If Twilight and Fifty Shades are Wish Fulfillment…

I wasn’t going to post about this.  I actually said to Mhairi this morning (with whom I was discussing the topic) that I probably shouldn’t post about it, but it’s on my mind and I can’t seem to shake it.  So…yeah, here we go.

We were talking about the popularity of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray.  It’s no secret that I despise Bella as a heroine.  I find her weak, whiny, passive, and generally cannot in any way relate to her.  She does not feel like the heroine of her own story to me other than the fact that the world seems to revolve around her.  Now Fifty Shades I really can’t speak to as I have not (and will not) read it, and all I really know about it is what I’ve gleaned from listening to the big stink it has raised, first as being an alleged Twilight ripoff (I understand it began as fanfic and then the author changed the names?), and then as being a generally sucky and controversial book.  Either way, if Twilight was the base, then I’d probably hate it, period.  Fine, whatever.  We all know that not everyone will like every book.  This is the way of the world and is as it should be.  It still makes the popularity of such tales somewhat mystifying.

I’ve often heard it said that romance as a genre is about wish fulfillment.  Heroine is the center of some perfect, hot sexy guy’s attention and, depending on heat level, is in for some mind-blowing, stupendous nookie.  Yes, I can definitely see the wish fulfillment in that.  But that’s not the part of the wish that appeals to me in romance.  I read paranormal romance predominantly, and I read it for the kick-ass heroines who manage to save the world.  I was part of the Buffy generation.  Buffy kicked ass, took names, and took care of herself and everybody else.  She did not wait around for some man to do the job because that was not the way of the Slayer.  And I find that appealing because in real life you cannot count on some man to do everything for you.  This is not a Leave It To Beaver world.  You need to be able to take care of yourself.  Buffy is the epitome of the independent, capable heroine.  There is a little Buffy in everything I write and in everything I love to read and watch.  Strong heroines.  That’s the thing.  I get a charge out of seeing them prove their strength through impossible odds, showing that they can pull through, they can do what has to be done, because women are awesome like that.  THAT is my wish-fulfillment fantasy in romance.

So, back to the whole Twilight/Fifty Shades thing.  If romance (and for argument’s sake, we’re calling both of these romance) is about wish fulfillment, what wish is being fulfilled?

Being the center of the hero’s focus to the point of obsession (and yes, it was totally obsession…Edward being a total creeper and watching her while she slept and she didn’t know it? Ew).   Okay…something I would find totally creepy in real life, but I can see how some women would perhaps long for that if their own lives were the total antithesis where they were not the center of anyone’s focus.  What else?

Wanting to be taken care of.  Now on its own, this is not such a horrible wish.  For those of us with lots of responsibility in our lives, it might be nice to flirt with the fantasy of a millionaire tycoon who would hire us a maid, a nanny, a personal chef, and get us out of our shitty day job.  >.>  Even I find that appealing.  It’s one of the things that I actually love about J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood–the idea that the heroes are going to take care of their women whether their women want to be taken care of or not.  It’s nice to have someone want to do it, whether you want it all the time or not.  My issue with this particular wish in Twilight is that it’s taken to the extreme (seems like most of my issues with this book are about things being taken to the extreme).  Bella doesn’t just want to be taken care of…she seems to crave someone to totally run her life.  She allows Edward to make her decisions for her, tell her what is best, and totally abdicates responsibility for her life.  Not only is this psychologically unhealthy and totally unbalanced as a relationship dynamic, but it absolutely sets her up as the perfect victim of an abusive relationship.  The fact that Bella has become (for better or more likely for a whole lot worse) a role model for women today absolutely terrifies me for the example it sets, for the unhealthy relationship precedents it establishes.

