Friday, March 1, 2013

Fifty Shades of No-Friggen-Way: A Plea for Stronger Heroines

Last night, a friend from school emailed me a bunch of her e-books to my phone. Among them was the first installment of E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey.  Now I know I'm way late to the game here, but I couldn't bring myself to buy/read the series last year when this stuff wasn't old news. Now that I had a free copy on my phone, I decided to the read the first few chapters to understand what the hype was all about and why women love to read these books so much.

And I get it, I do. I understand the appeal these books (and similar stories such as the Twilight series) have to women. I myself read the Twilight books in high school and they were very entertaining. This is not a post to judge any readers for enjoying young adult (or in the case of Fifty Shades - very adult) fiction. Reading to be entertained is totally fine, respectable and even awesome.

However I need to take the time to talk about the female characters in this book and the very unhealthy image and standard characters such as these are putting into place for women, especially the women in younger generations who are still growing up to figure out who they are and who they want to be.

It's pretty common knowledge that Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are very similar books, as E.L. James' BDSM Romance novel originally began as a sexualized fan-fiction of Stephanie Meyer's vampire series.  It's no surprise then that the heroines of both series' share striking similarities as well:  Thin, pale brunettes who are clumsy, shy, have absolutely no idea about fashion or makeup and possess a startling lack of self confidence and poor posture. Both characters meet strikingly beautiful, powerful men who SOMEHOW become obsessed with these weak, uninteresting female characters. These men seem to be so, so, so out of these girls' leagues, which both females make a point of mentioning again and again throughout the books. 

Both women cry, a lot. There's nothing wrong with crying, but crying all the time in direct relation to your partner?

Both male leads are obsessed with their female counter parts. They are possessive, jealous and stalker-like.

Both books make it very clear that the Christian/Edward really wants to hurt Ana/Bella, and BOTH Ana and Bella willingly enter into these relationships knowing they are unhealthy, that their hearts are in real danger of breaking, that it's possible they could be severely emotionally or physically damaged if they stay with these people. They choose to do so anyway.

I understand that on paper, this translates to a desperate, whirl-wind magic passion romance thing that sweeps girls off their feet.

But in reality? Heck to the no.

These books are written BY women, FOR women, and yet they totally hate women. The males in these stories are far, far more interesting than the females.  A man sick with influenza in the early 20th century rescued and adopted into a family of vampires? A man with a rough, abusive upbringing who becomes a billionaire and turns to BDSM to deal with his demons? Those are the interesting plotlines. The only extraordinary thing about Bella or Ana is that they somehow get their more-fascinating male counterparts to fall in love with them. 

I'm just using Twilight and Fifty Shades as examples here. Really, this format is everywhere. How many TV shows and movies and books and stories do you know of where the innocent, virginal ingenue is swept off her feet by the dark, brooding rebel without a cause?


Where are the smart women? Where are the strong, interesting, independent women who have successful careers and colorful lives? Where are the women who love food and adventure? Where are the women who won't take possessive, jealous, unhealthy crap from any man? That will teach young female readers to kick a guy who treats them poorly/makes them cry often/verbally or otherwise abuses them to the curb?  Where are the women who LOVE themselves? 

And don't you dare tell me these women wouldn't make interesting stories.


Note;  I know many of you probably have very strong opinions about this. I welcome any thoughts here, negative or positive -  Add to the discussion in the comments! 


Bonnie Rose said...

I've read both series. Not because I was drawn to it, but I wanted to see what all the hype was when each came out. I'm not a fan. I tried and wanted to like them. But to be honest I think the writing is horrible. I also do not like the way the portray lead female characters in the book. When I found out that the Shades of Grey was basically based off a fan fiction for Twilight I realized why I didnt like it.

I grew up with Harry Potter, the Narnia books, and Lord of the Rings (including the Hobbit).

Bonnie Rose | The Compass Rose

Mo (New on U) said...

I've read both, and strongly disliked both Ana and Bella. I wrote a post called "50 Shades of Crap" (, so you can guess my thoughts on the subject.

However, you were far better at articulating the real problem with these two series. Kudos!

Ashley Anderson said...

I didn;t want to get into twilight, only because i was sick of everyone boasting about team edward or team jacob. i had a sleepover with a friend who told me i HAD to watch twilight and then after i saw the movie, i got into it. I personally don't relate the books I read to my real life situations. i read those kinds of books to just get lost in the story, and don't really take the moment to see the demoralized parts of it. does that even make sense? idk.. maybe i'm just a strange reader. i grew up with HP and i did the same with those books too. i just let the book consume me and just got lost pretending i was each character and in no way trying to relate them to me. maybe i'm just different. who knows. but i agree with your points when i sit back and think about it. but im still a twilight fan.

kaitastrophical said...

While I dislike both these series for many of the reasons you point out, I also take issue with the fact that many people say the books are a negative influence on girls because the female protagonists are clumsy, shy, unconfident, and clueless about their appearances. These are clearly not the most desirable traits- but as a girl who can check off item on this list, I do wish there was a little less "putting down" about Bella and Anna.

That's not to say that I don't agree with your points, though, because I do- it's pretty horrifying to think that these girls and scenarios are what young girls are looking up to! (And frankly, I'm not sure young girls should even be reading Twilight.)

Daryl said...

@Kaitastrophical -

That's an interesting point well made.

I'm also pretty clumsy and can be far from confident on some occasions. It makes sense that the traits listed would be traits lots of women possess. I suppose what gets me is that real women who are shy or clueless about their appearances, as you mentioned you may be, also have other traits that make them interesting and wonderful, which I just don't see from the book characters. Ana and Bella are both highly defined by their men.

Daniela said...

