Fifty Shades of Toxic – The Framing of Unhealthy Relationships in Fiction


My Inner Goddess is over in a corner protesting this post (and drooling slightly, for some reason).

The trailers for the new Fifty Shades Darker movie have been popping up everywhere, and it felt like the right time to do this post.

Fiction has had a problem in recent years with the portrayal of relationships. Although it’s true that abusive and unhealthy relationships in fiction are hardly new, the massive surge in popularity has been a fairly recent trend. This stared way back in 2005 with the release of the first book of the Twilight series, where protagonist Bella Swan engages in a sweeping romance for the ages. With an undead guy centuries older than her. Who’s incredibly controlling. And watches her sleep at night.


Pretty sure I’ve seen Lifetime Thrillers with this exact shot. But it’s true love, really!

Around when Bella started throwing herself off cliffs to try to get her vampire boyfriend back, people started to get uncomfortable with the message this was sending people. Despite being portrayed as en epic love story, it was centered around a relationship with  a power imbalance and clearly unhealthy tendencies leading to suicide attempts. And yet, nothing could stop Twilight’s success and the way it captivated the hearts of millions.

And in came Fifty Shades of Grey, ostensibly Twilight fanfiction with the names changed out. It’s not surprising that Fifty Shades ran high on the same emotions that drove the unstoppable Twilight train. Another love affair for the ages, where one person holds all the control and makes someone sign a contract that dictates their life.


To the credit of Fifty Shades Darker, it does appear to be addressing the issue of how healthy the relationship is between Anastasia and Christian. In that way, the trailer for Fifty Shades Darker has intrigued me in a way that the Fifty Shades of Grey did not. Because contrary to what you might expect having read up to this point, I am not against the portrayal of abusive or unhealthy relationships in fiction. Far from it.

Toxic relationships are part of the human experience. Whether romantic, platonic, familiar, professional, or otherwise, every person will experience an unhealthy relationship in their lifetime. To deny this aspect of the human experience is unrealistic and a disservice to people.

No, the issue is not whether or not these relationships should be portrayed. The problem lies in how they are framed.

Female on male abuse is featured fairly often in media, usually of a physical nature. This nearly always pop up in comedies, and gives the obvious impression that a woman abusing a man is not something to be taken seriously. Emotional abuse from women to men rarely ever comes up.

Male on female abuse of a physical nature is also fairly common, but always framed negatively and ends with the woman breaking free from the abuse. I think this is because physical abuse is much more easily defined and objective, and society thus tends to have a more universal opinion on the matter.

Male on female emotional abuse, however, is much more murky. Where is the line drawn between a dominant personality and a controlling one? How much devotion is too much? When is it okay to watch someone while they sleep?

The fact that a good portion of people will still vehemently deny any issues with the portrayal of Bella and Edward’s relationship is a testament to the fact that consensus on this issue is still far away.

A tale about an impressionable young woman who is seduced by a enthralling, controlling man, struggles to quit him, and ends up falling back into his arms can make for a powerful story. The question is, is it meant to be viewed as a sweeping romance or a cautionary tale?I think the release date of Fifty Shades Darker – Valentines’ Day – answers that question concisely.

Now, I’m off to teach my Inner Goddess how to dance the merengue (with some salsa moves). Happy Valentines!


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