There is a huge difference between being more old school and traditional in the role you desire to fill as a woman and what Bella is.  It’s totally cool if you want to be a stay at home mom who puts June Cleaver and Martha Stewart to shame (no matter what feminists may shout to the contrary).  That doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat or allow your husband to dictate everything (even if he happens to be the more traditional breadwinner).  I guess what bothers me THE MOST about the insane popularity of these books is that there are so many women out there who have some psychological desire to lose themselves (because I think Bella did) in a man, be taken care of, and not have to do or be anything beyond that.  I find it a really scary commentary on the state of our society that women would be attracted to a wish fulfillment fantasy of being so passive.  Passivity is dangerous (and boring).  Do these women think so little of themselves that they would rather have someone else define them?

I want to know who the next hugely popular Buffy will be.  Any thoughts on that?  Have any good candidates?

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35 thoughts on “If Twilight and Fifty Shades are Wish Fulfillment…

  1. I could not agree more with you on the Bella front – I won’t even bother to elaborate because you hit my thoughts spot on.

    While I did enjoy getting lost in Twilight (and I couldn’t stand Bella from moment one – but the rest of the characters? I just wanted to be with them. Even creeper Edward *lol* ) I refuse to read Fifty Shades – I just get skeeved out by the whole idea. Really.

    And what happened to the feminists? Can we please bring them back? So much more fun. LOL!
    -Jac @ For Love and Books

    1. Feminism has been such a rocky road. Pendulum swings from one end to the other with both sides acting like theirs is the only way. I think that’s really the clincher. Instead of saying that “this is the right way to be as a woman”, let’s band together to support WOMEN in general against all the attacks were getting from the psycho white soon to be non majority men.

  2. I love the Black Dagger Brotherhood books for that reason too (among others). The thing about the BDB books is that the heroines are all strong females in their own right. The men look after them because they want to, but the women look after them right back and the core of the romance is often that the women save them in very real ways. They are not in any way passive heroines. As you say, that produces a brilliant relationship dynamic where the women are just as strong and well-developed as their men. In my opinion, that is a healthy role model for a relationship. In today’s world women need to take responsibility for their own well-being, even in forming a relationship with someone who is going to take care of them. Taking care of the other person in your life is absolutely permissable, as long as they reciprocate. But you should also know how to take care of yourself, because you can’t guarantee that person who said they would always take care of you will always be around to, or that they won’t turn around one day and decide they don’t want to anymore.

  3. LIke you, I love Buffy and strong female leads, but I think I get why this “wish fulfillment” is so prevalent. Women today tend to hold up the world. They do everything, are everything to their families, whether they work in or out of the home. Some are single and have no one to lean on (and there are a lot of men out there not worth leaning on… or who are craving to be taken care of like dear ol’ mom did for them). So, just because women read and may like the idea of being taken care of, remember this is their fictional release from the pressures of every day. In some ways, we should be more concerned the other way, when their fictional release is being strong, rather than wanting a little time when they feel like they don’t have to carry everything. Just a thought. (And for full disclosure, I loved the Twilight series, but have never read the 50 Shades books.)

  4. Of course, I would like to think my Archer will be the next Buffy. But then, that would be about my wish fulfillment, wouldn’t it? :)

    Great post, Kait. I think this Twilight/Fifty Shades brand of wish fulfillment meets the needs of stunted adolescence. When girls are 13, they are breaking away from their fathers while simultaneously discovering what a big, scary place the world is. At the same time, they are in the teenage years of finding themselves and learning to either embrace or reject their own power. Learning to meet the world or run. That’s a very painful growth process that few of us would sign up for again. So they wish for a daddy replacement in the form of a rich, invulnerable boyfriend whose sole purpose in life is to care for them. There’s Twilight’s appeal in a nutshell.

    From what I’ve heard, Fifty Shades is for the women who ran from that growth process, or who were forced to act mature before they actually were mature. I.e., daddy deprived women who never were taken care of in the first place. They didn’t get to go through that phase so they have a vacuum that they fill with these stories.

    Good fathers are essential to helping women mature with self-respect and good sense. I don’t think it is solely within the power of women to change the wish fulfillment dreams of our generation into something that makes us, as a species, stronger and more capable. I think men need to throw in with us, not to take care of us, but to help teach our daughters that they are far more than life support systems for reproductive organs or the malleable wish fulfillment dolls of men.

