Sunday, February 15, 2015

Twilight, Fifty Shades, the Stanford Scandal and the Brontes: What's Wrong with our Narrative of Romance

Brace yourself. This post is longer and perhaps more loaded than usual. There are 2 parts. The first, embedded in the title, springs from the recent social media explosion of push-back against FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY. The second is an examination of another part of the problem, a high-brow infatuation with the literal objectification of women, particularly in cinematic tales, that serves as the yin to part 1's yang, the dysfunctional male version of the same narrative of gender relations. Together they form a fundamentally cracked core.

Let's start with part 1. Social media has recently erupted with what seems to be the sudden, overnight realization that the pop culture phenomenon FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY does, in fact, romanticize and glorify violence against women, presenting it, and the woman's self-debasement, as erotic, sexy, and desirable. Full disclosure: I haven't read the book, don't intend to, and don't plan on seeing the movie. My goal here isn't to critique the book itself but rather to examine the phenomenon that led to its popularity, especially among women, including many strong and intelligent women of my own acquaintance. Oddly enough, the current backlash against the book was triggered not by the book but by the movie. There was very little of this level of push-back when the story existed in the private, semi-hidden world of the page. Its migration to cinema seems to have caused the scales to fall from our eyes.

From what I understand, FIFTY SHADES was born as TWILIGHT fan-fiction/erotica. That's not surprising. TWILIGHT, like FIFTY SHADES, experienced a supernova level of popularity out of all proportion to the quality of the writing or the originality of the story. I DID read TWILIGHT, in an effort to understand the source of its explosive success. It was built on a familiar blue-print of romance, one with its roots in such literary classics as WUTHERING HEIGHTS and JANE EYRE. It is a blue-print that cannot simply be dismissed as "passive, victimized woman and aggressive, domineering man." It's more complicated than that. Both the lead women in the Brontes' tales are strong, forceful personalities. Cathy meets Heathcliff's abusive, unlikeable behavior with her own brand of manipulative torture. Jane Eyre stands up to Rochester time and again. And yet, in the end, the suffering of the women involved, and the self-destructive and tragic nature of the relationships, serve as models of romantic love.

That brings us to the Stanford scandal I was reading about in the New York Times Magazine today. It is a complicated tale in which a mentor-mentee relationship between a rich, successful, powerful man and an ambitious, intelligent, beautiful young woman developed into a long-term sexual relationship, and then devolved into a break-up and accusations of abuse, kidnapping, torture and more. Both sides seemed confused, hurt and genuinely convinced of their own victimhood. As I read the story, I found myself thinking about the struggles I myself went through in defining my own role as an adult woman, a sexual being, and a person in a relationship. And I found myself thinking about young men I have known who have struggled to make sense of a strange kind of "I love you, I hate you, you're bad for me, you're good for me" tug of war with young women in their lives. The young men were so confused and it was so hard for me to explain to them what it's like for a young girl trying to make sense of the tangled myriad of messages about women and women's sexuality that we encounter, messages whose extremities are "the virgin and the whore" but whose entirety stretches across a vast continuum between those two defining poles.

Men and women step into this messy, toxic soup and try, and fail, to connect. The line between abuse and screwed-up gender relations is often not as clear as we'd like it to be, for either side. The foundations upon which both men and women stand are made of a goopy glop of damaged and damaging narratives. The glop goes so deep, that we as women regularly re-embrace it in some shiny new form that pretends to be ours alone, that pretends to be revolutionary and empowering. TWILIGHT. FIFTY SHADES. Stripper poles as exercise. Madonna. We keep deconstructing it and reconstructing it, smashing it apart and then putting it back together in a new shape, hoping it will somehow be better, stronger, clearer. It never is. Once in a while we step back and paint it large and in black and white terms and blink, wide awake with perspective, and say "Good God! What was I thinking? That's abuse. That's unhealthy. That's destructive."

We as women want to be strong and independent, but we also want to feel safe enough to be vulnerable. We want romance, but we have so many screwed up definitions of what that is that we can't even begin to make sense of them. We want to be sexual creatures, but the narratives around our sexuality are so loaded with misinformation and confusion that we never step into that territory baggage-free.

Time for Part 2. Take it back to COPPELIA, a ballet about a scientist who creates a life-like doll of a girl and then he and the hero both fall in love with the mechanical doll, while the real girl on whom she is based tries to destroy the doll. Roll forward to WEIRD SCIENCE, in which a couple of high school nerds build themselves a woman as a science experiment. She is gorgeous and she is theirs. Moving on to BLADE RUNNER, in which the hero's principal love interest is a beautiful female android. Or let's look at LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, a film presented as quirky indie with heart, in which a quiet, misunderstood guy falls in love with what's basically a mannequin and treats it as his girlfriend. How about HER, which traces the relationship between a man and his digital technology woman? Hell, we could even go further - Shakespeare's WINTER'S TALE (king falls in love with a statue) or PYGMALION (both the play and its foundational myth center on a man falling in love with a female of his own creation). All of these (except WEIRD SCIENCE) are tales embraced by the world of high-brow culture, and deservedly so. They are (except for WEIRD SCIENCE) complex, artfully told examinations of humanity and love. So why do they bother me so much? Because, at their most basic level, these high-brow works share a fundamental root with WEIRD SCIENCE.

All of these stories cast the woman in the role of the object. Am I missing something? Is there a corresponding collection of popular narratives out there in which the man is cast in that role? I don't think so. The closest thing that comes to mind is Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, in which a woman author creates a tale of a man building another man. Shelley's creation is deformed and rejected and his rejection turns him into a  destructive, violent and tragic being. The woman created for him is torn limb from limb before she ever comes to life.

Women cast the men in the role of the dangerous, destructive predator. Men cast women in the role of the malleable object. Both of these narratives are just plain messed up, and they mess us up. They mess up our relationships with one another, they cloud our vision, they turn us from our best selves. Do men truly want a doll, a thing of their own creation, a disembodied technological entity, something they can mold and manipulate to their fantastical wishes instead of a real, three-dimensional, complicated living creature? I don't think so, any more than women want an abusive, domineering master as their sexual and romantic partner. But these are the fractured narratives we keep telling and retelling and they wreak havoc on the relationship between the sexes.

Any generalizations like those I've made here come with the risk of oversimplification. What makes these questions truly problematic is how many of these narratives are NOT poorly written drivel but are instead complex works of art truly worthy of being called classics. Yet they are emblematic of fundamental flaws in the foundational narrative upon which so many of us build our understanding of gender relationships.

So what do we do? Examine our narratives. Ask why a given story resonates. Define our relationships on their own terms and not on flawed societal constructs. Recognize when an old, worn, destructive vision snakes its way back into our collective consciousness under the pretense of newness and place it under a microscope. Name it for what it is. Ask questions of it. Seek to see one another, and ourselves, as we are, apart from the centuries worth of baggage of destructive context. Try, a bit at a time, to rewrite the narratives from scratch for future generations.

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