To date, the Fifty Shades Trilogy has 10 million copies of the series in print. The Twilight Saga, 30 million copies. The Hunger Games, 36.5 million. However, to know that each of these three series has become its own cultural phenomenon, you don't even need to look at these sales statistics. The books can be seen anywhere and in just about any form -- as movies, e-books, as themes for apparel and jewelry, and for some kids, even in their classroom curriculum.
As a college student, every time that I learned of one of these trilogies, it was from another young women my age -- they would recommend it, or I'd see them reading it, or, more recently, I'd see that they had "repinned" it on Pinterest, a site heavily dominated by female users.
Other than their astoundingly widespread popularity, the three series have another very important characteristic in common: they each have the same main character. Isabella Swan, Katniss Everdeen, and Anastasia Steele. The somewhat minor details which differentiate these fictional women are almost entirely overshadowed by the stark resemblance that is simply too easy to spot between them.
Self-conscious, shy, timid, sexually inexperienced, painfully modest, ill-spoken, awkward, clumsy and still, without fail, fought over by men. The books paint these women as highly desirable -- they always have a choice between all of the men that simply want them. Bella must choose between Edward and Jacob, Katniss between Gale and Peeta, and Anastasia between Christian and Josè. Furthermore, the self-confidence of each of these women is so low, that for most of the first book of each series, they just cannot believe that anyone would like them at all. They feign damsels-in-distress when it comes to love and relationships, yet are simultaneously sharp-witted and heroic in just about everything else.
A note on the aforementioned "sexually inexperienced" characteristic: this is not to say that I advocate for sex at a young age or sex without proper education, or really for anything at all regarding sex. Instead, I would simply like to highlight the relatively unrealistic sexual history of each of the young women in these books. At the beginning of the series, two of them (Bella and Katniss), have never been kissed. In Fifty Shades, Anastasia, at age 21, not only admits that she has never self-pleasured, but also that she has never even experienced desire -- after a discussion with Christian about his shower, she thinks "Hmm...desire. This is desire. This is what it feels like," as though it is an entirely novel sensation. Regardless of sexual experiences or beliefs, desire tends to hit young adults at a much earlier age than 21. Instead of promoting female sexuality and knowledge of self, these books hide these topics in a false innocence that, apparently, is supposed to make men attracted to us. And that, of course, is not true. And young women, of course, should not think that is true.
Of course, Fifty Shades did originate as erotic Twilight fan fiction, and so it is obvious why the two heroines of these stories are easily relatable. However, this should not divert from a concern that we all should have: that we continue to buy into it. It was my hope that, after all of the parodies that had been produced and perhaps some self-reflection, we would realize that Bella and her story promote neither healthy nor realistic behavior. Yet, we can see that Fifty Shades is quite comfortably sitting at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List and has no intention of moving anytime soon. There have even been rumors of the series hitting the big screen, as Twilight and The Hunger Games already have. What is most troublesome about this is that, evidently, we as an audience (specifically a female audience) see no need for the heroines in the stories we read and watch to be realistic, healthy role models that have any confidence, diversity, or even plain spunk. They are all white, brunette, petite, nervous women who teach us about self-doubt and submission (in more than just the kinky Fifty Shades way).
I'd like to make a note about exactly why I decided to include Katniss in this discussion. She is, of course, a badass in her own right. She is skilled, intelligent, brave, and has an interesting backstory. However, when it comes to her interactions with men, or even in most social situations we see her in, she tries to hide these important qualities and too becomes mousey and self-conscious. When asked by Haymitch if she's any good with a bow and arrow, she responds with "I'm all right," and it is Peeta that needs to chime in for her with a "She's excellent." So, although the series as a whole is highly politically charged and engaging, Katniss herself still falls in line with the same patterns we see with Bella and Anastasia.
This sort of portrayal of women in novels becomes much more concerning when we imagine young girls thinking I want to be just like Bella. And why wouldn't they think that? Bella is lusted after by all of the boys at school, and it seems to be because of her shy, doe-eyed innocence and modesty. Unfortunately, the authors seem to couple these characteristics with unrealistic sexual inexperience and a lack of personal development, understanding, and confidence. The plotlines of the novels allow for the making of real heroines, but Bella, Katniss, and Anastasia all just fall too short.