Thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey…among other things

I’m reading Beatriz Williams’s Overseas and at a little over 100 pages, when the relatively inexperienced heroine is swept off her feet by the gorgeous, fabulously wealthy, and powerful hero, it suddenly hit me why these types of scenarios are so attractive.

As women, we are bombarded with images every day: how to be beautiful, how to be sexy, how to be intelligent and witty, how to be strong/independent, how to be…everything we’re supposed to be in order to have a fabulous life. And yet, at the same time, we’re told that we’ll never measure up to Angelina Jolie or Halle Berry or Gisele Bundchen, or any other female celebrity held as the epitome of beauty, grace, intelligence, etc etc, and by “measure up” they mean to attract men and to be loved.

The other message is that we have to be outrageously sexy like a Victoria’s Secret model and make men salivate at the thought of having us in bed, and Glamour and Cosmo sell in spades by promising to teach us how to drive men wild in bed so they won’t get bored and move on to a more adventurous woman. There’s no room for the average woman in these types of images no matter how many Dove campaigns they place in between ads full of exotic models in Vogue or during commercial break while watching Desperate Housewives.

In a nutshell, if you cannot live up to those images, you will be alone, unloved, and worthless to society.

Yet, in books like TwilightFifty Shades of GreyOverseas, historical romances full of virginal misses and rakish heroes, and Harlequin Presents titles, the unremarkable woman–the one who may be super intelligent but awkward and clumsy, the one who needs to lose a couple pounds from her hips and thighs, the one who struggles to put food on the table while working at Wal-Mart, the one who has never had many friends, the one who doesn’t have much sexual experience, etc etc–she’s the one who attracts the handsome, wealthy, and powerful man. And this man accepts her for who she is, finds her worthy of attention and affection, and does not hold conditions for his love (you must weight this much, you must have this college degree, you must look put together at all times, etc). Plus, his act of sweeping you off your feet doesn’t have any strings attached–he wants to take care of you and help you because he loves you and thinks you deserve it, not because he only wants to bed you.

This scenario rejects the images and messages that bombard women every day–and is also why the villainness tends to embody those very images and messages–and gives women a safe space to feel vulnerable and insecure and awkward, yet know that the hero of the book will never hurt or humiliate them (there’s a reason most are written in first person POV). It’s actually a bit empowering when you look at those books in that context, and that is why I will never feel comfortable judging their popularity–or their readership.

Author: Evangeline Holland

Evangeline is a public historian who brings her academic skills to fiction, in order to fill in the gaps in the historical record. Her love for history permeates just about everything she does, going so far as to "suffer" for this love--as the bruises and stuck fingers from fencing and sewing costumes to understand life in the past firsthand can attest.

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