Sleeping Beauties of the 21st Century: Anastasia, Bella and the Rise of the Vapid Heroine

Steven Gregory: Skulduggery Empty Vessels

Some time ago, Laura Miller of wrote a compelling critique of the Twilight series. She had a particularly insightful comment to make of Bella:

Bella is not really the point of the Twilight series; she’s more of a place holder than a character. She is purposely made as featureless and ordinary as possible in order to render her a vacant, flexible skin into which the reader can insert herself.

Anyone who has read Fifty Shades of Grey will recognize a doppelganger in the main character of the novel, Anastasia. She is equally blank, equally unaccomplished at anything except biting her own lower lip.

And these are the sort of things that make these heroines apparently absolutely irresistible to the novels’ male protagonists: Bella is clumsy, Anastasia gnaws her own mouth. Because, after all, what else might a real man want?

I have encountered the very same adorable lack of substance in a great deal of erotica and romance recently. Some of the most successful titles sport staggeringly vapid heroines.

I’m finding their overwhelming popularity frightening. These characters are not badly drawn portraits of everything men lust after. They are written by women, for women who, for the most part, are perfectly well educated in terms of feminist theory. How is that that so many women relate deeply to these vessels of emptiness?

It might be argued that the popularity of these ’empty vessels’ stems from the evolution of other media. Story-telling in game-culture is heavily dependent on creating empty characters in which role-playing gamers can insert themselves in a 2nd person POV narrative experience. Reality TV takes the concept of mediocrity and marketizes it: you don’t have to actually be accomplished at anything to be famous, you just need to get lucky enough to stumble into the glare of the spotlight to get your 5 minutes of fame.

I’ve heard the term ‘cypher’ characters used in this context. But these are not cyphers. Cyphers are mysterious and potentially undecodable. Cyphers are challenging puzzles. Here there is nothing to decode. Here we have a portrait of a female who has no life, no aspirations of her own. She is a vessel waiting for the male character to fill and make significant through the act of filling. Nothing else. These are the Sleeping Beauties of the 21st century.

In the past, literature has been criticized for its poor representation of female characters at the hand of male writers. From Shakespeare to Hemmingway, they’ve been pilloried for their creation of female characters who simply act as plot points for male protagonists. But even Hemmingway never wrote such an insignificant, agency-less woman.

Post-modern theorists would argue that these characters are empty in order to be filled by the minds of the readers. Narrative vessels for the reader’s own creativity. The fictional offered as remix material for the real lived-experience of the consumer. If I believed this were true, I’d feel better.

What I fear is that these empty women are as popular as they are because they reflect how many women feel about themselves. If fashion magazines have succeeded in making most of us feel terrible about our bodies, something else has led us to believe that all our other dreams, goals, ambitions are equally worthless.

And it is easy to see the lazy allure in fantasizing that we might be sought after, adored, lusted after for the simple reason that we have a vagina and a bottom lip to gnaw on. It relieves us of the pressure to strive to be fuller, rounded, complex human beings.

The possible narrative conflicts that can arise in a situation where, for instance, you have a focused, self-directed female character are enormous. Great love affairs, and especially D/s love affairs will, by necessity, engender great frictions with pre-existing career goals, personal aspirations, etc. From a writing perspective, the conflicts arise almost by themselves, believable and compelling.

When you have female characters who have no envisioned life goals, no passions of their own, there is nothing to clash with when they meet with the dominating male character. And so the narrative conflicts have to be manufactured and implausible. Unbelievable misunderstandings of emails, rogue interpretations of reaction, suspect circumstantial hurdles.

And yet, the ridiculously implausible conflicts the authors present us in novels like the Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey series don’t seem to bother the readers.  And it is interesting that as these series evolve, the serious conflicts actually belong to the male characters, not the female heroines. The women in these novels seem to be nothing more than the banal and dumbstruck bystanders in the only realistic conflicts that we’re presented with.

Why are we, as women, writing ourselves into insignificance?


  77 comments for “Sleeping Beauties of the 21st Century: Anastasia, Bella and the Rise of the Vapid Heroine

  1. Kelly
    May 12, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Linked here from nudiemuse. I think you make some really compelling points here and I would say that in media overall, it does seem to be a startling trend towards this vapid fill-in-the-blank-with-the-reader female characters.

    Though I would point out that 50 Shades of Gray started out as an alternate universe Twilight fanfiction so in essence Anastasia and Bella are the same character (if one could call her a character at all!)

    • May 12, 2012 at 11:33 am

      Hello Kelly.
      Yes, I knew that 50 shades started off as Twilight fan fic. The question is… why do so many women relate?

  2. May 12, 2012 at 11:29 am

    First I have to admit – I was far too bored by both Twilight and 50 Shades to read more than the first 50 pages or so of either. Personally, I have zero interest in vapid simpering women, nor in ones who blindly follow the lead of a man, any man. What I did read of 50 Shades had an almost embarrassed quality to it, as if by making the heroine into a caricature of a woman it says a ‘real’ woman wouldn’t, or couldn’t, enjoy such things. It was almost a denial of the erotic possibilities described, and one that fits the sad ‘new morality’ where our reproductive habits are suddenly everyone’s business and women are once again being judged as simply housewives or whores. A ‘dirty’ pleasure – but one where we don’t have to sully ourselves by being able to picture yourself in the heroine’s shoes. Which is sort of anti-erotic, if you ask me, but, apparently, something that many many women feel ‘safe’ in doing.

    • May 12, 2012 at 11:34 am

      “as if by making the heroine into a caricature of a woman it says a ‘real’ woman wouldn’t, or couldn’t, enjoy such things”

      That’s a really interesting point. I hadn’t thought of that at all.

    • May 31, 2012 at 11:11 am

      Well said Sessha! I’d wondered why I could never get into these books when so many people seem to. After reading this post, it hit me like a smack to the forehead that this was the reason why. I can’t get into a female character who doesn’t want more for herself than the man in her life, or who just wants to please him. When I write, both of my characters have to want more, have to give more, and be more than incomplete without the other person. As a person, I want it all – but I won’t give up who I am just to be in a relationship. We are more than our relationships with people and I want my stories to reflect that.

  3. Squeaky
    May 12, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    I read Twilight. I read the whole saga around the time the last one was out in hardback and. I. Fucking. Loved. It.
    I gasped. I swooned. It was just sooooooo fucking romantic! Damn me, but I fucking lapped that shit up and sucked Steph Meyer’s cheesy toes in worship. For a while, at least.
    I identified with Bella because here was someone intimately familiar: outsider, not much going on mentally, clumsy, &c. &c. And yet – yet!!! Here was hope as this gorgeous, hot, intense man was soooo besotted with her…Couldn’t live without her!!!!
    After i’d read this, and gushed at how wonderful it all was and mooned over Edward, little voices of dissent crept in. They didn’t come from inside, I’m sad to say, but from people more intelligent, observant and critical than I. People whose opinions i respected. It’s not been long since i started thinking more critically, but in the past couple of years i’ve been lucky enough to be exposed to many non-mainstream influences, and i now (hopefully) think more critically.
    Lots and lots of women out there aren’t that lucky. I am still faaaaar too susceptible to vapid heroine syndrome (both writing and reading), but at least i remember to engage my brain a little more these days.
    Look, i’m sorry for rambling all over your comments, RG, but here’s my point: Women all over the world buy this shit wholeheartedly because it is a fantasy that gives them hope that no matter how ordinary and boring and small and invisible they feel, for whatever reason, then there is *still* hope that there might be someone out there who finds them irrisistable. That feeling of irresistability can be a dangerously powerful drug, believe me. Once upon a time, it almost destroyed everything i hold dear.
    As for why women continue to write this and perpetuate the myth? Well, a couple of thigs stand out for me. 1) MONEY!!! 2) they buy into the myth themselves. 3) Particularly in the case of La Meyer, because her invisible friend (via the medium of a self-interested patriarchy) told her to.

    • May 12, 2012 at 7:23 pm

      Please don’t apologize at all. That wasn’t a ramble. That was really incredible insight.

      You wrote that you felt the heroines gave readers “a fantasy that gives them hope that no matter how ordinary and boring and small and invisible they feel, for whatever reason, then there is *still* hope that there might be someone out there who finds them irresistible.”

      But why are they feeling that they are ordinary, boring or invisible? God… this is horrific that so many women have somehow been persuaded to feel that way! And what kind of a woman would willingly perpetuate it? It’s like some kind of evil fratricide of the soul.

      I have never in my life felt someone was ordinary, boring or invisible. Everyone has their strong points, their weaknesses, their talents, their passions. Everyone!

