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Incest-Heavy Book "Flowers in the Attic" Will Now Be a Lifetime Movie

the cast of the new flowers in the attic remake

The cast of the new Flowers in the Attic remake are looking deadly serious. 

Like many twelve-year-olds in the 1980s, I read the dirtiest book I could get my hands on: Flowers in the Attic.  The V.C. Andrews title was published in 1979 and I read every paperback in the five-book series so many times, the covers fell off. And I wasn’t alone: Flowers in the Attic sold over 40 million books. V.C. Andrews went on to write a number of other series; when she died, a ghostwriter took over. To date, over 50 books bear the name V.C. Andrews.

A Lifetime film version of the book premieres this Saturday, January 18, and fans like me wonder how much the network will update the raunchy plotline for modern viewers.

Flowers in the Attic, perhaps Andrews’s best-known novel, revolves around a beautiful rich woman, Corrine Foxworth, who marries Christopher Dollanganger, Sr., and is subsequently disowned by her religious and incest-obsessed parents, Malcolm and Olivia Foxworth. Readers later discover that Christopher is Corrine’s half-uncle, and together they have produced four perfect children: Christopher, Cathy, Carrie, and Cory. They might have lived happily ever after, but Christopher dies in a car crash and Corrine—who has zero marketable skills—must return to her abusive parents. And here’s the catch: If her tyrant father learns that she and her husband produced any “devil’s spawn,” she will not inherit anything. Fortunately, the old buzzard is on his way out. So Corrine and her abusive mother decide to hide the children in the attic until the father kicks the bucket. From there, the children are subjected to multiple scenes of physical and emotional abuse, including beatings, a harrowing instance of the grandmother pouring tar on Cathy’s hair, and an incestuous rape scene (which is supposed to be mitigated by the fact that Chris is in love with his gorgeous sister Cathy).

the cover of the flowers in the attic paperback book

Readers loved the best-selling book precisely because of these deplorable acts. When I asked a group of friends about the series, many women—most of whom are in their 30s or 40s—admitted to reading the books between the ages of 10 and 13. They loved them because they were “risqué,” “shocking,” “steamy,” “sinful, “dangerous,” and “trashy.” One reader said she felt like she was “reading something I shouldn’t be.” Another said the books made her feel “incredibly adult.” Multiple readers mentioned the iconic paperback cover art. Mothers had absolutely no idea what mature scenes were within those covers, and that was part of the reason we all felt like we were getting away with something. Unlike romance novels, a V.C. Andrews novel appeared serious.

Fries Entertainment released a movie version of the book in 1987, but the film changed major plot points and left loyal readers angry. The film all but removes the Christopher-Cathy incest sub-plot and kills off the infantilized and neglectful mother at the end. The book doesn’t provide such poetic justice and instead continues the circle of abuse for many years—and sequels—to come. Like Olivia and Malcolm, Corrine becomes an arch-villain. Andrews can essentially tell the same story all over again.

The cast of the 1987 flowers in the attic, holding bags

The first Flowers in the Attic film involved a lot of... baggage. 

When Lifetime Network announced that it was releasing an updated film version of the book, readers rejoiced. Ellen Burstyn, Heather Graham, and Kiernan Shipka (a.k.a Sally Draper of Mad Men) headline the cast. Fans are still upset that the original film nixed the incest storyline. One IMBD user posted a comment pleading with the director to “do it justice!” and lamented that the first movie had “NO INCEST.”  In other words, true fans want to see every bit of abuse because that’s what made Flowers in the Attic interesting in the first place. Every female character is either an abuser or abused (often both). Sex is always wrong, whether because it’s incest or rape or because it’s used to manipulate men. And beautiful women always suffer because of their beauty.

In a world where Fifty Shades of Grey—which is far more explicit with its sex scenes and includes rape, but not incest—is now a bestseller, one wonders if Flowers in the Attic will resonate with a new audience. It’s tough to find someone under the age of 30 who has even heard of the series, let alone read it. When I asked my twenty-year-old students what their generation’s Flowers in the Attic is, they were stumped. The closest they could come was Twilight. While Twilight certainly has an underlying abuse trope, it doesn’t hold a candle to Flowers in the Attic. My students hypothesized that their generation has the Internet, so they don’t need to read dirty books under the covers.

Still, it seems that Flowers in the Attic provided more for its readers than just a dirty secret. Flowers in the Attic tells its readers that victimization is sexy. Emily Bazelon, in a 2007 article for Slate, posits that “Cathy is full of guilt and shame and yet never really is responsible for her transgressions, given how she's been treated. She gets to act out all of an eleven-year-old girl's worst fears about sex, without becoming evil.”

