The Bizarre Appeal of Unhealthy Relationships
If you’re female, under the age of a hundred, with working eyes and sufficient finger strength to turn pages/change the channel, then there is a damn good chance that you’ve read/seen Twilight and its subsequent movie incarnations.
If you haven’t been exposed to Twilight in some way shape or form, and are wondering why I am referencing the time in which the sun goes down in dramatic italics, then you will most likely survive a biological and or nuclear attack, seeing as you most likely reside in a former bomb shelter with only a transistor radio, are currently living off of Spam, and are reading this article through the modern invention of Morse code.
If this is the case, let me give you a brief overview. The Twilight series came out a few years ago, and the books were an international sensation. Everyone bought them, everyone read them, there was pandemonium, hair pulling, teenage angst, and unrequited love for fictional characters so strong that it single handedly destroyed the book selling super chain store called Borders.
Now, financial experts will tell you differently about the downfall of Borders, but if you look at the chart I haven’t supplied, you’ll see that that last statement was clearly only made for dramatic effect.
Twilight is a classic tale. Young, innocent, virginal Bella Swan goes into a strange new small town, and comes across a hot, mysterious, Edward Cullen. Boy meets girl, there is an attraction, but it is (for whatever reason) according to Edward: FORBIDDEN! But Bella does not care, no, for our plucky/actually fairly self-destructive heroine LOVES HIM or something, as these things go. And so she continues to see Edward, and at last, he reveals his secret…
He is a reanimated corpse bent on the consumption of human blood to sustain him. To put it simply, he is a hot, sexy vampire—who wants to suck Bella dry because her blood, specifically her blood, smells absolutely scrumptious. But he loves her and will never do anything like that-- he hopes! Thus, he becomes literally consumed with her; he’s extraordinarily protective of her, he’s stronger than her, and from this point forward he controls Bella’s life with his corpsy-sex appeal/constant threat to unintentionally do her in if she doesn’t behave herself.
Now, one would see this tale of an extremely controlling man older man (he’s technically over a hundred years older than she is) who watches her when she sleeps at night and listens to her talk in her sleep and tells her that they can’t have sex before she’s a vampire or he’ll kill her (accidentally of course!) would be, say, a bad thing for the young adults that the books are marketed towards. One would even hope that young girls wouldn’t find this story appealing in the least due to the love interest’s domineering and intimidating nature.
Not so. These books have sold, and sold, and movie adapted, and sold some more, and then sold out. I read Twilight when I was fifteen and loved it. Yes, you read that right, loved it. It felt like someone went inside my brain and pulled out exactly what I wanted in a boy. You want to know why? In my opinion, it’s every lonely teenage girl’s fantasy that there is an attractive boy out there who is so interested and consumed with their every thought/action that he literally can’t stay away from her. Also, the idea that sex will kill you isn’t short of some of the things that people say/attempt to teach you in high school—so a guy who goes along with that? It’s the dream.
However, one would hope that you grow out of the story and stop seeing its appeal after a few years. You get older and you realize that you don’t need someone to be obsessed with you to like you, or to validate the good qualities that you have. They don’t have to watch you in your sleep to know that they care about your well-being—all of those things are so extreme that they are, in fact, terribly unhealthy.
When you’re young, they seem perfect because you don’t really know any better. But you grow out of it. Hopefully.
Now when I read the book five years later, I found it ridiculous and a little troubling. Now all I seem to focus on is the fact that Bella is so consumed with Edward that she’d put herself at risk time and time again to be attacked and killed by the very man that claims to love her.
Yet, people of all ages still read and still love the Twilight books—some people never grow out of this story. In fact, these ideas seem to become more potent with age.
Case and point is the Twilight derivative Fifty Shades of Grey. Strangely enough, Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fan fiction. Fan fiction being a tangent story about the source material—but whereas most of these fan fiction stories remain on the internet, this one took on a life of its own, literally. This fan fiction has become its own work independent of the story of Twilight, yet it still maintains the core message; man dominates and controls woman, and woman likes it very very much.
