Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Male Abusers: Damned and Desired

Gender Roles, Parenting, Romantic Relationships, ViolenceAndrew Smiler

Five days. At Sunday night’s Grammy awards, domestic violence (DV) survivor Brooke Axtell spoke powerfully. Millions have applauded Axtell’s speech and her bravery. Her story and her message have appeared in TimeSlate, and elsewhere. Appearing with Katy Perry a week after Perry performed at the Super Bowl, DV has never had a higher public profile, even if the public–and the NFL–don’t really know how to talk about it.

On Friday, the movie version of “Fifty Shades of Grey” will be released in American theaters. The central story of the (first) book is whether or not 21 year old virgin Ana will sign a contract that makes her a slave to multi-millionaire 27 year old John Gray. In the book, Grey doesn’t wait for Ana’s consent. He starts treating her as his slave, spanks her and humiliates her without her consent, before she signs the contract. It’s not until the end of the first book that she finally agrees.

From DV as a problem that needs attention to celebrating violence against women? Five days.

From DV as a problem that needs attention to celebrating violence against women? Five days.

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I don’t understand why women flocked to this book. Not all women, to be sure. Writing in the Atlantic, Emma Green described the typical reader: women, mostly in the 30 – 59 age group with plenty of others in the 18-29 demographic. Approximately 10% of adult American women have read the book.

Those stats mirror the typical reader of romance novels, according to the Romance Writers of America (RWA). The RWA also says the typical reader has a household income of $55,000, making the audience solidly upper-middle class. They describe the market as having generated sales just north of $1 Billion in 2013, with the typical fan reading at least one book per month.

The RWA says there are two basic elements to a romance novel. A central love story that “centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work” and “An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending.”

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Based on what’s popular, that struggle to make the relationship work includes women accepting abuse from men. In Fifty Shades, that’s literal. In an unhealthy lifestyle he calls BDSM, Gray repeatedly hurts Ana without her consent, and she repeatedly chooses to not say anything because she worries that telling him no will end the relationship. Many DV survivors say they stayed with their abuser because they feared the end of the relationship.

Ana repeatedly chooses to not say anything because she worries that telling him no will end the relationship, just like many DV survivors.

In Outlander (book one), Jamie commits what modern readers will recognize as spousal rape. Claire attempts to fight him off, but he is much bigger than she and a trained fighter. Claire describes her body as “traitorous” for responding enthusiastically when Jamie enters her, stops fighting, and the sex is fabulous. Spousal rape is common experience in DV.

This message of women accepting pain from their male lovers isn’t restricted to these books in print. It’s also delivered in beloved movies like Pretty Woman and Grease. In PG-13 Pretty Woman, Edward outs Vivian as a prostitute and doesn’t stand up for her, then makes a thin apology and she walks out. He catches up to her at the elevator, apologizes properly, and we next see them talking in bed, presumably post-coitus. A verbal slam to the other person, followed by a sincere apology? Those are the incident and reconciliation phases of the cycle of abuse.

It’s a little different for G-rated Sandy in Grease. She “only” has to deal with Danny’s school-year long rejection…which is based on his unwillingness to put her before his reputation. Sandy gives up her body metaphorically, completely changing her appearance from chaste and proper to hot and sexy, while also shifting from an individual identity to being another member of the Pink Ladies in order to enter his world. The perpetrator’s perspective comes first, as is often the case in DV relationships.

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We all understand that media messages can be problematic. That’s a basic premise of the anti-princess movement. In Michele Yulo’s Princess Free Zone, Rebecca Hains’ “The Princess Problem,” and Lori Day’s “Her Next Chapter,” the point is to challenge the notion that the only thing good about a girl or woman is how she looks and how much she cares for her man.

The women I usually hear talking about Princess Culture are the same demographic group the RWA says are buying their books: middle- and upper-middle class women in their 30s to 50s, the prime parenting years. I hear concerns about Princess Culture from liberals and conservatives; nobody seems to want their daughters to grow up believing there only option is to wait for Prince Charming; everyone seems to want their girl to grow up to be strong, self-confident, and understand that she doesn’t need a man to take care of her.

These women are supporting a similar–and more dangerous–myth: love excuses abuse.

Yet these same women are supporting a similar–and more dangerous–myth: love excuses abuse.

In a span of five days, we will go from Axtell’s “Authentic love does not devalue another human being. Authentic love does not silence, shame, or abuse” to “love is worth any cost.”

 

Author’s note: The term “interpersonal violence” (IPV) has replaced “domestic violence” (DV) in much writing and many conversations. Axtell used domestic violence and because I quoted her, I have chosen to use that term throughout.