      • NK
        May 13, 2012 at 9:14 pm

        With regards to your very last comment RG, I beg to differ! Unfortunately, I know a few people who lack passion and soul, and they make me so uncomfortable, because I feel so sorry for them. They have no taste in their own music, don’t like any books or movies, don’t have an opinion on current affairs or political issues- they’re just bland, polite, boring! It’s like they’re not really people, just parts of people that they pick up along the way. And the sad thing is, they do defer to their partners, like, whatever you want to eat honey, that’s fine. You like that restaurant? Ok, we’ll go there. In the one case I know about, this womans family conditioned her to be pretty before intelligent, opinionated and well-rounded and to do whatever she could to find a man. And what’s even more sad is that for some men, she’d be ideal, would cook, clean, have sex and lie back and think of england (doubt she has any idea of what she likes/what feels good/or even cares), stay silent unless spoken to and there’s probably not a lot else going on in her head so they could do what they liked without any repercussions. That being said, are there some men out there like this, who are devoid of personality? Surely if there’s women, there must be similar men, or this a unique socially constructed scenario specific to women? I do not understand these people at all, and I am so thankful I was taught to be independent, ask questions and actively encouraged to think, about anything and everything. Beauty fades, but brains last forever- if you know you’re born with one!

  4. May 12, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    When I read Twilight I thought it would have been better if there were sex scenes. The one sex scene in the last book was washed over because it is a YA book. But still, in a way I did identify w/ Bella. Not her lack of fashion sense of course, but I put myself back to when I was in high school. I was an innocent virgin too. I believe this is the more common experience of women than the exception. I wanted a strong man who would protect me and fuck me – teach me how to experience pleasure the way I’d always desired. My expectations were too high and I ended up being a little disappointed. I am certain that women who read these books identify with that time in their lives right before they started having sex and wonder what it would have been like if they’d found a man with supernatural or deviant powers. It’s to be enjoyed in fantasy.

    My heroine in Cinderella Club is innocent sexually but with a need to find the perfect man who can remove the responsibilty from her shoulders. Her sister in Cinderella Thyme is the opposite but guilt surrounds them both. How do you enjoy deviant sex without sacrificing the good girl inside? This is a dilemma that many women face whether you believe it or not IMO.

    • May 12, 2012 at 7:31 pm

      Mia, honestly, I don’t understand why a young woman in the 21st century would feel the need to be ‘protected’ – from what? And is that all these women are? Nothing more than vacant dollies looking for a ken doll to fuck them? Don’t they have lives and aspirations and goals that go beyond just finding a boyfriend?

      “How do you enjoy deviant sex without sacrificing the good girl inside?”

      Are women so utterly one-dimensional that they can’t be both?

      I have to be honest, I’ve never written ‘good girl’ characters, because quite honestly, I’ve never thought that someone’s sexuality defined whether they were ‘good’ or not. I’ve written characters who were more innocent, or more experienced, but never without lives and a code of ethics of their own. And that is why it’s so easy to generate good narrative conflict – because any overwhelming love affair is going to threaten to swallow up that sense of self. And there’s a need to find a balance.

    • May 12, 2012 at 7:34 pm

      why do you feel the NEED for a ‘good girl inside’? I would think that is the ONE place we can be free of society’s notions of good girl and bad girl and all the minimization and marginalization of women those labels carry. If you want it, if you enjoy it, if you hurt no one else with it then it IS good – for you, and that is the only thing that should matter. It saddens me to see this widespread return to the notion of ‘bad girls like sex’, I swear we left that behind almost 40 years ago!

      • May 12, 2012 at 8:01 pm

        Yeah, I have to agree. Or rather, I just don’t really understand the concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as a character description in relation to what kind of sex you want.

        Plus what does it say about the male lead? What kind of man is so insecure he needs a blank slate for a girlfriend?

        • May 31, 2012 at 11:13 am

          I totally agree. Great post! If a man only wants me because he thinks he can “mold” me, then he’s sadly mistaken! And I don’t write characters that way either.

  5. May 12, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    This is a very, very interesting post, RG.

    I haven’t read 50 Shades and won’t, but I have read the first two books of the Twilight saga. I read because my sister-in-law watched me consume book after book from the library and envied my ability to read. She asked if I would read something with her, help her if she had trouble. She was 23 and had only just earned her GED, reading was just one of the subjects she had struggled with. I gladly said yes; I wasn’t about to discourage her from reading.

    Like Squeaks, I too saw someone familiar in Bella. The Twilight series is written for teenagers, not women. Bella’s character is how so many (American)girls see themselves – even the ones that act as if they have everything. And to be honest, the one thing I also remember is that Bella thinks she’s plain, ordinary, nothing special….but others remark that she’s pretty, nice, smart, etc. Which, again, is all to common a phenomenon. I also remember that the first thing Edward wanted to do was eat her…..that the unreal attraction had everything to do with the fact that she smells like a first class meal!

    Anyways, Squeaks made my point much better than I am!

    To answer your question though. I wonder if the women writing these “invisible” characters are doing it on purpose. How often to do we use ourselves as models for our characters? When I think of writers I’m not picturing a demographic with the most solid of self-esteems, unfortunately. Miss 50 Shades certainly didn’t set out to write a vapid female character….she just was copying the character set from Twilight. As for Stephanie Myers; I wouldn’t be surprised if she did choose a main character with low self esteem and a poor perception of herself. Most teenage girls have the same issue and it rings very true.

    Unfortunately, I think some of it also just boils down to laziness. It’s easy to write that sort of story. And I agree, that it’s a disturbing trend.

    • May 12, 2012 at 8:04 pm

      You know, it might have been laziness once, but when people keep writing these sort of women, it’s not laziness. It’s a pointed appeal to a really insecure part of women today. It’s a manipulation of it, a reinforcement of it.

      Gah, I don’t know. It fucking creeps me out. And I can see its effect on my female students who decide they don’t have to BE anything in life but a blank slate for some guy who’s going to sweep them off their feet and support them.

  6. May 12, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    I don’t think authors are writing vacuous characters with the intention that readers will then be able to fill in the gaps – although this probably happens more than it should; I think authors are writing neurotic, insecure characters because somehow that has become our ‘realistic’ view of women. Fake women are shiny and skinny and appear in magazines; real women are nervous and unsure of themselves because they aren’t the women in the magazines.

    Reading SqueakAttack’s comment made me really sad; although I love the sentiment and the idea that we all need and relish in this sense of hope – and what could be better than hope? – I can’t help but feel let down that we’re having to rely on characters like Bella and Anastasia to give us that. And the problem with Anastasia is that the circumstances are SO extraordinary – it’s strange to say, but I feel like the vampire that is Edward Cullen is more likely than the millionaire headfuck that is Grey – that I didn’t even feel the hope…

    But what’s really getting at me is that as a writer, and as someone who knows writers, I would feel so dissatisfied writing characters as vacant as these. Even as I read 50 Shades I was bored by her; how could anyone who calls herself a ‘writer’ really feel passionately about writing THAT character? That to me is terrifying.

    And… final point; although male writers for centuries have written female characters, ill-equipped to represent us properly, at least there were some brilliant male writers who upheld women as wonderful, pinnacles of humanity, worthy of worship and adoration. I would rather be Lady Macbeth, written by Shakespeare as a powerful, headstrong woman, than Anastasia Steele written by E.L. James as a vacuous, vacant shell, obsessed over by Christian Grey. I’m not sure how well I’m making that point, but hope you get my gist…

    • May 12, 2012 at 9:24 pm

      That’s exceptionally insightful.

      • May 13, 2012 at 8:06 am

        Is it? I feel like I’m stating the obvious, but I really can’t stay quiet on these questions.

  7. May 12, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Does the fact that Stephanie Myers comes out of the Mormon subculture in America perhaps influence any of this? We are talking about a fairly sized community where the wife cannot experience heaven unless her husband calls her from the grave with the secret name he was given during their wedding. The entire subculture is designed to thrust women into a role of depending on the Edwards of the world to save them.

    I further posit that it’s not the only subculture like this, and you don’t need too many subcultures all liking the same book to make it a hit…

    • May 12, 2012 at 9:22 pm

      Well, that could explain why she wrote it, but not why it appeals to so many women.

      • May 12, 2012 at 9:27 pm

        Sadly, RG, it appears that most of the mid-section of the United States is in that mindset – women are extensions of their men, rather than people in their own right. Look at the legislation coming out of those states that governs women’s reproductive organs, some of it even spearheaded by women.

        Thinking about it though – perhaps it appeals because it is so damn easy. You don’t have to think, you don’t have to have a career, you can just float through life – the lazy person’s way out.

        • May 12, 2012 at 9:32 pm

          There was a time when women HAD no options. The idea of refusing them, out of laziness, now that we have them is an abomination to me.

          That doesn’t make a ‘good girl’. That makes a a street whore.

