Fifty Shades of Condescension

Like any self-identifying feminist who reads a lot of women’s erotica, I have a lot of opinions about Fifty Shades of Grey. For those of you not salivating over E. L. James’s best selling series, the first theatrical trailer for the film adaptation dropped this morning and the internet lost its mind. I don’t want to be one of the many bloggers rehashing the same arguments about the Fifty Shades series and its implication for feminism, its conflation of abuse with BDSM relationships, and how much the writing sucks. That being said, my friend Torii texted me to ask what I thought of the series and I just couldn’t help myself. It’s a topic I have written a lot about, both for media studies classes and in my thesis, and there are a couple of ways to look at Fifty Shades other than the same tired think pieces about submission and feminism that will no doubt start popping up all over again.

Point blank: yes, Fifty Shades of Grey is pretty damn sexist. Christian and Ana reflect an extreme conservative ideal of relationships: he is the dominant man, lavishing her in expensive gifts and taking control of every aspect of her life, even buying the publishing house she works for and appointing her the head of a division. His control should be recognized as stalking and abuse, which Ana herself dislikes, but he repeatedly implores her to obey him. Ana, reflecting a larger undercurrent of the series and the way our society misunderstands emotional abuse, rationalizes his behavior. She sees it as part of the framework of their BDSM relationship, which a) is not like real, healthy BDSM relationships, and b) is not an excuse for manipulation and abusive behavior regardless. “Serve and obey in all things. All things! I shake my head in disbelief. Actually, don’t the marriage vows use those words… obey?” (175). She is referencing the clause to ‘obey’ Christian as her master in their later abandoned Dom/Sub contract. Honey, no. Listen to that voice in your head and walk out of the penthouse.

Ana herself is headstrong enough to be aware of the off-putting elements of their relationship, but she is largely complacent, naïve to a fault, and maternal to both Christian and their eventual child, whom she creepily refers to as “Little Blip” and is determined to carry to term despite her husband’s lack of readiness and her own young age. They fit normative gender roles to a T, and by the end of the series she has cured Christian of his emotional scarring and his interest in BDSM. And they all lived happily ever after. Except in the real world, there is no happy ending for relationships like this one: emotional abuse escalates, and Ana is in many ways the perfect victim for a charming, beautiful abuser like Christian. She is smart but insecure, flattered and terrified of his attention, and convinced that if she tries hard enough she can cure him (which the narrative goes on to confirm). This is a kinky series fo sho, but it is steeped in a traditional heteronormative plot of romance, marriage, and pro-life rhetoric—much like its precursor, the Twilight series.

Fifty Shades is not a healthy reflection of romance, of BDSM relationships, of anything, really. It was a huge inspiration for my own writing because I was all excited to crack open the big best selling mainstream women’s erotica book, and I was hugely disappointed. No, I was horrified. So I figured screw it, I can write better than this. My thesis of feminist erotica was an effort to talk back to the Fifty Shades phenomenon, and I try to write erotica that educates its readers on issues of kink, consent, and safe sexual practices. I truly believe media is responsible for the messages it sends, and harmful depictions of sexuality should not be protected from criticism with the excuse that it is just fantasy, or it is just fiction. Erotica is escapist by nature, but I draw the line at emotional abuse. Always, always, always.

This graphic has been circulating on tumblr and should be seen by everyone.
This graphic has been circulating on tumblr and should be seen by everyone.

But I become uncomfortable when shitting on Fifty Shades of Grey because the coverage and response to the series has become a craze unto itself. Any meaningful analysis of E.L. James’s runaway hit needs to look at the contents of the series in isolation, the aspects found most meaningful by its readership, and the way it has been framed and interpreted by the media. Approaching Fifty Shades from these multiple angles can show the both progressive and traditional elements of the books.