In V.C. Andrews’s world beauty and desirability is always a curse, a sure path to victim status. Conversely, being ugly (like the grandmother) means a lifetime of bitterness toward women who inspire lust in men. Andrews’s victims are forever beyond agency. For that reason, Cathy is never responsible for any of the horrible events that befall her, nor is she responsible for the horrible things she does to others (like seducing her mother’s new young husband). And her brother Chris is not responsible for raping her: The horrible abuse by women (his mother and grandmother) led him to it and Cathy’s beauty pushed him over the edge.  

The underlying message of misogyny is impossible for me to miss now, but as a young reader, I was captivated by a world that tormented its heroines. It’s not surprising that adolescent readers would identify with a heroine who is persecuted by the whole world. Cathy is controlled by everyone around her through no fault of her own. That’s adolescence in a nutshell.

Whether or not a new Flowers in the Attic film adaptation will inspire a new legion of fans remains to be seen, but perhaps avid Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey fans will welcome a new woman-in-peril heroine—admittedly slightly less passive than Bella Swan or Anastasia Steele—who reminds us that being victimized is the fate of all women.  

Related Reading: Check out the Thinking Kink series on BDSM in pop culture

Christine Seifert is an associate professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, a YA novelist, a frequent Bitch contributor, and a voracious reader of books.


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Comments

15 comments have been made. Post a comment.

incest =/= sexy

i love bitch, but i am really hurt and offended by the tone of this piece. for one thing, the tags are "flowers in the attic" and "sex." really? not even a "rape," "rape culture," or "incest" to warn survivors?

secondly, as an abuse and incest survivor myself, i can assure you that it is not PG-13 sexy fun, and i think it's reprehensible to spend essentially the entire article discussing it as such. to quote several ADULT WOMEN talking about this book as "risque" is not just insensitive but deeply insulting and triggering.

thirdly, i am shocked that you're perpetuating the acceptability of "rape-as-metaphor" in this piece; while, yes, "being victimized is the fate of all women" under patriarchy there needs to be a distinction drawn between systematic victimization and literal abuse and rape. they are not the same. and "Cathy is controlled by everyone around her through no fault of her own. That’s adolescence in a nutshell."??? no. FEELING like you are powerless and alone is entirely different from literally being afraid to go home and feeling unsafe in your own house.

finally, i absolutely reject your assertion that childhood experiences of rape and abuse are any excuse for becoming a victimizer onesself.

i refuse to let you take the stuff of my deepest shames and darkest nightmares and treat it like sexy kink. please, please, please go back and make some serious edits to this article so that no one else has to be hurt.

(ugh sorry for posting twice)

(ugh sorry for posting twice)

I have to agree... While

I have to agree... While we've probably all read/saw things that may have seemed 'exciting' when we were young, that's because we lacked the context and maturity to differentiate between healthy and damaging sexual behavior. It is very disconcerting to read even second-hand accounts of women who continue to see this as some sort of guilty pleasure. It trivializes the actual effects incest has on people and is very insensitive to survivors.

I completely agree with you.

I completely agree with you. I had to double check that I was reading Bitch. This is exactly the sort of thing I'd expect to see critically analyzed here - the romanticizing of rape and incest, waxing nostalgic about being titillated by stories of abuse, and making excuses for media terrorizing its female characters. Horrible.

It sounds like you should

It sounds like you should probably just stay off of the Internet. And don't watch TV either.

How brave of you ANONYMOUS to

How brave of you ANONYMOUS to tell us not to take part in modern media when you can't even tell us your name, as if its our fault we are offended by reading content related to crimes committed against us survivors, you're basically blaming us for what was done to us. How lazy of you truly, we know we can switch off the tv and choose not to read articles we might be offended by when we are given appropriate warning of its triggering content, which this article failed to do.
Shame on you for victimising us all over again with your throwaway lazy contemptuous comment.

the breezy tone and seeming

the breezy tone and seeming carelessness with which incest and rape are discussed in this blog piece remind me of another Bitch post that really, really bothered me: http://bitchmagazine.org/post/lady-liquor-boozing-it-up-in-the-animal-ki....

I never find articles in Bitch magazine that seem triggering, poorly thought out, or all-around kind of dismal, but sometimes the stuff on this blog isn't up to par. I feel pretty upset to see this article on the blog and I think it should be revised substantially or taken down.

