Sunday, December 15, 2013

Pondering Women Characters - Passive vs Aggressive

In recent years, it has become apparent to me that there is a disturbing trend in literature targeted at women, designed to lull their senses and deaden their brains. I'm the first to admit my severe under-qualification to comment on the anti-women sentiments I've noticed (for instance, although I am a woman, I have not ever attended a women's studies course), but I think it's a reasonable assumption that a, shall we say "discerning," woman may be just a tad offended at the themes in these books.

My best friend is a die-hard Twilight fan. I love her, so I read it. And then the next three terrible installments. She's also a 50 Shades of Grey fan. I love her, so I tried to read it. If it had been an actual book, it'd have had its spine torn off, the paper shredded, and then tossed into a glorious bonfire. It was inside my phone, which I also love, so I refrained, and instead complained. Loudly, and annoyingly. We don't really talk about books much anymore, except to suggest ones to each other that we'll never read.

Whenever these and other books are brought up to me, I begin to suspect it's more for entertainment value, because I inevitably begin to spit fire and lava at them, using bigger and bigger words to convey my indignation that these books made it past editors and were published. And then put onto my movie screen. Today, another good friend asked what I thought of 50 Shades of Grey, and I stopped myself from giving my customary response and decided to ponder why I respond that way. The answer was more complex than could be given due justice in a text, so I wanted to ponder more deeply here.

I read part of the first book, possibly halfway in, before I chucked it. I don't understand S&M, true, but that isn't what bothers me. What bothers me is that Anastasia is a "fluff" character. Having no backbone, no personality, only a vague description of her appearance, I was at a loss to explain why a business tycoon would not only notice her, but also go out of his way to essentially stalk her. His behavior from the start was decidedly unhealthy. Perhaps she was the personification of "innocence" that he was itching to mold into his own creation, yet we're listening to an immature young woman tell the story from her own perspective, so we know what an insipid creature she is. Like the bondage games she participates in, life happens to her, and she lies back to take it. She's like a drowning victim that does nothing to try to fight the current pulling her under.

Women who love these books explain that it's the fantasy they love; having a man dominate you, force you to submit to his will in specific settings, dictate every facet of your life, can be sexy. That may be a biological response to cavemen-like impulses to seek out life partners that are able to keep you alive, but when I'm analyzing the different reactions to the books, I noticed one thing. The books are intentionally written with a vague first-person view, in order to give women an escape wherein they insert themselves into the role of the main character and experience life as it happens to them.

The danger is that these women, by seeking out and consistently buying and reading these books set up this way, are training themselves to respond to their own surroundings in the same way, letting life happen to them without offering up healthy responses. Not being specially trained to understand psychological responses, I admit it is only a surmise, but I truly believe that women are breeding complacency in themselves wherein they have ridiculous expectations of their life partners without doing any internal work to focus on having a healthy life. The complacency involves minimal work (and who doesn't want that?), trains them to sit back and let life happen, and drains them of the energy to be powerful women.

Furthermore, it creates a market of more women who see the success of women like Stephenie Meyer, churning out more and more sub-quality books using the same gimmick--and we reward them for it by buying the books, reading them, absorbing the lessons to be found in them, and then churning out more. It's a vicious cycle, one that publishing companies would be loathe to stop if it meant cutting off a steady revenue stream.

My worry is that it is an understudied phenomenon, and when I look around me at the startling number of women incapable of reading anything more difficult, it's not hard to extrapolate the bigger picture. With so many women in America actively seeking out books like these in the name of "escape," is it any wonder that we are still fighting for sexual equity?

I love powerful women. It's no secret amongst my friends, that I gravitate toward the most opinionated women around me, those that aren't afraid to state what's on their minds. In literature, my favorite characters are the gutsy, ballsy women that flout conventions and proudly state what's on their mind. Some of them are manipulative, some of them are straight-talkers, some of them are straight-up bitches. Some are nice, kind-hearted women that are hard-and-fast sticklers for fairness. There's no "box" one could put them all into, because good authors take the time to know their characters and explore emotions in different settings.

One of my favorite characters is the controversial Cersei Lannister of the Game of Thrones series. If not for the brother-fucking, she would be the ultimate in powerful, yet flawed female characters. She is hated by her subjects and her court, as well as by her husband, whom she arranges to be killed. She fights like a lioness for her children, is cunning yet not brilliant, beautiful in her cruelty, sly in politics, and crafty in insults. She has a skewed sense of honor, reciting her house credo, "a Lannister pays her debts." She is hedonistic yet classy. She is one of the most powerful women in her world, while understanding innately the disappointments that come with being a woman and yet determined not to be limited.

If we women of today in modern America gave one-tenth the determined efforts toward feminine equity that Cersei Lannister put into crafting a path to the top for herself, would we still be where we are, arguing over the availability of basic family planning services and whether or not women should pay more than men for health care?

If we women are really more like Anastasia Steele than Cersei Lannister, willing to let life happen to us, do we deserve to have a voice in what happens to us? I propose that we start thinking about what we expose ourselves to, and being willing to let our "escapes" be books, music, and movies that challenge us, force us to become smarter and savvier, and understand that no magical man or woman is going to whisk us away, and if we waste our lives away waiting for it to happen, we don't deserve that magical ending.