  5. When I was a teenager, I was a lot like Bella. My world would be wrapped around some boy, and that’s all that mattered to me at the moment. He had the power to make me happy or devastate me. This actually carried over into my twenties. I got OVER it. I’m a strong woman now, and I have a fabulous relationship with my husband with lots of give and take. And we take care of each other, although I look to him as the head of the household and the stronger one. (Even though it would have to be me to pull the trigger if someone broke into our house, LOL.) But what about those teenagers who see what Bella is and think that’s normal? Strong women might eventually get over that like I did. But the weaker ones would more than likely be setting the stage for the rest of their lives, thinking that’s the way it’s supposed to be. If Bella had chosen Jacob over Edward, I think the message would have been totally different. I don’t think he would have tried to run her life or change her. But weaker women tend to gravitate toward the overbearing men. Would watching a movie like Twilight really make a difference in the way teenage girls view relationships? Given the popularity of the books and movies, it seems likely.

    I really enjoyed the books and movies, and it really wasn’t until you mentioned, a long time ago, Bella’s weakness that I really thought of the impact on teens. I guess it was because I read and watched as a grown woman and didn’t even think about how it would affect someone more vulnerable.

    Incidentally, in light of what Piper said, my weakness and boy obsession as a teenager could very well have been because I grew up without a father. Who knows?

  6. I hear ya. I’ve read both Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, and like you, the passive heroine drives me batty. I also write contemporary BDSM romance (which is what 50 falls under), so I have the strong, dominant heroes who want to take control (though mostly in the bedroom.) However, I always write heroines who are kicking ass, living their own lives, don’t need a man, and who use that submissive role as a break from all the responsibility they shoulder in their day to day lives. I honestly think guys who are that dominant and take charge would get seriously bored with a woman who never pushed back, never challenged them, and couldn’t stand on her own two feet. *yawn*

    And I’m kind of over the obsessive love thing in books. Being totally into the other person is awesome, knowing that they’re your soulmate is great, but being obsessed with everything they do, who they talk to, and where they are…gah, it’s exhausting to read.

  7. I agree with you on Twilight’s Bella completely! Ugh!! I haven’t (nor will I probably ever) read 50 Shades. Doesn’t appeal to me in the least. I have to agree completely with Piper’s reply. As a mother of both sons and a daughter, I find this in my mind as I parent them and help them navigate teenage years, hormones and how to handle things in their future. It’s exhausting! :)

  8. I love the Twilight books but Bella’s character, like most grown women annoyed the hell out of me. I haven’t read Fifty Shades but like you have heard that it started out as Twilight fan fiction for adults and the writer changed the characters’ names. My favourite tv show and heroine of all time is Buffy. I have no idea who the next kick-ass female will be but she has a tough act to follow.

  9. Heroines I’m currently digging:

    Cat of Frost’s Night Huntress series. She’s a total badass with a really fucked up start in life. When your mom tells you that you’re the product of being raped by a demon and that no matter how hard you try you’ll always be one your self esteem isn’t going to be that of an entitled princess/brat. Cat takes her misguided rage and self loathing out on the “demons” that ruined her mothers life. Until she discovers that things aren’t always what they seem and shakes off the shackles of brainwashing. And Frost doesn’t take the easy way out by just ending things with her mom. The relationship between the two changes and evolves.

    It’s enough fantasy to make it enjoyable. And enough reality to keep me from rolling my eyes. A balance that is hard to do.

    Other heroines I’m loving are pretty much any of those in Cole’s Immortals After Dark series. Great example being Emma from A Hunger Like No Other. She starts out rather milquetoast-ish but by the end of her story she kicks some major ass. Including the ass of her own personal demons. And then most recently is Elizabeth, the heroine from Lothaire’s story who spends time on death row but comes out the other side of it.

    1. I have the first of the Huntress series floating around somewhere in my TBR pile (or possibly packed in a box somewhere to move). I read A Hunger Like No Other and Emma just annoyed me pretty much the whole book. I think maybe I didn’t buy her transformation as much or…something. I don’t know. I just didn’t like her.

