A critique of modern-day heroines

And why their love stories aren’t “relationship goals”

Fifty Shades Darker, the much-anticipated sequel to the supposedly titillating erotic film Fifty Shades of Grey, came out on February 10th, and some people could not have been more excited. I’m going to be honest and say that I, too, was excited to watch it—but more out of curiosity similar to one experienced when driving slowly past the site of a car crash out of morbid interest to see the wreckage. I thought that most other people would feel the same way and join me on a two-hour journey of sarcastic criticisms and jokes about lukewarm BDSM. But when I asked some people why they were so eager to see the film, many replied: “Because it’s such a romantic love story.”

Hold up. Romantic? What on earth is romantic about a man who literally stalks you, tells you that he “doesn’t do hearts and flowers,” controls what you eat and drink, and takes advantage of your naivete to turn you into his pampered sex object? Because let’s be honest here, even if female love interest Anastasia Steele (get it? Steele? Grey? Hilarious) signed a contract outlining what she did and did not want to do in bed, she still secretly hoped that Christian would be her doting, loved-up boyfriend, and she got incredibly annoyed when he fell short of this expectation. All character analysis aside, this movie and E.L. James’s books have set up an incredibly warped image of romance. Young girls are being told that being emotionally and physically submissive is the way to a man’s heart. They grow up believing that as long as a man buys them expensive presents, or is insanely attractive, or “chooses” them out of all the girls that apparently “really want” him, then it’s fine to go along with whatever he wants. Because once a man falls for a woman, he changes, right? So it’s completely fair to go along with getting hurt and being meek about the whole thing in the hopes that one day he’ll wake up and suddenly decide that hearts and flowers are his thing after all.  

Worse yet, characters like Anastasia Steele’s lives revolve around men. Much like Twilight’s Bella Swan, on whom she was based, Anastasia is absolutely miserable when not around her lover. Having grown up with the Twilight franchise, I thought it was normal and even romantic for men to be extremely possessive and intense. My tween-age friends and I believed that finding an overbearing boyfriend was the most important thing in life because Bella and Edward Cullen’s twisted, masochistic, and obsessive relationship taught us what love was, and that it mattered above all. I mean, Bella gave up her mortality to be with the man, for goodness sakes!

This romantic dependence isn’t a trait solely reserved for the practically identical Steele and Swan. One of the DC universe’s most-loved characters, Harley Quinn, who got her first cinematic portrayal in Suicide Squad, gave up her career, emotional well-being, and sanity to be with an incredibly abusive Joker. Their turbulent relationship glamorized abuse and psychological manipulation, leaving many young girls believing that Harley and the Joker are relationship goals. This is a serious problem.

Despite the weakness of their characters and emotional resolve, these women are considered some of contemporary culture’s favorite “heroines.” These characters and their lovers glorify dependence and emotional abuse and make it seem okay for women to give up every other aspect of their lives—their friends, families, and careers—to either spend time with or daydream/sulk about their significant others. It’s infuriating. Are women not supposed to have anything else going on in their lives? Why does popular media always portray the most exciting and significant event in a woman’s life as finding a man, even when this man is emotionally abusive?

Ladies, if a man expects you live in a relationship by his rules, with no room for compromise, you get the hell out of there. If he’s overbearing, overprotective, and gets mad at you for just interacting with other guys, you run the fuck away. Being possessive is neither cute nor romantic; it’s degrading and downright creepy. If a man excuses his terrible behavior by saying that “you’re the only girl he cares about,” and if he insinuates that because he “picked” you out of a supposed large pool of women vying for his attentions he can treat you however he pleases, then spit in his eye and walk away. No man (or woman, of course) is beautiful, wealthy, or desirable enough for you to compromise your dignity and sense of self-worth.

As young women, it’s our responsibility to remind each other that there is a very distinct difference between fiction and reality. It’s fine to watch and enjoy the performances of Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey and Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen, Bella’s romantic interest, but it becomes a problem when people find themselves desiring a man like those characters—or, worse yet, Jared Leto’s Joker. It’s dangerous for young people, especially, to think that a dysfunctional relationship is something to aspire to. Though films and songs make it seem like a fabulous “wild ride” (I’m looking at you, Taylor Swift, with your “Style” and “Wildest Dreams”), the emotional, psychological, and sometimes even physical effects of a dysfunctional relationship can have a disastrous and far-reaching impact.

So as the night you and your friends go to watch Fifty Shades Darker approaches, be the Miranda Hobbes of your group and remind people how ridiculous the story is. If you see a friend reading or watching books or movies that glamorize abusive relationships, it’s your duty to provide them with alternative stories and role models to fantasize about. The days of women giving up their self-worth and dignity are long over. As the 20th century poet Julia de Burgos put it, with simple yet powerful words:

“Don’t let the hand you hold, hold you down.”