I didn’t like the book. But if you know me, you understand why.
What is striking to me about this book though is that so many women are raving about it. Surprisingly, like the media critic Chemaly reminds us, 50 Shades simply repackages many fairy tale elements exclusive to this type of literature:
50 Shades of Grey, and content like it that seems new and trendy because they explicitly feature transgressive sex, are really just contemporary flavors of the romance genre. Here are three key ways:
1) The series features the adventures of a virgin
2) The narrative is one of female submission and male domination
3) They rely, in classic Sleeping Beauty fashion, on the powerful ability of a man to sexually “awaken” a woman without her actual desire being obvious or autonomous. She does what he wants not out of physical desire, but for love.
4) I know I said three, but I can’t stop. They also include the younger/”innocent”/girl and the older/damaged/man and wealth and luxury as part of the romance. And, yes, the protagonist in these books is, in some ways, more emotionally engaged and solicitous than traditional romance heros.
Just like any other consumer product, when things get stale and aren’t selling, they find a new way to market it. For 50 Shades, this includes adding a dose of BDSM (bondage/dominance/sadomasochism ), making the protagonist a little less girlie (she doesn’t wear make-up and lives in her Converses) and feigning female empowerment through the use of her easily turned-on body. But does this graphic sex, simple outfit change, and sexual negotiation make it worth the hype? I’m not sure.
50 SHADES DIVIDES HUMAN BEHAVIOR INTO LIKE A MAN’S AND LIKE A WOMAN’S
The book sets up females are passive, males are active. This is true in the case of virgin Ana. Women’s sexuality has long been repressed by strict control on sexual activity through such customs as placing a premium on girls’ virginity. Christian is no different. He more than once reminds Ana her orgasms are all due to him and relishes she has only been with him.
Another way this book segregates male and female is the label that follows the book around. Men have porn. Women have erotica, or in this case – “mommy porn”:
There is something America finds squicky about a broad cross-section of women, including suburban mothers and women of a certain age, digging on highly-sexualized content. What’s with the special term “mommy porn,” anyway? Are we to believe that mommies’ approval somehow diminishes porn? Is “mommy porn” less legitimate than “regular porn?” Daddies have been known to watch skin flicks and read Playboy, does their porn get a special designation?
So it sets up two sexualities instead of just having a human sex drive. But it’s still porn no matter how deep the story line. To make a big deal about women being sexual by using this label and having this sexuality encompass beyond the bounds of missionary sex still associates shame with sexuality for women. It sends the message women can’t handle real sex.
So while the book perhaps tries to do one important thing – embrace unbridled female sexuality – 50 Shades still uses the old schema of two different sexual worlds to do it. Christian is powerfully experienced, wanting a relationship catered to his controlling needs, and Ana isn’t experienced and seeks love. Is it easier to digest this way because we are so used to this dynamic?
BUT 50 SHADES ALSO ALLOWS WOMEN TO BE A SEXUAL BEING WITHOUT THE GUILT
If there’s one thing I am happy about that came from the raving of the book- it’s that it tells the world women like sex. This book helps to reduce the mutual exclusivity that so many women are taught as our only choices: being sexual or being uptight about sex. Women are human beings with sexual needs that we can embrace without being co-opted into accepting men’s desire as our own.
50 SHADES ILLUSTRATES LIMITED FEMALE POWER
As Ariel Levy reminds us in Female Chauvinist Pigs, “Sex is supposed to be something we do for pleasure or as an expression of love. The best erotic role models, then, would seem to be the women who get the most pleasure out of sex, not the women who get the most money [or attention from men] for it.” Is Ana a role model because she can get a handsome, rich, powerful man to change is his ways via her “pussy power”? Do women love this book because it reminds them of something they have already been taught their whole life: that their only power is sexual -if they are pretty enough and can fuck enough, they can make their dreams come true? Where does Ana’s GPA fit into this? Is it only used in a cat and mouse game between the sexes?
She notes she has leverage in the relationship, “Make our agreement a year? I have the power!” Her negotiation skills are highlighted here, but we really need to look beyond to see what is getting exchanged for what.
This illustrates a negative for me- it reduces sex to a commodity in exchange for love. While we do see Ana is having fun and feeling sexual pleasure, it comes at a price- she must perform in order to get Christian’s love. The most shocking line for me was when Ana states: “This is my power, this is what I do to him, and it’s a hedonistic, triumphant feeling.”
This book also tells men that sex, money, and power are concomitant. More money, more power, more sex – these are the things men should accumulate to increase their status, their wealth of experience. What about developing on his own an emotional self? Where does that fit in to a man’s experience?
Likewise, this teaches a woman what kind of man she should want – here, one specific type of masculinity is scripted best. I’m curious how men respond to this limited ideal.
Yes, Ana may “challenge” him, and he reminds her she is “a strong, self-contained young woman” several times throughout, but, for me, this read like emotional manipulation. Christian applauds her through his words all the while taking advantage of her inexperience. Yes, it could be argued she has agency, but then again, is this true power for Ana?
All in all, she leaves him. I will not read the next book to find out what eventually happens, but it leaves hope she believes herself to be sexy, funny, competent, and smart, worthy of much more than what he offers her and much more beyond just having a relationship with a man as her life’s mission. Maybe the next novel won’t have the definition of love that limits women molding men into an emotional beings. But it’s unlikely.
50 Shades may not have been written as an anthem for female empowerment, but what is it that women are being sold here? A love story? For me, many women who are entrenched in stories such as these are stuck in the Red Room of Pain, blindfolded and waiting patiently to perform these same old gendered dynamics but in newly repackaged and more seemingly provocative ways.