  10. I’m a bit puzzled when I read (often) about Bella as a totally passive and Edward-dominated character. Bella’s consuming desire is to become a vampire, something Edward adamantly opposes. He loses. Edward considers Jacob too dangerous a companion for Bella and tries to keep her from spending any time with him. He loses. Edward tries to keep her as far as possible from the actually-dangerous James. She outwits and eludes his proxies. Bella’s judgment and priorities may be questionable, but she is neither a cipher nor a puppet.

    1. I can’t speak past the first book, as I didn’t read past that point (I threw New Moon against the wall it was so awful), and in that book (and the beginning of New Moon), Edward is totally the creeptastic, domineering stalker. What happens after that I only know from having other people tell me how it ended…which either way did not alleviate my feelings that Bella is a whiny moron.

    2. Thank you for this. I agree completely. What bothered me the most about Bella was that she didn’t listen to anyone…she made her own (albeit annoying!) decisions, ignoring the suggestions of others (who were much wiser and experienced) who were trying to help. Though I’d never consider her a “strong female character,” she absolutely didn’t lay down and do nothing. Ever. I wish she WOULD HAVE several times during the books.

  11. I agree with just about all of the above. The woman in 50 Shades seems to be even more passive than Bella, obviously with the whole submissive thing, but to the point of complete ignorance. I am so disturbed by the grown women acting like this is the answer to their lives and even more concerned for the younger women who may take it as a life lesson. I’m not a prude but there is a diff between sex and submission.
    Though I missed most of the Buffy era (I watched the movie to see Luke Perry, let’s put it that way ;) I like a lot of the strong heroines coming out these days, like Katniss and the MCs of the Graceling series.

    1. It is very important to note that Buffy of the movie and Buffy of the series are SO NOT THE SAME PERSON (I mean technically they were supposed to be but they’re SO NOT). You should totally go back and watch the series. IT IS SO MUCH BETTER.

  12. I agree generally with your assessment of Bella in Twilight. (I have no idea about 50 Shades and won’t ever.) However, not being of the Buffy generation but having watched the series, I disagree a little about Buffy. She kicked butt on the vampire and demon front, but she had weaknesses in relationships — romantic and friendships. She was closed off and sometimes even deceptive, and then the romantic relationship so many fans voted for was when she couldn’t control herself with Spike. So I’m wondering what that means about how various women see as heroines. I’m curious to know what you think, Kait.

    1. Oh I tagged this in email to respond to the other day and forgot…

      Well I never said that Buffy was perfect. But she was capable and she tried, flaws and all. She was never stagnant and apathetic. She never acted worthless or defined herself by other people. She was who she was. The Slayer. If anything she had a hard time being someone not defined by what she DID. And even when she went through phases where she wanted someone (i.e. Giles) to take care of things (after her mom died), he couldn’t or didn’t (not for long anyway) because that’s not how life works. And it sucked and she hated it, but she did what needed to be done (whether it was a mistake or not) and never just rolled over and acted like her life was over because of some boy. When she had to send Angel back to hell, it broke her in two, but she still did what had to be done instead of curling up and getting all suicidal. And dude, having to stab the man you love through the heart and sending him to HELL? If anything is reason to get a little suicidal about, that would be it. Having an asshole leave you…no so much. That’s what I like about her. But I definitely don’t think she’s the poster child for healthy relationships!

      1. I grew up at a time when the rescued damsel was fairly popular (born in the 60s), but the stories I concocted in my own head were of women who didn’t need a guy to slay the dragon for her. She fought ALONGSIDE the man. To some extent, that’s what bothered me about Twilight as well. Bella and Edward played games about their relationship instead of Bella saying, “I want you to bite me so we’re on even ground,” and Edward saying, “Okay, I get that. Let me get my fangs ready.” Perhaps my favorite Buffy episodes were those where Buffy and Angel fought together, each kicking butt and knowing the other was doing his/her part. Wait a minute. Didn’t someone write a book called RED where the girl and the guy were both strong? I like that approach in fiction, and in real life.

