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fifty shades of sexism: why are our modern heroines so weak?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

When I was first introduced to the desirable Christian Grey, I admittedly was taken with the character’s ‘smoky gray eyes’ and ‘rich boy’ mystique but by the end of chapter one, I was already irritated with my protagonist’s self-deprecating diatribe and constant reference to her battling subconscious or rather, her ‘inner goddess.’ By chapter two, I began to wonder if Christian Grey was perhaps Edward Cullen in disguise and whether Anastasia Steele was an anagram for Bella Swan.  After all, the protagonist’s inability to form coherent sentences in Grey’s presence and the fact that she is ‘too pale, too skinny, too uncoordinated and too scruffy’ certainly coincides with Bella’s weak willed demeanor and translucent pallor.  Anastasia Steele is certainly not made of steel as her name might suggest, tarnished with the same naive, indecisive and easily persuaded mentality with which other popular, female protagonists have been anointed.

By chapter six of Fifty Shades of Grey, where we are introduced to the ‘red room of pain’ and Anastasia is confronted with Christian’s insufferable list of dominating rules, I just felt disappointed.  Even more disappointed when Anastasia agrees to the list of rules, with a few minor exceptions of her own.  All for an unsteady opportunity to experience love (or something like it) with someone unstable and incapable of a healthy relationship. What is this message giving to young women?

More importantly, why are our modern heroines so devoid of a strong sense of self?

Earlier this year, I watched an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel Jane Eyre and while I adored this particular portrayal of Bronte’s star crossed lovers, I began to see negative similarities between Jane Eyre and more modern heroines. Jane is portrayed as an oppressed individual with an inability to yield to her own desires or even voice them, a victim of an ostracised childhood.  Though I admire her determination to strive forward, forgive those who have wronged her and ultimately refuse to be what people want her to be, she still lives a state of perpetual denial, unable to understand why a man of Mr. Rochester’s stature finds her so compelling. These stories may have been applicable to the women in the 1850s, in times of great deprivation and moral repression, where their sole purpose in life was to find a husband, reproduce and then spend the rest of their lives serving him, but we have since evolved since that time, so shouldn’t our highly acclaimed literature evolve too?

As much as I adore any story about star crossed lovers, I cannot condone the messages that I am noticing in romantic fictional pop culture today: That if you are a young, virginal woman, you must have an undeniable weakness for dangerous men, an overwhelming fragility and an internal drive to suffer in silence, stifle an actual personality and dissect and compartmentalise every little thing your partner says. You can’t possess a healthy self-esteem as this may hint toward narcissism and draw away from your understated beauty that everyone notices but you. Most importantly, you can’t ever compete with your lover’s overwhelming perfection,whether it is portrayed in the over explicit descriptions of his eyes, lips, face or body, because he will always be more ‘intoxicating.’ So, you know, when you do accept a compliment, make sure you follow it with an apologetic smile and blush.

I am so relieved knowing that characters like Katniss Everdeen, Sookie Stackhouse, and Lisbeth Salander exist on our modern bookshelves – strong female protagonists who do not become emotionally or sexually possessed the moment they get a whiff of a man’s cologne; female characters who are described as something other than ‘pale and weak’ to remind us that women of different colours and shapes also exist in the world.

Ultimately, I just want to see more equal love stories, don’t you?

I want to read a book where it is the man caught blushing, swooning, and stuttering in each chapter.

Well…perhaps not the stuttering.

By Sophia Anna

4 thoughts on “fifty shades of sexism: why are our modern heroines so weak?

  1. I get sick of weak pathetic women on tv. I know male writers think we are all weak and unable to be strong but it’s what I want to see. It’s the whole fantasy. Our lives may not be great so we lose ourselves in the strong women of books, movies and tv. Makes us feel better when we see one of our own kick arse. Buffy and Charlie’s Angels to name two.

    It’s just a turn off.

    They did that to the Nancy Drew books. She used to be strong and willing to fly into danger. She rarely “chided” herself and was always nice and polite while catching crooks.

    When they updated her and started the Nancy Drew Girl Detective series, which is now finishing, they made her constantly criticise herself, put herself down and made her a forgetful clutz.

    Didn’t like it. And I’m not the only one so now Simon and Schuster are doing a new series so we’ll see how that goes.

  2. As a male writer and avid tv watcher and gamer I would like to say most men I know like strong female leads. But most men I know are, not to put to fine a point on it nerds.

    I’m reading Game of Thrones. There are strong and weak female characters in a brutal, depressing medieval style world. Thats what I like. I read fantasy not romance so the females I see tend to be able to kick arse and rule kingdoms. Same with sci-fi.

    Or perhaps a game like Beyond Good and Evil. It would ironically fail the Bredict test (sp, and depending on how you count the antagonist) but that was kind of the point. The men run around with war, power and attempts to control where as Jade fights because she has no other choice. Or the developer bioware in particular should get a mention for having such a wide variety of characters, selectable genders and sexualitys that it is staggering.

    Or perhaps Portal. It also fails the Bredict (sp) test but because there are only two characters and one is mute. Both are female. Well unless you count the security turrents and the companion cube.

    Gaming itself is really at the forefront with strong female characters. Oh you have to skip the xbox dross for the adolesent and go to the more serious stuff. I could give examples but the explenations would be to long winded. But safe to say I think there is a reason there are nearly as many female gamers as male gamers now.

  3. Yeah, I completely agree with you. She constantly puts herself down and what message does that give about women? Overall, this book is a mess but I’m gonna keep reading for the sake of curiosity.

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