This weekend brings the final installment of the 50 Shades trilogy, 50 Shades Freed, to the big screen. It’s difficult not to know this since numerous trailers, teasers, songs, and carefully curated promo “articles” have been appearing in social media news feeds for weeks now. And yet, despite the current movements and conversations about women’s rights, equality, sexual assault, consent (verbal and non-verbal), and “bad dates” versus “coercion” swirling around Hollywood and all over major news publications and sites, few seem to have woken up to the fact that the 50 Shades story — along with the countless copycat Romance books out there — perpetuates the very same misogynistic and sexist behavior that women are seeking to eradicate. For years now, and with the release of each film in the series, I’ve sought to highlight how this story and the prevailing tropes in the Romance genre reinforce the sexism, misogyny, and inequality in male-female relationships, where women are regarded as property, toys, or expendable for their sex while men are upheld as powerful protectors, saviors, and leaders.[i]
It’s hard not to see the striking parallels between these fictional stories and the accounts of sexual assault that are now finally being heard as women speak up.
You had a car and a driver that evening. Sometime later, you offered me a ride to my home. I said, ‘Sure.’ . . .
At no time that night did I say: ‘[ ] I will go home with you.’ Or ‘Come home with me.’ Or ‘I will have sex with you.’ Or ‘I have the desire to have sex with you.’ . . .
I assumed you knew where I lived . . . but I gave the driver my address on 19th Street and 2nd Avenue.
You said to the driver: ‘No.’ . . .
I said, again, to the driver: ‘19th Street.’
Again you said to the driver: ‘No.’
Then the car doors locked.[ii]
He glares at me. ‘You are coming back to my apartment if I have to drag you there by your hair.’
I gape at him . . . this is beyond belief. Fifty Shades in Glorious Technicolor.
‘I think you’re overreacting.’
‘I don’t. We can continue our discussion back at my place. Come.’
I cross my arms and glare at him. This has gone too far.
‘No,’ I state stubbornly. I have to make a stand.
‘You can walk or I can carry you. I don’t mind either way . . .’[iii]
Without the reference to “Fifty Shades” in the excerpt above, one might have a hard time distinguishing between fiction and reality. Yet, in these Romance stories, it’s all somehow made to seem ok. The female character just can’t help herself in the arms of the rich and powerful MC (male character in Romance speak). She’s so desperate to be loved and accepted by the MC that she’ll give herself over time and again no matter how poorly he treats her.
‘What are you doing?’
I gasped as he pushed me against the door and moved in against me. He raised his arms above my shoulders and leaned against me, pressing me into the door, his body acting like a trap.
‘I just told you . . . I’m not going to let you leave.’
His eyes glittered down at me and his hand slipped up my thigh through the slit in my dress. His fingers pushed their way in between my legs and worked their way into my wetness, rubbing against my clit before slowly entering me. My body betrayed me by buckling at his touch and my legs moved apart involuntarily as he fucked me with his fingers. ‘And I don’t think you want to leave right now, do you?’ he whispered against my whimpering lips.
I closed my eyes as my sudden and swift climax answered him. And once again he was in control.[iv]
The authors of these stories, nearly all of whom are women, have created a seeming “safe space” where these stories are allowed to be played out as fantasies on the pages and in the minds of the millions of readers who consume them. Yet, we can clearly see above how much these stories mirror the frightening reality. These stories are reflective of the abuse and subjugation experienced by women. That’s why female readers are able to associate with it subconsciously. Turning it into fantasy, something to be desired, is highly damaging.
It’s time we finally recognize that the weak, love-starved, unhealthy sexual relationships that exist in the majority of Romance books — as well as in porn — reflect the state of many non-fictional relationships.
How is it that we’ve failed to recognize this thus far? Similarly, how can it be that society as a whole turned a blind eye to the abuse that was going on right in front of us? I argue it’s in large measure because we’ve allowed the old, patriarchal stories to persist.
We’ve continued to feed on the lies that perpetuate the power of men over women through stories that depict women as inherently weak and needing the protection of a man, portray man’s possessiveness of, or control over, a woman as a demonstration of love, and wrap the woman’s identity (personal and sexual) around the male character’s desires.
These lies come in the form of Romantic fiction, pop music from Disney factory girls (seriously, just consider how damaging the lyrics below are to young girls), and Hollywood Rom-Coms that demean the notion of self-actualized love.
Gonna wear that dress you like, skin-tight|
Do my hair up real, real nice
And syncopate my skin to your heart beating
’Cause I just wanna look good for you, good for you
I just wanna look good for you, good for you
Let me show you how proud I am to be yours
Leave this dress a mess on the floor
And still look good for you, good for you[v]
These lies lead people to believe that romance is love and sex is an acceptable form of currency for women in patriarchal society. Buying into such antiquated notions is what has contributed to the victim-shaming that currently abounds, frequently placing the onus on the woman or girl for picking the “wrong guy” or for not knowing better or not speaking up. Yet speaking up has always been taught to be a dangerous thing for women. It threatens not only her physical security, but also her emotional one as well. In Romance, we’re shown that safety and security come to us through relationship and are always ensured by the man. So if we deny the man his due, where does it leave us? That’s the subliminal and not so subliminal message these Romance stories convey. Just ask Anastasia Steele.
‘I want to punish you,’ he whispers. ‘Really beat the shit out of you,’ he adds.[vi]
Today we face a reckoning for this immature portrayal of relationship that began with fairy-tale princes and princesses and ends with young girls crying in the back of an Uber because they didn’t know how to say “no” and expected, however mistakenly, that a man would understand their non-verbal cues and be sensitive to their needs. MC’s don’t read non-verbal cues because they don’t have to, especially the ones with money and influence. It doesn’t matter what century they’re living in either. Historical and Regency romances, which are hugely popular because readers still love Counts, Dukes, and Princes, offer a different setting but are often the same story, excusing misogynistic and sexist behavior because “that’s how it was.”
If we’re supposed to accept, “that’s how it was,” then isn’t it time we create stories about how it could, and dare I say, should be? Strong women and men in equal partnership, capable of meeting their own needs while inspiring a kind of higher, transcendent love that opens them to extraordinary sexual experiences. I believe writers of Romance and any genre that tackles the complex and often difficult subject of self-love and relationship needs to begin to model through their stories. I say it’s #TimesUp for Fifty Shades and all of its progeny.