When I was twelve years old, an older friend turned me on to romance novels. Hungry for passion and smut, I devoured every one I could find, and in 1983, that was a lot of smut. One of my favorite books was “Summer of the Raven” by Sara Craven (yes, it sounds funny when you read it out loud because it rhymes.) I think I read that book about eight times. Maybe more.
The plot was similar to most romance novels of the day, all of which were loosely based on the finest romance novels ever written by Jane Austen.
In “Summer of the Raven,” the protagonist (Rowan) has a bitch of a stepmother (Antonia Winslow) who somehow has complete control over her even though her father is dead, and she’s nineteen years old. Antonia has the hots for an isolated, aloof, and bitter artist with a stupid name (in this case, “Carne Maitland”), and so she takes Rowan to his huge mansion so she (Antonia) can spend the summer in futile pursuit of him. Somehow, she convinces Rowan it would be a good idea to pretend she’s only sixteen, probably to prevent the stepmother from appearing to be a washed-out hag.
Of course, innocent (read: clueless) yet “spunky” Rowan falls in love with the brooding painter (i.e. asshat), convinced that he is really a tortured soul and totally worth all of her wide-eyed adoration. He shrugs her off as a little kid with a crush, but he soon tires of Antonia’s ruthless bitchiness, and in the end he falls in love with Rowan, whom he thinks is sixteen. Of course, he’s like, forty, so that’s not disgusting at all. Because she’s really nineteen, she only thinks she’s sixteen. Right. No squick factor there.
Still, her love changes him, and he’s reformed from a cold, pitiless, tortured artist into a cuddly, daddy-replacing Romeo.
Soraya Chemaly pointed out in The Huffington Post that the traditional romance category in which damaged men, clueless virgins, and submission/dominance are rampant, has a long and documented history of success.
Luckily for women, and all of humanity, the nineties pretty much kicked most of this misogynistic bullshit to the curb, and several decent writers came to the fore. They wrote funny and strong female characters who were equals to their heroes (who were still jerks sometimes, but usually only while butting heads with headstrong heroines.) Writers such as Nora Roberts and LaVyrle Spencer, not to mention the epic Diana Gabaldon, revolutionized the Romance genre by actually knowing how to write somewhat realistic, non-abusive relationships; not without conflict, but also with honest resolution.
So why has that suddenly changed? Most mainstream romance is doing well at keeping this trend going, but top selling novels such as the Twilight series and 50 Shades of Grey seem determined to hack this tendency towards egalitarian romance off at the knees. Perhaps it’s a sign of our deteriorating cultural fiber, or a backlash at feminism to once again romanticize the “bad boy,” who is, in fact, not redeemable, but a unequivocal and relentless emotional abuser.
Is this really romantic? Is it truly sexy?
As someone who has experienced emotional manipulation, I don’t think so.
I have to be honest. I have not read either of the series I mention above. I know that some people will say that I have no right, then, to comment on the quality of their content. However, I did see the first Twilight movie, which confirmed all the warning statements I had read about and heard from readers I trust. I had no desire to read a book in which the heroine is stalked, manipulated, or toyed with, only to end up undead and pregnant: the ultimate compliant woman. Plus, I had already had my fill of tortured vampires: Louis and Lestat, Angel and Spike. Who needs sparkles when you could have substance?
As for E.L. James, I was fortunate to have happened upon the glorious synopses/reviews written by Katrina Lumsden on Goodreads (www.goodreads.com/review/show/340987215 ). This brave woman underwent the tedious task of reading the entire 50 Shades trilogy, so I didn’t have to. Thank you, Katrina. (I truly suggest checking them out, even if you are a fan. they are hilarious!)
In college, I worked in the university library. Ostensibly, I was shelving books, but mostly I read porn. I read the Marquis de Sade, The Story of O, My Secret Life, and the Meese Commission Report on Pornography. I looked at lithographs of Chinese Erotic Art, and “acquired” a copy of The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (My professor know just who to look at when it went missing, too.) I am not squeamish when it comes to erotica describing BDSM or other forms of strange sex.
In this day and age, however, we (as a society of sexually evolved adults who like to get our freak on) have generally come to the conclusion that sex should be: a) between legal adults and b) consensual. While the age of consent is a somewhat arbitrary line (ranging between 16 and 18 in the U.S.), 15 to 20 is still the average range of consent in most places in the developed world. Age of consent is not really the issue here, however; the issue is the area between consensual sex and abuse, the real “fifty shades of grey.”
In a healthy and consensual relationship, people are honest and open with each other. When Christian Grey demands a relationship contract, yet initiates sexual contact outside it, he is being manipulative. When he seduces Ana and agrees to take her virginity, then makes excessive demands in order to continue the relationship with her, he is being manipulative. It is true that she allows this, and that she waffles between staying with him and leaving, and that she asks to have her ass whipped black and blue; however, it is obvious that she really has no idea of what she wants. She wants him to love her, even though he has told her he won’t. She wants to change him, even though she should know she can’t. These are classic signs of the co-dependent, emotionally manipulated woman.
Is this really romantic? Is it truly sexy?
I don’t think so.
Love is complicated, and sex more so. I am afraid for women (and men) in a culture where emotionally abusive relationships are held up as the romantic ideal. Instead, shouldn’t we romanticize affection? How about honesty and communication? How about working through misunderstandings to come to a place of growth and appreciation? How about love based on equality, and sex based on passion, consensuality, and respect? Even kinky sex, done right, is based on these notions.
If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right.
Next on The Daily Dilettante: Fear of Submission (I’m not talking sex this time.)