Wednesday, July 11, 2012

"Fifty shades of fucked up"...yeah that pretty much sums it up

[CN: Abuse, misogyny]

Many writers and bloggers are weighing in on the success of Fifty Shades of Grey. While most can agree that the writing is abysmal, the story itself has proven polarizing, with readers either loving it despite its flaws or hating it.  For context, I’ll provide a basic plot summary of the first book in the trilogy (SPOILERS AHEAD): A 24 year old virginal college graduate named Anastasia Steele falls for a 26 year old business magnate named Christian Grey, who in turn wants her to sign a contract that would make her his submissive sex slave. The contract also stipulates what she eats, when she eats it, what clothes she wears, how she exercises, and prohibits eye contact or touching him without permission. Fifteen women have signed this contract before Ana. Ana NEVER ACTUALLY SIGNS the contract, and asks for some time to think it over (really? You’re not going to make a run for the door after hearing about this shit?) During that time, he is still a controlling, abusive dick, and she has conventional “vanilla” sex with him. Eventually she has sex as his sub three times, twice where he spanks her with his hand and the third time where beats her with a feathered flogger. While she does orgasm from these activities, she tells him she would prefer a more “normal” sexual relationship and only agrees to these activities for his sake. But Christian still wants to inflict real pain on her, so after he beats her bare bottom with a belt, she tearfully leaves him, saying that they’re incompatible (oh, okay, THAT’S the problem, not that he’s a control-freak, misogynist, and doesn't care about getting your enthusiastic consent). At some point we learn that Christian had a difficult childhood in which his "crack-whore" mother’s boyfriend/pimp burned out cigarettes on his chest, and an older woman made him her sub when he was 15, which I guess is supposed to make us forgive him for his misogyny. 
Despite its laughable execution, the book has sold many copies among both young and middle-aged women. Granted, maybe one of the reasons why this story has been able to get so much traction among female readers is because its poor execution made it easy to dismiss the more troubling aspects of it and take it as light entertainment/escapism and erotic stimulation. But I don’t think it’s that simple. In order to like
Fifty Shades of Grey in any capacity, you have to be okay with a male/dominant/active and female/submissive/passive dynamic. Although the more intense, extreme BDSM erotica (like Story of O) may not be as popular as the comparatively more watered-down Fifty Shades, subtler versions of the dom/sub relationship between men and women is echoed across TV, cinema, other erotica, and even more high-brow literature. 

I have no issue with women reading and enjoying erotica, and support women engaging their sexuality. I’m also not judging those who found the love story of Ana and Christian compelling. But I never stop there and say to myself “well, people like what they like, and that’s all there is to it” because there are a lot of deeper implications here that didn’t start with this book but are encapsulated within it and its popularity. If women weren’t historically taught to be and socially constructed as submissive, if abuse, violence, and rape were no longer present in society, and if men weren’t largely the beneficiaries of female submission, whether social or sexual, maybe I wouldn’t feel such a strong urge to write this post. But that isn’t the world we live in, and it’s delusional to believe that any art, no matter how stupid or bad or fluffy or purely about entertainment, fantasy, and pleasure, can be divorced from societal and cultural conditioning. At its core, this book is about excusing a man’s attempt to control a woman and fetishizing male domination and female submission. Again, the latter has been going on in erotica and porn for years, and is nothing new. The book is also about a woman compromising her own happiness and comfort in order to not only secure a relationship with a man (even when he explicitly says he doesn’t want one) but also to tame him and change him into the "nice guy" she wants him to be. This is also a conventional theme in romance. And they are both damaging ideas that usually do not end up so neatly when played out in real life.
Many people seem to believe that fiction/fantasy, especially erotic and romantic fantasy, is immune from cultural conditioning--- as though for some inexplicable reason, it is a space of total freedom and organic expression. But the truth is, there is no space like that; or at least, never one that isn’t agonized over, analyzed, critiqued, and fought for. I know there are some who don’t care about the sociopolitical origins and implications of anything they do--- least of all in the pursuit of the almighty orgasm. But when it comes to fetishizing a woman’s pain and utter subordination (to the point where it’s encoded in a contract), when a woman's pain is so often dismissed and when she is so often made to be subordinate in real life... I mean, fuck. The fact that a woman wrote it this book means little when the script is so utterly conventional to patriarchal erotic imagination. The voice and point-of-view might be different, but the basic dynamic of dominant male and submissive female, is the same. It’s male fantasy, internalized by a woman and re-packaged as authentic female expression. Some people seem to believe that the scenario in the book is fresh and edgy, like it isn’t just some bare-faced, extreme version of sexual relations between men and women throughout history. The success of the book underscores the success of the patriarchal project. As Ashley Judd stated cogently in her recent and awesome feminist
article addressed to those who criticize her based on her appearance:

“Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it”.

