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The Insidious Underlying Message of ‘The Mister’

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Instead of a recap today, I wanted to share something that has been bothering me a lot. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Something someone probably already wrote about at length in the comments and then I got high and thought I had the idea myself. But I hope not.

If we were to rank the problems with E.L. James’s The Mister, the most outrageous offense would clearly be her xenophobic and stereotypical depictions of Albania. There’s nothing I can add to the condemnation of this that hasn’t already been covered by readers from Eastern Europe–or by the country of Albania itself. But the insidious, anti-feminist programming message runs through both the Fifty Shades of Grey books and The Mister would certainly come in second.

The core message of Fifty Shades of Grey was not “love conquers all,” despite the protestations of its most fervent defenders. The message to women everywhere was clear: if a man will stop at nothing to possess you, if he desires you so much that he will cross every boundary you set, that he will grossly violate your privacy and isolate you from family and friends as he carefully trains you to passively endure his explosive temper and selfish pursuit of his own sexual pleasure, that is proof of love. That is proof that Anastasia Steel and, by extension, you, are desirable, Reader. This is the ultimate fantasy and the ultimate, modern, intelligent young woman like Ana was rational enough to see that and abandon her own agency, as it was the only way she would truly find the happiness all woman must secretly want.

At first glance, The Mister seemed as though it would be objectively better than Fifty Shades of Grey. Alessia Demache is so different from Anastasia Steel in many respects. Over and over, Christian Grey praises Ana’s bravery and intellect, but as we never see her do anything particularly brave or intelligent until the climax of the final story, these fawning compliments read like emotional manipulation. Alessia is, by contrast, an actual survivor. Brave enough to escape from human traffickers, highly educated and musically talented, she starts out her narrative as a full-fledged person, rather than a sex doll waiting to be booted up. But that same idea, that love requires submission and passivity, moves from the forefront to become an inescapable background pattern in The Mister. A pattern that even a critical reader might not hear over the steady repetition of, “At least she knows what masturbation is,” running through their relieved brains.

We learn, in long conversations that describe Albania with the same level of dignity and fairness with which Bond movies portrayed the U.S.S.R., about Alessia’s father, a domestic abuser who prowls around their medieval village with a rifle, a man she fears will kill her should she dishonor his name. We know that her mother didn’t marry for love, and after Alessia is sold to a man she doesn’t want to marry, her mother sends her away to avoid the wedding–and the honor killing. Shortly after Alessia tearfully confesses parts of this to Maxim, she considers the coldness of her parents’ marriage and the true love of her grandparents.

Alessia’s Nana is described as nothing less than a political dissident. Know the danger of spreading the word of the Lord in then militarily secular communist Albania, she went to the country as a missionary. This is where she met Alessia’s grandfather and fell so in love that she abandoned the Free World to move to the Eastern Bloc. Even while living under state censorship, Nana smuggled contraband books from England. Nana was a rule-breaker living in a country that, according to James, is a harshly repressed, unforgiving social landscape in which women are nothing more than livestock and brutal patriarchy reigns.

No country is uniform in its cultures and traditions. As there are people in every country who challenge outdated social mores, there are those who uphold them. Albania is no exception. It has to be true that Alessia’s grandfather was more forward-thinking on issues of gender and relationships than Alessia’s father is, since the former married a woman who would take risks to subvert the power of the state, even just a little bit. Otherwise, we must believe that true love convinced Nana to sacrifice all personal agency and bow to the whims of a man who upholds the subjugation of women. This approach asks us to allow that a woman can still be strong and forward thinking even as she surrenders her principles and raises her daughter to accept that abuse is a normal and expected part of marriage. That she has a tremendous liberal Western influence over her granddaughter, but chose not to impart these same lessons to her daughter and instead raised her to be a docile peasant wife. That this is a conscious choice a woman can make without diminishing her standing as a feminist inspiration to younger generations.

Even if we entertain the argument that Nana’s Christian beliefs may have made archaic gender roles more personally appealing as a marriage model and child-rearing strategy, James is still encouraging us to view such an abandonment of autonomy as a necessary component of a love story. It’s just that this time, she’s managed to make it more subtle, half-covering it with a wan blanket of white feminist characterization on the page, rather than in exasperated damage control tantrums in the media. Instead of invoking the importance of a woman’s sexual pleasure to drown out critics, she’s created a talented, multi-layered heroine who’s had to overcome real adversity. Yet, when the chips are down, Alessia wonders if her grandmother’s “crazy ideas about independence and liberation” have damaged her ability to live a moral life–the dismal one her mother accepted for herself and which she trained Alessia for.

Am I accusing James of sitting down and carefully plotting this out like an expert propagandist, cleverly aware of the damaging anti-feminist ideals her work glamorizes? No. I could make a snarky comment here about her not being a savvy enough creator to pull such a feat off, but the truth is so much worse. Internalized misogyny is like radiation or carbon monoxide: there’s no obvious proof that it’s there but that doesn’t mean it isn’t contaminating everything. The success of the Fifty Shades of Grey series was arsenic wallpaper on the public consciousness. It was subjectively attractive and that was enough to make readers ignore its underlying poison. Some people are simply unaware of its dangers; others see a profit to be made in introducing a toxic product to the masses. I don’t believe E.L. James is the wallpaper manufacturer. I think she just adores this particular shade of green and doesn’t see the harm in recommending her interior decorator to others.

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38 Comments

  1. NewFan
    NewFan

    “Internalized Misogyny”
    That will be my shoe brand where every style is 1.5 sizes smaller than labeled, and the heels will be 2mm different heights.

