“Whenever women do something in significant numbers, the media immediately becomes frenzied as they try to understand this new mystery of womanhood. If that something involves female desire (as if female desire is universal), the frenzy takes on a sharper pitch. Women openly expressing their sexual desires is so damn heretical.” Roxanne Gaye
The second offering from the multi-million dollar ’50 Shades’ franchise hit the box offices on February 10th, just in time for our yearly love fest. Because, obviously, 50 Shades is synonymous with romantic love, so what better time of year to premier 50 Shades Darker, right?
Christian Gale and Bella Swan, sorry, I mean Anastasia Steele, are the romantic couple of every woman’s fantasies: He, a controlling, multi-billionaire magnate, with an ego that can only be matched by Donal Trump, who stalks and controls every aspect of his lover’s life from the job she has, to the food she eats, the clothes she wears, the friends she sees and when and how they have sex. She, a shy, quiet, submissive, ‘plain girl’, happy to have a strong man finally buy her some nice clothes (and a publishing company), take control of her life and tell her what to do, when to eat, when to pee, when to come. A match made in heaven.
Full disclosure here, I have never watched the movies but I have read the whole trilogy, partly out of curiosity and partly to have something to say in the many, many conversations that have sprung since it first hit the bestsellers list. It is the closest I have come to any kind of sado-masocistic behaviour (I really don’t like receiving or inflicting pain). While I did skip whole sections out of boredom, it was truly painful, an act of sheer willpower, to keep reading to the end, because all in all it is terrible fiction. Even compared to other novels from the Romance/Erotica genre, 50 Shades is woeful.
The feminist critique has centered on the fact that, just like Twilight, rather than portraying an exciting romance between two consenting adults, the relationship between Christian and Anastasia is built on domination and control, following many of the patterns of emotional, physical, economic, psychological and sexual abuse. It’s popularity should therefore be astounding and inexplicable, right?
Well, not so astounding if you think that Christian Grey fits into the image of the domineering, macho, prince charming, who will sweep in and save us from demeaning jobs, villains, sexual aggressors and ourselves. Of course, Grey comes with the BDSM extra that you won’t find in your average Disney movie.
Women have been conditioned to find such men attractive since we were old enough to watch our first Disney movies. We have also been conditioned to be shy, complicit, submissive and pleasing to men in general, and when it comes to sex few of us have ever learned about healthy consent, much less about how to communicate what our real sexual desires/fantasies are and even less on how to protect our limits and boundaries. Thus the dominant/submissive power games at play in 50 Shades are familiar to many of us, even if we have never engaged in BDSM practices.
Nor, is it astounding if you consider just how many of us have lived through abusive relationships, and have thought that controlling behavior was normal and acceptable, a sign that our partners loved and cared for us. How many of us have found ourselves in relationships, where we are isolated from our friends and families, our whereabouts constantly monitored and key decisions, from what to eat, to how we dress, and where we work, have been taken out of our hands by supposedly loving partners? According to Roxanne Gaye the book is none other than a “a detailed primer for how to successfully engage in a controlling, abusive relationship.”
What, dear reader, could you expect from a book that started its life as Twilight fan fiction? Yes, that’s right, Christian and Anastasia’s characters are inspired by none other than Edward and Bella of Twilight, the teenage lovers who offer another example, par excellence, of an abusive relationship. The biggest difference, apart from the whole vampire and eternal life thing, was that Edward and Bella waited until they were married to have sex, while Christian and Anastasia at least got it on by the second date – we didn’t have to wait four books for that. Twilight has had as big an impact on young adult fiction that 50 Shades has had on the so called chick lit or erotic fiction genre.
When 50 Shades first came out, it was heralded as a revolution in writing about sex by women, for women. Finally, a book that reflected women’s deepest sexual desires, that was not Harlequin or Mills & Boon! Women were not embarrassed to take it to the checkout and it was sold in every bookshop from Tescos to the local newsagents. This was not the coy prose of Danielle Steele or Nora Roberts. Porn for women finally became mainstream. Even our Mum’s were reading it, and in public!
Its popularity seems to have proved that despite over 100 years of feminsim what women really, really want is to be dominated sexually, to be smacked about a little and to be taken forcibly at the whim of their partners. Just as the author said that writing it was an escape from the drugery of married life, reading it has seemed to mean the same for many married women. Once again I would question whether this has more to do with women’s social conditioning to accept such behaviours, rather than a genuine or healthy exploration of their sexuality.
