Romance is on the rise these days — thanks in part to new technologies. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “Electronic readers, and the reading privacy they provide, are fueling a boom in sales of sexy romance novels.”
Brenda Knight, of Clevis Press, a publisher of erotica since 1980, told the Journal: “Kindles, iPads and Nooks are the ultimate brown paper wrapper.”
HarperCollins UK has launched Mischief Books, with the tag line “private pleasures with a hand-held device,” and other mainstream publishers are following suit.
The master narrative of romance novels hasn’t changed much over the years; Woman’s true love can change the world, taming even the most brutish males. We see the theme in the mega-bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which beneath its S&M paraphernalia is a traditional romance novel — albeit with a “love hurts” twist. Virtuous woman meets dangerous feral male, and in due course, has him eating out of her hand. True love conquers all.
The “Shades” hero, Christian Grey, is a classic romance novel male: powerful, rich and controlling. The heroine, Anatasia Steele, is young and innocent and drawn into his web. In the end, they ride off happily into the sunset — with, one assumes — valises of Tylenol for her.
The effects of the book’s roaring success (“Shades” and its sequels are now among the best-selling books of all time), continue to ripple across the literary landscape.
But from a gender studies perspective, there’s reason to be dubious.
As blogger Fedora Lady puts it:
“I think (‘Shades’) sends out a message young girls — who will inevitably get their hands on the ‘forbidden fruit’ and read it — don’t need reinforced: that the love of a good woman conquers all. How many young women have fallen under the spell of a man who proved to be obsessive and abusive, a stalker, jealous of anyone and anything that takes their attention from the guy?”
It’s easy to dismiss all romance novels as harmless, trivial nonsense, but in fact, the fantasies they conjure up have been shown to have negative psychological and financial effects.
In 2001, researcher Laurie A. Rudman of Rutgers University found that female college students “who show automatic associations between male romantic partners and fantasy constructs (e.g. “Prince Charming”) tend to choose occupations characterized by low financial rewards.” So in other words, women who buy into romantic fantasies tend to choose lower paying jobs that require less education. Rudman calls this a “glass slipper” effect, and notes that “women who implicitly idealize men may be more interested in pursuing power indirectly, through their romantic relationships, than by seeking their own fortunes.”
If syrupy rescue fantasies can harm young women and girls, what about the kinky turn such fantasies are now taking?
In her 2012 world tour, Lady Gaga performed several numbers clad in a skimpy S&M costume, straddling a silver motorcycle. In 2011, Britney Spears and Rihanna both donned bondage in a video remix of the latter’s hit song “S&M.”
And in August of this year, in an interview with Oprah, Rihanna revealed that she was working again with her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, who had beaten her so severely in 2009 that he was put on probation for domestic violence. Rihanna expressed concern that his image may have been harmed by the incident.
Shortly after the interview aired, on the website Beyond Black & White, critic Jamila Akil wrote:
“Rihanna doesn’t take her abuse at the hands of Chris Brown seriously… Rihanna and Chris are tone-deaf when it comes to what many of us consider to be ‘inappropriate’ behavior that is actually common to victims of abuse (i.e., the urge that many victims have to defend the person who abused them).”
As a culture, we are also sexualizing girls earlier than ever before.
In what is still considered the “gold standard” study on sexuality and teens, in 2007 the American Psychological Association found the media emphasizing young women’s sexuality “to a stunning degree.”
It found that if girls learn that behaving like sexual objects gains approval they may begin to “self-sexualize;” in fact, to become their own worst enemies as far as their health and well-being are concerned.
Despite commendable efforts to encourage women to develop healthy, positive attitudes toward their own sexuality, the pendulum swing to the extreme is more common and it carries its own perils. The APA links hyper-sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem.
The male species is not immune. Boys are also prone to internalizing the idea that their female counterparts are supposed to behave like sex objects. Further, boys exposed to sexualized portrayals of girls may be more prone to commit acts of harassment.
News stories now report on a casting feeding frenzy over which heartthrob will play the male lead in the movie version of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” If the new romantic hero brings his lady a bouquet of roses and throws away everything but the thorns our culture may take another turn for the worse.