    June 6, 2019
    |Reply
  2. ” The message to women everywhere was clear: if a man will stop at nothing to possess you, if he desires you so much that he will cross every boundary you set, that he will grossly violate your privacy and isolate you from family and friends as he carefully trains you to passively endure his explosive temper and selfish pursuit of his own sexual pleasure, that is proof of love. That is proof that Anastasia Steel and, by extension, you, are desirable, Reader. This is the ultimate fantasy and the ultimate, modern, intelligent young woman like Ana was rational enough to see that and abandon her own agency, as it was the only way she would truly find the happiness all woman must secretly want.”

    My fury at this repeated bullshit message is why I started writing Romance and erotica, specifically. My fury at this crap is why I started my blog. My fury at being told repeatedly that I’m “anti-woman,” “anti-feminist,” and “don’t understand love/romance” because I do not think that a woman giving up all her power to a man — especially one who already has most of the power — is a sign of her strength and agency. FUCK THIS SHIT.

    (I’m also enough of an asshole to encourage readers to check out my extensive blogging on this exact same thing in my Gaslighting the Reader entries, as well as my gender-flipped version of this Alpha/Dom bullshit, in case I haven’t made it clear enough that ABUSE IS NOT HOT AND ROMANTIC, AND YOU DO NOT HAVE TO GIVE UP ANYTHING TO RECEIVE LOVE. Fuck you, Mrs. Leonard.)

    June 6, 2019
    |Reply
    • Kylie Glessing
      Kylie Glessing

      I am now reading your blog, and enjoying it immensely. 🙂

      June 6, 2019
      |Reply
    • Gah, typo.

      Should read “the power — is a sign of her strength and agency = FUCK THIS SHIT.”

      June 6, 2019
      |Reply
      • Bamfina
        Bamfina

        I’m also heading over to your blog immediately!

        June 6, 2019
        |Reply
        • Thanks, you guys. Jenny was a huge inspiration for all of it.

          June 6, 2019
          |Reply
  3. Gretel
    Gretel

    CN: mention of abuse, islamophobia, LGBQT-hatred

    First, I want to say that I agree. I’ve also been thinking about how a “rebellious” grandmother could have a conservative daughter and while it sounds contradicting, it’s always a question of perspective, time and topic.

    I’ll explain what I mean by drawing from my own experiences. A little background information: I’m from a Spanish immigrant family and I live in Switzerland. My mom was raised Catholic but changed to some smaller Christian church when marrying my father (his paternal grandfather forced the family to basically change sects) and my mother later completely renounced churches BUT NOT Christianity.

    Okay, so, my mom tried to raise me with feminist ideas: equal opportunities, equal rights, respect, bodily autonomy, etc.
    HOWEVER, already as a child I noticed inconsistencies and the older I got, the more blatant they became. For example, equal opportunities and duties for all, but my older brother never had to do chores, however I had to since I was in kindergarten. Beginning with small tasks, I soon had to do more chores, especially after the divorce, and my mother either ignored or found ridiculous excuses to explain why my brother hadn’t done this or that at my age but I had to.
    She always rightfully complained that my father never did his part in raising us children but never realised that she trained me to be a housewife and basically tought my brother without words that women are the ones responsible for house duties.

    At the same time, she was adamant about me learning and getting farther ahead in school than she did. Studying was important. Indipendence was important. Yet, for her, three things were obvious: 1) that I was heterosexual (I’m pan so lol) and WANTED a man in the future, 2) that I was going to marry and WANT a man to protect me (while also being indipendent but also co-dependent of a man???) and 3) that I want to have children because I’m a girl.
    So, I should study and get a good job and be indipendent financially but also I should find a rich husband so I wouldn’t have to work and be emotionally dependent of him…
    “Be indipendent but submissive and meek.”
    Yeah, I just…don’t know, either.

    There were lots of other contradictions that despite trying to teach me that women should be free and indipendent, she also said things that went completely the opposite way or behaved in a contradicting manner. This is one part internalised misogyny and another part her Catholic upbringing because despite renouncing Christian churches, she was aaaaaall in for Christian indoctrination: God’s word is absolute and unquestionable, never ever criticise God or the Bible, never ever sin, absolute obedience of God (and thus parents) is important, abuse is only for your own good and you need to get over it.
    She was basically programing me to follow orders without ever asking questions and expected me to asborb abuse and see it as an expression of love. I remember vividly how I read the New Testament and in some part women are compared to pigs and how unmarried women are the same as pigs with no nose rings: women need to be subjugated by men to be real and worthy, etc.
    I tried asking what this was about and how I should tolerate this blatant abuse of power. First, my mother claimed that I didn’t understand. Then she said I misread. After that, she insisted that I was lying. And then, finally, she said that I was wrong and should ignore it to just walk away from me.
    This is important because she was trained to just “take it” and she was training me, despite her “feminist” speeches to equally “just take the abuse” without challenging the abuser.

    Going back to internalised misogyny and wonky feminism. My mother always said that women should be free to wear what they want and men shouldn’t touch us without consent.
    We Western women are free (unlike Muslim women…yes, she’s brutally islamophobic), and we shouldn’t let anyone dictate what to wear, especially not Islam, a religion she deems absolutely evil (no hyperbole…she’s to this day conviced of the born and natural evilness of Muslims…this is another can of worms).
    Yet at the same time my mom always shamed other women: “too thin, too fat, too tall, too small, too skinny. She shouldn’t show so much boobs. Why is she covered up so much? Is she a/n [insult] Muslim? Oh, look at her, dressed like a whore. Wear what you want but don’t be immodest but show skin, you’re a free Western girl but not too much or you’re a slut and whore.”
    She was always slut shaming her own friends, criticising their looks behind their backs and in front of me, always judging every little detail. All the while she’d insist on ignoring the haters, be free and do what you want. But please be and do exactly what she wants you to do.

