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Yet another problematic film that portrays an aggressively sexual relationship has managed to crawl its way up Netflix’s most-watched list. Well done 365 Days – you’ve managed to normalise sexual assault, romanticise Stockholm syndrome, and teach people watching that if a man tries to have sex with an unwilling woman, she will eventually succumb to it.
For those who haven’t watched the film, let me spare you the experience. Mafia boss Don Massimo Torricelli stars in 365 Days, along with Laura Biel, a Polish woman who is kidnapped by the gangster, on the deluded premise that she is the same woman whose face he saw hovering above him during his near-death experience. If that doesn’t sound ridiculous to you yet, he gives her 365 days to fall in love with him (even though it only takes a couple of weeks). It is within those weeks that he sexually assaults her at every given moment – he buys and dresses her in sexually revealing clothes, frequently threatens her with violence, and ties her to a bed so that she is forced to watch another girl give him a blowjob.
Many have likened the film to 50 Shades of Grey, another movie notorious for its representation of a controlling alpha-male billionaire, who begins a problematic dominant/submissive relationship with a virgin. The film is based on E.L. James’ book and has sold 20 million copies worldwide. After its release, sex toys mentioned in the series were selling out across the US, and in the UK, sales boomed by 400%, with many women searching a BDSM experience that they could replicate in the bedroom.
Upon further reflection, I started to think of other stalker narratives that were popular amongst women, and I was surprised to find that it didn’t take me that long. Who could forget You, a Netflix series that follows the creepy story of stalker Joe Goldberg, who develops unhealthy obsessions with women, pursues them romantically, and kills them when they refuse to love him after uncovering his true nature. The series pushed actor Penn Badgley to voice his concern after receiving thousands of letters and tweets from fans begging him to stalk and kidnap them.
Who could forget The Twilight Saga, where Bella Swan is stalked by vampire Edward Cullen, who admits to Bella that he is no longer able to control himself around her, or leave her alone. And perhaps most puzzling of all, who could forget how female fans reacted to Zac Efron’s Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. After the film’s release, there were TikToks going viral of fangirls pretending to get ready to go on dates with the serial killer, only to be dragged away.
I started to research why women were so interested in these darker, more dangerous male figures, and my findings were surprising, to say the least. Nearly a third of women regularly fantasise about being raped or violated. A recent study asked 100 European girls to choose guys that they would potentially “hook-up” with, and most seemed to have a preference for those who exhibited violent traits. In porn, the most searched categories amongst women (brace yourselves for this one) – is vampires, werewolves, billionaires, surgeons, and pirates.
So why are women getting turned on by these violent and aggressive men? In her book Women Who Love Men Who Kill, Sheila Isenberg questioned 30 women known for their obsessional relationships with serial killers, with who they frequently sent letters to in prison. According to Isenberg, most of these women had suffered past abusive relationships, and therefore the liberty of beginning a relationship with someone behind bars who would never be able to hurt them felt right. Researcher Beatrice Alba expands this conversation, believing that women who are scared of aggression are more likely to get into relationships with dominant men who are able to “protect them”.
Reading this at first glance, I was sceptical. But then I looked at the statistics. The popularity of crime fiction with women can be linked to their interest in violence – 60-80% of the genre is consumed by women. Thriller writer Val McDermid believes that because women are “conditioned into thinking of [themselves] as potential victims”, they become fascinated by this violence, and turn to books so that they can experience it from a safe distance. As women, we’ve been forced to associate sex with shame, and therefore these “rape fantasies” help us to explore this social ideology. Of course, it is extremely important to note that there is an evident distinction between fantasising rape and being raped – the former links social shame with sexual desire, whereas the latter is used by men to disempower women and cause fear.
It is for this reason that some critics, such as French writer Virginie Despentes, believe that women use this dominant/submissive fantasy to reclaim the power dynamic that has been forced onto them by society. And as much as I like this argument, I cannot believe that men who watch 365 Days or 50 Shades of Grey are learning a lot about female empowerment.
Some claim that women’s fascination with violence and dominance is subconsciously biological. When women ovulate, studies have shown that they tend to get aroused by men who exhibit traits linked to testosterone (e.g. aggression and dominance). Therefore, as a result of genetic evolution, it seems that some women subconsciously prefer dominant and powerful men to those that possess fewer testosterone-linked traits, as they have evolved to procreate with partners that can give them strong offspring.
I guess this argument narrows down to the nature/culture question. Yes, we may have been biologically preconditioned to choose a stronger, more dominant male, but there is also a highly coercive dominant discourse in the media. Let’s take Jeremy Meeks (a.k.a. “the blue-eyed bandit” and “jail-bae”) as an example, who was imprisoned for nine years. One of his felonies included violently attacking a 16-year old boy. His mugshot went viral, and after he left prison, his image was glorified, and he was immediately contacted by several modelling agencies. Now, he possesses a net-worth of £4 million.
Women are fetishizing criminals and “bad boys” and it needs to stop. Not only because it’s extremely disrespectful to victims of sexual assault, but also because it normalises a “no-means-maybe” discourse for men that allows them to perpetuate sexually aggressive and harmful ideologies.
But how can women stop fixating on these men, if their images are being circulated across the media? I remember as a young girl, I used to love reading dark fantasy YA novel series like The Vampire Diaries, The Mortal Instruments, and House of Night, all of which possessed problematic narratives that reinforced the idea that problematic “stalker” types should always come on top. This discourse is systemic, and if we acknowledge its existence then perhaps we can hope to negate its effects in the future.