Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are two of the most polarizing books that I have ever been unfortunate enough to read. It’s important to remember that it’s all right to enjoy something with problematic material. You just need to be aware of why it’s problematic. I’ve read and liked a lot of stories about abusive relationships—even recced a fic or two—but the biggest difference between reading fanfiction with glorified abuse and the Twilight and Fifty Shades books are that these fic authors are actually aware that their stories feature abuse and use disclaimers accordingly. Fanfiction is also often less about telling a cohesive story and more about expressing interpretations to already preexisting works of art. It’s not the same as writing for cash and putting a copy of their work in every bookstore out there. Stephenie Meyer and E. L. James don’t seem to realize the abuse they wrote, and what concerns me about their novels is that they do trick real people into believing that abuse—sometimes even rape—is a sign of love. Both these stories are incredibly misogynistic. They mistake abuse for love, sometimes even use love to excuse abuse, while also encouraging male entitlement and female submission.
Spoilers for both Twilight and Fifty Shades below, as well as a trigger warning for suicide, abuse, rape, and unhealthy relationships.
So for the whole two of you that don’t know the story, Twilight is about a young woman, Bella Swan, who meets the vampire Edward after moving to the small town of Forks. Edward becomes obsessed with Bella, stalks her, and even breaks into her bedroom at night to watch her sleep. Eventually, the two of them fall in love, get married, and have a baby. Fifty Shades of Grey follows a similar structure. The book originated as a Twilight AU fanfic, so it has a lot of the same themes as Twilight. Ana meets the wealthy and successful businessman Christian, and the two of them end up in an abusive relationship. He stalks her, breaks into her apartment, and victim blames her all the time.
Twilight is subtler than Fifty Shades, and in some ways, that makes it much more dangerous. To start off, Edward doesn’t hit, beat, or overtly threaten Bella. The abuse is entirely emotional, and that’s what confuses some people. But Edward is still an abusive partner. He is controlling, jealous, and emotionally destructive. Edward asserts himself over Bella, attempts to control her life, and ensures that she is entirely emotionally dependent upon him. He isolates her from her other friends—he sabotages her truck so she cannot visit Jacob and has Alice kidnap her at one point. In the second book, when Edward decides that their relationship is too dangerous, he breaks up with Bella. Though calling off a relationship is not abusive itself, how Edward does it is entirely reprehensible and makes the breakup that much harder. He attempts to control Bella’s feelings through the breakup and even steals mementos she has to remember him by. By this point in their relationship, she has become so emotionally dependent upon him that the breakup and Edward’s subsequent actions cause Bella to become clinically depressed. She withdraws into herself and goes through the next couple months of her life in a haze. Eventually she attempts suicide.
Edward manages to do all this to her without physically harming her himself. All the while, he and the narrative continuously remind us that all his actions are done through love and without malicious intent. Bella is receptive to his actions because the story wants her to be, and so it gives off the impression of a healthy relationship. The story never addresses the fact that Bella is an unreliable narrator, and so it never addresses the abuse.
Fifty Shades of Grey also manages to trick many readers into thinking the abuse isn’t there. It is a rather explicit story featuring a BDSM relationship. Their relationship is not abusive because of the BDSM. BDSM, if done right, can be indicative of a very healthy, trusting relationship. Their relationship is abusive because Christian uses BDSM as an excuse to hurt Ana. It is very clear that Christian is only using Ana to his own ends. He refuses to let her call off their relationship, even to the point of breaking into her apartment and raping her when she jokingly sends him an email about breaking up. During this scene in the book, Ana tells Christian “no” but he proceeds to assault her all the same. And like Twilight, Fifty Shades tries to convince us that the relationship between Christian and Ana is not abuse.
One of the ways Fifty Shades does this by conflating arousal with consent. In the aforementioned rape scene, Ana becomes aroused. She likes the physical sensations Christian’s assault causes. Eventually she consents—though that doesn’t make the scene any less a rape scene. Her consent is shown purely through her arousal, and she never gives any kind of verbal consent. The only word she says during the entire incident is “no”, so from Christian’s perspective, she doesn’t want him there.
Both Christian and Edward put their wants before Bella’s and Ana’s needs. The reason they are able to do this comes from a very misogynistic point of view that encourages male entitlement and female submission. Both Bella and Ana are infantilized and presented as being unable to make good decisions or take care of themselves. As such, they need Edward and Christian to take care of them for them. This is most apparent when Bella walks into an alley alone at night, and needs Edward to save her from rape. The story presents the attack as being partially her fault, and is more concerned with Edward’s emotions over the assault than Bella’s. Ana, at one point, goes out drinking with her friends, which the story uses to show us how irresponsible she is, and Christian shows up to save her from a rape as well just in time. In both these situations, Christian and Edward only manage to save Ana and Bella because they were stalking them. The narratives use the rapes to excuse their behavior and say, hey, stalking actually is okay. They should be stalking these girls, because these girls can’t take care of themselves.
This idea is then continued in other parts of the story. Both Ana and Bella drive older cars—so Edward and Christian buy them new cars, without even asking. In Christian’s case, he steals and sells Ana’s original car so she has to use the one he bought her. Like stalking, that is incredibly illegal, but the narrative lets him get away with it anyway. Because Ana and Bella are infantilized and presented as irresponsible, Edward and Christian are able to assert themselves and their own wants over the women’s needs. This is why Twilight allows Edward to get away with kidnapping Bella, sabotaging her truck, and making decisions for her regardless of whether she wants him to or not. The same goes for Christian and Ana. This mindset allows for the male characters to control the female characters’ lives.
It also tells us that Edward and Christian don’t really care about Bella and Ana, even if the narrative likes to tell us otherwise. Edward breaks into Bella’s bedroom to watch her sleep at night without her permission. If he was at all concerned about whether or not Bella would react to this negatively, he shouldn’t have done it. This is a gross invasion of and assertion over her life. At the same time, if Christian cares at all for Ana, he wouldn’t rape her. Continuously throughout the story we see Christian get angry if Ana tells him no—she’s not allowed to say “no” to him without sexual punishment—and he also tries to have her sign a contract that would essentially make her his sex slave who lives solely for his needs. Though this contract is not legally enforceable, he at no point tells her that, and she has to figure that out herself. And even if it were legally enforceable, Ana never signs the contract, yet he still acts out his fantasies as though she had.
Both Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are dangerous novels because they lack self-awareness, and that’s why these problems are never addressed. They could both be really good stories that explore abuse, but instead they try to present themselves as love stories, and this has had negative real-world consequences. Women have been raped and murdered by men acting out scenes from Fifty Shades of Grey. The media we consume does affect us, and these books have done some serious harm. They leave us with the lesson that women should be subservient to men, and that men need to assert themselves over us, because we clearly don’t know better. They tell us that our wants and our needs are unimportant. It is one thing to enjoy these books, it is another thing entirely to hold up the lessons they teach us as being healthy or normal.