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50 Shades of Media Hurts

Recently, there has been quite a lot of attention focused on the 50 Shades of Gray movie and books, with bloggers, activists, pundits and religious leaders decrying the clearly abusive and degrading relationship portrayed between the lead characters. One of our favorite posts highlighted how certain aspects of the story didn’t show love or romance — they showed abuse. For example, “If he monitors your phone calls and threatens you with physical harm because another man calls you, he’s not in love with you. He’s abusing and controlling you.”

Our own statewide organization, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, had this to say about the movie: "Fifty Shades of Gray'' raises valid questions about adult consent and what constitutes healthy sexuality and healthy relationships. We recommend that anyone who is interested in learning more about healthy relationships to visit and click on the IS THIS ABUSE? tab.” Despite its popularity, the fact that the books and now film portray abusive and unhealthy relationships is not up for debate. Therefore, we won’t be joining the chorus of voices already making this argument. Instead, we want to look at the bigger picture — how this movie, like so many other forms of media, contributes to gender violence in our society.

We know that media hurts. When a continuous stream of degrading and sexualized images of women are presented to us through the media we consume, it leads to a normalization of violence against women. Think of popular television shows — how many of them routinely feature crimes against women? (Example: any Law & Order Show, many of the Criminal Mind and NCIS shows). What about advertisements and fashion editorials? It isn’t unusual to see barely dressed women in positions of subservience or as objects of violence in magazine or television ads. Watching these shows and viewing these pictures saturates our minds with sexualized violence — contributing to our view of gender violence as inevitable. These images also contribute to low self esteem and other issues, as demonstrated by Jennifer Siebel Newsome’s groundbreaking documentary “Miss Representation,” which shows how the media portrayal of women that has resulted in 78% of 17 year old girls being unhappy with their bodies. “Girls are learning to see themselves as objects. American Psychological Association calls self-objectification a national epidemic: women and girls who self-objectify are more likely to be depressed, have lower confidence, lower ambition and lower GPAs.”

The national conversation about 50 Shades of Gray illustrates another way that media can hurt: through the modeling of unhealthy, abusive relationships. This book was initially written as fan fiction based on the Twilight series — the immensely popular teen series that featured an abusive relationship between the protagonists Edward and Bella. In that series, vampire Edward isolates Bella from her family and friends, sabotages her car so she can’t leave, forbids her from seeing friends, and stalks her. In the 50 Shades series, Christian escalates the abusive behavior — putting tracking devices on Anastasia’s car, monitoring her phone calls, breaking into her apartment, and even raping her — which she accepts because she supposedly enjoys it. Make no mistake — both series feature abusive relationships, and both conflate jealous, possessive behavior with romance. Millions purchased these books, and millions more have seen the movies. Seeing relationships like these played out on the big screen and in print normalizes abusive behaviors, particularly for teenagers who may be particularly impressionable. They may romanticize controlling behavior, and believe that a man refusing to take no for an answer or being jealous or manipulative are signs that he really loves or wants you — not that he’s an abuser. It isn’t hard to see what the outcome of idealizing these relationships may be — young people who cannot recognize what a healthy relationship is, and who are more willing to stay in an abusive relationship based on a false notion that this is what romance is.

The 50 Shades controversy must be part of a bigger conversation about how we consume media. Objectifying, degrading and violent images of women in pop culture is far too common, and it is one of the root causes of gender violence. To combat this reality, we ask you to become a conscious consumer of media — to truly think about what you are being shown, and to refuse to buy, read or listen to anything that glorifies sexual or domestic violence. This includes books and movies like 50 Shades of Gray and Twilight, as well as any television show, book, movie, magazine or brand that objectifies or degrades women to sell a product. Working together, we can make a difference, and we CAN end gender violence!

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