Beyond the Greek Alphabet – Romance and Non-Stereotypical Gender Roles

So Fifty Shades of Grey has sold ten million copies (both in e-book and print) in six weeks. And since the article is already approximately a week old, it has probably sold another million or two since then. What is more, E.L. James strikes me as a nice person (potential legal ickiness of publishing fanfiction for profit aside, but if Stephenie Meyer herself doesn’t seem to have a problem with that, then who am I to comment?) who certainly deserves her success.

Nonetheless, the astounding success of Fifty Shades of Grey makes me uneasy. It’s not the fact that those books are about sex, because sex – even kinky sex – in popular fiction is nothing new. It’s not the fact that those books are supposedly not particularly well written, since badly written books becoming huge successes is nothing new either. It’s even not the deluge of condescending “mommy porn” articles in the mainstream press, which seem oh so shocked that women might be interested in reading about sex. And it’s not the fanfiction link either.

No, what really bothers me about the runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey is the fact that the gender relationships portrayed in the trilogy seem to be straight from the metaphorical stone age. Now it was always pretty obvious to me that – even though some people extol its freshness and originalityFifty Shades of Grey is basically just an oversized Harlequin Presents romance with added kinky sex and BDSM elements. There are not even any “bad” words, since sexual organs shall be referred to as “down there” and not with the p-word or c-word or v-word. It’s erotic romance for prudes. And perhaps that’s part of its success, as Jenny Colgan’s review at the Guardian postulates. The Guardian also has a digested read of Fifty Shades of Grey, if you want to know what happens without reading the whole damned thing.

So yeah, it was pretty obvious from the start that Fifty Shades of Grey is not exactly a progressive book in terms of gender relationships, but then neither are Harlequin Presents or plenty of historical romances or certain paranormals (though not nearly as many as some believe). And there are some thoughtful attempts at explaining the for me inexplicable appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey online.

I was happy when I discovered urban fantasy writer Jennifer Armintrout’s hilarious Fifty Shades recaps complete with quotes, because it meant I could be informed without actually having to read the books themselves (since I have zero interest in them, besides I’m currently on a space opera kick). And as I read those recaps, I thought, “Fuck it*, I really hate this guy.” It’s not that he is into BDSM. I have no problem with consensual and safe BDSM, though it’s not my personal preference. No, it’s that Christian Grey is a controlling arsehole who is into BDSM in the same way as certain creepy lifestyle Goreans are into Gor, namely that he wants to enforce his personal sexual preferences onto his object of affection with or without their consent. Reading a couple of those quotes from the actual book made me so angry that I wanted to chain up Christian Grey with his own handcuffs and strangle him with those grey silk ties of his, perhaps trying out some of his whips and paddles on him first.

I’m not the only one who has this reaction apparently, for Jennifer Armintrout compares the behaviour of Christian Grey to a checklist of relationship red flags that might indicate a potentially abusive partner. Mind you, Jennifer Armintrout explicitly does not refer to Christian’s BDSM preferences (because consensual and safe BDSM is not abusive), but to his general behaviour towards Ana. Writer and photographer Barbara Morgenroth has a post along the same lines and wonders why forty years after the women’s movement, a series which confuses abusive behaviour with love is still such a huge success.

Now the controlling behaviour of the hero was already a problem in Twilight, which Fifty Shades of Grey is loosely based on. I go a bit into Edward’s behaviour in Twilight in this post. But even though Edward’s behaviour is problematic, it never bothered me as much as the snippets of Christian Grey’s behaviour I have seen. Okay, so some of the things are personal triggers, e.g. the fact that Christian tries to control Ana’s clothing or food choices, since a partner trying to tell me what to wear, let alone what to eat, is an instant relationship dealbreaker for me.

Even worse, the enormous success of Fifty Shades of Grey will inevitably lead to all sorts of theorizing that what women really want is to be dominated and controlled (as if we didn’t have enough of that already) and that modern men are too soft and metrosexual and that those evil leftwing publishing gatekeepers and feminist editors in New York have been conspiring to keep down the books that women really want to read, namely books with stone age gender relationships and borderline abusive heroes. Here’s one example from what claims to be a relationship advice blog – I’m sure there are more. And since Fifty Shades of Grey is “the next big thing”, it will likely lead to bookstore shelves being flooded similar books, just like the success of The Da Vinci Code flooded bookstores with bad religious thrillers featuring the Knights Templar, the success of Twilight flooded bookstores with YA paranormal romance and the success of The Hunger Games flooded bookstore shelves with YA dystopias with more or less shoddy worldbuilding. It’s already starting, too. Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire (apparently self-published) and Bared to You by Sylvia Day (whose urban fantasy series written as S.J. Day I quite enjoyed) are marketed to Fifty Shades of Grey readers. Also note the stylized covers in grey tones. Now it’s quite possible that those books don’t share the problematic characteristics of Fifty Shades of Grey and indeed the tagline of Bared to You – “Is it possible for two abuse survivors to have a functional romantic relationship?” – sounds pretty interesting (though Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb already answered that question in her In Death series). But whatever it was that really drew millions of readers to Fifty Shades of Grey (and people are mentioning the e-mail exchanges between Christian and Ana and the brand names and the emotional intimacy just as much as the sex and the kink), you can bet that the publishing industry will distill the success of the trilogy down to “dominating alpha hero plus lots of sex plus a bit of kink (but not too much) = profit”. Just when you thought that the ultra-controlling and possessive alpha hero had finally rode off into the sunset for good to make way for more equal relationships, he comes roaring right back and millions of women readers welcome him with open arms.

