Nothing says I Love You like exsanguination, whipping, and the sweet nothing whispered in the ear of a mutual pledge not to machete each other to death.
Or so an alien might glean if he landed on earth on Valentine’s Day, 2013, and looked at romance and love as depicted in the most giddily successful literary franchises of the century: the Twilight series (Stephenie Meyer), Fifty Shades of Gray (E.L. James), which is holding up Barnes & Noble’s profits singlehandedly like Atlas, and The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins). The Hunger Games isn’t in the romantic genre, but it features a strong romantic subplot, and some readers experience it mostly as a love story. These series are rivaled in their sales, adoration, and cultural saturation only by Harry Potter.
These series are all written by women, and women are their key audiences. For Hunger Games and Twilight, a major audience is young women and adolescents. And their romances are vicious—grim, brutal, macabre, and potentially fatal. Like the Gothic tradition before it, the romance combines “cruelty, terror, and eroticism.”
Fifty Shades needs no plot summary, and I’m too sick of it to say much. It’s a steamy erotic series that millions of women have enjoyed that involves the young Ana and the elusive, dangerous, wealthy Christian, who has great real estate, and whose tastes lean toward top/bottom, s/m amusements.
A Facebook friend posted the elephant in the room, a sign she found in an independent book store that warned, “Do not buy this book. It’s scum. It’s really badly written. There is much better written erotica online.” Another friend echoed, “I won’t read this because it glorifies an abusive relationship.”
Whether or not you agree with that opinion, it’s not an outlandish one. The trilogy can reasonably be critiqued by a reasonable person as a glorification of women’s sexual subjugation. And whether you think it’s gleefully outré and pro-sex, or ominously sex-negative (they sound like blood types), Fifty Shades is a bruising sort of romance.
Twilight is a macabre offering. Like Fifty Shades, it’s been noted for its bad writing. The two series even share the same cover art template of funereal, black-grey morbidity with portentous objects of some kind. Twilight, of course, features a human-vampire romantic chimera, between Bella and the handsome 104-year old vampire Edward in a small town in Washington.
At the start, Edward confesses that he’d love to kill Bella because she smells so tasty, but he resists that urge, and destiny, which Meyer sees as a large part of the series’ heroic message of self-determination. By the fourth book in the series, Bella and Edward are married and finally consummate their romance; Bella almost dies giving birth to a half-vampire daughter, and is turned into a vampire herself with Edward’s venom. Meyer has characterized the Twilight novels as a combination of suspense, romance, horror and comedy, but sees it as a “romance more than anything else.”
Her books have been criticized for their romanticization of violent, abusive relationships. Ms. and Jezebel critique the books for their misogynistic, anti-abortion message and a writer for the Young Adult Library Services Association felt the series was “normalizing stalking and abusive behavior.” The Parents Television Council notes that “domestic violence is almost romanticized” in Twilight. A sci fi website found that Bella’s relationship met all the criteria in the National Domestic Violence Hotline for an emotionally and physically abusive relationship.
The Hunger Games trilogy is much better than the other two, in multiple senses. While not a romance, it has a romantic subplot involving a gladiatorial, teens-killing-teens reality TV game in a post-apocalyptic future. Each oppressed, impoverished district must serve up two Tributes each year to the Capitol, where they compete in a fight to the death game in which only one contestant can survive.
The complex, resourceful heroine Katniss volunteers to stand in for her beloved younger sister in the Games and, skilled with a bow and arrow, is a formidable competitor.
The romantic subplot involves her fellow district competitor, Peeta, who confesses his unrequited love for Katniss in the massively hyped pre-game show. Is his love sincere, or a ploy to attract sponsors? As the Games progress, Peeta appears to join a powerful alliance but when he has the chance, he doesn’t assassinate Katniss. It’s that old romantic trope, right?
Shrewdly deploying Romance-as-Survival Skill, Katniss plays the part of the girl falling in love to get sponsors and avoid being hacked to death. Gamemakers change the rules arbitrarily to allow for two victors if they’re a couple from the same District. Katniss and Peeta play along, and forge their ratings-boosting “romance” to survive. They’re the last two Tributes standing—but then the Gamemakers change the rules again, and decree that there can only be one winner. Katniss offers Peeta a poison berry and they agree to a mutual suicide pact, in an echo of Romeo and Juliet. In the end the Gamemakers halt their suicides, and allow both of them to win. For Katniss, romance was mostly a ploy to get support and to avoid assassination (although her feelings are perhaps more ambivalent).
Where’s the love?
The Bridges of Madison County these aren’t (and I might also include in my archive of tough love the popular Zombie remakes of classic literature, or television series, such as HBO’s “True Blood,” a bloodier, more sexually graphic version of Twilight). The novels transpose romance into a supernatural, dystopic and sadistic key. The most obvious characteristic across the novels is that they replace desire, sex and lust with cruelty and macabre. Or, as in Fifty Shades, they express desire as cruelty and submission. Desire involves the mortification of the flesh, in a variety of ways and forms, be it transmogrification to a vampire, whipping and flagellation, or gladiatorial physical contests to the death.
