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Danger: Romance Literature - The Problem With Portrayals of Unhealthy Relationships

'The fact that these books and movies are labeled 'romance' becomes problematic in more than one way.'

Now, I'm no relationship expert, but as I'm sitting securely in my 20s, I've found myself noticing patterns within the young adult—or adult—romance literature and film genre. In many cases, we just get a cheeseball, good-natured story about a couple falling head over heels for each other. Don't get me wrong, I love a good rom-com as much as the next girl. But I'm wondering if there might be something a little more poisonous going on below the surface of some of these more popular book and movie franchises. 

A few Valentine’s Days ago, a girlfriend dragged me, as we were both without dates for the night, to see the first Fifty Shades of Grey. Going into the movie, it seemed harmless and sort of silly. In hindsight, I have a brief recollection of being both bored with the plot and slightly mortified by the graphic sex scenes, but it wasn't the explicit nature or the general lack of imagination is not what struck me about this movie—it was the clearly romanticized emotional abuse.

A quick Google search tells me that E.L. James started writing the Fifty Shades of Grey series as a fanfiction, based off the Twilight series written by Stephanie Meyer. This doesn't surprise me, considering the similarities between the main female characters: Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele. Both authors make their heroines not only static, flat characters with little to no outside interests, hobbies, or accomplishments, but the women in these franchises also withstand a huge amount of controlling manipulation from their boyfriends.

Now, I'm in no way demonizing young adult or romance literature as a whole. But I hope to steer readers and viewers with caution when consuming these types of materials. My generation grew up reading the Twilight series, picking Team Edward or Team Jacob, and in many ways, secretly hoping for something as exciting to happen to us. Characters like these were often the utmost picture of romance, dedication, and love, and entertainment media played a powerful role in our conception of the status quo—how we might expect men to behave or how we expected to be treated ourselves. And while the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise's explicit content targets a slightly older audience, I'd argue it still plays a significant role in establishing a social norm. 

Okay, so what? It's just entertainment, after all. But no one can argue that these franchises have become highly popular. The New York Times has the total number of Stephanie Meyer books sold worldwide at over 70 million in 2009. In addition, the first film in the series made $384 million at the box office. The numbers of people picking her work off the shelves speaks for itself. The Fifty Shades of Grey figures don’t look much different. According to a 2014 media brief by Julie Bosman of the New York Times, the series has sold “more than 100 million copies worldwide.”

The fact that these books and movies are labeled “romance” becomes problematic in more than one way. Both male characters and romantic interests for these young women, Edward Cullen and Christian Grey, exhibit oppressive tendencies toward their supposed loves. The women in these books and films are treated as fragile, unable to take care of themselves, unable to make informed decisions, and are chastised and even punished for misbehavior when they’ve crossed bounds put forth by their significant other. 

In one scene from Eclipse, the third in four books in the Twilight series, Edward disconnects the cables from Bella’s car to prevent her from seeing a friend he does not deem “safe.” Susan Jeffers explains in her essay “Bella and the Choice Made in Eden,” that Edward’s “behavior toward Bella for the first three books is frightening in many ways. Over the course of the series, he watches her sleep, constantly tells her she’s absurd, and tries to control who she sees and who her friends are.” As young adults consume this material with the expectation of romance, this behavior shifts from obviously creepy to understandable and romantic. 

Maybe it's easy to say we obviously don’t want our boyfriends watching us sleep, but the fact is that the Twilight Saga gives dangerous precedence for this type of controlling and possessive behavior. In the first Fifty Shades of Grey movie, Christian follows Anastasia to Georgia where she is visiting her mother because she wouldn’t answer his phone calls. Seriously? And we’re calling this behavior love. We’re commending these women for sticking by their man, and, most of all, we hope that they can fix them.

The extreme popularity of these series among young and middle-aged women perpetuates the idea that a controlling, suffocating, and unreasonably jealous boyfriend is not only romantic, but normal. In many ways, it's tempting to commend Bella Swan for never giving up on Edward Cullen, and we hope that Anastasia Steele can one day reach the buried heart of Christian Grey. Even after being belittled, controlled, and hurt time and time again by their lovers, the girls bounce back. The framing of this behavior as devotion and romance gives young (and maybe even older) women the impression that love means inflexibility, control, and dominance, instead of compromise, patience, and respect. 

I'd argue these portrayals of relationships cannot be positive for the majority of audiences, male, female, young or old. Not only does it give a false impression of healthy relationships, it teaches its viewers and readers that these major issues can be a means to an end. If, or when, these fictional characters manage to fix their significant others, the point I'm trying to make here is: it shouldn’t have been a problem in the first place. Even a happy ending teaches readers and viewers that, if you can manage to hold out long enough, the relationship will turn out with a happily-ever-after.

This isn’t the type of relationship-building mindset we want to be teaching or promoting, especially if we want both women and men to recognize when their relationship becomes unhealthy. This can become extremely difficult when popular culture normalizes problematic behavior. Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of a memoir about relationship abuse entitled Crazy Love and a presenter of a TEDTalk about the victims of abusive relationships, addresses this false happy ending in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which “ends with Ana and Christian’s happily-ever-after marriage… unlike real life, where most abusive relationships end with protective orders, blocked cellphone numbers, drawn-out court battles over children, or in the worse cases, death.” The trilogy gives readers the unfair impression that holding out in the face of abuse may lead to a change of heart over time.

Steiner also points out how Fifty Shades of Grey hints at an overarching issue within victims of emotional or physical abuse. She explains that “for some victims, the intoxication of healing a damaged partner is the root of how love blindfolds us while delivering us into danger. We cling fiercely to the seductive idea that we are powerful, smart women who can fix hurt men; perhaps nobly, perhaps idiotically, we refuse to abandon these men when so many others already wisely have.” While this is in no way true for everyone, popular franchises the Twilight Saga and Fifty Shades of Grey allow for this desire to fix a damaged partner to circulate throughout our modern romantic culture, and we may mistakenly call this devotion and commitment strength or resilience.

Because words and images consumed on this large scale have, although perhaps subconsciously, such a profound impact on audiences around the world, then it's important for consumers of these franchises, and similar storylines, to proceed with caution. When our everyday rhetoric surrounding romance includes these portrayals of oppressive, even emotionally abusive relationships, it's bound to leave an impression our societal norms and expectations. The conversation surrounding healthy relationships remains a vital and ongoing one. If we want the interpersonal culture of relationships to change, or if we want the way we talk about what a healthy relationship means and to reflect positive, constructive and supportive behaviors, then the material that young men and women consume on a daily basis must also change. 

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