February 11, 2015
I’m so torn on this Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon (Not really, but for the sake of debate I’m going to pretend that I am). No, I haven’t read the book. I heard its poorly written and there are about 300,000 good books ahead of it on my “To Read” list. I still have to get to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. (I’m currently reading the fast-paced novel, The Residue Years by Portland’s Mitchell Jackson.) But God knows, I’ve read enough about 50 Shades to have an opinion.
On the “pop” hand, there’s a long tradition of women (including old-fashioned horny housewives) getting their rocks off with some randy literature, reading a few pages of D.H. Lawrence, and making a date with Hitachi’s Magic Wand. More power to ya. You deserve a break today.
But on the feminist hand, there is mounting concern that the book and film glamorize abuse of women. That Ana is not an “empowered woman,” but the archetype of a victim of abuse. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Women’s Health asked abuse professionals to rank the interactions between Ana and Christian in the book series and (Surprise!) they found nearly every interaction abusive. Besides the intimidation, stalking, and isolation, Christian uses booze to undermine Ana’s consent.
A 2014 study found women who read the book were more likely to have abusive partners (and eating disorders). Thankfully, all this has helped spark a backlash against the book and film, encouraging people to explore the normalization of sexual abuse and rape culture. #FiftyShadesIsAbuse has been trending on Twitter. Additionally, #50DollarsNot50Shades is encouraging people to give their money to women’s shelters (where women like Anastasia end up), instead of the filmmakers at Universal Pictures.
Now, on the kinky hand, people have every right to have a “playroom,” and tie each other up and whip each other with wet noodles if they want. The whole BDSM thing can be hot among consenting adults, “consenting” being the operative word. When I was teaching in London in the 1990s, a story came out about powerful British politicians who enjoyed being spanked. It’s not really my thing. I’m more of a role-player (I like to play the an out-of-work writer and my wife plays a big publisher, repeatedly slamming the door in my face. So hot.) Out of curiosity, I once visited a dominatrix on 82nd and just couldn’t stop laughing through the whole experience. (Maybe it was the “dungeon” wallpaper.) But word is Christian disregards Ana’s safe-words, which is a violation of the prime directive in the BDSM community. Not cool.
In the world of fiction, we can enjoy the abuse of others. Look how many popular movies about serial killers there are. Why? I argue in my criminology class that most people have at least three people they’d like to knock off. (In my case, they all work in the same building.) So virgin Anastasia Steele is abused, so what? She doesn’t exist. No harm, no foul. Most people can separate fiction from reality.
The harm is the promotion of this fiction without the discussion about the reality of sexual abuse. Just listen to what abuse survivors have to say about 50 Shades. It’s soul crushing. Is this really what we want to spend our energy promoting? It’s been so sad to see Ellen DeGeneres, who puts out such positive energy into the universe, promote the shit out of this movie without any acknowledgement of the harm her endorsement may cause.
As the father of a young daughter, I don’t want to be a sexual prude. I know she’s going to grow up in a highly sexualized world and if she wants to embrace BDSM when she’s an adult, that’s her right. (Right now I’m looking at her wrapped in a pink blanket so I don’t have to think of her wrapped in ropes.) Feminists need to let women reclaim their sexual selves. Part of the appeal of 50 Shades must be an unflinching look at one woman’s sexual exploration, rare in pop culture. But what I don’t want is some bullshit romanticization of sexual abuse. I certainly understand the power of the rape fantasy. I read Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, after all. But that book discussed where the fantasy originates. 50 Shades doesn’t and neither does Ellen DeGeneres or the rest of the massive hype machine.
If you want something hot but actually well-written, read Anaïs Nin instead of E. L. James (Erika Mitchell) or check out Bitch Magazine’s suggestions for feminist erotica:
And if you’re gonna get all “50 Shades” for Valentines, make your safe-word, 800-799-7233. That’s the number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.