    Basically, the impossible tight rope of being free and open but not slutty or whorish. Have sex but not too much. And never non-heterosexual interest, the worse sin of all.
    My mother, who insisted that men had to respect my bodily autonomy, was the first to never listen to my bodily autonomy. Always touching (not sexual, I mean like forcing hugs or touching the face or a pimple or fat rolls) and pinching and punching me. Never, in my life, has she respect my boundaries and I have to literally become a ball of rage so she stops touching me. She also consistently called me fat and anorexic, sometimes even in the same conversation.
    In her opinion, this is perfectly okay and normal because she’s my mother and she “cares for me so much” that she just HAS to ignore my objections and FORCE bodily contact and her opinions on me.

    I cannot describe the damage she’s done and the hatred and rage I have inside of me. The only good thing is that I noticed early on how contradicting her stances were. How she behaved one way and presented herself as being nothing but perfectly acceptable herself.
    Autonomy and freedom for everyone…unless she wishes for something else, then it’s all wrong.

    Anyhow, to finally finish this overly long comment: it wouldn’t surprise me if Alessia’s grandmother was this type of “feminist” since I grew up on exactly this kind of bullshit. Depending on the topic, my mom would be “liberal” or conservative. She’d equally express disdain for misogyny but would also jump at every opportunity to shame women for womaning wrong.
    These contradictions are sadly totally normal for some people. Like, my mom is hardcore islamophobic but absolutely against anti-semitism (mainly because Jesus was Jewish so as a Christian you shouldn’t be anti-semitic and not, ya know, because it’s wrong). So she agrees that the holocaust was a horrendous crime but at the same time is convinced that Muslims are literally born evil.
    Or gays: “Yeah, okay, they can live and all. But they better not be living gayily! No gay relationships or they’ll burn in Hell. You can be gay just…don’t act the gay out. Also if my children were ever gay or marry a Muslim, I’d kill them.” (Yes, she said everything and the last sentence verbatim. She really did say she’d kill me if I ever married a Muslim man.)

    I guess the best way to describe this kind of feminism would be as White Feminism or Conservative Feminism. It’s just misogyny and patriarchy disguised in semi-fancy clothes. Like, not even real fancy clothes but those cheap rental suits with artificial fibers. Looks alright in dim, flashing lights but you it stinks like old sweat, feels like plastic and is badly sewn.

    June 6, 2019
    |Reply
    • Lana
      Lana

      I relate to this a lot. Maybe my mom is not as extreme as yours in some of her views, but there where a lot of contradictions in my upbringing as well. It is baffling to me that I am still discovering those contradictions to this day, 10 years after I left home. My mother has always been outspoken about equality and argued that my brother and I (a woman) were equal in her eyes. I think she really believes this. However, like you mentioned, she taught me cooking and had me washing dishes at a super young age, yet I can’t even remember a single time my brother washed a dish in his life. She would almost have a meltdown when I neglected my chores as a teenager, but she still cleans after my brother to this day. He still lives at home even though he’s almost 30, my mom still cleans his room, does his laundry, cleans his bathroom, and cooks for him.

      Education was always important to my mom. She didn’t get to go to college and was adamant that I finish a career and become independent. She lectured me over and over on the importance of being able to stand on my own two feet so that I would be able to leave my husband if he ever became abusive. Going by her words, she wanted me to become an empowered woman with a career and an equal to any man. Again, I think she deeply believes this to be true. However, the signals she has been sending me since I got married are a complete contradiction of these views. She was shocked when I mentioned that I don’t do my husband’s laundry. I told her we both worked full time jobs and it made sense that we should be able to do the same amount of work at home. She told me that it sounded like I was cold and mean and he might recent me for not taking care of him. I face-timed with her one day and she chastised me for not wearing any makeup and wearing “crumpy” clothes at home. When I argued that it was Sunday morning and I was home she had the audacity to tell me that I shouldn’t be surprised if my husband’s eyes started straying to the well dressed ladies he sees at work everyday! I was livid. I’m also not going to get into how much she nags about getting pregnant. It’s like I can never be fulfilled if I have no children. My brother gets no such lectures.

      Internalized misogyny is so insidious that I believe with all my heart that my mom truly does believe in equality while at the same time being guilty of trying to impart misogynist ideology to her children. I don’t think EL is even aware of how perverse her framing really is. It terrifies me, to be honest. What if some of my mother’s ideology took hold in me and I don’t even know it?!

      June 6, 2019
      |Reply
      • Tami
        Tami

        Lana, trust me: you have the power within you NOT to be like your mother, or at least not take on her negative qualities. You see them for what they are, you are aware. They set off a bad response in you. I was afraid that this would happen to me, as well, which is why I never had kids — and by the time I had enough therapy to understand what happened to me and how to break the pattern, it was too late (my internal lady-parts were not well and I had to have them removed).

        Just live your own life. Your husband loves you as you are. If he’s going to roam, kick his ass to the curb. You’re smart enough to know it has nothing to do with whether or not you wear makeup on a Sunday morning. I am sorry your mother is putting you through this but apparently, it’s something in her own past that is making her afraid of you winding up like her, which seems to be a lonely older woman with nothing better to do than criticize others.