Only the most hardened of people could be failed to be turned on by some of the sexual content in the book. Yet, as my fave Sex + gal, Laci Greene has pointed out there are many sexual scenes in which consent is absent, in which power is wielded, sometimes ruthlessly, by one person over another and in which certain scenes resemble a sexual assault. That is not hot, it is disturbing.
The Abused/Abuser Trope
The BDSM community has come out against its portrayal in the series. They insist that people who practice BDSM do not have emotional problems (or no more than your average Joe or Jane) and that the film and book give an inaccurate representation of practices in the BDSM community from the infamous contract Anastasia signs, to the sexual acts, to the absence of consent. Christian is portrayed as a sexual deviant who practices BDSM as a form of catharsis for the abuse suffered as a child. It is a pathology not a fetish. Anastasia is never fully convinced of these practices and eventually wins him over with her goodies and purity and they embark on a fairly conventional husband and wife relationship.
Many survivors of child abuse, and organisations who work with survivors, have also decried the portrayal of Christian (he was abused and neglected as a child by his mother, hence his need to dominate, control and inflict pain on other women) in 50 Shades. They argue that the majority of people who experienced abuse as children do not go on to be abusers, nor do they actively seek out submissive women to hurt.
“E.L James, on behalf of all the victims and survivors out there of domestic abuse and all of the people who suffered child abuse and grew up to be great people and didn’t use it as an excuse to abuse others, fuck you.” Beth Penny
The American Dream
Perhaps the aspect that bugs me most about 50 Shades and Twilight, and one which is rarely commented is the naked materialism and individualism that marks their relationship. The characters aspire to a level of wealth that is truly obscene and obtainable to a mere 1% of the world’s population. Helicopters and private jets are always on demand for the purpose of saving damsels in distress or a romantic weekend away. Marble covers every surface and there is usually a full size snooker table or grand piano around to spice the love-making up. Sports cars are many and interchangeble, depending on the day, the weather, Christian’s mood. Designer lingerie is for one use only (the lacey ones are especially vulnerable to being unceremoniously ripped off the excited Anastasia).
The origins of such absurd wealth accumulation are never discussed and the ethics of such conspicuous and exagerated consumption are conveniently ignored. We are meant to accept that this is happiness, this is comfort, this is the American Dream come true. Except that it is actually, fiction and few of us will ever set foot on a private jet, and perhaps that’s ok? The realities of global inequality, social injustice, climate change and the irresponsible use of natural resources should have really put a damper on those kinds of fantasies. And, of course, it is a totally white universe where everyone sticks rigidly to heteronormativity and the only people of colour are servants or sexual aggressors – bad hombres.
But it’s all harmless fun right?
Well, no. (Bring on the feminist kill joys!) Just like Twilight has become the iconic image of an all consuming teenage romance for millions of 15 and 16 year old girls, 50 shades has been consummed by over 100 million women as the 21st century image of romance and sexual liberation. It has served as an introduction for many to the world of BDSM, despite the fact that the BDSM practices described in the book are misleading and erroneous. In two separate studies Amy Bonomi found that the 50 Shades franchise “perpetuates dangerous abuse standards” and can lead to unhealthy behaviours in young women: “We recognize that the depiction of violence against women in and of itself is not problematic, especially if the depiction attempts to shed serious light on the problem (…) The problem comes when the depiction reinforces the acceptance of the status quo, rather than challenging it.”
According to Emma Green: “The most troubling thing about the sex in Fifty Shades isn’t the BDSM itself: It’s the characters’ terrible communication. Throughout the books, Ana isn’t expected to say what she wants from sex—Christian just knows (…) Although they do talk about their relationship, Ana’s too afraid of losing Christian to express the depth of her fears about the kind of sex he’s asking her to have.” And it has been lapped up by more than 100 million women.
To conclude I recommend the reading definitve critiques from Emma Green at the Atlantic or Roxanne Gaye. Skip the movie altogether and instead support the #50DollarsNot50Shades campaign that seeks to raise awareness about domestic violence and raise money for organisations that support survivors. Finally, to lighten the mood a check out this amazing alternative universe of romantic movies…