Gender roles and romance novels
By Jennifer Markham, Contributor
As most popular book series do, it felt as though it were overnight that everyone started talking about the 50 Shades series like they were three books that would change your life. For such a popular book though, I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t see anyone reading it—neither on transit nor in coffee shops. That is, until I picked it up myself. All of sudden, the hushed voices and sheepish smiles all made sense.
The book graphically describes a dominant and submissive relationship in steamy detail. I was home alone and I still closed the blinds, I was blushing so badly. I can’t even admit to reading it with a straight face, and only people who have read it can join the exclusive club of “Oh I know…”
But more importantly than whether the books are good or bad, it’s essential to think critically about why these books became so popular.
Despite all the progress we’ve made in equality since the 1960s, women are raised from a young age to suppress their sexuality. As teenagers, we navigate the fine line between sexy and slutty, and by the time we’re adults, we’ve figured out that being promiscuous is only socially acceptable if you’re a male. He who sleeps around is a player; meanwhile, if a girl overtly gets around the block, she’s a floozy.
Same goes with watching porn: it’s socially accepted that the large majority of the male population knows how to delete a computer’s history. It’s just not as common to hear a woman openly admit to doing the same, and that’s why Harlequin romances and erotica make so much money. But does a graphic sex scene in a book stimulate our brain (and other places for that matter) any differently than a sex scene in a pornographic film? Doubtful. But it’s our social norms that define what’s acceptable.
Let’s face it: these books certainly aren’t extraordinary because of the unique storyline—bondage and discipline aside. The writing style itself isn’t at all unique either, and some of the words seem to be thrown into sentences in a jarring manner, as if someone picked up a thesaurus and picked out a couple words at random to seem more educated.
Whether or not you’re going to read the books, or let your girlfriend read them, it’s important to constantly question prescribed gender roles, and who defines them.