This post is going to branch beyond fantasy, because it’s a trend that’s bugging the heck out of me. We could also call this post Freudian Friday: “I’m Just Not Good Enough!”
You see, I read 50 Shades of Grey while I was away. It was… not the best… but I’m not going to review it in depth. What irks me enough to write about today is the main character’s perpetual insistence that she’s too plain, too boring, too normal to be with the rich, attractive, intelligent, athletic, attractive (yup, throwing that in twice, ’cause the main character is always bringing it up), and deeply disturbed Christian Grey.
The internet has pulled the book to pieces because it’s based on a piece of the author’s Twilight fanfiction, and the resemblance to Twilight is impossible to miss… but frankly, 50 Shades makes Twilight look like a portrayal of a nice, healthy relationship between two nice, healthy people.
I’m not talking about the BDSM elements, either: that’s probably material for another, very different post.
I’m really talking about the female lead’s attitude toward herself. The last fifteen years have seen a lot of books, television shows, and movies that revolve around a plain (or Hollywood Homely) main character who attracts a stunningly attractive man and then can’t believe her luck, even when he turns out to be a controlling a-hole. The heart-warming idea these works are supposed to convey is that real beauty is on the inside, and sometimes even ridiculously handsome men are smart enough to see the wonders of a Plain Jane or at least a Normal Nancy.
Here’s just a small selection:
- Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996), which I love, portrays an awkward, normal woman who really thinks that, at 130 pounds, she needs to lose weight. She goes on to snag TWO handsome, rich men who love her just the way she is.
- Twilight (published 2005-2008), in which Bella, who at least perceives herself as plain, wins the heart of sexy-vampire Edward. She spends a lot of her free time thinking about how she’s just not good enough to have won him. The series ends with her becoming a beautiful vampire and thus “worthy” of her mate.
- Ugly Betty (2006-2010), which I’ve never watched, has the whole less-than-lovely-woman built right into the title. I gather that the awkward title character and her handsome boss become friends, and Betty overcomes her awkwardness enough to become a magazine (sort of) bigshot.
- Drop Dead Diva (2009-present), portrays, weirdly, the soul of a beautiful young wannabe-model who refuses to “go into the light” after her death, and ends up in the body of a plump (but still beautiful) lawyer. The show continues today, but it revolves largely around the main character’s quest to make her former body’s fiance continue to love her, new figure and all.
- 50 Shades of Grey (2011), a titular reference to the shades of effed-upness shown by the love interest, portrays a basically normal girl getting swept up into the sexual life of a 27-year-old billionaire and wondering how she could possibly have done to deserve it.
As I said, that’s just a small sample. And it’s quite a trend reversal from what TV Tropes calls, “Ugly Guy, Hot Wife,” prevalent in sitcoms, in which a seriously unattractive dude lands a total hottie… and as far as I’ve seen, takes it as his due and never broods about how he’s just not good enough.
All in all, the pattern suggests that “normal” women should be grateful to have attracted “beautiful”men and that they should put up with any sort of bad behavior, up to and including outright abuse, in order to keep their beloved happy.
Talk about inferiority complex: These women feel so inferior to their mates that they will try to lose weight, try to change their interests, try to adopt an “alternative” sexual lifestyle, or even die and become a vampire, all in the name of “keeping” the man.
This is not a good message to send.
What do you think, readers? Why are inferior-feeling women a much-enjoyed trope in books, television, and movies?
A most excellent post. I’m also incredibly bothered by this trend. Like you pointed out, it seems like an attempt at showing beauty is more than what’s on the outside but it all backfires when the girls/women are portrayed as seeing themselves as unworthy of the attention of guys. Ugh. You also touched on another annoying trope: the “ugly” guy getting the attractive woman and seeing it as something he’s owed. This one infuriates me. The idea of entitlement is perpetuated in such dangerous ways in books, movies and, sadly, in real life. It seems like these writers create characters that people can relate to (insecure, awkward, wanting to be noticed/liked/loved) and then stop there without giving them any further depth. Or a spine.
Such a great post, Kristin! Well said, my friend! We should probably counter this trend by writing novels that have the opposite message. Just to, you know, swing the pendulum…lol
I’m with Laird. It’s our job to pull our culture out of this ugly place. We (as a culture) seem to swing from weak woman to strong woman portrayals with neither type having much depth of character. Personally, I think an entitled strong woman (or one who views herself as the same as a man) is as awful as a self-hating weak woman. It’s hard in movies to give depth, especially in blockbusters, but in novels, we have a place to do it. 🙂
Great post, Kristin. I think these tropes are prevalent in books, TV and film due to the much broader “supermodel” problem. Women and girls are constantly reminded by magazines and “Hollywood” they’re “supposed” to be thin and beautiful… So I think many women and girls out there have low self-esteem because of this — which is perhaps what the books and entertainment industry are tapping into. In my view, there’s a LOT that needs to change to overcome this.
Great post, Kristin! I don’t even know where to begin … The sad thing is that in our society women are among the strongest proponents of these tropes. They want the guy to be stronger, smarter, richer, better all-around, maybe so they don’t have to feel responsible … that they’ll be ‘taken care of’ no matter what. Anyway, I won’t blather on here … Again, GREAT post!