s how you know he loves you.
It’s this same group of young women who came of age during the Twilight phenom and were influenced by the misogynistic and patriarchal aspects of this male vampire-human girl story, which was the basis for E L James’ 50 Shades. For some reason, however, Twilight gets a pass. Perhaps the story seems more innocent because the main characters are teenagers (or in a teenage body) or perhaps it’s because the vampire didn’t really hurt his woman except in the throes of passion. She can’t say he didn’t warn her. Edward, like Christian, continually warned Bella about how dangerous he was, but she just couldn’t help herself and stay away. Her “love” for Edward was too strong.
In fact, Bella wasn’t in a position to help herself, which is why she needed a guy, be it the sexy vampire Edward or the very human werewolf Jacob. Without either, she probably would have fumbled her way through life because of her clumsiness and never realized her “special” gift. However, it was ostensibly love, not her low self-esteem or sad, empty teenage life, that drove Bella to Edward. According to Stephenie Meyer, “true love is that you would hurt yourself before you would hurt your partner, you would do anything to make them happy, even at your own expense, there’s nothing selfish about true love. It’s not about what you want. It’s about what makes them happy.”*
And that’s where I think the self-proclaimed feminist Meyer is plain wrong. Love, at its core, is equal. It must be. Real love cannot reside where equality—and importantly, self-respect—does not exist. It’s not possible. The only thing that can exist in that circumstance is lust or like, but those are poor substitutes for what real love is.
Meyer’s sappy and self-sacrificing notion about love is how we women have landed ourselves in this place, one where a significant percentage of us ascribe to some forms of sexist beliefs and stories like 50 Shades and Twilight (and thousands of other similar Romance books) continue to be published and voraciously consumed.
Bella and Anastasia are empty, vapid characters that reflect what women living under patriarchy experience every day, having little to no agency if they do not have a man and lacking any true sense of self-respect or self-worth. And not just any man, but one who is immortal, wealthy, and virile. If this doesn’t smack of anti-feminist patriarchy, I don’t know what does. We will be better off when we recognize the way in which these stories continually set back feminism and women’s notions about relationship and equality. We will also be better served when Romance writers deliver real stories about empowered women who want the most human and beautiful thing of all, namely Love, instead of continuing to write these insipid stories about billionaires, virgins and immortals.
* Alison Flood, “Fifty Shades of Grey readers show higher levels of sexism, study finds”, The Guardian, May 10, 2016
** Kira Cochrane, “Stephenie Meyer on Twilight, feminism and true love”, The Guardian, March 11, 2013.