The Brute, Brute Heart of a Brute Like You: Erotic Brutality
Oh you people and your ridiculous ideas.
[Trigger warning: mentions of rape and violence, but not graphic descriptions]
[Content warning: I am not sex positive. I am also not sex negative. I do have a horse in this race. I tend to come at things from an angle I like to call sex critical. I will not say ALL SEX IS TOTALLY FUCKING AWESOME AND POSITIVE or ALL PORN IS TOTALLY FUCKING DEMEANING AND OPPRESSIVE]
Short version, Katie Roipe says that women are reading books about submission (like Fifty Shades of Grey) because we need a break from all that upward mobility we’ve got now. You know, the free birth control falling from the sky and the lack of the glass ceiling. The burden of all that stuff we have.
Now then, Fifty Shades was a Twilight fanfic that blew up to huge proportions. I won’t discuss the writing in either of them because it’s been done. I also won’t discuss in depth why the relationship is abusive because we all know that, too.
Let’s discuss why women are currently so heavily invested in the erotics of brutality.
I am saying currently and not suddenly because we’re not suddenly interested in anything. I hate Twilight in the way that I hate all things that teach women to accept their victimization as romantic. However, Meyer didn’t precisely invent the concept of dating your abuser like they are the greatest love of all. I read V.C. Andrews as a child. In fact, I went back and reread V.C. Andrews in preparation for this. My favorite V.C. Andrews was actually My Sweet Audrina, and while I prefer not to spoil the book, apparently the cure for PTSD is to rape her again so that she realizes she likes sex and marries you.
Twilight is a Little Golden Book compared to that.
Fifty Shades is slightly different, more sexual, more human (full disclosure, I have only made it through the second book, which was difficult at best. James’s writing is difficult at best, and eye-rollingly horrible at worst, but goddamn it, I’m a fighter), but still eroticized brutality.
There is so much at play in the critique of these two books, that I need to comment on them twice.
Fifty Shades is currently being referred to as Mommy Porn, but this is also not new. You might also remember the Twilight Moms, who were the adult fans of the eternally 17-years-old Edward Cullen (they would show up to movie screenings with signs that said “You can break my headboard, bite my pillows, and bruise my body ANY day,” therefore sexualizing and giving a name to a scene that doesn’t actually happen in the book, which is righteous fucking, apparently). I’m not going to sit here and psycholanalyze these fans personally, but both of these books are, at the end of the day, about a life less ordinary. The extraordinary is the basis for most fantasy books; that’s the porn. The idea that you no longer have to take the kids to school or go to work or do anything even a little bit normal is 10x the porn as the actual sex in either book.* Most pornography is meant to display some kind of fantasy, some sex you could be having right now. It’s generally meant to fulfill a need, but is culturally shamed. It’s a need you can’t admit to having.
To refer to these things as “Mommy Porn,” is more than a little disparaging. First, it enacts a separation of mothers from the rest of us—this isn’t just porn, it’s porn for “moms”—which says that how mothers want to get fucked is somehow inherently different from the rest of us. Regular porn just won’t do? Then it denigrates by playing on the cultural ideal that your mother cannot possibly be cool, culturally adept, and sexual. Mom porn. Mom jeans. Mommy blogging. If you want to call something “shitty,” just stick “mom” in front of it. These are terms used to disparage parenthood as tragically unhip and boring. Furthermore, if you have read either Twilight or Fifty Shades, you are aware of the fact that both books are rather tragically chaste (Fifty Shades caveat—so far). So what we’re really saying here is “Sex so bad that only your mother, who is totally soulless and sexless, could get off to it.” You know, except she can’t.