Whether it was the sex scenes or the romance that readers enjoyed, how the hell did Christian’s obsession with contractual slavery thing, even in the face of Ana's reluctance, not disrupt that enjoyment? “Love” and “great sex” make that kind of behavior okay? Or does it only make him more attractive to some readers?

Despite having all the qualities of a misogynist, Christian has moments of being a decent human being; apparently he doesn't take advantage of Ana when she's drunk, asks her permission before they have sex for the first time, and wears condoms each time they have sex subsequently. However, he does not ask permission for all subsequent sex and sexual activity, even the more extreme ones, despite the fact that it is all new to Ana. Obviously, the sex-slave contract is the antithesis of consensus-building, so it’s not a priority for him. Even during the first time they have sex, once Ana agrees, he goes full-out and does not pace himself, which doesn’t usually work out well for virgins. This isn’t just me promoting the Feminist values of trust-building and consensus-reaching; even BDSM in practice is supposed to be built on trust, safety, defined boundaries and a respect for those boundaries: “many practitioners and organizations have adopted the motto...’Safe, sane and consensual’, commonly abbreviated as "SSC," which means that everything is based on safe activities, that all participants be of sufficiently sound/sane mind to consent, and that all participants do consent. It is mutual consent which makes a clear legal and ethical distinction between BDSM and such crimes as sexual assault or domestic violence. ...Consent is the most important criterion here. The consent and compliance for a sadomasochistic situation can be granted only by people who are able to judge the potential results. For their consent, they must have relevant information (extent to which the scene will go, potential risks, if a safeword will be used, what that is, and so on.) at hand and the necessary mental capacity to judge".

Whether these principles are followed by BDSM practitioners is another matter (hint: not always, as I discuss later). But my point is that even a community that is built on edgy sexual practices and performing abuse and degradation scenarios values consent; indeed, recognizes that consent is even more important for this extreme sexual play, to differentiate it
from sexual assault. So in case it wasn’t already clear, I’m not criticizing this book out of some knee-jerk, prudish aversion to BDSM. I don't believe that practicing BDSM nullifies one's desires for social equality or one's commitment to Feminism. However, I maintain that female domination and female submission are NOT socially equivalent acts; the latter is bolstered by a history of oppression and its continuing forms in society, while the former is not and can arguably subvert existing gender dichotomies. It is also important to remember that BDSM, regardless of the "role" a practitioner takes, does not exist in a vacuum and thus is not removed from our social context.
I’m sure some might say that it’s easy for me to judge behavior I don’t partake in (erotic fantasies of submission, in this case) but that if I did, I would defend it more. Well, those people would be wrong. I’m ashamed to say that I have in fact had such fantasies (not about being physically hit, but certainly submission). It’s not like I want people who have submission fantasies to feel my same sense of shame (it's my issue to work out), but I do want everyone to recognize that our fantasies--- like everything else we like, feel, and do--- have some underlying socio-political and psychological reasons. And maybe, when it comes to enjoying the thought of being hurt or submitting ourselves to someone else’s power (or fantasizing about dominating and hurting someone), we should ask ourselves what those reasons might be.
To some, it's a meaningless question, I know; all they need to know is that they like something, so they shouldn't be shamed for it. I agree they shouldn't be shamed (if enthusiastic consent is given by their partners) but still the question of why we like these things has always preoccupied me personally.