        June 6, 2019
        |Reply
        • Lana
          Lana

          Thanks Tami!

          My husband has been great. He’s the one that has pointed out some of these toxic comments from my mom.

          June 10, 2019
          |Reply
      • Alison
        Alison

        My mom is like that, too. She was born in the 50’s and had an abusive father so she grew up to be a people pleaser. She genuinely believes in feminism and equality but it’s hard to shake off lifetime habits. She did a pretty good job raising me feminist but the internalized misogyny still sneaks in in little ways. Like how she thinks her husband always knows better than her so she defers to him. I’m trying very hard to be conscious of it with my own daughter.

        June 6, 2019
        |Reply
      • Anon
        Anon

        Lana —

        Any man who would cheat on you because you want to feel comfortable in your own home isn’t a man worth keeping, anyway! That would be my response to your mom. I assume from other details that you would be able to support yourself without a husband, so being single would be fine — especially in contrast to a man who would have such a flimsy excuse.

        Anyway, it sounds like your husband probably isn’t going to cheat with one of his well-dressed coworkers and likely doesn’t have a problem with your Sunday morning at home attire.

        June 7, 2019
        |Reply
    • Tami
      Tami

      I cannot begin to tell you how much of my own life I see in your comment. Brace yourself — this is gonna be another of my long-winded posts.

      My mother and her twin brother were born in 1945. Their mother was first-generation American daughter to a German-Russian man, and his wife who was German but that side had been here a few generations. Great-Grandpa had a temper and regularly beat his wife and their kids.

      This cycle repeated when Granny (mom’s mother) married her first husband, a man who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic who would get into fisticuffs with his own mother. He left Granny when the twins were around 10, forcing her to raise them as a single mother through the 1950s-60s.

      Mom said she was the one who was forced to do all the chores while her brother got to come and go as he pleased. Granny would smack them both if they acted up in church (they were raised Lutheran). When she was 17, my mom was in a bar and a fight broke out; she got hit in the face with a beer bottle and broke her nose. Granny, then holding down two jobs, had to leave work and go to the hospital where Mom was. The instant she saw her, Granny slapped my mother across the face — and her bandaged nose — for being in the bar, because she didn’t raise her to be like that.

      Mom’s first husband was just like her dad, beating on her all the time. One of Granny’s coworkers introduced Mom to her eldest son, who would become my father. He was handsome and could make Mom laugh. Little did she know, he was also a narcissist and a sex addict who had raped his own younger sister and brother as kids when he was in his teens (according to my paternal grandmother, he was the Golden Boy Who Could Do No Wrong and she called her only daughter/my aunt a liar for accusing him; years later, she also refused to believe it when I told her he had done the same to me).

      My mother divorced her first husband and married my father before he shipped off to Vietnam for two tours with the USMC. While he was overseas, my father hooked up with a Thai prostitute whom he referred to as his girlfriend (I was told he named me after her). He even had photos of the two of them in an embrace, which I saw as a child. My mother never said anything about it; she just accepted it. She also knew that he was sleeping around with neighbors while she was working at the hospital as a pediatrics RN during the 70s. What she did NOT know was that he was abusing me, because he kept me silent. When I was finally able to tell her, she believed me because SHE had been raped by HER father.

      When my parents divorced in ’79, my father got custody of me and my younger sister. Things got worse for me. If I was seen walking home from school with a group of friends and one of the girls had her boyfriend with her, I would be punished because I was, by proxy, with a boy. At 12, when I had asked for Star Wars action figures for Christmas, instead I received some cheap make-up that looked like something a streetwalker would wear. My father continued to abuse me even after he remarried to a sadistic woman who loved messing with my head (she’s a narcissistic sociopath, which somehow managed to fit perfectly with my father because they’re still together). This woman made Sybill’s mother look like a saint. When she got pregnant with their first child, I was shipped off to live with my mom. That’s when I felt safe enough to open up about the abuse. Unfortunately, Mom did nothing. If she had gone to authorities right then and there, both my father and stepmother would have gone to prison. Instead, they got away with everything. With me out of the picture, my sister became the next victim. My father gave her gifts so she refused to speak out against him. To this day, he still has her wrapped around his finger with his money. He also has others convinced he’s a great guy because, hey, he was a deacon of his church! Yeah, well, so was the BTK serial killer…

      Just after high school, my sister became one of those born-again rock ‘n roll Christians who are quick to judge everyone and thinks her own shit doth not stink. She treats our mother like crap and yet tells me I should “honor thy father.” When she had her first daughter, she told me how she planned to raise her to believe women are subservient to men, because “that’s what the Bible says.” This from the person who didn’t know what Gethsemane was when I used it as a metaphor during a conversation, which should tell you just how much she actually comprehends that book. (She also told me not to teach her child about dinosaurs because “they aren’t in the Bible.”)

      It should come as no surprise that my sister read and loved the FSoG books. I tried to explain to her that they were about abuse and she argued they were about love being able to change someone. Okay, put down the Kool-aid, honey. Please note: my sister’s first child was born out of wedlock from an affair with a then-married man (this was after she had found Jesus, too). Her second child’s paternity is unknown because she was with her first husband and having an affair with yet another married man. Just after the birth of that kid, she divorced her husband and two years later married her lover, who was now divorced from HIS wife. He was living in my sister’s house along with his eldest son from his previous marriage (three other kids lived with his ex and spent weekends at my sister’s until their mother abandoned them and went back to Mexico). And guess who performed their wedding? Yep, me, back when I was newly-ordained. What a mistake THAT was.