Harry Potter is also porn by the definition that Twilight is porn, by the way. While I can’t find anything about the gender demographic across Harry Potter fans, apparently the key demographic for Rowling was age 18–34:
The eighteen-to-thirty-four age group is arguably one of the most discontent. Many of my friends and I have been in “real jobs” now for ten years, give or take, yet most of us still can’t quite believe it. Years after graduating from college, we’re still coming to terms with the fact that we sometimes wake up when it’s still dark out, pay our rent on time and in full, eat breakfast, take our Vitamin D, and make real efforts toward regular exercise. The mere fact that we’re actual real-life adults still eludes us a lot of the time, and can actually seem pretty funny. We started reading the “Harry Potter” series when we still had the pleasure of being somewhat carefree and ignorant; we weren’t yet the disillusioned, jaded youngish adults that we are now (although this is fun, in its own way). And so the “Harry Potter” movies are the ultimate form of escapism…I don’t mean to say that “adult life” doesn’t have its upside—but it’s nice to have “Harry Potter” to fall back on. (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2010/11/adult-education-at-hogwarts.html#ixzz169IQ2dKw)
TL;DR J.K. Rowling can clearly write, but her books are still fantasy fulfillment. I mean, really—I’d rather be a fucking wizard, too. We’d all rather be wizards.
We’d all like to have an eternally beautiful 17-year-old body with the wisdom and maturity of an adult.
We’d all like to have more money than King Solomon and a sex drive that is never interrupted by reality.
It’s all porn**.
Furthermore—and while I can’t find gender demographics, I have been to the movies in the last ten years—why are Twilight and Fifty Shades “Mom porn” and Harry Potter is “charming?” I know nobody like to go for the obvious on the internet, but I’m going for the obvious. Twilight and Fifty Shades are apparently being read, overwhelmingly, by older women (except that isn’t true. However, it’s being presented as a “women” thing). Harry Potter is much more mixed demographic.
What’s an easier way to disparage a woman than to tell her that she’s sexless? Mom-like? Basically only by calling her a slut, and the term “mommy porn” shames women not only for wanting an outlet for sexual and romantic expression, but also for it being so tame that only your mom could like it. Now you want the wrong kind of sex. You want MOM sex.
Take Me, You Brute
Second soap box full disclaimer—I am not talking about BDSM. I am talking about brutality and violence, which is something very different and much less fun or consensual. If women are “suddenly” into BDSM, call me a trendsetter!
Why is literature that depicts violent romantic relationships suddenly the new hotness? Katie Roiphe is wrong for many reasons that are not because she’s Katie Roiphe, though being Katie Roiphe is a black mark in her “Cons” column. These books are not, as I said, suddenly the new anything. They just have one thing in common: a representation of a violent male being written about like he’s the second coming.
While pages and pages of this have already been written, let’s just put this here so that we have something to look at.
-Prevents Bella from seeing her friends
-Drags Bella around by the wrist
-Repeatedly threatens her life
-Shames her for wanting to kiss him, saying that if he lost control, it would be her fault
-Shames her for wanting to have sex with him, even after they are married
-Shames her for HAVING sex with him, after they are married
-Follows her relentlessly, everywhere he can physically go
Cannot read Bella’s mind, so he reads the minds of everyone around her in order to find out what she’s talking about
-Uses his power and influence to put himself in Anastasia’s way
-Keeps a dossier on her, including her social security number and everything she does
-Forces her onto birth control
-Forces her into changing her hair
-Refers to her repeatedly as a possession
-Her foray into punishment is not safe or sane and is only marginally consensual***
Implicit in each book is the fact that neither woman could ever, should she so chose, get away. Edward Cullen is a vampire. He spends 3 months in Bella’s room without her knowledge or consent, staring at her while she sleeps. It’s made explicit over and over again that he can outrun her, outfight her, and outsmart her.
Similarly, Anastasia could never get away from Grey. He apparently makes $100,000 an hour with his businesses and has kept a file on every woman he has ever had sex with. He knew who Anastasia was before she introduced herself, and has her address, her family’s address, her social security number, and bought the company that she works for without her telling him that she was even working.
We just have to assume that Edward and Grey would be gentlemanly enough not to take the abandonment to it’s natural and realistic end, which would be to kill her so no one else can have her. That’s reality. In 45 percent of Chicago homicides in which a man killed a woman, an immediate precipitating factor of the fatal incident was the woman leaving or trying to end the relationship. For clinic/hospital women who were abused on followup, 69 percent of those who had left or tried to leave an abuser in the previous year, but whose abuse continued despite their attempted departure, experienced severe incidents compared to 44 percent of women who had not left or tried to leave.
Maybe we read these things because they are reality. Men are socialized to be violent against us women from birth, and women are socialized to take it (see: If he hits you, that means he likes you).