E.L. James herself said in the interview I linked to above that the trilogy is fantasy and portrays the sort of fantasy that people would not necessarily want in real life. We’ve heard this sort of explanation before as an apologia for the rapetastic bodicerippers of the 1970s and 1980s or for the continuing popularity of romances featuring ultra-possessive alpha males. And I cannot discount these explanations, because people have wildly different fantasies, as is their good right. But nonetheless, whenever I read another apologia that a book/film/series with stone age gender relations is just an expressions of women’s fantasies of ceding control, because they have to be so strong in real life all the time, I inevitably shake my head and think, “Whose fantasy exactly? Cause it sure as hell ain’t mine.”

I guess the main problem here is that a lot of what is considered romantic and swoonworthy in the Anglo-American part of the world, not just doesn’t do a thing for me, I actively dislike it. And I only wrote Anglo-American, because E.L. James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey, is British. But mainly, books like Fifty Shades of Grey or Harlequin Presents (which have several British authors as well) or the rapetastic bodicerippers of yesteryear are an American phenomenon and reflect the conflicted American attitudes about sexuality, namely that the only way a woman is allowed to enjoy sex without being labeled a slut is if she’s forced into it by an overpowering man. The old bodiceripper style romances were never as popular in Europe (including the UK) as in the US and most European readers I have spoken to actively hated them. As for Fifty Shades, I’d be very interested to see if it sells as well in Britain as in the US. I almost certainly predict that it won’t do nearly as well in Germany, once translations hit our shores, because German and continental European tastes in general are different.

Now personally, I have huge problems with the so-called alpha hero in romance novels (never mind that the term alpha hero shouldn’t even be used outside werewolf romances, because humans are not wolf packs). I can tolerate some of the big, strong and silent Navy SEAL or police officer heroes, if the writing is good enough and the character is not an arsehole. But once the romantic hero gets controlling or outright abusive, I’m out of there. I never even forgave everybody’s favourite hero Jamie Fraser for spanking Claire. And my personal tastes run towards a completely different kind of male character, one who isn’t all that common in romance novels.

This was brought home to me sharply, when I discussed my current work-in-progress, which is basically a science fiction romance, with a friend. “This is quite a departure for me”, I told her, “First of all, because the structure is not entirely linear – the story starts with the couple’s happily ever after and then flashes back to the beginning of their relationship and some turning points. And secondly, the hero is of a higher social status than the heroine, which causes problems for them, because they meet under circumstances (an intergalactic war) where social status doesn’t matter, but don’t know how and if they can make their relationship work once the war is over.”

And then I thought, wait a minute. The hero has a higher social status than the heroine is pretty much the default mode for romance. It’s the good old Cinderella fantasy. Doctor falls for nurse, Duke falls for governess, billionaire falls for virginal secretary. However, this is not the dynamic I normally write. Because for almost as long as I have been telling stories, I wrote stories about women of higher social status falling for men of lower social status. Even if the men were wealthy in their own right, there was usually something about them that was not quite acceptable in polite society, usually lower class origins or a criminal past or something like that. I don’t write about the prince falling for Cinderella, I write about the princess falling for the baker’s boy, sometimes quite literally (okay, so the story about the princess and the baker’s boy will never see the light of day). And until a few days ago, I never even noticed that I was writing the complete reverse of the traditional romance gender role dynamics. No wonder that I never really managed to write a romance and those of my works that come closest to the traditional romance dynamics (mostly written to market) are not the ones I’m particularly happy with. Interestingly enough, those generally sell pretty well.

What is more, I cannot write a traditional alpha hero to save my life. I once had the odd idea to write a Harlequin Presents type Greek tycoon marries the daughter of his mortal enemy for revenge story in a space opera setting (I may actually finish that one some day, since it had potential), and my intergalactic tycoon managed to remain the stereotypical scowling alpha hero only for exactly one chapter, until I shifted into his POV and he turned out to be a quite different and far more nuanced character. His wilting virgin bride did not remain wilting for long either.