        • May 14, 2012 at 9:15 pm

          Sessha, sadly, all of these sterotypes are perpetuated by people similar to you – people who label others, and assume to know how they live, what they want and (in your case) what they believe in. Shame on you.

        • May 14, 2012 at 10:41 pm

          You don’t know me well enough to even THINK of saying something like that, Zander! I, thankfully, am not one of the people living in a state that is gleefully passing ever more restrictive laws giving the government control over my reproduction. If I were, believe me, you’d hear me screaming about it from the rooftops. I’m merely observing the political trends that are occurring in this country, and the appalling lack of public outcry from the women living there about it. I wish to hell it were different, but, so far, I’m not seeing a groundswell of anger from women in those states, I’m not hearing about protests, or marches or any thing else – just acceptance.

          • May 14, 2012 at 10:51 pm

            And it is my belief that those trends to be passive are reflected in and reinforced by a great deal of the cultural product that is being produced and consumed today.

        • May 14, 2012 at 11:15 pm


          Since you feel so free to make judgements about whole populations of women without knowing them, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that I don’t have to know you in order to READ what you wrote about women in the mid-west (you remember – those extensions of their men, rather than people in their own right, living in states (unlike you, you smart, smart lady) that govern women’s reproductive rights – helped by other women. These women are content to live this way because it’s easy. They don’t think, or have careers and they just float through life, taking the lazy person’s way out).

          I can’t even begin to express how disturbing those statements are (and feel fairly certain I’d be wasting my time), but you’ve helped me realize just what bugs me about all this 50 Shades hoopla the most. Thanks.


          • May 15, 2012 at 8:46 am

            I’d like to interject here and say… we don’t exactly know what the market segmentation on 50 shades is. We know it is overwhelmingly women who are buying it. But, as Z says, there are probably a not inconsiderable number of boyfriends and husbands reading it second hand.

            Although there are no firm numbers to be gleaned (unless you pay for them), there are media reports that the distribution of buyers of the book series is pretty evenly distributed along the socioeconomic spectrum as well as the educational spectrum.

            What I do think it is important to point out is that my post complains about the lack of independence, direction, aspirations or goals IN THE FICTIONAL CHARACTER. Not in the readers. What I said was that I feared that there were women who FELT vapid and uninteresting. Not that they were.

            And considering the history of the fashion industry and the damage it has done to countless women’s self-esteem and feelings about their bodies, I don’t think my fear is entirely misplaced.

        • May 15, 2012 at 9:43 pm


          You were perfectly clear, and I worry too. I have a daughter who is ten. I’m disturbed whenever I see a vapid and uninteresting woman (or man) celebrated. It’s not easy finding examples of what a girl should aspire to be in the media. FSOG is just the latest example. Your fear is not misplaced.

          I haven’t read the books, only snippets. Perhaps the vapid main character is meant to be an anti-hero. Perhaps people identify with her because she represents something most of us can understand (no matter where we are in life now). Who hasn’t felt shy, or worried about not being good enough, or felt like they lacked direction? Perhaps the writer has managed to create a character people care about because of her failings. They may keep reading, wanting to see the train wreck if she gets what they worry might be coming to her, hoping she gets it together by the end, completes her story arc and discovers she’s grownup and now has direction, confidence and strength. Minus the bad writing and sex, Scarlett O’Hara is a similar character (with more spunk and brains).

          From what I’ve seen of the writing, and the story arc, I’m not sure the writer is skilled enough to pull off an anti-hero(at least not intentionally). Still, perhaps it explains at least part of the reason the book has gone viral.


      • May 15, 2012 at 10:41 pm

        I’m conflicted over it, but yes…I probably will. I am speaking at a writer’s conference this weekend and that’s what everyone wants to talk about.

  8. May 12, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    I have a feeling this will be a ramble. I haven’t read the books, and I’ve only seen the first Twilight movie, but the problem with Bella for me isn’t that she doesn’t have goals, she’s a teen. The problem is she has no personality. But, as I recall from very long ago, a lot of high school kids didn’t have much personality.

    I find the whole “young adult” book craze to be very odd. First of all, the characters aren’t adults, they’re high school kids, and second, why do actual young adults need special easy-reading books? They don’t know how to read at an adult level yet by the time they’re 18-21? Something is very wrong there if that’s the case. Why would adults want to read about teen romance? When I was in high school, actually my first year because I remember what class I was in, we were reading Stephen King and John Saul and Amityville horror from the school library.

    Maybe the kind of adult who would be reading easy-reading teen romance is the kind of adult who identifies with an empty-headed personality-less female?

    • May 12, 2012 at 9:39 pm

      I really wasn’t just referring to Bella. There are plenty of heroines in erotica and in erotic romance that look a lot like Anastasia. I don’t think it has anything to do with reading level. I’m pretty sure no one had problems comprehending Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but damn, she had more balls.

    • May 14, 2012 at 6:13 am

      YA was a category that aimed at middle schoolers. They were around when I was that age: Lois Duncan, Christopher Pike, some Judy Bloom, etc. Even stories like “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or later Little House books, are technically YA. I loved them all in 6th through 8th/9th grade.

      Marketing them to adults is the new part. Twilight. The Hunger Games. I would guess it’s two things:

      First: reading levels. They average American adult reads at about a *6th grade level.*

      Second: youth worship. Frankly, I am fine never reading another coming of age novel. I’m sick of them. Clearly, a lot of people aren’t. A *HUGE* number of people seem to want to be 16 forever.

  9. May 12, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    Thanks for getting this going; I like what you’re saying here, but I have a decidedly different slant on it.
    Correct me if I’m wrong (there’s a challenge; finding something I’m wrong about, heh, heh) but do we not read to discover ourselves? At least, primarily, in fiction. If we see something about a situation or a personality in a story that we identify as being part of something inside of us, whether or not we can identify it readily, we tend to like the story. Or at least that part of it. If we see something we have had no exposure to or no interest in or can’t connect to no matter how hard we try, we react to it as though it were alien, and tend to come away scratching our head or saying “yuck” or wishing it were better.
    If what we are reading is vague enough in whatever the “right” places it takes to get us to start filling in the gaps with enough points of connection into ourselves, we don’t end up reacting to what is on the page: we react to and feel what we have invented around the story that we don’t know how to explain.
    For the writer, it’s a balancing act, trying to get the scales between too much detail and not enough to work favorably for the reader’s connection engines to fire and flesh out the parts that are important to that reader back into the story that the writer has no way to dynamically re-write on the fly to alter the detail level to for that particular reader, and there isn’t a singular formula to predict appeal that is universal enough or simpleenough to be answer why some authors hit and others don’t. Some authors, though, seem to be better at it than the rest of us are, at least for a percentage of readers.
    Example: if I don’t mention the hair color/style of a character, but talk about how they feel about themselves and it turns out that that expression is appealing to the reader, the hair color of that character gets filled in by the reader. If the character connects well into the reader, the hair color/style will be something they like, and vice versa. They create a vision of the character that I haven’t written. And it’s different for each reader.
    There are too many ways we read to boil it all down to “well, you have to do such-and-such to make it ‘right’ or you will fail as a writer because you don’t appeal to me” is always true, because how you view yourself (as both reader and writer) and your world view is something we can’t really get away from. Change it occasionally, sure, and maybe something we read helps us reconnect things in a different way every once in a while, but I don’t think we can tune our own selves out from reading. Either something strikes us the right way and we start filling in details that matter to just us, or it doesn’t, and we start pointing out to ourselves that this could be fixed if they had only fleshed out a detail or nine that makes sense to us. Reading is matter of rebuilding how we view the world, continuously, and we’ll either agree with the construct we are left with at the end of the read or we won’t. And we keep giving the writer yet another chance to please reconnect into what is important to ourselves if we don’t like what they did. It’s weird.
    If, of course, I’m understanding at least how I read.
    I don’t think we are but putty in the writer’s hands, I think it’s the other way around.

    • May 13, 2012 at 1:06 am

      I think there’s a lot of merit in this post and I think it is, if not exactly, then very much the way I read. It is also, in many ways, the way I write. I like to immerse myself into what I’m reading and imbue characters with my own thoughts and ideas (if that fits, of course. It doesn’t always fit, especially if the writer has written a complete and fully crafted character with no room for interpretation.) and because I do, I also tend to write characters that way. I never fully describe them. I like to leave that up to the reader. Their motivation is usually fairly clear, but there is a feeling it might be maleable–if it needs to be. Maybe I’m taking the easy way out; maybe I’m a crappy writer, but it’s what I do.

      And now I’m going to out myself: I read all of the Twilight Saga and all of the 50 Shades books. I ate them with a spoon. I devoured them in minutes (well, days, but a very few days) and I loved them. And I am not a vapid, empty vessel that needs a man’s approval. I’m fairly certain you know this, RG.

