There seems to be a fad of sexual domination in literature today, at least that’s what the media leads us to believe after the wild popularity of the “50 Shades of Grey” series in all it’s punishing glory. However, I’d like to believe that this isn’t a new trend but has been in our literature for centuries, especially considering men were the first novel writers, even if their protagonists were female. But what I find disturbing today is how acceptable it has become for novel women, and by association, all women, to enjoy this degrading domination. I’m not downplaying people’s sexual fantasies here, that’s all well and good for those who chose BDSM in the bedroom; rather, I’m distressed by reading novels that focus on female characters who struggle so intensely with desires to be both controlled and free from male domination.
Take for example the novel I read recently “If I Were You” by Lisa Renee Jones. I found it for $1.99 on Barnes and Noble’s “Nook Books Under $5” and it sounded like an interesting mystery with more adult themes. (I have to make a note here, that I primarily read young adult fiction because that’s what I’ve always wanted to write, but every once in a while, I get a hankering for something a little more adult and therefore make some bad literature choices. This is the perfect example.) I flew through the first 100 pages—Sara McMillian, a shy and plain schoolteacher, happens upon a friend’s journal filled with tales of naughty sexual escapades that she could never dream of, but soon she learns that this journal actually belongs to a woman named Rebecca who has left all her possessions in a storage unit sold at auction in order to go on an “extended vacation” with the dangerous-sounding mystery man from her journals. Sara feels like a 3 month vacation from her high profile job as the marketing director of a top San Francisco art gallery seems fishy so she decides to become an amateur detective by visiting the art gallery to track her down. Once Sara enters the world of the art gallery, the book takes a dramatic shift. Suddenly this witty schoolteacher becomes a blushing and bumbling schoolgirl as both the director of the art gallery and a high profile artist (ironically, her FAVORITE local artist) start vying for her attention, though in entirely different ways. Sara spends the next 150 pages whining over her past experiences with dominating men who made her feel worthless and how she doesn’t want either the art gallery director, Mark, or the dashing artist, Chris, to control her or her feelings, but she feels used in what she rather blatantly calls their personal “cock fight.” The last third of the book is primarily spent with Chris as they tumble into a whirlwind, weekend romance where Sara tells herself over and over that it’s just a physical relationship even though Chris makes it clear that he cares about her. In a “Twilight” manner, he declares that he is “not good for her” and in fact “worse” for her than even the manipulative Mark. Finally, in the last 15 pages, Sara decides to plow headfirst back into the Rebecca mystery, after effectively living Rebecca’s life as she very obviously points out, only to be cut short by the end of the book! Buy part 2 for $8 and you can maybe get 50 more pages of actual content.
To say I am frustrated is an understatement, but it’s not the lack of discernable plot that bothers me the most. It’s Sara’s character. At first she seems like a level-headed, intelligent, and smart individual. While she has the guilty pleasure of reading about another woman’s sexual experiences, she is also skeptical of her best friend’s flighty behavior (jet setting off to Paris with a man she barely knows to elope) and finds concern in Rebecca’s disappearance. But the moment a sexy man walks into the room, she’s melted butter on the floor, and readers are slip-sliding all over the place.
I’ve struggled with controlling relationships personally—one’s where I was emotionally abused and ones where I was the controller. I’ve grown up with a father, who, despite his best intentions at loving and cherishing me, has inadvertently placed many expectations on me that still haunt my friendships and relationships today. But I do not spend all day mentally battling over whether or not I want a man to tell me what to do and what to wear and how to speak and what to be interested in. That’s the type of “control” that Sara struggles with, and it’s mind-boggling to me that any woman in modern-day America or even any first-world country would have such a struggle. Considering the books topic and themes, it would make sense for this “control struggle” to have been from a sexual/physical perspective. But that is NOT what came across at all. Instead, the heroine appeared weak, melancholy, and man-obsessed by the end of the novel.
It is disappointing to me that novels can’t be written about women’s sexual freedom. That instead, it has to be masked underneath the sexual taboo and the emotional baggage of controlling relationships where women are just pawns in the man’s larger game. How then can a novel ever truly have a female protagonist?
My hope is that those of you reading this have many examples of novels or other forms of narrative media in which my rather unfortunate hypothesis does not hold true. Let me know in the comments where you find fault or triumph in female characters of today and how they relate to their male counterparts.