4:00 pm EST, November 18, 2017

‘Fifty Shades Freed’ and the eroticization of money in romance

Why do we still conflate romance with wealth?

The new Fifty Shades Freed trailer is out, and once again, it’s more about money than it is about sex.

There are a lot of problems with the Fifty Shades franchise, from the ethics of turning a fanfic into a bestselling book series, to the toxic portrayal of romance it unquestioningly portrays. But one of the biggest issues with Fifty Shades is its obsession with money — a kind of lust that might be even more prevalent than the sex.

Related: Fifty Shades Freed trailer invites you to the climax

This isn’t the only love story that has money as a major element of what makes the relationship appealing. Classic romance heroes are almost always wealthy, and value as a character is often inextricably linked to that wealth, although the narrative never seems willing enough to admit the glaring truth.

fifty shades couple

In the Fifty Shades trilogy, Christian Grey’s money is addressed in conflicting ways. While Ana repeatedly states that she isn’t interested in his money — in fact, she’s often put off by it, and understandably so — the narrative itself and her shifting attitudes throughout the story end up glorifying Christian’s wealth all the same. The books and movies try very hard to convince us that Ana isn’t in it for the money at all — and that therefore, as an audience, neither are we — but the trailer treats us to multiple shots of Ana looking around at her luxurious new life in wonder, framing scenes of mansions, cars and boats with a kind of voyeuristic pleasure.

Love stories have always been a form of escapism, so it’s understandable that we want characters that take us on impossible journeys — but the lavishness of romances like that of Fifty Shades becomes so overt that one starts to wonder if the reader is really in love with the character, or with the riches he provides. Is the audience really being drawn in by the romance, or by the fantasy of wealth?

And what does this say about the way we, as a society, perceive human relationships? The romance genre is beloved because of its earnestness and its willingness to explore the most vulnerable parts of our identity. Historically, romance novels and movies have been less constrained by social norms and therefore able to be more progressive than their time — giving us books like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre which transcended the limitations of what was expected of women when they were published, and will provide food for thought for centuries to come (although again, both Mr. Darcy and Mr. Rochester were incredibly rich).

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fifty shades freed

But in an era in which we are finally moving beyond the idea that man must be the sole provider of the household, so many of our romances still involve a rich man and the poor young girl he plucks from poverty or mediocre middle-class-ness. No matter how strong the character, how clever her thoughts, how powerful her decisions, she becomes financially dependent on the man, and even begins to appreciate the money that she was originally wary of. Sometimes to such an extent that she loses all agency and merely allows herself to be absorbed into his life.

What is the almost primitive obsession we have with selling off young women to rich lords? As women, can we transcend the ancient ideal of being a trophy wife and write our own romance stories? And if we must have a story that relies so heavily on money — why aren’t we giving it the importance it needs in the plot?

It’s understandable that writers don’t want their audience distracted by the characters’ money problems, and wants more time devoted to the plot instead of their 9-to-5 jobs, but why go all out with the lavish lifestyle of the 1%? By ramping up the characters’ riches to such an extreme, the stories are robbed of much of their poignancy. Money is an important aspect of life, and therefore has some influence on relationships, even more so when characters are handling large sums of money. But stories like Fifty Shades are satisfied with merely using women’s fear of a life of riches as an obstacle in the beginning, to be passed once she falls in love and ignored for the rest of the story — a foolish, initial prejudice on the female character’s part. Why would she not want to be filthy rich?

fifty shades grey

Rich or poor, life isn’t easy. But the set of challenges each lifestyle comes with can be vastly different, and give a new angle to a love story. Money can’t be isolated from everything that comes with it just for our enjoyment. And it cannot be a reason to turn street-smart, capable women into bland characters whose only role is to cling to the male lead with starry eyes.

There’s a wide variety of romance books and movies out there, with profound, beautiful messages. But as a society, we should examine what is making us cling to stories like Fifty Shades and the ancient ideal of the rich male lead.

In a world where rich men handle almost everything already, it’s disappointing that our love stories still have them at their center.

What needs to change about the way money is treated in romance?

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