Whether the heroine is powerful, or enjoys it, are of less relevance or interest to me here than the fact that this is the plot. Two of the romances are sexless but brutal; the other is sexual and brutal.
Meyer characterizes her books as “romantic, not sexual.” She avoided sex deliberately. She didn’t want to write a love story with sex, drug use, or cursing (“if it’s in the Bible, I’d let it go,” she says), because "I don't think teens need to read about gratuitous sex." Meyer says her story is about “love, not lust”… as if the two have no acquaintance with each other, lust being a seedy black sheep among the human permutations of intimacy, attraction, and commitment.
Meyer channels lust into murderous, vampirish blood-lust, which seems ethically and socially preferable, even pure. Where you might read, “he longed to kiss her,” substitute, “he longed to kill her.” If the romance prototype might read, “he longed to have sex,” substitute, “he longed to puncture her neck and suck her blood.”
I’m not a fan of cursing and violence, either. But it’s interesting that violent characteristics are considered less objectionable than the sex and lust that Meyer sublimates into these macabre elements.
The Hunger Games movie has an effectively unsettling, sterile depiction of romance and killing, as largely a ratings-driven confection of the Gamemakers in their white lab coats who dispassionately manipulate the “love” story—and so does Katniss, driven by survival instinct.
These three novels are attuned in subtle ways to their times, a combustive mix of different elements of 21st-century America, which they address without unraveling.
Christine Seifert, for example, writes that Twilight weds romance to the abstinence movement and Just Say No social conservatism, with its fetishization of virginity and its backlash against feminism and premarital sex. The series manages to replace sex with “abstinence porn.” The “abstinence message,” she says, “objectifies Bella in the same ways that ‘real’ porn might,” but through her virginity rather than sexual acts.
There are also libertarian strains in these romances; for example, a preoccupation with contracts, individualism, and choice.
In some respects, Fifty Shades is a love story that Ayn Rand, queen of the libertarians, would love. It construes desire as a play on power and submission, and valorizes individuals acting in the full power of their freedom to take and create what they want, or who test the limits of their free will. Rand herself made heroic figures rapists in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. This same ethic of using what you can—even love and intimacy—to thrive in an amoral world as a self-realized individual characterizes the rules forced upon the would-be lovers in The Hunger Games.
One of the most interesting features across all three series is the importance placed on individual choice, freedom, and free contracts, or at least the illusion thereof.
Twilight and Fifty Shades idealize individual choice. Meyer dismisses feminist critics of Twilight, for example, because the books center around Bella’s “choice,” which Meyer perceives as the underlying message of her novels and the “foundation of modern feminism.” Likewise, in Fifty Shades, the heroine signs a “submissive contract,” thereby defining and absolving her romantic subjugation as an exercise of her choice.
But what does it mean to have control, to agree to a contract like this, or to have a choice? Hunger Games is more self-consciously critical about those questions. Collins invites us to see how hollow these notions are in the context of poverty and extreme inequalities of power. Her romantic subplot features agreements for advantage between the two quasi-lovers, but in a reality TV show fight to the death, in which no one cares what the heroes feel. Whatever agreement or alliance our two lovers seal with each other for mutual survival is capriciously nullified by the Gamemakers.
Their choices are so limited, as romantic partners or allies, and we might wonder if love and romance is even possible in this setting.
The dubious, suspect or outright fraudulent romantic contract hearkens back to the dime novel romances of the early 1900s. Dime novels about working women routinely involved fake, coerced, and otherwise deceptively “free” romantic contracts. The heroine appears to choose the betrothal, but it’s no real choice. She’s being tricked or coerced by a more powerful man.
The American Women’s Dime Novel Project summarizes this plot twist: “A main theme in the dime novel romance is of weddings gone wrong—false marriages, marriages to bigamists, marriage by “false” officials, marriages to unloved men out of a sense of duty, marriages to the right man for the wrong reasons.” The contract might look free, but the reader sees that the heroine has no meaningful choice.
This dilemma about the authentically free choice and its counterfeit erupts periodically in American culture. It’s an inevitable tension in a society that aspires to some degree of sexual freedom.
If nothing else, these three series valorize toughness. Whether or not you see their heroines as subjugated or empowered by choice; whether you see the novels as sexy, or anti-woman, one message comes through: Romance involves danger. Love involves the mortification of the flesh; intimacy the sharing and exchange of pain, physical danger, and sacrifice, where you expose your flesh to the slings and arrows of, well, slings and arrows… and whips…and blood-sucking vampires.
Romance is not a haven from the heartless world, but an extension of it. You gotta be tough.
To remember The Who, it’s a hard hard world. There’s no easy way to be free.