      I really wanted to like my brother-in-law, but he has that Mexican machismo thing where women are supposed to stay in the kitchen, take care of the kids, and keep their husbands happy. He always treated my sister’s eldest daughter like shit because she’s not his. He is INSANELY jealous and always thinks my sister is cheating on him (well, she cheated on her last husband with him…), would not let her have male doctors, and if she was at the store with me getting groceries he would call repeatedly to ask where she was. You know, like that guy in the books my sister loves soooo much. My BIL insists they eat (primarily) Mexican food, that they change the decor of the house to match HIS heritage — okay, whatever. But what got me was how secretive he would be, especially when it came to how they could afford so many high-ticket items on such meager wages and while feeding and clothing seven kids. My sister admitted to me that they were doing a few shady deals on the side for cash.

      My BIL is also bipolar. He self-medicates with booze and gets violent; many times, I had to go to their house to get the kids out and then spend hours trying to talk him down when he was walking around with a knife and threatening to kill the family dog or himself. My sister would not allow me to call the police, either, because — surprise! — he was illegal. She was afraid he would be deported, and “then I won’t have anyone!”

      In her teens, my sister was a really cute girl. She always had a very outgoing, fun personality and made friends easily. Guys fell all over themselves for her. She would go to concerts and would always wind up hanging out with famous rock bands, nothing sexual. When it came to relationships, she was fucked up. At 14, she had sex with BOTH of our adult stepbrothers (repeatedly), and one of them was married at the time. Recently, she told me that if it weren’t for Mom and Dad (our stepfather), she would still be with one of them. And Mom knows about this but has never said a word about it because hey, at least my sister’s not a big ol’ Lesbian like me (although she DID have a bisexual threesome with her first husband…).

      Furthermore, my sister believes I have no right to tell her how to raise her kids because I never had any of my own (you don’t have to be a pilot to know the plane’s going down in flames). Hey, all but two of your kids were held back a year in school but one was held back twice so that kinda makes up for it — but that’s cool. Your daughter wet the bed until she was 10? Yeah, I’m sure she’s fine. Your stepson never bathes and sits in the basement playing video games, draws swastikas on his arms, enjoys tormenting small animals, and now he’s in his 20s? Totally normal.

      Despite the fact that I’ve read the Bible (and pretty much every other religious text out there), I am not Christian, and therefore I have been told I should keep my Godless Heathen Ways to myself. My sister used to claim that because she was washed in the Blood of Jesus, she’d never get AIDS. Yeah, because the AIDS virus knows the difference. And she can steal and lie and cheat and spread nasty rumors about her neighbors, but it’s okay because she’s got seven copies of the Bible and books to help interpret it for her, so she’s guaranteed a place in Heaven.

      I still laugh when I think about that.

      Now, before you think I’m just here to bash my sister, please know that I haven’t been too successful with relationships, either. I was bisexual before I knew there was a word for it but in high school, I was convinced that I should focus on finding a man. I always managed to get involved with the wrong guys: one date-raped me while his friend watched, another cheated on me with my sister AND her best friend while we were dating, and yet another decided he was gay (and later transgender). At 19, I met an older woman who praised my art and writing and promised to help me realize my dream of being published. For 23 years, she told me she loved me, but she turned out to a textbook narcissist, gaslighting me, controlling me, and being emotionally and physically abusive. Things came to a head in 2003 when I was at work and ready to cut my wrists (on my birthday, too, as that was her favorite time of year to REALLY make me feel like shit). That day, I had a mental breakdown which led me to seek therapy.

      Unlike my mother and my sister, I got help (my sister insists she doesn’t need to counseling — trust me, girl: YOU DO). It was one of the best things I could have done. I was diagnosed with PTSD from all the abuse I suffered as both a child and as an adult. I was put on medication for a chemical imbalance that apparently runs in the family. But more importantly, I GOT WOKE. And then I got empowered. I began to stand up to my abusers. I refused to have anything to do with my father. My partner didn’t like that she could no longer control me and she walked. Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out!

      This also opened my eyes to what was happening to my sister AND her three daughters. My sister has pushed her “You Must Have a Man in Your Life to Be Complete” belief onto her girls. The eldest has jumped from boyfriend to boyfriend, desperate to find someone to love her because she doesn’t know how to love herself; she also has an eating disorder and is an alcoholic. The second girl was so convinced her own family didn’t care about her that she became a cutter, and was devastated when her only boyfriend dumped her for a girl who put out. The youngest…well, at 16 she had no interest in relationships, so she might be ace. My sister hung crucifixes in their bedrooms (I think they’ve been to church maybe three times their entire lives) and the extent of their knowledge of Christianity comes from repeated viewings of “The Passion of the Christ.” Even sadder is that these kids have little information about their heritage from their maternal side — all they’ve ever known is Mexican because my sister won’t teach them about anything else. I tried whenever I could, passing on family recipes and traditions, but they’re more interested in their iPhones than anything else. Teenagers…

      In my own progression toward getting better, I found there were things I could no longer tolerate — even from my sister. I was tired of walking on eggshells around her and her husband. I could no longer afford the cost of admission to be allowed to spend time with them (everything from forking over actual money to compromising my own beliefs and lifestyle, having to hide who and what I am, which I refuse to do). It was too toxic. And these kids on whom I had doted for years began showing me less and less respect. Look, I don’t expect them to fall to their knees and genuflect to me. But my sister and I were raised to honor our aunts, uncles, and grandparents. I don’t see these kids doing that. My sister has taught her girls that our mother is a “fruit loop” (FYI: Mom is in the grip of what could be vascular dementia, something that started at least ten years ago and has advanced rapidly in the last two) and they make fun of her behind her back. We NEVER would have done that to OUR grandparents! It breaks my heart because I love these kids, they were the closest I ever came to having any of my own (I was there for the birth of the eldest and helped to deliver and name the youngest).