The thing is that the Cinderella fantasy was never something that worked for me all that well. Nor does it help that the version of the Cinderella tale that most resonated with me (and with many Germans my age) is one with a rather feminist Cinderella and more equal gender relations. I grew up expecting to support myself and take care of myself. I didn’t need a man for that. Nor did I need any expensive presents (I go a bit into my problems with the whole men buy women with gifts idea here). I don’t need Christian Grey to buy me an Audi**, since I already have a Mercedes (okay, just an A-class). I also decided early on that I did not want children, so that eliminated another potential reason for a relationship. Besides, a combination of real life examples and bad models in the media, where marriage was inevitably the end of every story and of all adventures, left me with a very real fear that entering into a relationship with a man would mean losing my identity and myself, because I’d seen the same happen over and over again, to older cousins and other girls at my school and to potentially interesting characters in various books and films and TV shows. You’ll note that I didn’t say falling in love, because my teenaged self did not believe that such a thing existed outside certain books and films, most of which did not make love seem very appealing either.

So if you don’t need a man to support you and buy you an Audi (sorry, but I still can’t get over that) and if falling in love and entering a relationship carries the risk of losing yourself and your identity in the process, then what exactly are men good for? And is it possible to fall in love and have a relationship without losing yourself in the process? I guess these are the questions that I’ve been trying to answer for myself these past twenty years or so. And the answers are not exactly conductive to the Cinderella fantasy that is popular with so many romance readers and it usually doesn’t involve a possessive alpha male except as a villain.

*Yes, I sometimes swear on my blog. Get over it! If you’re old enough to read Fifty Shades, you’re old enough to read some bad words.

**Yes, I know that Audi is viewed as a high-end brand in the US and UK, but growing up in Germany Audi was the brand favoured by staid suburban middle class families like the parents of my classmates, dependable but deeply uncool. And the idea of a fantasy millionaire surprising the object of his affections with an Audi is just plain giggle-inducing to me.

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12 Responses to Beyond the Greek Alphabet – Romance and Non-Stereotypical Gender Roles

  1. So if you don’t need a man to support you and buy you an Audi (sorry, but I still can’t get over that) and if falling in love and entering a relationship carries the risk of losing yourself and your identity in the process, then what exactly are men good for?

    The same things that women are good for? Like being relatives, friends and colleagues?

    And is it possible to fall in love and have a relationship without losing yourself in the process?

    I think so, yes. When I became a mother, though, most of the health workers I came into contact with all referred to me as “mum” and I was rather upset about that, because it seemed to reduce all of my identity to my relationship with one person.

    In general, though, it seems to me that as you grow older it’s likely your circumstances will change, you’ll have new experiences (some more pleasant than others), you’ll meet new people, you’ll be exposed to new ideas, you’ll learn new skills, you’ll gain (or lose) confidence in some of your existing abilities and potential, and so inevitably you yourself will change. I don’t think I’ve “lost myself” but the passage of time means that I’m not exactly the same “self” I was as a teenager.

    • Cora says:

      Actually, that’s more or less the conclusion to which I came myself, even if based on my fiction the answer seems to be “To fight the villains and monsters” with alarming frequency.

      I agree that people change with the passing of time and I’m certainly not the same person I was as a teenager (thankfully, since my teenaged self was overly dramatic, like teenagers tend to be). But I’ve certainly known women (and some men, too) who completely changed their personally to match that of their current romantic partner.

  2. Estara says:

    “Vorsprung durch Technik – as they say in Germany” – that British ad is probably the culprit.

    So if you don’t need a man to support you and buy you an Audi (sorry, but I still can’t get over that) and if falling in love and entering a relationship carries the risk of losing yourself and your identity in the process, then what exactly are men good for? And is it possible to fall in love and have a relationship without losing yourself in the process?

    You and me both. Being 45 I have concluded some men are okay as friends, but otherwise I’m not tampering with my life. I do miss cuddling – and since I had a big blow-up with my mother at Pfingsten, finally realising some home-truths, I won’t get much cuddling from there. I should invest in a pet, I would think.

    But, knowing me, you are expecting the off-topic reason why I’m commenting – it is about your current space opera trip: Rosemary Edghill/eluki bes shahar is re-releasing the Hellflower trilogy and the first book just went live. The book will go up on Amazon.com and B&N soon, too, if you don’t want another new site to have your address – the zip there brings all kinds of drm-free versions, even a pdf for printing on demand!

    Other than that, great opinion piece and great links – and I think you are quite right about what will happen and I’m going to stick my head in the sand and only buy the romances that do not play towards that hype. Fortunately most review sites I read and most people who give book recommendations I read have a similar view of that particular version of male asshattery so I am unlikely to just buy something like that on a rec.

    • Cora says:

      Yes, thankfully the neanderthal breed of alpha hero is fairly easy to avoid, since reviews usually give a pretty good impression of what kind of book it will be. You still get the occasional bad surprise and sometimes I also have to read books I don’t much care for for research (though some are a pleasant surprise, e.g. Kresley Cole was much better than I thought she’d be).

      Thanks for the Rosemary Edgehill recommendation BTW.

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