In spite of its traditional, sappy framing, this book definitively challenges depictions of normative sexual behavior, and by virtue of going mainstream may also play a large role in normalizing “deviant” sexual proclivities as well. The series sparked an interest in previously marginalized sexual practices, from bondage to butt plugs. Companies like Pure Romance, a “relationship and intimacy aid” peddler that follows the Tupperware party model of sales, saw a huge surge in business following the Fifty Shades craze, even introducing a “Grey Revolution” line of products including nipple clamps and floggers. The New York Post reported a rush of women buying rope at Manhattan hardware stores, ostensibly to experiment in the privacy of their own homes. The media was stunned to learn women bought porn and actually masturbated, and a slew of BDSM books are now available (might I recommend Cleis Press’s brand new anthology Bound For Trouble).

Fifty Shades was truly a game changer, and its heteronormative romance plot allowed it to be the runaway success it was. Christian and Ana’s love affair provided social camouflage for some serious “kinky fuckery.” And while no statistics will prove this, plenty of readers skipped ahead to the sex scenes and totally ignored the plot. How many think pieces actually discuss the “Little Blip” plot? Yeah, they’re too busy talking about the spanking. The series sparked a huge national discussion of women’s sexuality and brought female sexuality into focus.

But much of the narrative in the media, when not quibbling over post-feminist concerns about submission and ‘doing it all,’ focused on the women supposedly reading it the most: moms. Dubbed “mommy porn,” Fifty Shades of Grey’s target audience seemed to be women who resembled its author, E.L. James: middle-aged and married, and generally dismissed as past their sexual prime. But countless news outlets focused on how the book spiced up their sex lives, and most articles followed the gist of one anonymous mother quoted in the New York Post: “The person who recommended it to me said, ‘It will make you want to have sex with your husband.’ And it did!”

Actual research about the demographics of those reading Fifty Shades tell a different story: more than half of the readers are women in their twenties and thirties, which begs the question why the media framed the series like that. Does the spectacle of grandma reading about nipple clamps sell more papers? Or is it a push back against the progressive nature of the series, to make it an object of amusement and scorn rather than an example of female sexuality and empowerment as consumers? Earlier movements against subversive material took the form of purity crusades and governmental raids against obscenity, but in a cultural context saturated by sexuality, such self-righteous claims would be shut down and mocked by the media as out-of-touch. A delicate balance of humor and disrespect is now the model used to mark behavior as abnormal, not necessarily morality or religion. In American culture today it is far more dangerous for ideas to not be taken seriously. Depicting the readers of this series as weird, sexually frustrated housewives stifles conversations about female agency and masturbation.

Is Ana Steele a feminist hero? No. But E.L. James might be. That was most likely not her intention, but even if it was not intended to be sexually progressive, the Fifty Shades trilogy challenges notions of acceptable sexual behavior and expression. For that it must be taken seriously and not shrugged as “mommy porn” or terribly written fan fiction. The Fifty Shades craze is an indication that the debate over boundaries of sexual expression is ongoing and convoluted, and the media and the market play a large role in how the debate is moderated and understood. Progress toward a sexually liberated society is slow, and works like Fifty Shades represent incremental change: a few steps back for every few steps forward.

I’m not going to encourage you to read the series. In fact, I encourage you to stay the hell away from it. But I know I’ll still go see the movie next winter, not to watch the central romance but to see the audience full of powerful female consumers around me. And yes, to see how the hell they turn a sex book into an R-rated movie.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

2 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Condescension

  1. This is one of the most balanced critical analyses of the Fifty Shades phenomenon I’ve ever come across. It’s become fashionable to dismiss it, as well as the women who read and enjoyed it. While I have a *lot* of concerns about many aspects of the series, the bottom line is that it tapped into some aspects of women’s sexuality that hadn’t been openly acknowledged in mainstream media.That, in and of itself, makes it a phenomena worth examining. I wish more people could see past its flaws, (and oh my god, there are so many flaws), to examine the larger social and cultural implications of its popularity. You did that beautifully. My brain is very happy 🙂

    1. Thank you! Maybe it’s because I was totally an outsider of the erotica community when Fifty Shades came out, but it was the first time I had seen women’s erotica available, period. I was twenty years old and so excited that suddenly there was this undeniably sexual book all over the place. I read it and was so, so disappointed, but that period before I bought it? It seemed like a miracle. It’s a phenomenon that will be remembered. Even now when my parents tell people what their daughter does, they hear, “Oh, like Fifty Shades?” No, not like it, but at least they have some frame of reference.

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