      And the reason I never had kids? Because I had heard about how people who are abused as children grow up to be abusers. Hey, I’ve seen my sister belittle her own kids, yell at them, fuck with their heads. I was so afraid I would repeat that vicious cycle or worse, pass along some mental illness to another generation. I could not in good conscience do that. But if I HAD decided to have kids, I would have raised them to have a greater awareness of the world around them. They would have learned to respect themselves and others and have the freedom to explore their dreams and not let anyone take advantage of them. And they would be able to love who they wanted to love because there is no law that says you HAVE to be with someone of the opposite sex, just as there is nothing that says one race, religion, or gender is superior to another.

      No matter what any person or book tries to tell you.

      June 6, 2019
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      • What’s the common denominator in many of these abusive relationships and internalized misogyny? Religion.

        Once I made the connection that what was a “loving” relationship with God/Jesus LITERALLY MIRRORED THE RED FLAGS OF AN ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP, it all made sense. You just believe in your heart he loves you, even though you can’t see him or feel him or have any guarantee of him at all. It’s more important to have faith that he’s there and loves you than to have proof! However, he can and will constantly test your love for him with tricks and hardships and traumas. The worse it gets, the more he loves you, because he knows that you can handle it! GOOD GIRL! YOU’RE SO STRONG! Don’t complain, don’t be resentful, don’t even THINK of being angry, because you’ve been given the greatest gift of all: God’s love. God has been through so much for you: he gave you his only begotten son. And Jesus suffered and died for you. Nothing you could complain about can compare to that sacrifice! So be grateful, even though there is literally no tangible, real evidence that God loves you, but someone told you he did, so… um… yeah.

        Take out “God” and put in “Alpha male” or “husband” or “Christian Grey” and… hey, it’s the plot of these fucked up books!

        June 6, 2019
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        • Jenny (But not Jenny Trout)
          Jenny (But not Jenny Trout)

          Religion can mess with people’s heads. My mom is a conservative christian and pushes the “you need a man to be complete.” Sis’ husband is a bag of unwashed dicks which is the nicest thing I can say about him. But they’re married! So it’s okay. And he’s sorry! So it’s okay. And she loves him! So it’s okay. Fuck that noise.

          And my mom acts bewildered that I don’t go to church.

          June 8, 2019
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          • Patriarchal religions like this condition women, especially, to accept shitty behavior from those who “love” us.

            June 8, 2019
        • MyDog'sPA
          MyDog'sPA

          Emily, I’m afraid to admit it but this asshat behavior would most likely exist even without religion. Tami, Lana, and Gretel, I’m so sorry these things happened to you. I can’t do anything about what happened to you in the past, but I’m here for you if you need anything that can be offered over the interwebs.

          I learned two key constructs from my own therapy sessions about the human condition after my divorce that helped me out a lot. The first is that, without therapy, children will grow up to do either the same as their parents or the polar opposite. e.g., if a parent was a heavy drinker, child will grow up to either be one themselves or a bible-thumping tea totaler. This can be true of many human faults, like abuse, over-control, and the like. The trouble is that the extremes of the spectrum are just that, too extreme and the child growing up really doesn’t know how to live in the middle ground that would actually be a better solution for them.

          Second, if, as a child, one is subjected to the above human fault from the parent, the child will develop a subconscious (the way it really works, not the way EEL portrays it) where even though the child consciously knows the abuse they’ve been exposed to for years from their parents is bad, their subconscious will seek it out in their next partner, thereby starting the abuse all over again. We often wonder why an abused child will go and find a partner that will, in turn, continue to abuse them. We can see it plain as day, but the person can’t see it for themselves. Why? That’s their subconscious at work. One of the hardest things I had to do was to train myself in to telling my own subconscious to f***k off and ignore the woman it was attracted to and find one that treated me with love and respect. I did that 25 years ago and, yeah, all I can say is this therapy thing actually works.

          But therapy takes time, and at first one never knows if it’s really going to work or not. But if you can, try it, stick with it, and your life will be better for it.

          Best of luck to you all. I wish I could hug you all and say it will be all right, but it can with lots of work. (sorry there’s no magic pill to take, but that’s life sometimes.)

          Love to all.

          June 8, 2019
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        • Elizabeth
          Elizabeth

          The thing that finally clicked into place why I was having trouble with this whole “God’s Love” thing was actually the lyrics to Amazing Grace. I love the song, had heard it for years- then one day I really heard and thought about “Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear, and Grace my fears relieved.”

          That’s . . . exactly what abusers do.

          I’m not Christian, never have been, but I finally had words to explain why I never would be. I still love the song, but not in quite the same way.

          As to these possibilities existing without religion- absolutely! But they’re worse when something as powerful as the Church (whichever iteration) is absolutely normalizing this kind of “relationship” and “love.”

          June 9, 2019
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  4. Stormy
    Stormy

    The Mister baffles me because even in 50SoG, the hero and heroine, y’know, INTERACTED. You can argue about why he’d be attracted to a woman who asks rude questions and is socially awkward but hey, there’s someone for everyone and they actually had conversations. Maxim went from playboy rich dude who thought “huh, she’s pretty hot” to “I AM CAPTIVATED BY YOU” on the strength of…watching her clean?? I guess??

