I'm getting pretty tired of hearing about 50 Shades of Grey.
With the recent film premiere, my Facebook feed has been flooded with articles decrying the series' content. I had previously been willing to give the book's nay-sayers the benefit of the doubt. Now, methinks (s)he doth protest too much.
Since 50 Shades of Grey started as Twilight fan fiction, I felt as confident it would be terrible as I was confident I would never read it. Writing this column, however, seems to often require that I comment on cultural hot topics I would otherwise try to ignore.
I could have commented solely on the cultural commentary surrounding 50 Shades of Grey, but I'd rather put my money where my mouth is. I haven't read the book cover to cover, but I skimmed it. And it read like any of a thousand other trashy romance novels.
I'm not denying that 50 Shades of Grey is problematic; I'm just not sure it's much more problematic than any other romance novel. Perhaps all the backlash is just due to the fact that this book has captured the popular imagination in a way all those others did not.
I've seen a lot of discussion about the fact that 50 Shades of Grey is not an accurate depiction of BDSM. Which is true. But it's also an erotic fantasy novel. I'm not sure why anyone would expect it to be completely factually plausible. Oh Joy, Sex Toy provides a good analysis of why someone might get off to 50 Shades of Grey but not try to re-enact it in their actual relationships.
So much of the rhetoric surrounding the book and subsequent film focuses on the abusive nature of the relationship between Ana and Christian. According to this Guardian article, a women's domestic violence center called the novel "an instruction manual for an abusive individual to sexually torture a vulnerable young woman...It's the whole mythology that women want to be hurt."
Except that some women DO want to be hurt – in consensual ways. Many submissive and/or masochistic women could relate to the mental dissonance Ana experiences, and might have experienced it themselves when first engaging in BDSM. Knowing that a particular action was sexually arousing, but not being quite sure why. Not enjoying certain aspects of an experience, but enjoying the fact of being made to do it in the first place.
Even if 50 Shades of Grey didn't involve BDSM, the trope of the heroine being unsure or conflicted about her feelings, desires, and actions is common in the romance genre. For every moment that Ana wonders to herself whether she should be doing this or why she likes it, there's a moment where she chooses to continue. In a patriarchal world which tells women they are not as sexual as men and shames those who act otherwise, many women experience cognitive dissonance surrounding their sexual desires. The heroine of a novel working through that encourages the reader to do likewise.
On top of that, it can be extremely difficult to accept kinky desires which seem to fly in the face of what a modern, educated, feminist woman “should” want. I would encourage anyone grappling with their own process or anyone confused about how the two can ever coexist to read The S&M Feminist and this article about consensual non-consent.
It's also important to note that not everyone in the BDSM community even unilaterally opposes 50 Shades of Grey. The Daily Beast provides a review of the film by a professional dominatrix. She says, “Although fairly cheesy from my point of view as a dominatrix, I do hope the movie encourages some people—who normally would not be so inclined—to explore their sexuality and try something new.” So fairly cheesy but also fairly harmless. This Bitch Media article accuses anti-50 Shades of Grey rhetoric of being rooted in kinkphobia, saying, “As someone who has read a fair bit of kinky literature, I believe we need to be wary of cherry-picking decontextualized instances from one book, while ignoring all others.”
This article provides the opinions of fifty individuals involved in the adult sex industry. Sunny Megatron explains, “We know the sex is unrealistic (Simultaneous orgasms every time? Please!), the relationship unhealthy (No, you can’t change your manipulative partner!), and their lifestyle is unrealistically lavish (Charlie Tango, anyone?) but that's exactly why millions can't get enough of it. It’s the ultimate, unattainable fantasy.” Creatrix Tiara adds, “I wonder if some of the criticism against Fifty Shades is coming more from misogyny, because male writers do write a lot of crap too but they don't get as much scrutiny or scorn.”
I think Creatrix Tiara has hit the nail on the head. The point at which anti-50 Shades of Grey rhetoric became too much for me was the moment Stop Patriarchy jumped on board. For those unfamiliar with the organization, Stop Patriarchy is filled with racist, Islamaphobic, anti-sex worker, anti-pornography, TERFS (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists). This open letter details some of the criticisms which have been lodged against them. If Stop Patriarchy is anti-50 Shades, then maybe it’s time to think critically about defending it.
Which isn't to say that I think it's good. Or well-written. Or necessarily even worth reading. But the rhetoric against 50 Shades of Grey is to the point that anyone who would admit to enjoying it is immediately suspect. And that's not okay with me.
There's a long history of looking down on women who read and enjoy romance novels. I would suggest perusing Janice Radway's, Reading the Romance before commenting too harshly against the popularity of this series. Radway explores the agency readers have in interacting with popular culture, and how narratives which seem to reinforce the status quo can actually be used to subvert it.
Which is why I, too, find a touch of misogyny in the idea that women need protecting from this series. The idea that women can't differentiate BDSM from abuse, or fantasy from reality. The idea that women are unable to navigate their own erotic desires and need someone to protect them from themselves.
As Tom Slater of Spiked! aptly notes, “It’s not often that mid-west Bible-thumpers, women’s studies academics and the Malaysian government all agree on something.” And when they do all agree, it's important we stand up and take notice.
Slater goes on to argue, “[w]e are breaching into a neo-Victorian vision of womanhood, in which women are innocent flowers out to be corrupted by a Big Bad World full of Big Bad Men. While outré sex practices which rely on domination, submission and humiliation have always been given a pass among nominal liberals, these are now being swept up in a narrative that sees female consent as increasingly fragile.”
There's an element of slut-shaming in the anti-50 Shades of Grey crowd. While it's very important to have discussions about abuse, manipulation, stalking, harassment, consent, negotiation, and ethical BDSM practices, it's also important to give women the benefit of the doubt. I'm not convinced so closely policing other people's fantasy lives is a valuable use of our time – especially when those people are almost exclusively women.
I'm glad 50 Shades of Grey has inspired interest in and discussion about BDSM in popular culture. But considering the endless parade of sex toys, lubricants, and even teddy bears bearing the 50 Shades moniker, I think Daily Dot and The Baffler are correct to note that the real fantasy at the heart of 50 Shades of Grey is a capitalist one. What does it say about our culture that we aren't more focused on analyzing that?
This article was originally published by The Horn on 02/25/15.