      So, why did I enjoy the books? Because they had character and story going for them. Because they were fantasy and they sucked me in. I think t1klish said it best about Twilight: the character is an adolescent and that’s the way adolescents think about themselves–yes, even the popular ones. It’s a stage of development we’ve all been through and with which we can relate. Now, about Twilight, while I enjoyed the books, whether well written or not (though I have to give Ms Meyer credit, as the first one was her first book, and her writing improved exponentially from 1st book to last) I find that I like the movies much more because the screenwriter, a woman I heard speak at the New Yorker Festival a couple of years ago, imbued Bella with a lot more strength of character and will. I actually think that’s because she was/is a much better writer than Ms Meyer and was able to do that and keep the story essentially the same.

      As far as 50 Shades goes, I have to say I personally identified more with Christian’s sexuality, than with Anna’s (go figure *snork*). I actually found his character to be very compelling, and not with regards to the romantic aspect of the book. I understood his psycopathy and how he became the person he became. Was the outrageous wealth at such an early age a bit much? Yes, but it was a fantasy. Was the reason he never had a satisfying emotional relationship, rather than a dom/sub playmate relationship before Anna far fetched? No, not at all, based on his childhood–and, believe me, I’ve seen an awful lot of similar childhoods to know people don’t climb out whole on the other side.

      I was disturbed by Ms James’ characterization of BDSM and Christian’s initial exposure to it, even though she did put emphasis on the fact that sexual sadism and masochism is no longer considered a psychological disorder. I think she didn’t know enough about kink to know how to write its complexities. I think she did make a concerted effort to learn about it but she just isn’t there yet.

      Both of these series are romance and I don’t generally read romance. I do read vampire fiction, which is why I read Twilight and I’m an erotica writer, which is why I decided to read the first 50 shades book (since it was billed as the first erotica book that became a major best-seller). I wanted to know, as an erotica writer, how a phenomenon like came about (yeah, sure, I want to be as rich as Christian–or at least as E L James). In both cases I got sucked in. I wouldn’t have been sucked in by 50 shades if I’d given up after the first 2 or three chapters, though. I promised myself I’d read the whole first book before making a decision on it. And, by the way, 50 shades isn’t erotica; it’s romance. It’s billed as erotica by folks who don’t know any better, simply because the characters fuck like rabbits. Lots of fucking doesn’t make something erotica; I’m just saying…

      But, here’s the bottom line: I’m tired of apologizing for, or being on the DL about liking books a “real” writer or “real” woman or an “intelligent, educated person” would shun for the dangerous crap they are.

      I saw myself in them. I saw people I knew in them. I was viscerally taken back to specific incidents and emotions in my life. I was entertained. And, I’m the first to admit: I read for entertainment.

      Sorry for hijacking your thread. There’s more to say, but I’ll stop now. I didn’t mean to get this crazed but it’s the first time I’ve come out, in public, about this stuff and I got a little carried away. And, of course, I’m supposed to be writing, anyway…

      • May 13, 2012 at 8:12 am

        No apologies, DL. Great insight, great rationale. Far, far, far too many people have purchased and loved 50 shades to be able to say that all the people who loved it are brainless. There is a good reason it is so popular. I’m just worried about why.

      • May 13, 2012 at 9:46 pm

        Okay, so, what happens if we do this: gender-reverse Anastasia and Christian. Do we then come away from Ms James’ efforts saying that the now-male Anastasia (Anastasi-er?) is a disturbing role model for young men that we should be concerned about propagating? If we do this to enough books, I’m sure we would say that men are being portrayed poorly, and shouldn’t something better happen, which I absolutely agree with. Women have generally come off poorly in pretty much all art. As a poor example: 15th century portrait painting had them men looking into the paintings, see, all this stuff in the painting is mine and wouldn’t you like to be me, and the women looked out at the observer, see, I can be yours. Same thing happens in modern porn, and there are psychological reasons for that.
        Women as object is part of the core issue here, and the happenstance of popular books having propagated that (again?!? Argh!) is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.
        Bondage Discipline Domination Submission Sadism Masochism is combined fairly terrifying to someone who has been taught to be utterly completely at-all-costs nice their entire lives. If we have concerns as to how that is portrayed and scrutinized by those who don’t participate, I think the real question is: what would make us feel better about how it is portrayed?
        As bdsm becomes popularized, is there not a parallel as to how homosexuality is becoming accepted? Look at that firestorm and ask: are we up for that, to fight for ourselves the same way?

  10. May 12, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    Over my years of speaking to perverts (grin) I often shock the room by admitting that I did not like O as a character in the miss-titled Story of O. I find her to be so devoid of character and faceless that by the time they slip an actual mask over her face, it seems rather pointless. Passive doesn’t even begin to describe her; she is like a Real Doll with a limited vocabulary sound file embedded inside. I never got a clue as to whether she enjoyed what was happening, was curious about it, wanted more, wanted less, wanted out…she just endured, sometimes with mild distress, but never with anything like joy or despair, passion, anger, jealousy, frustration, humor, bitterness…just…nothing.

    Frankly, I thought the book was a romance between Rene and Sir Stephen. The woman they share – or rather, the woman Rene gives to his half brother – is a courting gift of submission, not even the binding element of a threesome.

    Perhaps the bland, featureless woman makes it easier for some readers to place themselves into that role. She has simple flaws, like Bella’s clumsiness, which can be appealing, and minor self doubts, which can be sympathized with. But she will be easy to step into as an identity character because so little of her is really fleshed out. The reader doesn’t need to put a whole life story aside to fantasize about living this life – all she needs to do is think, well, I can be clumsy. I am just like Bella. In fact, I also play the piano and speak Russian and make fanciful cocktails and have a doctorate in Bioethics. I am much more well rounded than Bella. Edward would love me even more.

    A blank main character makes it easier for the reader to create her own Mary Sue story, which is what James did – she wrote a Mary Sue fan fic for Twilight, substituting kink for vampirism.

    In the 60’s and 70’s a lot of (straight) porn was made where the “leading man” was, shall we say, not very conventionally attractive. (CoughcoughRonJeremyCough) The word was, the average straight man watching these movies – because only men watched them – did not want a *rival* on the screen fucking the ladies. If the leading man was ugly, any man could say, “I am much better looking. I could totally get all those chicks.” Fantasy acquired. Orgasm imminent.

    I am not that kind of a reader or watcher; I don’t need to have a character subsumed for me to be able to identify with them; and I write for readers like me. This became clear to me when my agent asked me if I could write something “like” 50 Shades, and I realized my mind was blank. Every scenario I came up with wouldn’t work. Now, I see why. I was mentally rebelling against the woman-as-blank-slate part of the equation. I never liked the song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” The lyrics gave me the creeps. But they would apparently make a great romance book.


    • May 13, 2012 at 8:00 am

      So… the answer is that these readers… are like Kafka? Who feared he would existentially disappear in a room with more than two other personalities?

      I think that this is disturbing. One of the things I have loved most in books is the struggle to fight my way into the headspace of difficult, complex characters. Or to read characters I admire, characters I have aspired to be, characters I’ve envied. Even characters I have hated. I need substance in my protagonists, or I simply don’t give a shit about what happens to them.

      But even more so – characters with no strong boundaries or aspirations mean that conflicts have to be external and heavily manufactured, because there are no inherent ones waiting to emerge from the character’s own personality.

      I agree with you about O, actually. I liked the kink but hated all the characters, to be honest.

    • May 15, 2012 at 9:51 pm

      I’m happy to see someone else who wasn’t a fan of O in the Story of O. I felt she was Stepford Wifeish – the sort of women any man might have fantasies about who is almost a living doll, and easily controlled.

      I love your idea that it was really meant to be a courtship story, and the courtship was between Rene and Sir Stephen. That would be a terrific story.

      • May 15, 2012 at 10:36 pm

        Someone needs to write that one as an M/m erotic romance.

  11. Deliriumtree
    May 13, 2012 at 12:40 am

    I’ve only read the Amazon free preview of 50 shades, but I found myself skipping or skimming the female parts. I couldn’t relate to her at all. There’s something to feeling invisible I guess. Yet, even if one doesn’t have goals and aspirations wouldn’t they at least have quirks and neuroses? I have felt invisible at times, but it’s more like people’s brains can’t handle the weirdness so they short out sort of invisibility. No one can be that boring, it boggles the mind! Even if you don’t have a burning urge to be a rockstar or a penchant for world domination, they’d at least have to get home to watch Doctor Who or something. Maybe they just can’t handle the idea of tampons, or they just love jazz hands with all the passion in their body. Perhaps, they think the solution to over crowded prisons is to feed prisoners to the homeless. As someone who was beat up a lot and picked on at school, I can see the desire for a protector. When I was a teen I wanted a psycho wizard boyfriend that would strain my fellow students through a chain link fence. But, I was still me. I covered the mirrors with black sheets because I couldn’t stand the sight of myself, but I also did one hell of an interpretive dance to Andrew Lloyd Webber under the disco ball I had in my room. I just don’t buy the idea of a boring girl. Are there really people like that? Maybe we’re just too us to see it and looking through the world through us colored glasses. But, still… I can’t help but think there would at least be an intense fear of clowns. Clowns will rape you, or at least that’s what my grandmother always said. Even if someone is boring wouldn’t their families at least mess them up? I don’t know.. Maybe it’s real and we just don’t see it.