This does not mean I support evo-psychologists making sweeping claims about all women based on the book, which is exactly what happened in this
pseudo-scientific post that states that women are “biologically hard-wired” to be sexually aroused by submission. This arguement not only renders invisible those women who do not have submission fantasies or who have domination fantasies, but also legitimizes male dominance as a biologically imperative. For a good rebuttal to this garbage, see here. Others have made the argument that enjoying submissiveness is transgressive and revolutionary because it’s what the “feminist regime” (uh, what?) doesn’t want you to do. But I think this book is totally counter-revolutionary; it’s the same old conservative, patriarchal inequality and
indifference to consent, this time through a woman’s (poorly written) voice. Not only that, but I think the appeal of female sexual submission can be linked back to purity--- if you relinquish control in the bedroom, then you’re not a slut, or you’re at least less of one. “Sluts” seek out sex, rather than waiting for love, the way “good girls” do. I think there is so little openness and honesty in dealing with women’s sexuality that it’s difficult for some women to even imagine participating in it, especially because they’re not quite sure what it will entail. So they imagine someone aggressively taking it instead. Someone experienced, to compensate for their utter lack of experience (that society told them to have, otherwise they would be slut-shamed and not taken seriously). I'm not making the generalization that this is the reason behind all women enjoying sexual submission, but I think it can be a factor.

The book certainly seems to support this--- the protagonist is a virgin. This authorial decision could also be based on making the experiences more intense and new, and for the reader to put themselves in the intensity of Anastasia's position, but it’s also about not viewing the protagonist as some “nympho” who we can’t take seriously, and who (gasp!) might not be there for love at all, just a good time. The whole female virgin with the experienced partner is also a
male fantasy, by the way. I think the fantasy has just trickled down to women, who are allowed by mainstream mdiums so little space to create more organic, subversive sexual fantasies of their own that aren’t just reproduction of men’s. The virgin/experienced lover is also just another permutation of the submissive/dominant dynamic; Christian is deemed superior to Ana with his wealth of experience.

The fact that the story arose out of
Twilight fan fiction is telling. Twilight itself is about a girl subordinating herself to the ultimate alpha male who she is convinced, we are told ad nauseum, is smarter, stronger, and better-looking than her. Stephanie Meyers claimed in a response to Fifty Shades of Grey that BDSM is “not [her] thing”, but isn’t the dom/sub dynamic what Twilight is all about, even if it doesn’t play out in overtly sexual ways (at first)? If it isn’t about masochism, why does Bella’s first sexual encounter with Edward result in bruises, and she likes it? Why is she so amenable to the thought of him killing her violently, and only seems more drawn to him after she learns that he is perpetually on the verge of doing so? Both stories involve women who have no regard for
their well-being, who are consumed in their obsession with the alpha-male. Fifty Shades of Grey just takes a more overtly sexualized approach and adds some BDSM flavor to the same tired, damaging idea.

  This ties into what is one of the worst things about Fifty Shades of Grey--- that abusers would read it or hear about it and think “see? Women actually get off on this stuff--- they pretend they don’t like it but deep down, they want to be dominated,coerced, controlled, even when they express reluctance and don't give enthusiastic consent”. They’ll think that sexual submission and pain is what the erotic is all about, and even women know it. I’m aware that this isn’t exactly what the author was saying and in a sense, it isn’t her fault that misogynist sickos would misinterpret her work that way. However, all artists should try to be aware of how their work will be interpreted. What does their work support and perpetuate? What does it stifle and negate?

It's important to reiterate that Anastasia isn't giving her informed consent for BDSM play--- she deliberately puts herself in situations she is not comfortable with and frequently alludes to her fear of Christian, while he frequently states his desire to inflict her with real pain
(note: THIS IS MISOGYNY. It’s not even subtle here). He also frequently asks her to “trust him” when she seems uncertain of something, but he hasn’t earned her trust at all, and in fact, given his uncontrollable sadistic urges, it seems like he would very likely violate her trust. And he pretty much does when he beats her with the belt, but the seriousness of that is downplayed in the book as a conflict of desires rather than a violation of Ana’s very legitimate boundaries. In real life, those types of situations can go much worse.  Case-in-point: there was a similar situation recently called the “Philadephia incident” described here:

“The “Philadelphia Incident” concerns a younger, inexperienced female submissive who entered into a domination and submission relationship with an older dominant man. Her limits were violated and she was forced to enter into oral sex with the man against her will. Some people in the BDSM community are calling this rape. Some people have suggested that the submissive woman consented. Others have criticised the submissive woman for not fully understanding what she was getting herself into. The young woman has now been run out of her home due to the criticism, publicity, and notoriety she has faced.”