    So yeah, “if you’re hot enough and a virgin, your innate goodness will shine through and reform a directionless man, changing him into someone who takes responsibility and thinks about the future and wants you madly” isn’t a super feminist line of thought, either.

    June 6, 2019
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  5. Stormy
    Stormy

    Meant to add: it’s definitely not impossible that freedom fighter Nana produced a more conservative daughter, especially if Mom perceived her ideals as “foreign” and strove instead to be a good communist (?? not sure of the timeline here) or that she supported Nana’s point of view prior to marrying her very traditional husband, who insisted she conform to his idea of an ideal woman.

    June 6, 2019
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    • Lucy
      Lucy

      Alessia ‘s mother might have wanted to conform and not stand out, as often happens to the children of immigrants. But I have the impression that James didn’t really think any of this through. She needs her heroine to be “exotic” but not too much, hence the English grandmother. But at the same time, she needs to be a poor oppressed girl from Eastern Slobbovia to be rescued by the hero. It’s the same reason why she talks about clever phones and magic cards yet had access to Netflix and HBO and was training to be an English teacher. She has to be super alien yet somewhat relatable all at once, which in theory isn’t impossible to do in a character, but James doesn’t remotely have the talent to do it.

      June 6, 2019
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    • Lena
      Lena

      I just look at my MIL and her mother. My GMIL had a very high powered job in her day while her husband worked but did less high powered stuff and kind of drifted around careers. She’s also very open minded and non-religious. My MIL, however, is extremely intolerant and quite religious. She also never really worked and is comfortable living a very small town lifestyle and bossing her husband into financing it lol. I’m often shocked the two women are related and that the natural progression of views has actually gone backwards. It’s not even husband influenced as my FIL is not dominant at all. Not a perfect sample but I’ve witnessed it in real time.

      June 7, 2019
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  6. Alison
    Alison

    Jenny, I love your analogy about the arsenic wallpaper both because it is apt and because it appeals to my historical geek side.

    June 6, 2019
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  7. Maile
    Maile

    I can relate to this post and the comments. My mother got pregnant and married when she was sixteen. My father was very controlling with a bad temper. My mother, brother, and I walked on eggshells around him. We three took care of the house but it was never good enough for him. My mother has told me not to be like her my whole life. She pushed me to get good grades and go to college. She lectured me to get a job and depend on no one. She told me to not marry a man like my father. She told me marry a man with money and who could cook, like her brother .
    She told me to be independent. She’d say that it was better to be an old maid with a cat then be married.
    But let’s look at what she showed me. She stayed with my abusive father. We had to try and please someone who would never be pleased. She did get a job and go back to college because my parents got into so much debt. She stayed with a man who belittled her efforts at education and work. He had to come first even when my grandparents were in the hospital. My brother and I had to cook and clean but he never lifted a finger.
    She liked to tell me that her brother was the kind of man to marry but that Uncle always belittled me growing up.
    My mother still says do as I say and not what I do or did.
    I sometimes want to scream “What can I do?”
    I have no idea how to be in a healthy relationship. My past relationships never lasted long. I could never relax or enjoy just being with someone. My mind will over analyze everything and I always have an escape plan. I had a couple boyfriends that I wish I had trusted more.
    Then when I was 29, there was the asshole. At that age I still had romantic hopes. I bought his instant attachment as “meant to be”. We rushed into sex, that I didn’t enjoy. He wanted all my attention. But a few weeks in, the red flags started to show. He was bipolar and unemployed and he expected my to leave him sexy messages from work. He offered to take my garbage out so he could go through and see if there were letters from other men. He complained that I only had Girl food in my apartment and didn’t I have cartoonishly for him to watch. He tried to tell me where to put things in my home or how to drive. He wanted to drive my car even through he didn’t have one. He wanted to use my credit card to buy basketball tickets. Most of all he wanted me to be open to sex anytime he wanted it. Does this asshole sound familiar?
    I broke up with him and he whined and manipulated me to get back together. I gathered my courage and broke up with him again. He lived in my apartment building and he tried to get back together. I worried that he was watching my movements. He moved and I thought he was gone for good. Then a year later he left a message on my answering machine. I didn’t call him back but was scared shitless. I thought I’d put him behind me but once in a while I’ll get a friend request from him on Facebook. I block him and anyone with the same name.
    I’m 44 now and haven’t been in a relationship since. I’ve been too scared to put myself out there. I’m bisexual and I’d like to date and possibly find a partner.
    So yeah, I relate to the idea that love comes at the price of your, well everything that makes you a person.
    Hugs to the Jenny and all of us.

    June 6, 2019
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  8. Lucy
    Lucy

    She loves the arsenic laced wallpaper and recommends it’s shade of green, but when people have pointed this out to her, and there are other ways to make green wallpaper, she has reacted by saying that arsenic in wallpaper is perfectly healthy and that bringing it up trivializes people drinking hemlock.

    June 7, 2019
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  9. Jenn H
    Jenn H

    The xenophobia and misogyny run together as well. Albanian men are thugs and brutes, but Maxim is a Good Guy, therefore it is ok for him control and manipulate Alessia. Meanwhile most of the women we’ve encountered in the UK are slutty blondes, while Alessia is fetishised because of her submissiveness, helplessness and conservative clothes.

    So Much Yuck.

    Like, if James could get past her unexamined prejudices, there might be a good story in there. She’s an illegal migrant with a mysterious past, he’s a nobleman who is screwing his dead brother’s wife. THEY FIGHT CRIME!

