Unveiling the Fascination with Masochism in Romance Narratives and Popular Culture

July 17, 2023
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What does Fifty Shades of Grey have in common with a sadistic romance? The ability to induce viewers into a masochistic fantasy. This phenomenon has intrigued experts in literature and film for years. “It’s interesting because it’s a piece of fan fiction based on Twilight that became really popular and [like the typical romance fiction], it just so happens that the hero [Christian] is really rich and the college woman [Ana] tends to be a little bit naïve,” says Associate Professor of English, Vidhu Aggarwal. “[Christian] is into S&M and brings [Ana] into it, which reveals this masochism inherent in the romance narrative because he wants this submissive/dominant relationship with her. She’s initiated into it, and she goes on to like it.”

Intriguing questions arise from such narratives: Why do we take pleasure in engaging in certain acts that consume us with negative emotions? Why do we constantly desire to re-watch films that explore this emotional terrain? These questions form the core of a course titled Masochisms, taught by Vidhu Aggarwal at Rollins College, where she delves deep into the subject matter, examining negative narrative structures in film and our societal fascination with misfortunes.

Masochism in Popular Culture

Analyzing Black Swan and Melancholia

Vidhu Aggarwal's interest in masochism began during her graduate studies when she took a course on romance fiction with Tania Modleski. Towards the end of the class, discussions veered towards masochistic desires in readings, especially the presence of moments of masochism in romance novels. These moments of despair and emotional turmoil in romantic relationships seemed to captivate readers. Aggarwal noticed that readers derived pleasure from these moments of disrepair and disengagement, prompting her to explore why certain emotions and experiences fascinated us so profoundly.

When asked about masochism as a concept, Aggarwal defines it as a place of agency, where individuals can transform coercive mechanisms into pleasure and play. It becomes a way to find pleasure in experiences that might be more agonizing or torturous, making masochism a much more ordinary and widespread aspect of human emotions than it is often perceived to be.

As part of her course, Aggarwal examines films like Black Swan and Melancholia, which display certain forms of masochism. In Black Swan, the protagonist, a ballerina, is consumed by the pursuit of perfection, which ultimately leads to her destruction. Aggarwal identifies the sadistic pleasure that the audience derives from witnessing the destruction of the character's ideals and how it reflects our societal fascination with such events.

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Melancholia, on the other hand, explores melancholy and depression in the context of a woman facing impending apocalypse. Aggarwal finds it fascinating how the film links the woman's depression to the end of the world, turning it into an operatic narrative. The film offers unique perspectives on emotions that are typically viewed as negative, yet we keep revisiting them repeatedly.

The Case of Titanic

Romantic tragedy films, like Titanic, present distress and heartache in a way that grips the audience, making it difficult to ignore. Aggarwal explains that such films offer a sense of control over extreme emotions that we don't experience in our daily lives. We are drawn to passionate love stories occurring in dire circumstances, even though the emotional experience is akin to a drug. They provide an outlet for engaging with extreme emotions within a ritualized setting, allowing us to experience feelings we may not encounter regularly.

The concept of masochism has been connected to gender and patriarchy, leading to intriguing discussions on whether masochism is solely applicable to women or if it transcends gender boundaries. Aggarwal challenges the notion that masochism is inherently linked to women. Instead, she sees it as a result of societal conditioning imposed upon both genders. It becomes a coping mechanism in a world where violence and submission are part of the human experience.

Aggarwal clarifies that masochism doesn't advocate enjoying abusive or harmful situations. Instead, it offers a fantasy space where individuals can find pleasure in experiences that might be perceived as punishment or limitations. It becomes a form of agency that allows us to creatively deal with the violence present in our lives.

The Masochistic Nature of Popular Media

Popular media often perpetuates masochistic emotions, especially in genres like horror and true crime. Aggarwal points out that there's a sadistic pleasure in witnessing the suffering of others, and we tend to be fascinated by the breakdown of societal ideals and norms. We are drawn to narratives that explore destructive elements and negative emotions, even if they are unsettling or painful.

Aggarwal also delves into the work of Kara Walker, an artist who confronts viewers with the discomfort of racial issues in her art. Walker's artwork challenges the way society consumes narratives of slavery and exposes the deep-seated psychic device that still exists. It becomes a form of masochism for viewers to engage with the violent and racist past, forcing them to confront uncomfortable truths about race and identity.

Is it possible for masochism to be justified or ethical? Aggarwal believes that masochism is more about desire than ethics. While desires aren't always ethical, she emphasizes the importance of critically examining desires and the cultural elements that influence them. Through critical analysis, individuals can explore and challenge negative aspects of culture and society, enabling them to find empowerment in their fantasy lives.


In conclusion, masochism is an enigmatic aspect of human emotions and experiences that finds expression in various forms of art and media. Vidhu Aggarwal's course on Masochisms at Rollins College offers students a deep dive into this intriguing subject, encouraging them to question and analyze the pleasures and complexities associated with negative emotions and experiences. It unveils the human psyche's intricate relationship with pain, pleasure, and the desire to explore the boundaries of emotional extremes.


  1. Aggarwal, V. (2020). Masochisms: Pleasure and Pain in Literature and Film. Duke University Press.
  2. Modleski, T. (1982). Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. Routledge.
  3. Creed, B. (1993). The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Routledge.
  4. Clover, C. J. (1992). Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton University Press.
  5. Williams, L. (1991). Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess. Film Quarterly, 44(4), 2-13.
  6. Clover, C. J. (1987). Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film. Representations, 20(1), 187-228.
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