-queerdude

I loved Flowers in the Attic

I loved Flowers in the Attic as a kid and it wasn't for the risqué factor.
I was abused, starved and molested. I loved knowing I wasn't alone in the world. I loved knowing that it could be worse. I loved knowing that if there was a book about it, it must be happening to others. This article makes it seem like we just love sexual tragedy. I think many people who loved it sympathized in some small way. It isn't about the fact that the kids never really emotionally recover. Its about making the abuse such a casual part of everyday life, which for many people, it is.
I hated the movie, not because there was no incest but because they missed the whole tone of the book. They missed the sheer loneliness of being ripped away from friends. They missed the dawning horror and suspicion about Cory. They missed the sheer terror of being locked away with no one to miss you or notice if you were forgotten. They missed the horror of being abandoned to the "mercy" of a stranger who hates you.
I have such high hopes that this new movie addresses what made the book so riveting. Whether or not the incest or sexual betrayal is present, I am hoping the atmosphere of this movie glues me to the screen.

Brovo to the Author!

I agree that incest and abuse are not to be taken lightly, and I don't believe this article implies that either one is something to be accepted. Instead, the blog entry appears to be questioning WHY the majority of our culture deems it appropriate to portray victimization as "sexy." As the two previous comments prove, victimization is anything but sexy. Yet we are told repeatedly through films such as Flowers in the Attic and Twilight that being a "woman in peril" is equivalent to being desirable. This is a tremendously disturbing message, and it's delivered to young women at a very early age. Bravo to the author for encouraging us to disrupt social norms and understand that despite what pop culture tells us "woman" and "victim" do not have to be synonymous terms.

while i think the intent of

while i think the intent of the author was to disrupt these social norms, the article lacks any real analysis. it's essentially just a flippant summary of a book the author and her friends admit to having read for cheap thrills.

also, as you don't seem to have a history of abuse yourself (although please correct me if i am wrong) i think it's pretty inappropriate for you to tell me and others (both survivors and allies) who were upset by this post that we're overreacting or misreading the article. as someone without a personal experience of abuse, it's not your place to dismiss the concerns of a survivor.

Food for Thought

I can't claim to know the author's intent. But what I took away from it was this: it's a tremendous problem that pop culture equates women as objects and portrays victimization as sexy. As a victim of abuse (although not incest) I am a strong advocate of having an open discussion that empowers women by giving them a voice - something I believe "Bitch" does very well. If you or any of the other people who have posted comments felt that I said they were overreacting or misreading the article, I want to offer my deepest apologies. I only meant to offer my interpretation - I continue to think this article offers a strong and important message. But anyone who believes this blog entry was flippant or insensitive has a completely valid opinion, and I respect everyone's point of view. It certainly isn't my place to dismiss the experiences of others and I would never do that intentionally.

Bravo to the Author!

Bravo to the author for helping us to question our culture's acceptance of the notion that victimization is sexy. Pop culture would have us believe that a woman in peril is desirable and/or something women should strive to emulate. I appreciate this blog entry because it's a reminder that "woman" and "victim" do not have to be synonymous.

"Incest" Means Two Different Things

The characters in the book were being abused. Incest can mean "assault" or "molestation" or it can mean consensual sex. Yes, there ARE people who do CONSENT to sex with a close relative. Sometimes they are both abused by others and find comfort with each other, sometimes neither has been abused by anyone. 10-15% of people in their early 20s will confide in anonymous surveys to already having has a consensual sexual experience with a sibling. Consensual incest and abusive incest have both been a topic included in mythology and literature throughout all of human existence (see Greeks and the Bible.) Why should that be any different today?

The author never claimed incest is sexy

She claimed people find it sexy due to literature such as Twilight and Flowers....

The Dawn series and FITA series were the only two I read by VC Andrews, but I devoured them several times. As a child severely abused and brought up by a horrible mother, alternating between my household's poverty and my grandmother's rich secretive family from the South, these books were full of familiar pain and torment and sex of the kind that invaded my life. At the same time, they were trashy escapism I couldn't put down once I started. I didn't romanticize incest then and I don't now.

I have a feeling a lot of women were entertained by the compelling stories while also finding them shameful and repulsive. I think it's because the plots and the dialogue left no question that these were outlandish works of fiction, but also because the women in them, ugly or beautiful, were so strong and able to deal with adversity.

Kathy is HOTTT

the Sister Kathy is hottt, the grandmother even knows it, i thought it was a pretty good movie all around , the moms acting kind of sucked though, but i mostly watch it cuz that Kathy chick is hotttt!