I completely agree with all of this. I was always wondering how come no one else noticed this, and I'm glad somebody did. So, thank you (:.

The Little Flapper said...

I agree, I never finished the twilight books because of how weak Bella was portrayed and I never even read 50 Shades of Grey.. but I understand the hype. Sex Sells, as sad as it is. Women are so much more than beauty,and a nice body. They are intelligent, wise,leaders, nurturing, giving, goal setters. I hope to write a book someday about a Female Heroine :)

Olivia Souders said...

I CANNOT POSSIBLY agree with you more. Both series' sort of disgusted me because of how lame the women were and how sexy the dominance was made out to be. Like we're supposed to believe it's a GOOD thing to be dominated like that. Like it is so hot/sexy to be in hat sort of relationship. Totally disagree. As one who as experienced a whole variety of long term relationships, I can confidently say that the ones that left me feeling the worst about myself are the ones closes to these stories.

I think it's fine that the leading ladies in these stories are clumsy/thin/not particularly attractive. What really makes a woman (any person on earth, really) attractive is what they are doing with themselves, who they have become, what they have done, what they think about, what they put their energy into, how they view life, etc. Those sorts of things have NOTHING to do with anything external. A story can still be written about someone very average on the outside (and therefore easy for the reader to relate to) but who has some strength of character that we can grow to love.

Helen said...

I couldn't agree with you more.
Honestly I hate these two series, with a passion. I love that they are encouraging women to read, especially women, but reading something that is giving us such a negative image isn't a good thing.
Personally I like a book with substance, that has good characters and is well written. None of these books have this.
As far as I'm concerned they're literary 'fluff'.

OK stepping off my soap box now :)

preethi said...

Amen. Hermione for the win!

lace, etc.

Danni Meyers said...

Have you read any books by Laurell K. Hamilton? Her Anita Blake series is about a really kick ass heroine. I truly enjoy her books.

gladley said...

Hermione isn't the main character, I know, but she's got all the qualities you're looking for.

In The Hunger Game Katniss is criticized for being cold and unlikeable, but it's because she's a survivor, she's certainly strong, AND she's the main character.

Also, you should check out Swallows and Amazons. They are a series of books set in the 1920s and are full of girls (and boys) who sail boats, pretend to be pirates, go camping and have adventure.

Kristen said...

Ditto! I hated the Twilight series because the main female character was so...blah. It's not that she was plain or clumsy or awkward. It was that she had zero personality. I won't even bother with the Shades of Grey series. Blah!

Danielle said...

I love those books but agree with you very much! I also agree with one of the commenters above about Hermione and Katniss, both of those female characters are VERY strong! :D

Ashley Earp said...

I absolutely love this post. It is so sad that oppression to women is internalized by women so often, and therefore ends up perpetuating the oppression. It is up to us to take a stand! I agree with all of your points! Thanks for posting--your blog is great!

ifs ands Butts said...

I understand the argument for a strong female lead, but I also think most women don't view these women as role models, but rather simple as characters in a story. Ok maybe not think, but hope.

Kristin said...

I'm a bit late to the party on this one, but every now and then someone raises this question and it fires me up again, haha. I've yet to read 50 Shades (and debating whether I even want to at this point), but trying to read the Twilight series, horrible writing and editing aside, was painful to the point of my wanting to stab myself in the brain with a fork. Role model or not, I find the series pretty demoralizing for women, and even as just characters, most of the women portrayed aren't even interesting enough - real enough - to read about. I have trouble getting through a book if I can't latch on to some character in some way. Plus, I'd rather have a character with faults, or one I kind of don't like than one who has no personality (and takes no risk of having personality). Long story short, there's just so much negativity and negative portrayals of women in Twilight that I can't bring myself to want to read the last book (plus, it started to get Alien-y, so I went and watched that instead).

For YA series, Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series is pretty quick, yet charming in terms of female leads. And China Mieville writes some pretty fantastic characters, women in particular (Bellis of The Scar is a favorite :D)

Maggie B. said...

I, for one, liked both sets of novels. I found the stories enjoyable and a great non-thinking escape. I didn't care for either of the female leads, but that's OK. There are lots and lots of books that have great female 'role models'. But honestly, at 30, I'm hardly looking to fiction for role models. And... if you have children reading Twilight and using Bella as a role model, perhaps as a parent you should have a discussion about what fiction is. Because all that same stuff happens in TV too.

And let's face, women like that do exist. It doesn't make them wrong or weak or whatever. They are just different from you. And that's OK.

I'm not even going to get into the sexual behavior issue. What goes on between two people is their business and not mine. And if they aren't hurting each other (in a way that they haven't agreed on) then who are we to tell them to stop? I mean, really. Some people like BDSM. It doesn't make them sick or wrong.

Lil' Bit and Nan said...

I never read either series, because of these exact reasons. Helpless, unfortunate women who are always the victims in their relationships just don't interest me. I could care less about those characters because their situations disgust me. I too am looking for the strong women, which is why I read more female biographies and autobiographies. Real women, real history, real heroins.

JC Carter said...

I have only read fifty shades. Twilight couldnt hold my attention long enough to get through it.

What about The Hunger Games, or The Divergent Series, both have very strong young women, and are targeted at young women.

messedupfromtheheadup said...

I thought this was eloquently worded. I happen to like both series, although I do genuinely believe that they should not be the only literature that young women are reading. Personally, I wish there were more Fitzwilliam Darcy's out there! Pride and Prejudice is one such book that depicts a genuinely healthy relationship.

I don't think there is anything wrong with these series as long as you are not modeling your life after them. Everyone likes a little drivel every now and then, right?

liseli said...

I couldn't agree more.


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