As I said, I read V.C. Andrews as a child, but I also read other things like Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Wuthering Heights, which are all about How To Love The Asshole You’ve Got. Jane, Elizabeth, and Catherine are all Bellas and Anastasias—women with spirit who have romanticized and fallen in love with men who are absolutely brutal. From Mr. Rochester’s Forgotten Wife to Heathcliff’s Generational Manipulation A Go Go to Mr. Darcy the Neckbeard, our romanticized men are brutal creatures who hurt and lie to their partners just enough to still be romantic, but they never get to the point of, say, shooting her and then turning the gun on himself. They stop just before the natural conclusion, or the women never try to leave, so there’s no occassion for having to write out the natural end of this kind of behavior.
A lot was made about Stephenie Meyer looking an awful lot like Bella Swan (http://4.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_ku7uy2kIlm1qatyobo1_400.jpg) and something similar is being said about E.L. James (there is no kicky internet meme yet, but it’s been brought up that Anastasia is pale skinned with dark hair and a wide smile…Here is a picture of E.L. James http://c4241337.r37.cf2.rackcdn.com/04-29-56_elj_420.jpg). These books are clearly some level of fulfillment for the authors, and are clearly filling some niche in the women who are just gobbling them up so voraciously that they can’t make the movie fast enough. So why are we reading this? What fantasy does this fulfill in women?
The natural answer is that having lots of sex and money is really pretty convenient, but lots of people have lots of sex and money and still read these. We can write a book where people have lots of sex and money and a husband who is pretty nice, does his share of the boring tasks of every day life, and trusts his wife to do as she likes because she’s a thinking person, but we don’t write that book. We write this book, and we’ve been writing this book for hundreds of years.
Perhaps the reason that we flock to the Brute is because 9 times out of 10, we’ve got the Brute at home. And how could we not? Look at our cultural ideals, where men are given male heroes to emulate who are violent or hypermasculine, aggressive go-getters who don’t take no for an answer. The masculinity scripts that men are given are usually violent in some way (the tough guy, the emotionless rock, the ladies’s man) and when men reject these scripts in childhood, they are often bullied, and usually for being “gay.” While we all know how horrific childhood can be for everyone, and while I am not male, I can imagine that daily beatings for not conforming to the cult of masculinity pretty much suck, and even if you’re not hypermasculine, my guess would be that you can fake it. In that way, even when following the script is just an act, my second guess would be that some of it becomes natural. I mean, you can’t sit in dirt for 25 years and expect to come out clean, can you?
This is not to say that your husband is some kind of brutal testosterone junkie who is just waiting to fucking kill you. It’s only saying that the Brute is familiar territory in both lives and literature. Maybe this isn’t about the male characters, maybe Edward and Grey are just the background, and infinity money and constantly hard dick would just be nice.
Maybe the fantasy is in being Bella (or Anastasia, or Jane, or Elizabeth, or Catherine), in so much as none of them are particularly bothered by things like misogyny and abusive behavior. Maybe, instead of it being about our secret desire to submit all our power, it’s about ignorance being bliss. Or maybe it’s a fantasy of not having to be scared by the Brute, of living somewhere where misogyny can’t touch you, and the natural end of abusive behavior is Happily Ever After and not what really happens.
Though I suppose it’s just easier to mark it as women actually wanting absurdly bad sex.
*If you can jerk off to a sex scene in Fifty Shades of Grey, seeing as they are written like Jim Morrison’s pussy took a bunch of acid and saw orchids and tin foil, I’ll give you a dollar.
**This is not to say that your life sucks and your husband is ugly and you resent your children. This is to say that your life is pretty good, but these impossible things, fantasies, if you will, are also pretty good. I wouldn’t kick a partner out of bed for Edward Cullen or Christian Grey, but infinity money might be pretty useful.
***Spoiler: When he finall does convince her to try something kinkier, Grey belts Anastasia. He apparently hits her as hard as he can six times, which she finds so painful that she forgets her safeword and basically loses her shit while he continues. She is traumatized enough to walk out directly afterward. First of all, this is not how you introduce someone who’s never masturbated previous to six weeks ago to sex, let alone kinky sex. Secondly, I know very few people who like to take pain out of context or who enjoy scenes with new partners that were not negotiated. Lastly, the whole scene read incredibly rape-y and I was really put off by it.