    • May 13, 2012 at 8:06 am

      I think there are a lot of people in the world who are, for one reason or another, ‘invisible’ to others. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have substance. In truth, some people who are ‘invisible’ are just frightening to others. We look at them and think… there by the grace of god go I.

      When I was younger and beautiful, my mother told me that when I got to middle age, I would become invisible. I didn’t believe her at the time, and it was a shock one day to experience it for the first time. There is a world of middle-aged women out there who are sexually invisible to most men. But they all have aspirations, goals, conflicts, and neuroses. As individuals, they are all unique.

  12. Korhomme
    May 13, 2012 at 1:05 am

    Not only have I never read “Twilight”, I’ve no idea what it is. But after reading your critique of 50 Shades, I’m not going to read it. A couple of points:

    “Woman as Cypher”. Ciphers are codes, and any man(kind) made code can be unscrambled, though it may take years. The idea behind this association comes, perhaps, from half-remembered memories of Egyptian hieroglyphs and the 20 years that it took Champollion to decipher them. It’s the sort of thing that we learn in primary school, and retain, and massage into an analogy or metaphor (or is it a simile?) years later. But codes can be deciphered, it just takes work and graft, and luck and enough information.

    “Male writers can’t represent females.” When James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was published, he was praised for having really got into the female mind and fully understood it in Molly’s soliloquy in the final chapter. Nora Barnacle was dismissive, saying something like, “Jim knows nothing about women”. And that’s the problem; men and women think differently; it’s easy to say that men (as a generalisation) are left-brained and think literally, rationally (and, dare I say it, empirically) and women are right-brained and think in terms of feelings and emotions. And while it’s easy to say, there does seem to be strong experimental evidence that men and women do think in a different way, they have different ways of viewing things. Not that either is somehow “better”, rather that there are differences, neither of which probably gives a “complete” picture. I’m not sure about women, but I have the strong feeling that, to a greater or lesser extent, men simply cannot understand women; it’s not that they don’t want to, more that it is an inherent inability to do so. Not being a woman, I’m not sure how much women understand men; but I have this rather disturbing feeling that indeed they do (and they don’t always let on that they do).

    “Cipher”. Well, I just had to check the dictionary meanings — I would, wouldn’t I? — (using Chambers for iPad). There are 6 meanings. Disconcertingly, one of these is “any person of little value, a nonentity”. This isn’t a meaning I’d immediately associate with “cipher”, and is quite different from my initial idea of “woman of mystery”. But it would fit exactly into the “vapid heroine” of the title. As to why heroines are nowadays “vapid”, well that’s something I must accept, but cannot elucidate.

  13. Kathleen Bradean
    May 13, 2012 at 5:12 am

    I love this article and all the conversation that follows!

    RG – you know I struggle with female submission because it annoys the hell out of me, and yet, I can’t in good conscience tell any woman that her fantasy is wrong. I can’t lecture them about the world open to them now, or that being a blank slate is a betrayal to all the women who struggled before us. (Nor can I, no matter how much it squicks me out, deny any woman the right to get off from rape fantasy. I just can’t.) But maybe, just maybe, like female submissive, in real life, the fans of these books have agency (there’s a literary term for you!) but want to set all that aside for a moment of relaxing mind-wipe. And possibly for a reminder why they will never be a blank slate for any man.

    It is worrisome that these characters without agency seem so popular. Every time I see Princess Bride and they’re in the fireswamp, I’m shouting at Buttercup to stop being such a fucking princess and pick up a stick or something to attack the rodent-of-unusual-size. But you have to remember that my jaw dropped to the floor the first time I saw Star Wars (the original) when Princess Leia grabbed the gun out of Luke’s hand and started shooting and giving orders, and then created (!) an escape route. A woman did something. A PRINCESS did something. Oh my fucking god! My entire life changed in that moment. Which is why I’d love to see more of that, and why I hate seeing these characters without agency. And it kills me to think that women identify with having absolutely no agency in their own lives.

    (I originally had a very cold-hearted comment to wrap this up, but I’ll keep that thought to myself.)


    • May 13, 2012 at 8:20 am

      “But maybe, just maybe, like female submissive, in real life, the fans of these books have agency (there’s a literary term for you!) but want to set all that aside for a moment of relaxing mind-wipe.”

      This is a good point, and it accords with a lot of post-modern theory takes on this sort of stuff. In fact, they argue that the blankness of the characters is actually a rebellion against the ‘authority’ of the writer in favour of the creativity of the reader.

      My worry is that this is not what I’ve seen in my female students who, for instance, identify so strongly with Bella. What they identify with over and over again, is the fact that there is a man who is going to take care of everything for her. That they don’t need to work hard to be good at anything. Hell, they don’t even have to go to the hairdressers twice a week like my mother thought she had to. They can just sleep until their prince wakes them up and he will tell them what he wants them to be.

      • Kathleen Bradean
        May 13, 2012 at 8:31 am

        And thus, the observation I obliterated from my previous post:

        If you believe in God, you believe that God gave us choice, and some of us choose to be lunch.

        • May 13, 2012 at 8:44 am

          Sadly, I’m a die hard atheist. So I’m stuck with Darwin and the fact that, if you choose to be lunch, you not only allow for your own extermination, but that of your species.

          And I do wish you wouldn’t obliterate your more pointed comments. God knows, I don’t.

  14. TheEqualist
    May 13, 2012 at 6:05 am

    This was a great post.
    I haven’t read either series, but I did watch the first Twilight film. It bothered me to no end that a century old vampire would be so besotted with such an uninteresting girl. Granted, I didn’t find Edward all that appealing either, but at least he sparkled.
    Many women have been tricked into thinking their worth is measured by the number of dicks they can get up. The idea of women with moral fibre, intelligence, goals, and competence is killed by a thousand small cuts–and then drawn and quartered. When Kirsten Powers, a political analyst for Fox News, tried to take on the deeply misogynistic Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, she was shut down. She was unequivocally dismissed by Hannity and the other guests on the show. If a woman like her: blond, beautiful, and conventionally desirable, can’t convince men to examine their privilege, what chance do ‘regular’ women have? The takeaway is that there is no reward in being a woman who has her own voice. You can almost hear Hannity thinking: God, woman, who told you speak?
    When I was teenager, I became sexually active at 17. One of the boys I dated kept posters of porn stars and a confederate flag up on his walls. I tried to confront him about it, but he deflected and I wanted him to like me (and I was horny), so I backed down. What is the point in me sharing a story like that? To show that women and men, from national tv to the everyday experience of teenage sexual exploration, are force fed the message that women are only valuable as fucktoys, proverbially and literally. This idea is then reinforced by women and men. Mama said only whores and sluts give blowjobs and Daddy said never have sex on the first date. Nobody wants to marry a slut, darling.
    As a teen, I came to realize that good girls don’t make history and good girls don’t have good sex–or good relationships. What did being a good girl ever get me? Nothing, or at least nothing that I wanted. But I believe that many teens and women still hold onto the idea that a man will appear out of the ether and give them mind-blowing sex, security, and the perfect life. In order for him to appear, you have to be a good girl. He won’t want you otherwise. The cognitive dissonance is surreal and there is no questioning of whether Perfect Rich Cock Machine is what we really want or need. Because what else could there possibly be?
    Bella and Anastasia are the perfect good girls and they ended up with these (supposedly) perfect men. These stories fulfill the fantasy. “See”, your internal Stepford wife nags you, “They were good girls and they got what they wanted.”
    Ultimately, I think women buy into these stories for a variety of reasons: the Bellas and Anastasias *are* blank slates onto which we can project ourselves and escape the imperfection of our reality; being at the total mercy of another is equivocated with unconditional trust, something that many people have an hard time giving or obtaining and want desperately; that this narrative is right and natural and is a guide to that perfect life; that these girls did everything right and were rewarded accordingly with True Love and a life that is never empty.
    I think I’ve gone on long enough.

    • May 13, 2012 at 8:41 am

      I think you make some excellent arguments, but… were all the novels that came before, that had women with agency in them, lacking? I understand your escapist argument, but it doesn’t ring true. Because historically, characters who weren’t blanks seemed to offer their readers equally satisfying escapism.

