What 50 Shades of Grey (and other romantic stories) really say about women – it was not what I thought

When “50 Shades of Grey” came out, I did not want to live on this planet any more. In my mind, women were reading about a woman getting beaten and stalked – and enjoyed hearing how she suffers. I read excerpts like these, and was horrified.

Women see this as a romantic hero? If I ever get raped and beaten by a man, would the women around me choose his side and tell me he is a good guy? What baffled me more is that even the friendliest woman I work with read this – and called the sadist a good guy.

Men’s reactions disgusted me even more. For example, Jared Wilson from the Gospel Coalition implied the trilogy is popular because men should “conquer” and “colonize” women, and when this does not happen in the “healthy” way commonly called benevolent sexism,people look for it in violent and unhealthy ways1. Other men literally say women “ask for it”, and that is why it is okay to dominate them, treat them as slaves and objects, tie them up and hit them.

I mean, I was aware that BDSM exists. I read their blogs in the past, but assumed people who approved of sadism was only a tiny, strange minority group. But by now I was aware of what the most popular porn looks like – men degrading, hurting, and making hate (not making love) to women. And I knew most men sometimes watch porn. And I became aware (or so I thought), when these books became popular, of how women react to cruel men. I thought I lived in a world of cruel people and their enablers, that I could expect police, judges, law makers and the public to be on the side of the bad guys, as long as it is women getting hurt.

With further research, I found out I am only half right. Yes, there is cruelty in the world. And yes, many men are dominating to at least some degree – our world encourage men to dominate and women to submit, and it is hard to go against the flow. But women are not reading because they are secretly glad about the mistreatment.

Because women are very likely to suffer from male mistreatment, a book with a non-dominating male hero would be very unrealistic to many women. A fantasy that the man who hurts them is actually, deep down, a good guy who could be rescued by love is more plausible. It is no coincidence that women who read 50 Shades are more likely to have been abuse survivors – everyone wants love, and it may be easier on them to believe that an abusive man actually loved them despite his violence. Even better, if they could believe the BDSM message that violence is sexy, they can see the violence against them as a part of love and not hate.
Because society shames women for consenting to sex, and praise men or at least see them with a boys-will-be-boys eye even for pressuring women, the fantasy is of her desiring the guy, but not consenting. If he then pushes her to do what she wants to do in any case, she can enjoy it without guilt. Women with these fantasies do not want sexual pressure, they want sex without shame.

I also realized that 50 Shades of Grey is not an exception, but only an extreme example of what “romantic” literature generally look like. In almost all the stories, the heroine has to cope with male bossiness and in some way, inconsiderateness. She has to help the man to see her as a human and respect her. And this is realistic: Most men are not taught, from a young age, to respect women as equals. Some are taught benevolent sexism, others less benevolent forms. In the more explicit kind, the man pressures and forces the woman into sex, she refuses and he overpowers her, but she eventually enjoys it. (Such a scene used to make me say: “Ugh, a rapist! This book has a rapist as a hero! This is not a love story!”)
Understanding that women are just trying to cope with the real world changed my idea of the women who read it: I am not surrounded by women who are happy to hear how other women suffer. I am surrounded by women who want eroticism without guilt, who hope violent/ dominating men have some good inside them and are redeemable. And that makes them not much different from me.

Still, I have to warn them: Controlling behavior is one of the first red flag to spot an abuser. Do not date a controlling man (or woman, for that matter). Also, please understand that if I ask you: “Is sadism good or evil?“, and you hum and haw, I won’t trust you.
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PS: Here are two other articles I wrote on this topic:
The popularity of 50 Shades does not mean women want to be below men

50 Shades of Grey: Die probleem is meer as net ‘n gees van wellus (Afrikaans)

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1In a now-deleted article called “The polluted waters of 50 Shades of Grey, etc.”

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About Retha

Attempting to question everything, reject the bad and hold fast to the good.
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