The Fifty Shades Effect: Abuse in Popular Literature


By Belinda Gleeson:

Abusive behaviours are rampant in literature, particularly in Young Adult literature and literature intended to be romantic, intended for women in particular. You know the ones I mean – I’m talking Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight and some other books I’ve come across that romanticise abuse in its many forms.

Abuse doesn’t mean you have to be being beaten up. No one has to hit you, stab you or physically intimidate you for it to constitute abuse. You don’t need to be sexually abused, though that is also a huge, huge issue in relationships, despite the general idea that sexual assaults by partners are rare. Abuse also comes in mental and emotional forms. It astounds me how many smart, educated women I know have fallen into emotionally abusive relationships and convinced themselves that the behaviour of their partners is okay. I’m sure there are equal amounts of men who fall into this trap as well, but I can’t speak for their experience.

It’s not necessarily the pseudo S&M in Fifty Shades of Grey that constitutes abuse, though there are incidents where he doesn’t get Ana’s full consent, or continues when she tells him to stop- those incidents do constitute sexual assault. It’s Christian’s controlling behaviour that is the true, overarching abuse in the series. Ana wouldn’t have even consented to the S&M if he hadn’t coerced and bullied her into it anyway. From what I understand of S&M, full consent is a requirement and the Dom is supposed to monitor the Sub constantly to make sure they aren’t in real pain or distress, which Christian does not do. No sub would be expected to fulfil the requirements of Christian’s “contract”, which controls every aspect of Ana’s existence, from what she eats to what medications she takes. If she had signed the contract, he would have complete control over her life. It’s every abuser’s dream situation. Even though she doesn’t agree to sign, he still exercises much of this control over her anyway- he forces her onto the Pill, chooses what she eats in restaurants, tells her she can’t see her friends, restricts her contact with family and even buys her workplace to have control over her there as well as at home. He threatens to hit her when she doesn’t call him. He threatens violence when she admits to having had coffee with her male friend, Jose. He threatens to hit her when she doesn’t let him masturbate her at his parent’s dinner table. I’m sorry, but on what planet is that behaviour acceptable or romantic.There is absolutely NOTHING romantic about demanding that level of control, or threatening to hit your partner. NOTHING.

Having escaped a relationship like the ones described, I find this dynamic in literature worrisome, especially in books intended for young men and women. I worry about it being portrayed as appropriate behaviour. I use the word “escaped” to describe my experience, because it really feels like I escaped. Though my ex never threatened or carried out physical or sexual abuse, it is SO easy to fall into thinking that your partner is telling you what to do for your own good, that you’re always in the wrong and that they only do it because they care about you…. but it’s not true. It’s about power. It’s incredibly unhealthy and emotionally draining. I’m not a stupid or weak woman- it’s not just “silly” or “Mary Sue” types who fall into this trap. It’s so, so easy, which is partly why it’s really scary.

It comes on slow and builds up, much like Edward and Christian’s behaviour towards their respective partners. To romanticise this kind of behaviour contributes to the problem and normalises abuse… because that’s exactly what it is- Abuse.

From my experience, I definitely see it as emotional abuse and blackmail. Edward threatened to walk into the sun, because it’s “better” that way. My ex threatened to commit suicide if I left him or if he felt I was disagreeing with him… it’s the same thing. It’s a means to get what they want from the girl. They make that power call and the woman goes along with it; because you feel like you need to “fix” him, make him happy, you blame yourself, surely you’re the one at fault…

I escaped when he decided that he wouldn’t allow me to further my education. That was my final straw. This goes along with three years of telling me what to wear, who I should vote for, what opinions I was allowed to have, how to do my hair, what to talk about, what career I should get into, what shops I could go into, who I could go out with, what I could do with my own skin… sound familiar? It’s all in YA and women’s literature of the Fifty Shades variety! This is, for the most part, portrayed as romantic and acceptable behaviour. Even with E.L. James’ new novel from Christian’s perspective, it’s obvious that she has absolutely no awareness of how destructive and wrong the situation between her characters is- in fact, she defends it. It’s sickening, and I think it does impact how young girls see this kind of behaviour, and lets young men learn that it’s “romantic” or okay for them to behave in this manner. I read a Mills and Boon novel where the woman literally gets plastic surgery done to her face and body to make the man stop belittling her appearance and fall in love with her. She loved him, despite him constantly calling her names and using her sexually, because she thought he knew best and loved her. It didn’t help that, like Edward and Christian, the guy was rich and powerful. That is not love, it is abuse. Again, this is supposedly a romance novel marketed to women.

When I ended my relationship, I felt a mixture of sadness and joy. I felt sad for what could have been- he wasn’t always so controlling, it didn’t begin that way. We did have good times, then we had really, really bad times. I was angry about his behaviour through those bad times. It had got to the point that I was cherishing any good time we had, because they were becoming so few and far between. I also felt absolute joy, because I was free. He had no power over me anymore. I could do what I wanted, go where I wanted and I could make all these plans for my future… plans from dreams I knew he wouldn’t allow to become a reality. I wish the women who write these novels and even the characters within them could understand and experience this level of freedom. It’s liberating as hell.

This behaviour should never, ever be condoned in literature. The women cannot “change” an abusive man. He will not change unless he recognises he is in the wrong, which many refuse to do. Fans of Fifty Shades believe that Christian realised he was wrong about the contract, but that doesn’t seem to have slowed down his other elements of control. While you’re fangirling over these characters, take a step back and think critically about their behaviour. If the main character was your best friend, would you tell her to run like the wind? Yes? Then this is not an okay situation. This mentality needs to change, and it needs to change NOW.

IMAGE: Chiara Baldassarri

book by chiara baldassarri med size

You may also be interested in

May 30, 2024

Polin’s in the air… Bridgerton Season 3 is upon us!

After a two-year hiatus, Netflix's swoon-worthy series, Bridgerton, returns to our screens! Read more to find out how Part 1 has faired...
By Luci Kugathasan
image of a person embracing themselves seated within a bubble of solitude, surrounded by green leaf-like patterns against a dark blue background
February 14, 2024

Strength in solitude

A personal reflective essay on life as a first-year student at Western Sydney University, written in poetic-prose style describing the highs and lows ...
By Shabnam Siddique
August 31, 2023

Blak and white thinking: What is my place in the 2023 referendum?

Ruby Ritchie explores the meaning of Blak identity in the context of the Voice to Parliament Referendum. ...
By Ruby Ritchie