      Why have we become intolerant of agency in favour of none?

      • TheEqualist
        May 13, 2012 at 9:26 am

        I posit that as the demands on all of us: working hours, families, getting into college (which is a four-year gauntlet these days), etc. increase, our need for the serendipitous hero increases.
        I think many women feel, more than ever, that they’re living in an upside down pyramid, where most responsibilities are on their shoulders. Some female writers that recognize this find it difficult to ask a developed character with a bevy of her own wants, desires, and agendas to just let things happen to her. So what comes out is this near identity-less collection of mannerisms and behaviors painted onto a blank, female canvas. At the end, she still gets the happy ending–and she didn’t even have to do anything.

      • May 13, 2012 at 10:15 am

        I don’t think we are, really. I think we’re looking at to books that are linked together, not the whole world of fiction — even escapist fiction. Yeah, they made shit-loads of money, and continue to do so, but so did Harry Potter. So, maybe we’re looking for too much import here.

        • May 13, 2012 at 10:57 am

          I don’t think so. Personally, I think it is a product of a consumerist society that depends for its wealth on the ego gratification of the individual. BTW, I quoted you on my ERWA post, but did not attribute. I did, however link. Would you like me to attribute or not?

  15. May 13, 2012 at 6:51 am

    This has been a fascinating exchange of thoughts. Personally, it seems impossible for me to create female characters who are not challenged by the many facets of themselves. When a man comes along who thrills them and gives them exactly what they want they are still in conflict much of the time. The male characters are drawn to the complexity of the female character and the challenges they present. I haven’t read the novels you refer to. I do recall my daughter reading the Twilight series and she loved it. I think she loved it because she was hungry for a man to enter her life. She knew boys but wondered what it would be like to be loved in a mature way. I found with many of her contemporaries they showed enormous promise and talent at school but have been rather lost in the seven or so years since graduating. I think they often found real life to be a let down, thinking that their smarts would enable them immediate entry into a satisfying life. Maybe, ’50 Shades of Grey’ has something to do with being disillusioned about education and career. I don’t really know.

    I have seen no issue in not necessarily filling in all the features of a character so that the reader can invest more of herself in a character but the character has a life and is more inclined to think too much than too life. But, I am just a novice writer doing what feels natural to me.

    • Squeaky
      May 13, 2012 at 7:12 pm

      “I think she loved it because she was hungry for a man to enter her life. She knew boys but wondered what it would be like to be loved in a mature way.”
      wow – you hit the nail right on the head with that one. and though it’s not the whole story, there’s a very real possibility that this could be one of the reasons it’s so popular with older women, too. women who may have aged, but not matured, and neither have the men around them. society gets in ruts, and neither the men or the women in it grow intellectually. they don’t seek out the new and the challenging. just thought i’d throw that thought out there…

      • May 13, 2012 at 9:53 pm

        Well, there’s definitely a shortage of mature men these days, at least in the USA. Plenty of boys running around in adult bodies, but the actual men I know are all in deeply committed relationships. I can appreciate the fantasies about having a mature masculine man…

  16. NK
    May 13, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    More people need to read Wuthering Heights- now there’s a real relationship!

  17. May 13, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    This has been a fascinating discussion. I have skimmed the responses, and I’m pretty sure that I’m not repeating what others have said, but I could be wrong.

    I’d like to raise a few questions:

    Given that these stories are mostly written by women, and read by women, is this phenomenon a symptom or a cause?

    Is the underlying condition even a ‘disease’?

    I’ve heard people elsewhere (often women) put forward the idea that as women take their place as powerful participants in modern culture, as professionals, as heads of households, as leaders and thinkers, there is an attraction for situations that don’t have that weight of responsibility. The fact that these characters _are_ so different from their daily lives makes them attractive; it’s not that the readers identify with these characters that’s important, it’s that they are so different from their day-to-day lives.

    It’s hard to deny that reading these books is anything but escapism. If that’s true, then what are the readers of these books escaping from?

    • May 13, 2012 at 9:55 pm

      Here are some related links:

      More women than men aspire to high-paying careers:

      Women reading 50SoG are mostly young, urban, and successful:

    • May 14, 2012 at 9:41 pm

      It’s hard to deny that reading these books is anything but escapism. If that’s true, then what are the readers of these books escaping from?

      If most of the women reading the book are young, urban professionals, perhaps they are seeking to escape from pressure – pressure from the media that tells them they have to look a certain way, act a certain way, BE a certain way (even in these discussions – it’s all about how young women shouldn’t want to read books like this, shouldn’t enjoy them. Maybe they are wanting to escape (even for a few minutes on the train ride to work) worry about the meeting coming up later that day, the boss, their kids, the dog who needs shots, the pressure to be all and everything…to succeed, to be sexy, to be smart, to be accepted.

      These books say you can be a lip-chewing, clutz, wearing clothes from Good Will, unable to string a sentance together, and attract someone presented like a real catch. These books reinforce the notion that the reader really is OK. In the case of 50 Shades, it’s reinforced that notion for many women fans as well as all of the people who’ve delighted in trashing it and women who like it.

  18. May 13, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    I never wanted to read Twilight. It was a gift from my (at the time) 17 year old niece. All I could think was “Shit, now I *have* to read it because she’ll want to talk about it. BLAH!” When I was done with it, I wanted so badly to hand her a *real* vampire novel, but unfortunately, she was an underaged Mormon girl, and I was afraid her mother would want to kill me lol.

    Anyway, I thought the book was ok. I never did get around to reading the rest of the series until the 4th movie came out, and even then only because another friend of mine pestered me about it. My favorite part of the whole series was the sections told from Jacob’s point of view. He was so much more interesting. I couldn’t identify with Bella at all. I never understood what made her so emo. Being a teenager was difficult for us all, but come on, really? I was a depressed teen, and I had to ask my mother if I was that bad, because if I was, I was going to apologize profusely. Thank you for pointing out exactly why she felt so unreal to me.

    An additional point that bugs me about the story that most people don’t seem to see: Edward is what… A little over 100 years old? What the hell does he see in a 17 year old? I’m 32, and I’m already one of those “damn teens!” kind of adults. People try to justify it that he’s trapped in his mentally 17 year old state, but he seems worlds more mature than that. You can’t have all that education and experience and still think like a 17 year old. Others try to tell me he’s attracted to her mystery because he can’t read her mind. He can still talk to her and see who she is as a person. Is his personality so underdeveloped that he thinks high school drama and parental conflicts are interesting? GAH! So whether Bella is a vapid heroine or not, even if her character was still more fleshed out the romance would seem unbelievable to me.

    • May 14, 2012 at 6:43 am

      “Others try to tell me he’s attracted to her mystery because he can’t read her mind.”

      That is pretty much the only thing that makes any kind of sense. Bella is tedious. It doesn’t make sense that *anyone* would be obsessed with her, let alone someone 100 years old. had a piece on this:

      Basically, some fans postulated that Bella was part werewolf. It accounted for several inconsistencies. Unfortunately, Meyer was so committed to the vacant pants/Mary Sue she’d built, that she stuck with “Neener, neener.” We are supposed to believe that Bella is simply the most incredible, special McSpecialton that ever specialed.

  19. Brandon C. Lay
    May 14, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    So one of the actresses working on a film with me posted this on her fb wall and I figured I’d share the comment I left their with everyone (typos and all).

    “I think the only aspect this article doesn’t tackle (because its focus is so strongly on educating women and not educating people) is perhaps the problem isn’t the fact that the female writers are writing women poorly but are in fact writing men poorly. How much more interesting is it to question the fact that perhaps by writing women as empty vessels through the eyes of the writer (a women) she is in fact writering herself accurately and her mistake isn’t that perception but instead the perception that men are any different? She is also writing about a distinctly young age group who probably all consider themselves empty vessels (at least subconsciously) because they are still trying to find themselves. And really–! I think critiquing Twilight is giving it too much credit. It isn’t worth scholarly analysis. It would be like a food critic discussing the flavor of Coco Puffs. Does anyone expect depth from it? The people who read it even judge themselves for doing so. Things like Twilight, Reality TV and the like have become like romance novels. They have a built in apology or “but”… “So you like Twilight…?” “I do but–” “I know they’re stupid–” “Don’t judge me–” If anything Twilight changes the culture for the better. Twilight allows people to recognize their own infancy but more importantly it offers people the validation that it’s okay to like stupid things and still hold on to the naive things such pulp supports. Like the article touches on, its the same as video games and i’ll take it further and suggest things like: comic books, sunday bingo, cigarettes, alcohol, church, pornography, hell even drugs or prostitution, these things aren’t negative on their own. Its the people who abuse them that are the problem (and really if they don’t abuse them, they’ll abuse something else). Also Dani this is a fantastic article if for nothing else than what it discusses about women in literature overall (and I do appreciate its support of male writer’s being unfairly criticized).”

