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The State of the (Romantic) Union: A Morbid Affair with Tall, Cruel, and Gruesome

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.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

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Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

Videos
  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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