As we all know, unhealthy relationships are far too common in the romance genre. The most popular novels seem to all have something problematic popping up in them, with truly healthy relationships appearing to be the exception, not the rule. Why does this happen? And why do we as a society apparently love it?
CW: discussion of sex, abuse, consensual non-consent
One word: roleplay. With my own experience exploring my sexuality, I often throw myself head-first into roleplaying characters in the bedroom just because it’s fun. Do I actually want a Mongolian warlord to abduct me from my village and have his way with me? Hell no! I’m a strong, independent woman who will gouge out your eyes with the keys between my fingers if you try anything I don’t want. But if my husband or play-partner puts on a costume and whispers in my ear that they’re going to do unspeakable things to me… well then, sign me up. And that, I believe, is the key to why unhealthy relationships are so common in romance. We want to roleplay.
What We Love
Let’s discuss two of the most popular unhealthy romances in modern time. Specifically, the YA paranormal romance book series Twilight by Stephenie Meyer and its adult fan-fiction cousin Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James. Love them or hate them, you cannot deny their success. Of course, people have talked to death about why these books are awful examples of what a relationship should look like – and, in my opinion, they’re absolutely right.
Edward Cullen is an older man (disguised as a teenager) preying on a teenage girl, stalking her, controlling her movements, deciding what she should do without consulting her, manipulating her into a marriage she likely never would have considered at such a young age otherwise, and at all times posing a threat to her very life.
Christian Grey is also a controlling stalker, is coercive and manipulative, has anger issues, and is physically abusive. He ignores Anastasia’s use of the safe word, at which point she has revoked consent. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a safe word, it’s similar to tapping out in martial arts sparring. If you tap out and your partner continues to attack you, the activity becomes an assault. It becomes non-consensual and is physical abuse. It’s a scenario that if encountered in real life would be terrifying and traumatic and you should never stay with a partner who does this as they have demonstrated a disregard for your well-being and lack of respect for your personhood.
Despite this, both these franchises have grossed together multiple billions of dollars and been made into hit movies girlfriends drag their boyfriends to see. I can even admit that I went through a Twilight phase myself. This is not because girls (or others who enjoy these stories for their blank-slate female narrators) want to be stalked, controlled, or abused. It’s not even because the books are well written. It’s because we want to pretend for a few hours, to get that sweet endorphin high. It’s fun to imagine being so desirable that someone would be obsessed with us, overwhelmed by the need for us to the point that they’re driven to near/actual criminal acts in their lust. That they just can’t help but break into our home to watch us sleep. All as long as no one actually does this.
Please note that while I’m sure that this dynamic also arises in some LGBT+ stories, I think perhaps not as often since those of us in the LGBT community spend more time thinking about what romance should look like for us rather than accepting the status quo, and I can’t think of any off the top of my head. So going to focus on these heterosexual examples as they’re the most well known, but the general concepts can apply to all types of relationships.
I’m going to say something a little risky to some people – there’s nothing wrong with the mere existence of unhealthy relationships in media and nothing wrong with enjoying them. What I mean is that it’s similar to consensual non-consent roleplay in the bedroom, except it’s taken off of the bedsheets and onto sheets of paper, where the partners aren’t in physical contact, but mental. The dominant is the author and the reader becomes their submissive. It’s not the kind of thing everyone likes, but it’s a kink, and no reason to kink shame if it’s done in a safe, sane, and consensual manner.