    • May 14, 2012 at 1:46 pm

      Sadly, I don’t think “Twilight allows people to recognize their own infancy”. From the feedback I’ve had from my students, Twilight persuades young women that they don’t have to try at anything, or educate themselves, or have any ambitions, or aspire to any sort of exceptionalism, because there is someone out there who will love them for the empty, vapid lumps they are and impregnate them with something sparkly.

      But hey – there have always been YA books with vapid heroines.

      It gets a little scarier when adults seem equally pleased with the same level of vacuity.

  20. May 14, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    This type of heroine has long been a fixture in fiction, in many genres, for many reasons. Heroines aside, it always makes me sad to realize people would, in many cases, rather read easy-breezy, contrived, predictable stories full of vapid women and one-note men. 50 Shades is just the latest. It makes me sad because I don’t write stories like that usually, nor do I want to read them.

    In my book club, we discussed this recently – why so many of the women prefer to read books featuring vapid heroines and men who fall in love with them at first glance because they have a vagina and a winsome pout. Most agreed that reading is a an escape. They are challenged enough in real life. They want to read about women who magically find love (without a lot of effort, beause, frankly, most of the readers are tired). They want to read about women who don’t intimidate them, who don’t make them feel they should be trying harder. They don’t want to be upset. They just want to believe.

    I have yet to met anyone who says they like 50 Shades (though everyone seems to be reading it). One of my friends noted all the things RG laid out about what’s wrong with the book, but kept reading anyway. That’s what interests me.

    I like to read books that challenge me, make me think and inspire me. But, like my taste in music and movies, this varies. Sometimes, I want to watch a bad zombie flick or a cheesy romance. One of the things bugging me over the furor over 50 Shades is how it’s inspired women to attack other women. I’ve only read two commentaries written by men about the book, and neither made anyone who reads it or likes it sound like an indiot worthy of condemnation. It’s all women, pointing fingers at other women.

    That bugs me more than just another bad book.

    • May 14, 2012 at 10:39 pm

      “It’s all women, pointing fingers at other women.”

      I think that’s probably a function of the fact that most men don’t read it. If I met men who read it and thought it was the best thing since sliced bread, I’d point my fingers at them too.

  21. May 14, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    You probably would point fingers at anyone who reads and likes this book. You’ve made that pretty clear.;>)Though I am taking a slightly different stance, I admire your passion and commitment to your viewpoints. I’m more fascinated with the why behind that phenomenon (you are far from alone in your concern over all the women reading this book and liking it) than I am with just another badly written, yet popular, book featuring a vapid hero and heroine. I don’t get how women can enjoy Ladies’ Home Journal, Danielle Steele or Harry Potter either. The best-seller list is mostly full of books I’d never be interested in reading.

    And, men are reading it. They are reading it with their girlfriends and their wives. I saw two men reading it on the train last week (not on an ereader).

  22. Carmen Cocking
    May 18, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    RG – I agree with Harper Eliot’s comments, and I’m glad you brought this up because, I too, have been disturbed that so many people seem to love 50 Shades. As a writer of BDSM fiction, you can imagine it drives me nuts how the media acts like this book discovered spanking. I’ve never before read a book with that much sex that didn’t turn me on in the least. Like another commenter said, just because it has sex in it doesn’t mean it’s erotic.

    Regarding these vapid female heroines, I agree this seems to be what people want. It seems as if the population wants characters that are more like THEM, the super-sized, average intelligence, Walmart shopper. (I don’t mean this as a put-down. I go to Walmart all the time.) I believe the average Jane adores these books because they give her hope. I think it’s because she feels like, “If that girl can get the most handsome, wealthy man (or vampire) then I can too. Yippeee!” The public generally gets what they want. And apparently they want heroines they can relate to rather than heroines they can aspire to become.

    As a reader I have always wanted to read about attractive, intelligent women with more going on in their lives than these boring characters. So I will continue to write characters whom I admire. If the public wants something else, oh well. That’s their prerogative.

    RG – I think that because you are confident in your place in the world as a female, it is difficult for you to understand the way insecure women think and feel. I have the same problem. We may not capture the reader who favors a bland heroine. The good news is that there are some readers out there who “discovered” they might like to read erotic literature thanks to Anastasia’s journey, and perhaps our genres will be the better for it.

    • May 19, 2012 at 9:45 am

      Oh I WISH I was confident in my place in the world as a female. I’m anything BUT confident. But as a reader, I just like more complex characters. If I wanted to read about someone like me, I’d read my diary.

  23. Talula
    May 24, 2012 at 12:46 am

    I read twilight and shades of grey. I never finished them because they were horrible to read and written poorly. The premise of fifty shades was a little promising, but seriously, i thought maybe the story was intended to be written in a way that was mocking the twilight books. I mean it started out as a fan fic, right? its a joke and people are taking this way too seriously….

  24. mssarahb
    May 27, 2012 at 12:26 am

    Here follows a screed. It is messy and disorganized and may make me very unpopular, but I’ll say it nonetheless.

    I think that these novels (specifically for the adult female reader) are relevant because they signify the almost unsustainable nature of many/most women’s lives. They are more magical than Harry Potter, speaking to a particular female fantasy. Because many/most women are hauling the heaviest shit, often single-handedly, and there’s absolutely no respite.

    Most women have jobs. Most women have kid. Some women have spouses. And while this generation of breeding males is undoubtedly more involved with their children than any previous generation, there is still a marked imbalance. Despite their education, skills, philosophies, politics, I have met very few families where there was a fair and equal balance of work. So women are working three to four jobs. The stress level in almost unbelievable. I don’t have kids, but stand in awe of my friends (successful, educated, capable women) who manage to bear the constant demands on their time and personal resources. And most of these families also have concerns about money, schools, health care. Perhaps the previous generation is starting to need assistance–there’s another job for the woman.

    So imagine you want to leave behind the assholes at work, the shitty boss, the kids, the divorce, the PTA or noisy neighbors, the commute. And there is a book about an average woman who doesn’t have any of your problems. And in this book, there’s an adoring Magic Man who offers a solution to every problem that the female character may ever have. This book is a total escape from your world. And you like it because for a few hours, you aren’t dealing with supervising incompetents at work or afraid of losing your job and living with your kids in a car. And it’s a fucking joy to let those problems go for a while, especially if you get some romance and sex in the mix.

    For many years, I only read literary fiction. I worked at a publisher, managed an independent bookstore, went to an esteemed college, studied literary theory. I had a certain credibility. I was also a judgmental ass for many years. Because when absolute trauma and disaster struck, I wasn’t picking up Foucault or Franzen or Ozick or (god forbid)Roth. I started reading SFI and Romance and anything else that was as far from my life as I could get. That’s what these books are, and that has value and worth for the readers who find something in them. Because like sex, you get to enjoy whatever the fuck you want as long as no one gets hurt. I read the twilights and the 50s. They had a certain compulsive quality. I don’t think they are ART but that doesn’t mean they are shit. They also don’t define me as a person or a woman.

    I’m tired of women always having to be “good”–both in a mainstream cultural definition and in the sidelined pomo academic definition. I’m a feminist and that means I can read whatever I want. I can make my own decisions and deal with the repercussions. Why are women always on the receiving end of this sort of discussion? I can’t even think of a book that would engender (har!) this sort of discussion about men. And in my mind, in the real (first) world, women have many more options than men. Not that the power distribution (or pay) is equal, but the feminist movement broke open the definition of female in a way that most men still don’t have. But still, we pile on the women, even though they are holding up most of the world.

    Here ends the screed. Obviously, I could keep ranting, but really.

    • May 27, 2012 at 5:25 am

      You’re by no means the only person to suggest this answer for why 50 Shades is so popular. I think that D.L. King said pretty much the same thing over on the ERWA blog. This very much seems to follow the arguments of some of the earlier Feminist critics of romance novels. People like Janice Radaway, whose ethnographic style study of romance readers, still stands today as one of the deepest investigations of women’s engagement with the romance novel. Underlying is the conclusion that women seek comfort and escape from a cruel world in these texts, and a concern that this is akin to women in the 50s and 60s popping ‘mother’s little helpers’ to get through their abysmal lives. An opiate that renders the current intolerableness to be tolerable.

      It then follows, that these women have no choice as to how their lives play out. That we should not ‘blame’ them for seeking refuge in fundamentally bad writing, because they’re helpless, trapped slaves who don’t need reading material that makes them think. Only material that makes them feel good and keeps the misery at bay just an hour or two longer.