In fact, rape and sexual assault
are common in the BDSM community (which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; if it happens in the “vanilla” world, too why wouldn’t it happen there?). Putting yourself in the power of a person you don’t know can be unsafe, but the story makes it only seem titillating and exciting. I’m not victim-blaming; ultimately it’s the perpetrator who is responsible, and we must never lose sight of that. But it makes me depressed to see women swooning over an image of masculinity that is predatory, controlling, insensitive, and uninterested or flat-out unwilling to put you on equal terms. Christian is portrayed as a character who is beyond simply role-playing as a dominator; it's who he is. 

If a reader's attraction to this character-type feels beyond their control, I hope they can at least recognize its problematic relationship to patriarchal history, gender norms, and the oppression of women on a macro-level. At the very, very least, recognize its real-life dangers on a micro-level. Controlled role-playing is one thing, but it doesn't always take that form; some men like to dominate you in other areas of your life, too. And if you stay with a man who wants to hurt and control you, who views you as a thing to dominate and abuse rather than a human being, if he wants you to fear rather than love him, if he does not respect your independence and views you as inferior... then he will. And I don’t buy that a man like that can suddenly make a total 180 and become grade-A husband material. Sure, an abus
er is not a villain-ish abuser 100% of the time; they have moments of contrition, tenderness, vulnerability, interspersed throughout their violent abusive periods. It’s precisely this inconsistency that usually causes the abused to stay in the relationship, believing that their partner is on the cusp of changing into someone who will not make them afraid and hurt them anymore. Even if the abuser professes that they want to change, they usually relapse. Sometimes their promises of change are only more manipulation to put their partner right back under their control. But in part because of stories like this, women often believe that love, and making sacrifices and suffering for love, are the noblest, highest aims, and that you just don’t understand, she can take it, and he’s actually a great guy once you get to know him, but he’s just damaged, she’s trying to “heal” him and maybe one day he’ll change and maybe sometimes it’s her fault for being too demanding or nagging or unreasonable and he just gets jealous because he loves her so much. I know because I’ve heard this all before. And it makes me angry to know that these men are rewarded and validated with love, because they don’t deserve it. At least not until they honestly change and stop abusing, which won’t be easy or instantaneous.

I’ve heard the bad boy that women stereotypically “want” described as a coconut; hard on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside. This is a dangerous way to think of people. You can’t ignore outward behavior and focus only on some elusive interior that contains wonderful potential that you must bring out, that will come into prominence in the future. Take them as they are. The hard shell isn’t a shell at all--- that’s part of who they are. If they hurt you now, they very well might always hurt you.

There are those that would say “but it’s just one book, it’s not reality”. They would say that the Philadelphia incident and real-life abuse should be treated differently, and they are not connected to this book. But art, especially the stories we tell each other, shape reality. Yes, reality also shapes art, and there’s a feedback loop going on, but when it comes to our identity and how we interact with and perceive others, stories exert a collective influence on all of us. Especially for women, romance novels, film, and erotica shape our conceptions of how relationships are “supposed” to be. Most popular mainstream art doesn’t show reality as it could be; it shows constructed reality, usually with the biased view that this is how life inevitably is, as though there was not the invisible hand of cultural conditioning guiding the author's creation of fictional worlds. This story could not exist the way it does without existing systems of thought that permeate our culture. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s a product of society, because the author is. Yes, it is just one book. But it’s part of a continuum of so many other books, TV shows, movies, video games, pornographies, comics, songs, that say the same thing--- it’s one more brick in the towering edifice of Western gender norms. And we really can’t afford even one more brick to this depressingly solid wall.



  1. I really enjoyed this post because I think it best explains why I wasn't so fond of 50 shades as much as my "sisters." I never finished the book but I read on to for the sex scenes (such a child) and to see how Ana would get me to shake my head next--I think I stopped when Ana said something like "Oh boys and their toys" when she didn't want to take Chris' jet but he forces her to do so, the generalization pissed me off because a jet is just a means of transportation and autonomy not some boy toy hobby, hell I want a fucking jet. Ana, you're such an idiot. Anyways, I'm glad you stressed how important it is to not take this kind of stuff lightly because the book is generally a reflection of our culture/reality. It's also upsetting to see people say, "oh, because a female wrote it, it's all good." It's really not okay and I wish more women would realize how fucked up this book is and stop supporting things like this so the ignorant don't draw such sweeping conclusions that uphold the status quo.

  2. Thank you, I'm glad you liked the post :)

  3. Very good post. I'm recommending it on Google+

  4. Thank you very much, I appreciate it!