Moving Beyond 50 Shades: Empowering Women in Erotic Fiction

Given the power of narratives to influence thought and bring about social change, why do we, as women, continue to produce and consume books that reinforce stereotypes that place women into submission? This is the fundamental question I asked myself, which inspired me to write my Gilded Flower Trilogies. I was tired of seeing books that demean female characters and make them subservient to powerful men continue to top the bestseller lists — not entirely out of writer envy (which, of course, I naturally felt to some degree), but more out of a sense of pride that, as women, we can do better than that. We owe it to ourselves and to women around the world who find themselves in the reality of servitude — rather than the fantasy of it — to write a better a story, one that elevates the status of women as being strong and equal as opposed to just being the weaker sex.

While many authors are busily copying the prevailing formula and finding financial success in it, I wanted to define my own brand of erotic romance. However, when I looked around and continued to see these other authors who churn out series after series with predictable plots and endings making the bestseller list, I inevitably wound up feeling like the girl whose crush went for the hot, slutty cheerleader, asking “why her and not me?” And the answer is, it’s because he knows what he’s getting from her. But what do we tell the girl who lost her dream guy to the girl who puts out? Don’t change just to get a guy.

While it makes perfect economic sense to look at demand and deliver a product that seeks to satisfy that demand, following trends set by sexually-biased books laden with inherent misogyny isn’t going to be ground-breaking and will probably lose women the right to vote. Of course, the latter is not true, but as women, we should really consider how much these stories hurt the perception of women and female readers’ own views of themselves.

The predominant trait of the female protagonist in the majority of these books is low self-esteem. This typically stems from some sort of trauma caused by a terrible relationship or a family member or perhaps just the character’s overall view of her own self-worth. She doesn’t realize that she’s pretty until a man tells her so. She doesn’t realize she’s a sexual being until it’s awakened by a virile man who has a lot more experience than she does. And she doesn’t realize how intelligent or smart or capable she is until the man brings it out in her.

How these storylines came to be embraced and expected are a mystery to me. I thought we were the generation of strong, educated women who are capable of anything. We’ve been encouraged to break molds, shatter glass ceilings and make our own rules. Yet, these stories, devoured by an enormous female readership, don’t encourage or exemplify it. On the contrary, they end up a stark reminder that, despite how far we’ve come, we seem more interested in reading about all the stereotypes we’ve sought to destroy.

Ironically, if you take a close look at the books in the genre that purport to have an “empowered” female character, it typically only means she’s gone to college and has some sort of professional job; but actually she’s just waiting for the “right” man to fulfill her — or make her subservient to his needs, which she will inevitably allow because she just loves him so much. And love, as these many books like to portray, is really about sacrifice. You must give to get, and the price for the woman is at the very least her body, and at the most, her self-respect. Of course, this seems perfectly acceptable because that love (and I use the word loosely) — and the person who is the object of such love — is how the female character will find her greatest happiness. The so-called “empowered” woman in those stories is, in reality, a one-dimensional character whose interaction with a man is sadly what makes her complex.

And yet, we wonder why, as women, we struggle with finding satisfying relationships or justifying why we stay in mediocre ones. While these narratives are not necessarily setting the standards for all relationships, they reinforce the gendered roles that have become embedded in our subconscious and thereby limit how we regard each other. It’s always the same story: man saves woman who, in turn, saves him back by restoring what he lost because he didn’t feel loved by his mother or was treated poorly by an ex. These narratives remove the individuals’ responsibility for improving themselves and place it on others to “better” them. And we wonder why relationships can feel so dissatisfying when our expectations are this skewed.

With the Gilded Flower Trilogies, I’ve sought to change the narrative. Through the series, the three lead female characters come into their own power as they explore relationships with men and undergo personal and professional challenges. In essence, it is a series about girl power. The personal struggles of the female characters, Lily, Dahlia and Violet, are meant to exemplify how we, as women, have the ability to take charge of our lives and not be afraid of that power: we can make our own rules and live by them with confidence, yet still want men and have hot sex. Love and relationships do not have to be an all or nothing proposition. We have choices, including what we read and the narrative we choose to support with our purchasing power.

Vivian Winslow is the pen name for Elizabeth A. Hayes. She is the author of The Gilded Flower Trilogies and the Wildflowers Series, contemporary, inclusive romance fiction with a strong female narrative. In addition to writing, Elizabeth is a spirtual teacher and healer.

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