      While I agree that there are many, many places on the globe where women lead lives of almost unimaginable drudgery – where they are forced into marriages they don’t choose, forced to have as many children as their bodies will bear and are used like beasts of burden by their societies, I have to say that I just don’t buy that most western women live in anywhere near those conditions.

      I would venture that the majority of women in the Western world DO have a choice as to who they marry, how many children, if any, they have, and whether to pursue levels of income that exceed their actual needs. But it does take KNOWING those choices are available in order to make realize you can make them. And, in my very limited and admittedly anecdotal experience, it was books that taught me that you don’t have to make the choices the society around you forces you to believe you must make. Those books DON’T comfort you. They force you to question the choices you make and the inevitability of the life you live. And those books aren’t 50 Shades of Grey or Twilight or the vast bulk of Romances out there.

      I do, however, believe that the expectation for Western women to look like 16-year olds until they’re ninety, to have pert tits and tight asses and turn themselves out like something on the cover of a fashion magazine in order to be considered sexually desirable IS an untenable pressure. Because regardless of whether our lives our relatively pleasant (mine is – I chose not to have children and not to seek any great amount of wealth, either through marriage or career) or a litany of misery, we are all under immense pressure, both internally and externally, to play the part of both the Madonna and the whore in order to be ‘wanted’. And, ironically, it is not possible to lay the blame for this entirely at the door of men, since the vast majority of them are very happy with far less than fashion plates.

      I personally suspect that, at its root, the appeal of these books lie in a reaction to a consumeristic machine that must keep us feeling perpetually undesirable, because that keeps us purchasing all the things that might – just might – help us attain or regain that state of perfect desirability. I think 50 Shades of Grey (and Twilight) allows for escape into a world where we are the objects of desire of a man who wants us no matter what we look like or what we’ve achieved.

      I don’t think all books should serve ideological agendas. I have no problem with escapism. Although, personally, I choose to escape into the far future for my own personal refuge. But I do worry that books that offer us empty vessels we can seek comfort in do postpone a decision on our parts to escape the pernicious trap of having to pursue a level of sexual attractiveness and romantic perfection that none of us, ultimately, can buy, barter or steal.

      • mssarahb
        May 27, 2012 at 11:42 pm

        I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. I read YOUR writing, for gods sake! You are as pushy and uncomfortable as almost anyone (in prose). However, most women aren’t the Housewives of Wherever. By a certain age, the forces of life make most women focus on things besides their thighs and wrinkles. Especially when sheer exhaustion is ever looming. We may feel like crap that our asses expand with age, but we still get up, feed the world, go to work, clean the house, etc.

        Yes, western women have more choices, more options than any women in history ever. We also have a culture that seems hell bent on using us as nothing more than cogs in the capitalist machinery, while also demanding that we be perfect mothers, citizens, good in all ways. There is no support system–that is what American women, in particular, have lost. Not to deify the Scandinavians, but for fucks sake, can we not learn the lesson that affordable childcare, healthcare and good schools make it better for everyone. I don’t have kids–never wanted them–but this cheeses even me off.

        I heartily agree that young women, especially, are the perfect prey for the misogynistic, hateful standards that the marketplace creates. But those same young women also have a much greater diversity of images and ideas than I had 20 years ago, thanks to dum dum dum the internet. And most young women gain experience that allows their personal agency to overcome (at least to some degree) the brainwashing. I refuse to see all young women as victims of the great Overlords of consumerism. Mostly because I’ve met some kick-ass young women who amaze me. Not all of them. There are some real dumb twits out there. But there always have been. A great deal of the populace is happy watching whatever drivel is on tv. Is the mindnumbing drivel part of the Overlords’ plot to make us dumb and stupid? Yes, sure. But there were always dumb stupid people–sitting in bars, sitting in churches, sitting in strip clubs, sitting in theatres, reading drivel.

        And for most women, these are not the only books they will ever read. They are not stuck on a desert island with only these texts to inform their identity. I have more faith in the subversive power of the kick ass women in an Eloisa James or Georgette Heyer novel than anything Judith Butler has ever written. Women read more than men in the US, and they read more widely. And women DO know the difference between fantasy and reality (despite that old tired argument against lady novels and lady novelist.)

        But here’s the other thing: outside of “women’s fiction” (whatever that means) there is nowhere else in the mainstream culture that addresses women directly. 97% of what we “consume” is created by and for men, or at least with the assumption that men are the universal standard. So suddenly there are books that are directed at women, and the marketplace has to recognize the power behind that gender-specific segment of the population. Much like the media-frenzy over Bridesmaids last year. “OMG! Women are funny! Who knew that women go to the movie?” It’s the same thing with 50. “OMG! Women like reading about sex! And it’s dirty sex!”

        In the grand scheme, who gives a fuck that Time Magazine discovered that women have libidos. In the immediate, even though it’s mediocre, 50, etc pushes women’s erotic agency (real women, not the passive character) into the forefront, just at a time when our reproductive rights are being questioned (again!). You’d think we hadn’t done this over and over and over for the past century.

        It’s like Nixon going to China. Nixon was a conservative asshole, but there is no way that any liberal-minded politician could have risked going to communist china. Only a right-winger could do it without risking his career. 50 is an easy pill to swallow–not too transgressive, not too brainy, not too anything.

        More important than the lame character, is the fact that women are happily reading their “porn” without hiding it inside a Good Housekeeping magazine. Even though it’s not porn, it’s not even erotica. But REAL WOMEN get to indulge their sexual interests publicly. We don’t get that in our culture. And there are enough women doing it that suddenly the marketplace is scrambling to meet this “unexpected” demand. That says to me that women will gain power through their economic consumption, but also through the creation of erotica/erotic romance. And that women’s desire will become real to the culture–because in a capitalist society, nothing is real until you purchase it. And most women have not “purchased” their sexuality, so it remains invisible.

        The 200 gazillion porn industry is 99.9% focused on the male gaze (yeah, I went there). YES, I know! 50 is not porn. But it is about desire, or the desire for desire. Whatever button it hits, is aimed at the lady button, not the male. And for that, I am happy. Because I want THE WOMEN OF THE WORLD to get their giz off and for it to be right and true and safe and celebrated. Jesus, I sound like the catalog text from a female sex-toy collective.

        • May 28, 2012 at 7:54 am

          And I, in turn, agree with everything you’ve said. God knows, I wouldn’t wish Judith Butler on my worst enemy (not because she isn’t a brilliant thinker, but because reading her is painful in the extreme). Hell, I have a lot more faith in the transformative power of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And that’s my point.

          True, 50 S is NOT the only book young women are going to read. But the massive success of novels like Twilight and 50S and the very particular type of female characters they contain leads me to worry that publishers will take note of it, and search out ever more vacuous heroines to push on the reading public. And the Heyer heroines of the world will be eclipsed.

        • Kathleen Bradean
          May 28, 2012 at 8:01 am

          *hoists glass in your direction* Now THAT is saying much that’s worth saying.

  25. June 8, 2012 at 10:09 am

    I was thinking about this recently from the other end–why would a male character actually fall for such characters as these?

    The heroes are rich, intelligent, and powerful. They are true ‘alphas’ that can have pretty much whoever they want. Yet they pick… these?

    Having recently watched the old Disney films where the heroines just looked pretty and sighed for their men, I couldn’t help wondering why the Princes fell in love. They can buy “pretty” after all.

    Which is what I come to with these books. If I ever become a 100 year old vampire, I’m not going for the school girl. I’m going for Madonna or the Williams sisters or some equivalent high powered businesswoman who offers me a helluva lot more as a partner. What’s the attraction of aiming low? And why is a man who aims low attractive?

  26. June 8, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    I found both of these characters to be boring, and wouldn’t date either of them. But, while some have been trying to figure out what it is about the female character that so many women identify with, I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about the male character that created the frenzy. And, perhaps you’ve figured it out – he’s strong, he’s direct, he’s rich, he’s powerful, he’s dominant and he takes charge (at least this is what the author tells us – I found him to be a cardboard character, with no appeal whatsoever). And, he’s given a love interest who is a shell of a person (not smart, not confident, not experienced – a virgin in all things). So easy for a reader to step into her shoes and become her (only better, of course). So easy for a reader to imagine how quickly they could win the hero if their competition is this boring, nothing of a girl. In Wuthering Heights, Kathy was a spoiled, inexperienced girl who is dead when the story begins. Though considered a romance, the female main character isn’t even in the book for most of it! Talk about invisible. Yet, women loved this book, and Heathcliff is still discussed as one of literature’s greatest romantic anti-heroes.

    I haven’t read anything where readers talk about how much they liked or identified with the heroine in FSOG. She’s invisible. The focus here (with readers at least) seems to be on him. And, some women are responding to the fantasy, dominant man.

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