The problem that arises is the framing of these stories. I don’t think most readers who consume this kind of media, and perhaps even some authors who create it, are aware that these are the roles they’re playing. If you read erotica on some seedy corner of the internet, you know going into it that this is written for the purpose of titillating you, not to be an example of an idealized relationship. There’s an unspoken agreement that this is for entertainment, not mimicry. That kind of agreement isn’t there when you walk into Barnes and Noble, not in the same way. There’s a legitimacy to published books and to movies that so-called smut on the internet doesn’t have. And so, you end up with teenagers who have no idea of what healthy romance should be reading Twilight and thinking, “Goals!” You end up with a society that stigmatizes sex drowning itself in stories like Fifty Shades of Grey and thinking Christian is an accurate portrayal of a good dominant because they don’t know any better. The authors don’t help matters, with Bella reacting to Edward’s overbearing nature by thinking he’s sweet and with Christian’s abusive tendencies hand-waved with the excuse of, “but he was abused too, you should feel sorry for him and try to ‘fix’ him!” (Note: always remember that experiencing abuse is not an excuse to perpetuate abuse)
A Stepping Stone
In the past, in more prudish societies, stories that involved anything sexual had the perpetrators of unhealthy sexual relationships (or what they they perceived to be unhealthy – topic for a different time) punished in some way. As such, readers knew that while they could enjoy reading about Dracula’s voluptuous harem or his deviant lust for and corruption of Lucy and Mina, Dracula himself was not marriage material (see my essay on repressed sexuality in Dracula here).
This is a good thing, but it’s not good that sexuality itself was so literally demonized. It is healthy to be a sexual being, and we’ve only just begun to accept that in western society. As a result, we’re still figuring out what’s healthy for us, and part of that exploration is writing stories like Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey without any sort of awareness or disclaimer that these are not what healthy sexual relationships should be. But they’re a good middle ground, a way to move past saying “You shouldn’t want sex!” and into acknowledging that generally speaking yes, we do. We really, really, really want sex.
I don’t think that we need to stop writing unhealthy relationships, not entirely. I think there need to be more representations of healthy relationships in literature and specifically in romance as a genre, and the good news is that many writers are recognizing this and writing accordingly. But for stories like Twilight and Fifty Shades, I think there should be more acknowledgement and awareness on behalf of the authors that they should project to the readers that this is not what a real-life relationship should be. That certain behaviors are flat out wrong, but enjoying the fantasy of those unhealthy things is okay. You can beg, “No, don’t!” in a roleplay and it’s fine for your partner to continue because it’s not wrong to want that sort of imitation of an unhealthy relationship – as long as they stop when you shout, “Pineapple!” and respect your boundaries in a healthy way. We need a way to shout pineapple so that readers know the boundary between unhealthy romance playtime and relationship goals in real life.
I think, as society grows, we’ll be more aware as readers, and this will be an inherent part of reading. We as a society know enjoying kinky erotica about a sexy slave girl kidnapped from her small village on an 18+ website doesn’t mean it’s a good thing for her to be kidnapped and abused in real life, though a Roman solider hundreds of years ago would disagree. We’ve moved on from that mind frame, but we’re not where we need to be just yet. Too many people don’t know that it’s not a goal to stick around an abusive partner, including authors.
Here’s an example of how to fix things as related to Fifty Shades of Grey. When Christian acts inappropriately, Anastasia should leave and not come back. She certainly shouldn’t ever have married him. A way to improve the sequels and perhaps save the series from being a toxic representation of BDSM would be if in the next book, she decided she did like being a submissive and found a new dominant – someone who was respectful, practiced aftercare, and allowed her to explore her sexuality in a healthy way. Maybe have Christian come back for a cameo to show that he’s gone to therapy and grown as a person, but have Anastasia make it clear she’s moved on and is happy with her life as it is without him. Or he could even become a villain and antagonize the new couple. Either way makes for a better story, and allows the audience to enjoy the unhealthy aspects while not propping them up as positive.
If we write unhealthy relationships, particularly for broader audiences and especially for YA audiences, we need to make it clear that they are not acceptable in real life. While certain genres such as erotica can have a little more wiggle room depending on the content, my opinion is that the clearest way to do this is by not making it acceptable to the protagonist. It’s the same philosophy I discussed in my Dracula essay: having the sexual people and creatures punished at the end allowed Victorian readers to enjoy the deviances while still showing it as ultimately undesirable. It’s all about enjoying the roleplay, but differentiating it from real life. And of course, if you’re aware of all this going into a book and keep it separate from real life, you can allow yourself to enjoy problematic romance. So enjoy Twilight, but look for better relationships in the future!
What do you think of works like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey? Let me know in the comments!
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