I have beef with Fifty Shades of Grey. There, I said it. I haven’t even read this diatribe of poor writing, and I have no intention to, so feel free to correct me where I’m off base. From what I know, Fifty Shades of Grey is a feminist nightmare…nay, a women’s nightmare. Forget that, it is a nightmare for all thinking people!
As anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock for the past month should know; Murray fucked up Wimbledon, Barclays fixed the LIBOR rate and…oh hey, the female population of the Western world is obsessed with a porno. Let me caveat the first paragraph. While the genre of erotica is of no interest personally, it is extremely important as an integral mechanism to the sexual liberation of women. The age old adage that men want sex more than women is being thwarted by the unwavering consumption (20 million copies of the franchise to date) of a novel which would make Jilly Cooper blush. I’ve seen women reading and discussing it on flights, on the tube, trains, buses…wherever I go, I see this book. SO, COUPLES (note: NOT just men, you’re both implicated in making your sex life work) you clearly both want it, but you’re DOING IT WRONG! Quick sex on a Wednesday night after you’ve put the kids to bed, clearly isn’t cutting it. Fantasy and variation bla bla bla…I won’t bore and embarrass myself or you…seem to be the key to a woman’s…errr…heart. Sex is an integral element of relationships, and that a population of women is reading and getting excited is great! Furthermore, the discussion of female experiences allow women to take agency over their sexuality and change their sexual relationships for the better. We could be looking at a revolution here.
Sadly, we’re not. This book poses a storyline of unprecedented male power. Outside of the bedroom, Grey is outrageously socio-economically dominant; he is rich and powerful beyond measure apparently. This inherently reflects real life, whereby women are brainwashed to expect that a potential partner be richer, more powerful, usually at least a few years older and generally a few inches taller than them. Women themselves expect dominance in real life, a harmful expectation which limits how they see themselves, as well as how men see them. Fifty Shades of Grey plays into this negative paradigm in an extreme way, is read by millions of women and reinforced the world over. Hardly the empowerment one would hope for.
This isn’t a problem only for women’s sense of empowerment, but it is also worrying from a man’s perspective. Where do we get off on putting all this pressure on our men?! Be rich. Be powerful. Be successful. Be tall (you may laugh, but I encounter, on a regular basis, men insisting emphatically, almost desperately, that they REALLY ARE taller than me when I’m not wearing heels). Be…er…old (ok, that’s a little off, but certainly ‘be sexually experienced’ is a huge pressure we put on our men – the ‘male slag’ is never revered, only celebrated). The scale of macho-expectance we put on men is worrying to me. I worry about the disconnect between expectation and reality, and how it must feel for a man to, by proxy, be made to feel not like a ‘real man’ when he isn’t all of those things. For sure, there are a plethora of men out there who resist and ignore the stereotypes. However, the prevailing notion of machoism, success and power permeate our societies and are the back drop of our day to day lives; they dominate our boardrooms, our banks, our relationships, and apparently our bedrooms.
But wait, there’s more. Let’s up the ante on the women…guess what?…the female protagonist, Anastasia Steele is not only young, but she’s a VIRGIN! Brilliant. Why don’t we continue to play into the biblical notion of a woman’s worth being tied into her virginity and being ‘spoiled’ by sex? She somehow made it through the American collegiate system, free from sexual encounter, only to sign her free will away to become a sex slave. Let me put this delicately…if we have sex, we’re sluts, if we don’t, we’re frigid. Steele is simultaneously naïve, virginial, sweet…AND sexual – in an ‘S&M-sign-your-life-away’ kind of way. It’s a headfuck for our young women who are told to be all things, but scorned when they eschew any one of them. Indeed, Steele struggles to reconcile her past with her present, questions herself, experiences feelings of guilt…and other general headfuckery. Well done E. L. James.
Inside the bedroom…jeez! Rather than a space where two adults come together in mutual agreement, meeting on equal terms based in trust, we have a young virgin entering into a legal contract to be submissive to a psychologically damaged dominatrix, who moulds her to his preferences of bondage and sadism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about kink-shaming. People have all kinds of sexual preferences and should exercise them as they please, but the unbalanced hierarchies of power in this book play into ideologies of patriarchy in a frighteningly violent manner, in situations of utmost intimacy and vulnerability. This is not female sexual liberation, this is en-mass acceptance of female sexual and cultural powerlessness.
To the women who bought this book, DON’T YOU REALISE WHAT YOU’RE DOING? Your consumption of this tripe confirms and re-affirms a cycle of male authority. You’re complicit in a social, legal, political, economic and sexual organisation of male dominance. I’ve seen men commenting on other articles to the tune of ‘you see, all women want is a rich, dominant guy they can live off’, ‘all women want is to be submissive to men’ and even ‘all a woman needs is a stern talking to and a good slap in the face’. I don’t even know where to start with this. More than anything, I’m embarrassed that millions of women are trooping off like sheep to buy a culturally damaging book with absolutely no recognition of its patriarchal connotations. I’m embarrassed that a woman wrote a book so damaging. And, on a lesser scale I’m offended by the unabashed consumption of such poor writing. WAKE UP WOMEN! Yes, demand erotica. Yes, create better sex lives for yourselves. But recognise shit writing and damaging stereotypes when you see them, and REJECT them, for the sake of yourselves, your men and your sex lives.
Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey? Has it changed your life? Have you rolled your eyes at cringe-worthy writing, but nevertheless seen a different side to this steamy plot that I’m missing? Am I completely off base? Am I the only sane woman left in the world? Who knows. And now I await the backlash…
Natalie works as Head of Communications at Women’s Resource Centre, a UK based umbrella organisation for more than 360 women’s charities. She is a graduate of London School of Economics and Political Science, having studied a Masters in Comparative Politics with Research.