Some of the most talked about works of fiction of the past few years have been discussed on the grounds of the romantic and sexual relationships within the stories. This includes books like Fifty Shades of Grey, Divergent, Harry Potter and Twilight. Fifty Shades has especially been on the hot seat with the release of the new film adaptation starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, which famously involves an abusive sexual relationship between one-dimensional characters that inaccurately depicts an otherwise safe sexual fetish.
While it’s true that both the book and movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey send incorrect and harmful messages about human sexuality and consent, it’s also important to make the distinction between moral lessons and good fiction. There is no omnipresent rule that requires every single romantic relationship in a work of fiction to be healthy, or in any way ideal. In fact, books centered around relationships shouldn’t feature perfect people in a perfect couple, exhibiting the best practices or partnership. Stories, above all, need conflict. If you want to tell a good story, things have to be messed up. Which means if you’re going to tell a story about love, the love has to be messed up. It can be resolved by the end of the book, sure, but not before a lot of imperfection–not before a lot of unhealthy mess.
Now Fifty Shades of Grey may be the exception to the rule because of authorial intent. There’s no denying the purpose of the book. It’s meant to arouse and scintillate–it’s erotica. And it’s clear to most readers that E.L. James was writing about a sadomasochistic relationship as a sincere love-letter to a fetish she almost certainly has. Her mistake was not understanding how those kinds of sexual situations need to work–with express consent, mutual respect, and fail-safes. The result of James’ failings is a disturbing power-trip full of rape scenes that we call the billion dollar smash hit Fifty Shades of Grey. But James’ biggest failing was forgetting to make the Fifty Shades of Grey interesting. The movie adaptation of Fifty Shades could have improved on the book immensely if Christian Grey had been depicted ambiguously, walking the line between charming heartthrob and sadistic villain.
Movies like Blue Valentine feature abuse between romantic partners for the sake of story and drama, not because the writer is personally aroused by his or her content. A distressingly complicated struggle between misguided love and self-preservation would make for a much better story than the nearly plotless watered-down sex-fest that is Fifty Shades of Grey.
But Fifty Shades isn’t the only story accused of having unhealthy relationships. Many Young Adult books are held accountable for unhealthy relationships because there is an implicit rule that teen novels should have instructive qualities. Divergent‘s Tris and Tobias have been accused of having an unhealthy relationship because of the age difference, and Tobias’ full authority over Tris as they fall in love. Again, authorial intent matters when you want to criticize the writing for having moral imperfections. If Divergent writer Veronica Roth meant for Tris and Tobias to have a pleasant little teen love life, maybe she failed. But as a story, the romance works just fine; because fiction doesn’t owe the reader niceness and positivity. It owes the reader a story–and sometimes that involves huge mistakes, cruelty, discrimination, abuse (whether explicit or not), and unfairness. True, Tobias might have taken advantage of a teen girl over which he had authority, but that’s simply how Roth decided to write the relationship–and it wasn’t a self-help book. Fiction is meant to play with our emotions, and that’s what Roth does, for better or worse.
Another hotly disputed novel with severely damaged romance is the Twilight series, on which Fifty Shades of Grey was based. These books are now infamous for featuring a love story between an immortal vampire and a nearly-underage teen girl. The vampire, Edward Cullen, is possessive and impulsive and has to subdue his natural urges to kill the love of his life, Bella Swan. Meanwhile, Bella is submissive and flat, wholly dependent on her male counterpart. Divergent star Shailene Woodley even slammed the books for having an unhealthy relationship. Horrible as this is for young girls to read, the malfunctioning romance doesn’t automatically scream “bad writing.” Stephenie Meyer’s self-admitted crush on her own character might. But a talented writer could have told an interesting story with the same characters.
The bottom line is, don’t judge a story by whether or not the relationships are idyllic, judge them on whether or not they tell good stories. The trouble people have with Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight stem from poor story craft and bad authorial judgment, not from the mere fact that the romance is broken. There have been plenty of compelling stories told about two people in love who shouldn’t be together.
Severus Snape in the Harry Potter books has also been criticized lately for his disturbing, stalker obsession with Harry Potter’s mother, Lily. While some fans praise Snape for his so-called heroism in protecting Harry, others point out that the character is otherwise evil and possessive of a woman he never deserved. But J.K. Rowling succeeded in telling an interesting story of a wildly complex character with serious demons and a lot of self-loathing. The unhealthy relationship in this particular teen novel was disturbing, yes, but extremely good writing. And Rowling appeared to make very little commentary on Snape’s obsessiveness, outside of the fact that Harry honored Snape in the name of his son.
What do you think? Do novels like Fifty Shades of Grey or Divergent owe the reader a happy-go-lucky romance just for the sake of positive messages?
For more on Fifty Shades of Grey, read about how the movie is starting a new wave of sex toys.