I’m not entirely sure that Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey have the power to brainwash a generation: correlation is not causation. Unfortunately, these stories work because our society is deeply sexist, and women are taught from a very young age that being “protected” (which translates on the page into “being bossed around” by their lovers) is something desirable, something sexy, even. Characters in these books sometimes sulk or chomp at the bit, but never really walk away from their overbearing lovers.
This dynamic is seen as romantic — a man who will take care of everything, put everything on the line for you even though you are an apparently meritless, talentless and bland young woman — and aspirational. Most women, particularly young girls, see themselves as nothing special. Bella is completely nondescript, has no direction or dreams or plans even though she is a high school senior and should at least have half an idea of what she wants to do with herself. Women and girls all over the world can slip into her as if she were a glove.
Anastasia is similarly dull, has never had any interest in sex and it is a complete mystery why Christian Grey should be attracted to her at all, never mind share his fetish with her. Readers everywhere have no trouble using Anastasia as a stand-in for them. Her shapelessness can accommodate anyone.
The bottom line is: these books didn’t do anything that society had not done before. They were hits because they replicated a pattern that is seen as desirable, at least in theory. A part of us wants to be swept off our feet by someone who will take care of everything.
Some of us, however, had rather read books that are well written. There are only so many “Holy crap”s a girl can read without rolling her eyes.
Not all smash hits obey to that dynamic. The Hunger Games relies on the inner monologue of a sharp, boldly-drawn female character. The love triangle at the core of the story is resolved in favour of the Beta male (Peeta), who is the damsel in distress of the story, while Alpha male Gale ends up destroying his relationship with Katniss (herself an Alpha). The book was a hit also because it spoke to women and girls everywhere who dream of walking unafraid.
Literature can tell deeply wrong stories in a very right way: it is not the case with these books, which are really quite bad. And that is probably their biggest crime.