  13. I would definitely like to see stronger female leads. Sure, they can want to be dependent on others, but reality doesn’t work that way, so why shouldn’t fiction mirror that conflict (or at least certain fiction novels. Variety is a good thing, heh)? I don’t know, I just want to see a woman in a book or movie that isn’t there to be rescued and/or die…

  14. Kait,
    I ran across you on Twitter the other day and thought I would check out your website. I love your attitude. I too am of the Buffy generation and want my heroines to be kick-ass. In regards to the wish fulfillment conversation in the comments, I would like to expand on Julie’s comment about modern women holding up the world, with their dream that someone might take care of them. I agree that the modern woman is expected to do everything, and most women try. But they forget one important thing: to take care of themselves. I think that many women today are so busy taking care of other people that they do not take the time to take care of themselves. That could be by hiring housekeeping help, or just taking the time for regular exercise and personal time. You touched on this briefly in your post on how “Buffy kicked ass, took names, and took care of herself and everybody else.” I think that if more women actually took care of themselves, escapist fantasies of being taken care of might not be as popular.

    1. That is exactly what I was getting at. I’ve read some books (romance and otherwise) where the lead female ended up in a nurturing submissive role to a caring dominant man and I tried to analyze why women like this stuff (and the fact that while it entertains me in fiction, I would never want it in real life). Your comment sums it up. The appeal is for the chance to lower our guards, not have to be on point all the time, and to feel cared for. Let’s be honest, how many women (single or otherwise) feel that way. And like I said before, fiction fantasy worlds are one thing, what women want in the real world is very different.

      1. But I think it is OK to want to lower our guards, not be on point all the time, and be cared for, even in real life. I think of myself as a reasonably dominant/kick-ass female, and that desire is what attracted me most to my husband. From our very first date, I felt free to be myself, and not on guard. We take turns being on point, and he takes better care of me than I take care of myself (yes, I am bad at times). I think of my husband as my equal and my partner. Maybe that’s what we need, more true equality in relationships.

        1. :high five: That’s EXACTLY what we need. Equality on all levels, a willingness to trade off as necessary. And as for women, I think there is a TON of taking care of everyone but themselves. There’s this unfortunate tendency for some women to equate doing something for themselves as being selfish and selfishness being inherently bad. Um no. A certain level of selfishness is important. There’s a reason they say to put YOUR oxygen mask on first before helping somebody else if the plane goes down.

        2. You are truly fortunate (as is your husband). That is not how the world looks for all of us, and still, I totally agree that it IS okay to want that, but for some of us the only place we may ever find it is in fiction. So, I guess we all need something different from our fiction and what we read isn’t necessarily what we want in real life (as in the more submissive side rather than the equal side you wrote of) because our fiction is our place to dream (and not all dreams make the best realities). And side note, this has been a really fun debate!

          1. I agree that I am fortunate. I like your point about what we want from our fiction is not necessarily what we want in real life because not all dreams make the best realities. My sister and I have been talking about that very point lately when discussing a TV show she is really into. I had to remind her that good stories don’t necessarily make for good lives, and that good lives sometimes make really boring stories. She got a good laugh about a good, healthy life being somewhat boring.
            I have also really been enjoying this conversation.

            1. I was also just having that conversation. My mother wants all my books to be happy all the time and I told her that fictional characters without any hurdles to overcome would be completely boring. Inner peace and happiness might be a goal to aspire to, but the human race would be tragically dull if we all got there (but the planet would smile at us for sure). :)

  15. Agreed, both in the concern about what the books’ popularity says about our culture, and that Bella’s a bad role model. I’ve told friends that The Hunger Games is more deserving of the craze than Twilight was…but I’m also concerned about Katniss being a role model. Katniss is broken and never recovers, not really—but at least those books demonstrate how that brokenness is a bad thing.

    For suggestions… I don’t know. I know I wouldn’t want one of my characters to be a role model for ideal behavior or relationship.

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