The Game Changers


By Dr. Birute Regine

Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games – two trilogies written by women – are flying off the shelves. Two million copies of Fifty Shades of Grey sold in one week. More than 36 million copies of Hunger Games have sold in the U.S. alone. So why are readers, primarily women, so interested?

One is a typical bodice-ripping romance; the other is a dystopian futuristic adventure. But they share a commonality: how power is used, particularly power over others. This is played out in the extreme in both books in the domination culture’s favorite arenas of sex and violence. In Fifty Shades of Grey’s bedroom it’s played out in the dominant/submissive game. In the Hunger Games field of competition it’s played out to the last person standing.

The domination paradigm has defined our society for more than 5,000 years. So this theme is nothing new. In fact, it is all around us: we see it in business, in politics, in religion. What is new is that a profound shift is occurring. These two novels capture our time of transition and shifting gender roles in the characters of Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games and Christian Grey of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Katniss, a young courageous woman, is a new kind of heroine. Instead of being a black-and–white, masculine-infused style of leader, she is paradoxical: strong and vulnerable, determined and nurturing, willful and gentle. She risks her own life for the love of her little sister, plays and excels at the survival game that she doesn’t want to play. Most importantly, she changes the game with her partner Peeta so that two, rather than one, remain standing after the blood bath.

This pattern of being forced to play a game you’d rather not be a part of, to excel, is a familiar experience for many women in the workforce. In the ‘80s, women entered largely male-dominated work environments and had to learn the domination game to varying extents to succeed. Having learned the game, many women have succeeded, sometimes at a high personal cost.

In my research for my book Iron Butterflies: Women Transforming Themselves and the World, I saw women transforming the meaning of power from power over others to power with others. Rather than perpetuating “Gladiator Culture” that thrives on domination, they created more mutual, collaborative environments.

This use of power encounters resistance because it challenges the status quo of male domination where women have historically been subordinate. It is threatening because a collaborative, cooperative environment requires skills that people who dominate don’t generally have, such as empathy, inclusion, intuition, and consensus building. Women often excel at these skills, positioning them to lead the way in this time of transition – to be the game changers.

A domination culture doesn’t serve men well either, as we see in Christian Grey. Men are under enormous pressure to be dominant, king of the mountain, in control and to emulate strength. The domination game tells women that their pain is their pleasure, and, for men, her pain is his pleasure. There’s a bit of cross-wiring going on here.

Christian Grey captures a transition in our understanding of what it means to be a man in our society, and our need to expand that meaning. His need for control doesn’t come from strength but from vulnerability and a fear of addressing vulnerable feelings. Hope lies in his emerging nurturing side and, as he responds to Ana’s pain with care, his dominant role slips slowly out of his grasp. Christian exemplifies a new path for men, which can lead them to developing a meaning of manhood that includes being able to hold feelings of love, and therefore be vulnerable.

The appeal of these escapist fantasy novels to women may signal their hope that they, too, can find their way out of a domination paradigm that is ultimately unsustainable and destructive, and lead the way to a better future by changing the rules.

I’m game. Are you? 

Dr. Regine has 25 years of experience as a psychotherapist in private practice, trained in family systems, gestalt, and relational theory. She is the author of The Soul at Work and Iron Butterflies.

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