    June 7, 2019
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  10. merry
    merry

    I’ve watched a video about arsenic wall paper just a few days ago and it’s still fresh in my mind. We must have some kind of mind-connection.

    June 7, 2019
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  11. Anon
    Anon

    The backstory of her grandparents contrasted against her and her mother makes zero sense except in light of Eel’s internalized misogyny. If her mother had fallen in love, then later found out her husband was a monster, I could accept it. But that Dimelsa’s grandparents were actually in love and defied all odds to choose to be together and then turn around and force their own daughter to marry a monster just doesn’t fly.

    But I guess I didn’t expect any different from the Eel, so I never bothered commenting about it.

    June 7, 2019
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    • Lucy
      Lucy

      Yes it would kind of have made sense if he was charming at first and had then revealed himself to be abusive , and she’d just found herself trapped, but instead she seems to have completely embraced a medieval view of gender relations.

      June 7, 2019
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  12. Pre-Successful Indie
    Pre-Successful Indie

    While this is a great analysis, I suspect the author just didn’t think too hard about Grandma having any sort of cohesion as a character, or about how the generations influenced each other, or much of anything, really.

    Which is why I find her work weirdly fascinating – there are so many unexamined cultural assumptions just… out there. It doesn’t seem like she knows how misogynist her work is, or doesn’t care, and it just comes “shining” through. Extremely light editing seems to help that stream-of-consciousness effect, too.

    I know several people who wouldn’t label themselves as misogynist or even truly think they aren’t, but then they come up with some comment or belief that I think could only be built on that foundation. It’s like that.

    June 7, 2019
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    • Lucy
      Lucy

      I agree it’s giving her too much credit. She just liked the idea of the English grandmother, it was a way to reassure herself and her readers that her foreign heroine wasn’t so foreign after all.

      June 7, 2019
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  13. Jaycie
    Jaycie

    This attitude is another thing E.L. cribbed from Twilight. Edward violates Bella’s privacy in multiple ways, but she doesn’t mind because it’s him. After they get together, Edward tries repeatedly to break up with Bella, but she refuses not to be with him, and he yields from exhaustion. Then Jacob starts demanding Bella’s affection, and she decides she does love him enough to fuck around with him, but not enough that she can stop feeling like she has no choice but to be with Edward. And on top of that, there’s the whole imprinting thing, in which the imprintee has zero choice but to accept the attentions of the imprinter. At no point is love portrayed as completely and mutually voluntary; it is the act of a passive, blank woman allowing a physically, economically, and sexually dominant man to run roughshod over her.

    June 7, 2019
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    • That’s where StephEnie’s Mormonism hits us all in the face.

      June 7, 2019
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    • amblonyxx
      amblonyxx

      I always found the saddest bit of Twilight Leah. She loses her fiance because he imprints on someone else and just straight up leaves her. Then she becomes a wolf and has to share his loving thoughts about the new woman. And then the pack ostracizes her for being “bitter” and not just accepting the imprint!

      June 8, 2019
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  14. This is why I have a hard time seeing Alessia as Demelza in this fanfic. It’s very obvious it’s a blatant AU Poldark fanfic, but Alessia seems more like Morwenna. It’s like E.L. can’t bring herself to write any other woman than a submissive victim. Sure, Alessia has quite a few story beats that resemble Demelza’s, but she reads more like Morwenna to me, because of her shy personality and what has happened to her.
    Which kind of annoys me even more, because I love Morwenna and think she should be protected at all costs, but she definitely shouldn’t be paired up with goddamn Ross!

    June 7, 2019
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    • Should have said ‘can’t bring herself to write any other female leading character’

      June 7, 2019
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  15. Jules
    Jules

    A dear friend of mine told me once, “If you can’t live without someone, RUN, because that is an unhealthy relationship.” I never quite knew what she mean, because I was young and everything was the most dramatic season ever! But as I got older I realized that when you need someone that desperately, the way most romance novels, movies, etc tell us we should, then you are more likely to surrender yourself to someone else and that is actually not a good thing. I see it now, with my cousin who constantly needs a man in her life. That has translated into her choosing the worst possible men because they know she “needs” then and they use that take advantage.

    The trouble with EELs “romances” is that she bought into the idea that love has to be this desperate need when the best kind of love is a want, not a need. I don’t want a man who needs me. I don’t want someone clingy and controlling who will freak out if I talk to someone else. I want a man who wants me in his life because I make his life better and I want him in my life because he makes mine better. We haven’t seen that in EELs books. It’s all desperate longing and urgent sexual needs. Those aren’t healthy adult relationships, they are shallow, teenage relationships.

    If I were in high school I’d probably be eating this shit up, which is scary, because that’s the one of the most impressionable time in a person’s life and this is not the impression I would want my child to have about what love looks like.

    I can kind of get that 50 Shades of Abuse was a fantasy for some women because at least in EEL’s inept way she tried to make it kind of sexy. But this book does not come across as sexy at all. The only thing this book made me fantasize about was a view of the Thames. I guess, yay, it’s not yet abusive, but Moss is still a controlling Dick and possibly even worse than Chedward because at least Chedward was upfront and honest about what a colossal asshole he is. It is there, in your face if you dare to look. Moss’s controlling nature is far more insidious because it is harder to point out.

    Ana could be all “see, he tapped by phone, he forces me to eat, he makes me do this and that and the other” while Dimmy would be “he bought me nice stuff and took me to the shore and…” at which point the people listening would tell her to quit complaining he sounds great. But he really isn’t, because he’s doing all these things to get in her pants, not to make her happy but to make her do what he wants.

    June 7, 2019
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