Fifty shades of toxic masculinity
Driving into Rome last week, I was greeted with a massive billboard advertising several new and upcoming movies. Among them was Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel to the box office hit Fifty Shades of Grey, which was in turn based on a bestselling romance novel by E.L. James. Known in America as every housewife’s favorite borderline pornographic novel, Fifty Shades tells the story of Anastasia Steele, a recent graduate who falls under the influence of broody, sex-crazed Christian Grey. There’s BDSM, terrible writing (and acting, in the film versions), and an element of fantasy that sent books flying off the shelves.
The billboard, although written in Italian, spoke of romance - the implication being that it was the perfect way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. For me, Fifty Shades is the furthest thing from romantic. And Valentine’s Day is honestly not much better in my book. In fact, I associate Valentine's Day with one of my earliest memories of heightened (and uncomfortable) gender awareness.
One of my earliest memories of being aware of gender is from an elementary school Valentine’s Day party. It was a tradition every year for each student to bring in a set of valentines for every student in the class. My mom and I would go to our local card store and pick out a set in the beginning of February. I would carefully break them apart and fold them together, writing everyone’s name with care on the front and attaching a piece of candy to each.
Inevitably, all of the girls would have given cards with themes like Barbie, cute puppies, or the latest Disney movie. The boys would contribute messages on paper bearing the images of Matchbox cars, Transformers, or superheroes.
For my part, I bought into it. I tended to pick relatively gender neutral subjects - Harry Potter, for example - but was quick to reject any cards that seemed too pink, too cutesy, or too emotive. The extension of that logic was obvious: picking something too feminine would make me look like a girl, and there was nothing worse than that. In short, there was nothing worse than being a girl. I wasn’t even seven.
My twenty year-old, relatively more enlightened self currently has a more complicated and testy relationship with Valentine’s Day. This partially stems from the fact that I resent the fact that as a six year old I was forced to rehearse heterosexual romantic relationships because society at large thought this was very cute. It also comes from the fact that I have yet to spend a Valentine’s Day in college not sitting alone in my dorm room eating chocolate from a bag and feeling forlorn while watching classic movies.
But more troubling than that, I think, is the fact that Valentine’s Day currently serves as a yearly performance in imitative emotional responses for heterosexual men who spend the other 364 days generally participating in or remaining ignorant of patriarchy and female objectification. Even more disturbing, men are sent conflicting, negative messages about what passes for fair and equal treatment that the current Valentine culture promotes.
Think of it this way. Two years ago on Valentine’s Day, Fifty Shades of Grey opened in theaters nationwide. Those of us who were single on my freshman floor trekked through the snow to the local theater to watch it. Besides being a downright awful film led by dreadful performances less convincing than Trump’s promises to save the middle class, Fifty Shades was also disturbing. It was abundantly clear that under any other circumstances, Christian Grey was stalking and harassing Anastasia - and that’s the least extreme form of abuse. And yet, all around us were couples spending a day set aside for true love watching a powerful businessman gaslight an aspiring journalist. And we paid to do that.
Fifty Shades, and its sequel, are marketed as the pinnacle of modern romance. The Christian-Anastasia dynamic is supposed to be sexy and alluring. You have Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, both self-proclaimed feminists, contributing to the films’ soundtracks. Men go for the nudity and softcore porn (it’s also worth noting that Dakota Johnson is undressed or almost fully naked consistently more often that Jamie Dornan, who only once, if memory serves me, took off more than his shirt). Women go for the fantasy and the corporate feminism. Everybody wins, right?
Wrong. These same boys (many of them, anyway) who were handing out valentines in my class featuring images of masculine aggression and violence - superheroes attacking villains, military and combat vehicles, fast and dangerous race cars - are now going with their girlfriends to see a film where the male protagonist routinely stalks, physically harasses and emotionally manipulates the female subject in the name of love. These are steps on a lifelong climb into ignorance of the way we as men are raised to seek power through violence and call it emotion.
Christian Grey does not truly care for Anastasia Steele (I can already hear fans screaming ‘Well, actually’ to which I can only respond that there is no literary or cinematic merit to debate regarding the Fifty Shades franchise and thus no point in arguing this). Christian Grey loves the control he gains over Anastasia. And many of the men watching him control her in the name of love will replicate those behaviors because they were never taught alternative methods of emotion. Yes, the majority will likely not reach the same extremes as the fictional Grey. But most if not all will at least have the cultural messages of violence and dominance as legitimate substitutes for emotional vulnerability affirmed. And that is a terrifying reality.
So what do we do about it? Simple. We need to raise our boys differently. There is more to boyhood than what is sold to us. Boyhood is as much about playing with dolls as it is playing catch. We need to learn to nurture as much as we need to know how to compete. Parents, buy your son a doll. (No, a G.I. Joe does not count.) Teach him how to hold it, and how to be gentle. Give him a book or some Legos instead of Call of Duty. Creativity and compassion allow boys to push against societal expectations and separate marketing fantasy from reality.
Most of all, remind them that there is nothing wrong with being a girl. Any boy socialized with other boys will, at one time or another, think this. Be gentle but persistent. Remind him that girls are smart, and fun, and wonderful people, and that all of the women and girls in his life embody these traits. Because unless they hear this, they will spend their whole lives fearing the feminine, and never daring to feel more than fear and anger. While I may not like it, I am grateful that I can cry over a good classic without shame. Let’s teach boys to aspire to do more feeling and less hurting.