It revisits many of the same plot points, but is a great deal more extreme, dark, adult, and disturbing. Anastasia Steele is our young, naïve, virginal heroine—and E.L. James makes sure to put extra emphasis on her virginity and lack of experience. And Christian Grey is a mysterious billionaire who has a dark secret and many demons that pose serious danger for our young heroine. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? He is domineering, in control, wealthy, powerful, and treacherous. Anastasia can’t stay away from him, and agrees to be with him on whatever terms he chooses. Thus, she signs a contract that states that she will be his sex slave.
Yes, you read that correctly. It’s an erotic novel about submitting to Christian’s every whim. And being punished when she doesn’t do what he wants her to do. And women love it.
Perhaps the worst part is the Christian Grey doesn’t just control Anastasia Steele’s sex life, but her life in general, spelling out how much food she is allowed to eat, when she is permitted to snack, and how many hours of sleep she must get.
Now, I understand that everyone has a right to be into whatever they’re into—whatever floats your boat man, I’m no moral authority here! But you’d think people would get sick of the story of the dominant, powerful, threatening man controlling the young, innocent virgin after a while. It’s been played out so many times. But, turn on the television, or watch movies, or read some other books, and it’s the same story told over and over again. Why? Why is this story resurging? And why can’t women get enough of it? And perhaps most importantly, why is it that women are the ones writing these stories?
It brings out the question; do women want to be controlled? Do they want to be submissive? Is that the reason why they’re writing these things?
I abhor the idea of someone controlling my every move. I don’t find it sexy, I don’t find it desirable, and I don’t want any part of it. And stories like Fifty Shades of Grey, and even in some instances, Twilight, that gives people the gumption to say things like “deep down every woman likes to be put in her place.” This mentality gives men the rational to do terrible things to women and justify it by saying that although she said no that she really wanted to do it in the end.
Perhaps women find these types of stories entrancing because it’s everything they shouldn’t want—we’re supposed to be strong, independent, successful, modern, and I suppose there are a lot of people who get off on doing something that people frown upon.
But I think it’s something more than that. I think we are in a society where women want to please men. Everything we do, from shaving our legs, to tanning, to make up is not for our own benefit but rather to attract a man. Some would say this is natural, and that men do the same for women. However, I think we as women are in a place where we are constantly encouraged by magazines, television, and just about everything else, to do and change ourselves for a man. So much so that some women are afraid of being too outspoken, too opinionated, too strong, too experienced, because they think it won’t attract a man.
So some women go the opposite way and become as submissive, as pure, and as helpless as they possibly can in order to attain a male attention. And it is the frightened, desperate for love, lonely, and submissive woman who looks for a man like the ones in these stories to watch over and control them—because they can’t do it themselves. If they did, they wouldn’t need that kind of attention in the first place—and some people can’t stand the idea of being alone.
It’s the same mindset that a lot of young teenage girls have, it’s why so many of them are obsessed with Edward—they haven’t developed into their full selves, into full people yet, so they want an Edward to validate and protect them because they can’t yet do it themselves. But I think, and this only coming from my own observations, that it’s when that kind of mentality seemingly survives adolescence and worsens over time, that the crazy, sad, disturbing story of Fifty Shades of Grey becomes so appealing and desirable. And the ridiculous popularity of it all attests to how wide spread this kind of mentality is—and perhaps, how much it is encouraged by our media and our popular culture.
I’m not criticizing the books, but rather, I worry about what they say about us. What they say about women, and what they say about men. Because I think if everyone really followed through with the ideas spouted through these types of stories, there would be a lot more trouble, a lot more pain, and a lot less genuine love.
Do what you do, do what you like, but do it first in foremost, for yourself—surprisingly, that might be what’s best for all of us.
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Like Mia’s article? Check out other pieces by Mia Bencivenga exclusively for twoday magazine: