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Fifty Shades of Toxic Masculinity: Why is Equality So Rare in Romance?

We need to stop romanticising characters that don’t understand the concept of equality.

I grew up reading a lot of books. It started with Nancy Drew, slowly progressing to Harry Potter and other kinds of young adult literature, along with some timeless classics. I remember reading Pride & Prejudice for school around the same time Twilight came out. Twilight wasn’t just a popular book. It was a gargantuan trend every girl (and a few boys) were a part of in school. It was a startling contrast. On one hand, I was reading a book set in a regressive society where the protagonist defied convention to be her own person. On the other hand, there was a book set in a modern society where a girl equipped with all the resources she needed to take care of herself and have a bright future was portrayed as someone who could barely function without her boyfriend, let alone keep herself alive in any situation.

I didn’t realize what was wrong with Twilight at the time and gobbled it up the way I had the misogynistic romances represented in Hindi films and other media throughout my childhood — eagerly, ignoring the tiny sense of discomfort gnawing at me. Years later, I grew older and Twilight became old news. But then came Fifty Shades of Grey, the fanfiction of a fundamentally outdated story with even more regressive themes. Fifty Shades masked emotional abuse under the guise of BDSM and marketed unhealthy obsession as romance. This time when I read the books, as an adult, I knew the book was flawed. I had studied and read and experienced things — not much, but enough to know the difference between a strong partner and an emotionally manipulative one. I turned to other erotic romance novels to clarify this distinction to myself, but most of the books I found represented this toxic masculinity as romance. And it didn’t end with erotica either; there are shelves upon shelves of young adult, contemporary, paranormal, and new adult romance books filled with unequal relationships.

‘You. Are. Mine,’ he snarls, emphasizing each word.” 
― E.L. James, Fifty Shades Darker

Last year, in my quest to find young adult literature with a romance I could truly root for, I stumbled upon A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. This YA/NA fantasy series demonstrates how easily we fall in love with this representation of toxic masculinity in modern romances if it comes packaged like a beautiful man. Then it rips that idea apart and presents the respectful representation of a relationship that none of us knew we were looking for. The book follows Feyre, a mortal who inadvertently gets tangled up in the politics of the Fey, immortal faeries who live beyond a wall that separates the two species. In the first book, we see Feyre fall in love with her captor, a beautiful “alpha” male. In the second book, we see her suffer the repercussions of his “protectiveness” and overbearing love. Not only do these books address the age-old question of what happens after “happily ever after” but they also paint a realistic image of toxic relationships and depression. I highly recommend them to everyone.

And I realized—I realized how badly I’d been treated before, if my standards had become so low. If the freedom I’d been granted felt like a privilege and not an inherent right.” 
― Sarah J. Maas, A Court of Mist and Fury

All my life there’s been an amalgamation of mixed messages about equality in romance books. There have been some that simply told me that if someone loves me, nearly everything else they do is justified. Others told me that love has nothing to do with wanting to control someone else’s life. But by no means has it been an even distribution. For every A Court of Thorns & Roses, there were five Twilights. For every romance novel that gave the female protagonist equal power, respect, and opportunity in the relationship, there were a plethora of Fifty Shades of Grey duplicates to drown it out. Why are the concepts of romance and feminism so mutually exclusive? Try looking for feminist erotic romance. Go on. I dare you. See the few (and short) lists you’ll find online compared to the “alpha male imposes himself in hapless girl’s life” type of books. I’m happy that fantasy as a genre cultivates strong female characters and equality in relationships more than other genres involving romance, at least. But at the end of the day, you’re more likely to come across a mythical creature in modern literature than a romantic dynamic that doesn’t conform to gender roles.

I know the kind of romances I want to read about now, thanks to the books that represented them positively. So, to you, who loves to read about love and to you, who might be on the fence about romance in modern literature – let’s demand and create the stories we want to read. I don’t want to settle for lazy misrepresentations of what masculinity should be, and neither should you.

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