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This post is a bit of a departure for me. I’ve been writing about media that I have actually read or watched or consumed. Today, I choose instead to write about two books that are somewhat related, but that I have not read. Normally I don’t like to cast snap judgments on something that I haven’t fully engaged with, but in this case, I couldn’t resist. I was just too stumped not to write about them. Since I haven’t read either the Twilight series or the now wildly popular 50 Shades of Grey, all of my observances and analyses are based on what I’ve read, seen or heard regarding these two loosely connected series. If I get the basic facts or my interpretation wrong, please correct me. Believe me, I hope you do–perhaps then I’ll begin to understand!

As I understand, both books feature female protagonists who are somewhat plain, uninteresting, and virginal. During the course of the series, they meet and are seduced by strange and exotic men who help them realize their full potential, beauty, and sexual identities. In the case of Twilight, Bella is wooed by both a sparkly, brooding vampire and a hunky psuedo-werewolf. I gather this mostly from friends who have read the books and from the horrifying movie trailers I’ve seen in passing on TV. In 50 Shades of Grey, it seems that the young Anastasia is wooed by a mysterious billionaire who also has a penchant for domination. Both of these premises have proved wildly popular among women in all age groups; until Edward came along, I’m pretty sure the teeny-boppers weren’t as excited about a guy since Elvis rocked his scandalous hips. Grey is now so popular among adult women that it’s hailed as “mommy porn.” And not only adult women are tearing through this steamy series–according to one blogger I follow, teenage patrons in her bookstore try to buy the book as well.

Um. OK. So, as I see it, women can’t get enough of men who complete them or help them feel fulfilled. And, apparently, the best way to find oneself and realize one’s identity is through a passionate love affair with either one of the undead or with someone who is into BDSM (bondage/domination/sadism/masochism–or so I read). I guess the author of Grey got her start writing fan fiction based loosely on Twilight; I don’t know if the vampire hero, Edward, in Twilight is also into BDSM–anyone want to enlighten me on that? What I do gather is that in both series, there is little to no description or depth given to either Bella in Twilight or Anastasia in Grey. As Matthew Inman so brilliantly summarizes in his Oatmeal post on Twilight, Bella is nondescript enough that it is easy for any female reader to imagine herself as the heroine basking in all of Edward’s beauty and adoration of her. If a vampire were trying to hit on me, my first instinct would be to run the other way, but apparently this vampire bathes in glitter, which must remove some of the menace. And if some dude tried to lure me into his bedroom with the promise of whips and chains and handcuffs, I’d probably run the other way as well, no matter how rich he was. Call me a boring prude, but that doesn’t exactly scream romance. It seems to work for  Anastasia, who is also a timid, nondescript female who only awakens sexually when the domineering Christian Grey takes her into his bedroom.

So, here we are, in 2012, and the best male romantic figures we’ve got is a brooding, moody vampire who believes in waiting until marriage to have sex and a sexy billionaire who is out to get as much kinky sex as he can get. Cool. Are these the ideal men we’re hoping for or that we hope for our daughters or the young women in our lives? I know both books are touted as “fantasy,” “escapist” or “voyeuristic,” but I still find it deeply troubling that women are finding fulfillment in reading about these largely male-dominated and sometimes abusive relationships and finding them sexy. Do we women still, in the end, need a man to worship us (or at least say he does) and call us beautiful and deserving in order to believe it? It’s like feminism never even happened! I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with having a man tell a woman she’s beautiful and valuable–in a normal and healthy relationship. Neither Edward nor Christian seem to be providing one of those to their ladies.

I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of romantic movies or books, but that doesn’t mean that I’m without sentiment. Over 150 years ago, Charlotte Brontë published a book that was considered suggestive and scandalous in its time; it also contained a hero named Edward. In Jane Eyre, Edward Rochester is dark and brooding and full of sexual energy and mysterious secrets; in some ways, he does help the plain Jane come into her own. For the most part, however, Jane is full of her own convictions and independence, and willing to verbally spar with and challenge Rochester, despite their gender and class differences. The difference here is that this Edward calls Jane, “my equal…my likeness” (Chapter 22). Yes, this Edward definitely has some skeletons in the closet (ahem–attic) that he needs to sort out, but I don’t think he kept a store of bondage materials up there. This story is one of mutual love and respect, neither of which seem too evident in either Twilight or Grey. It’s surprising to me that in order to find a strong, emancipated woman in literature, my first thought was to think back to classic British literature that is over 150 years old.

My issue is not with enjoying some light reading or even indulging in some fantasy; instead, I’m concerned with the lack of strong and independent women in these scenarios. Why do these women have to be weak and lack opinions? Why do they have to find their emotional and physical identity through these self-serving men? I kind of just want to grab these women by the shoulders and tell them to go take a class or read a book or take a walk outside or ride a bike or do something for themselves instead of pandering to these freaky guys.

Well, I suppose I’ll have to go actually read all of these books now in order to see if my rant is justified. To be fair, I did try to read Twilight once to see what all the hype was about. I picked it up in Costco one day, read the first page, then put it back. I just couldn’t do it. I suppose I should give it another shot. Until I can bring myself to do so, I’ll take comfort in the fact that Katniss Everdeen is a popular contemporary female protagonist who doesn’t rely on a man to get things done. I’m glad she’s out there as a role model to young women who shows that you don’t need a man to succeed; you just need to kill a few people and maybe start a rebellion against the government.