Fifty Shades of Sexism

Friday, 6 July 2012

I need feminism

[Trigger warning: discussion of rape and sexual assault]

I wrote two guest posts on sexism, and I would love to hear your thoughts on them. Here they are:

: : Are your ads sexist? On STW Group’s Nextness Blog : :

: : READ.LOOK.THINK. The Feminist Edition. On Jessica’s Blog : :

Thank you for having me Jessica! If you’ve never read her READ.LOOK.THINK. series before, you’re missing out – it’s one of my favourites.

There’s been another subject concerning sexism that’s been bothering me lately: the ever-popular ‘erotic’ fiction book series, Fifty Shades of Grey. A lot of people have made fun of this series because they find the writing atrocious. I couldn’t care less about the writing. For me, what’s disturbing about this series is the way it romanticises abuse and violence against women as some sort of appealing fantasy.

I may have mentioned I lectured on romance novels a while back. When I was doing research for the lectures, I read a lot of popular romance novels by more mainstream romance authors. I found it frightening that even in these ‘tamer’ versions of women’s romantic fiction, abuse, rape, domination and control were normalised and even made appealing. Virginal female characters are constantly manipulated by older men, and their first sexual experience usually involves a level of control or creepy ‘instruction’ by men, which in some cases, is simply outright rape for which the heroine later ‘forgives’ the hero because he ‘loves’ her and she supposedly did something to ‘provoke’ his jealous rage. Right, the classic abuser’s line: “I didn’t mean to hurt you, I love you, you made me do it”. No, sorry, rape is inexcusable. And no, sorry, it isn’t ‘provoked’. I’m tired of romantic heroes being cast in the roles of romanticised stalkers, abusers and rapists. A lot of the time, you don’t even realise these novels are doing this until you sit back and examine what’s really going on in the characterisations and plots. The fact is, this genre is seductive, otherwise it wouldn’t be so popular. But isn’t it time it started to seduce us with images of men and women that aren’t insulting and demeaning to both?

Which gets me back to Fifty Shades of Grey. I abhor this series, for the many reasons already outlined by others. Reading through the negative reviews on Amazon, I was struck by these two reviews:

This reviewer writes ...

There is nothing sexy about a man who wants to punish you. There is nothing sexy about a man who stalks you. There is nothing sexy about a man whose permission you need to drive your car or wear a certain outfit. And this is why I am so deeply troubled that women are falling in love with Christian Grey.

This book takes emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse and idealizes it. “Oh, my controlling megalomaniac boyfriend,” is used as an endearment throughout and I simply cannot wrap my head around the fact that women are drawn to him as a character.

And this reviewer echoes these sentiments, when noting the “lessons” taught in the series ...

* hang in a relationship though he’s mysterious because you’ll eventually crack his mystery;
* hang in if the sex is great because it’s more powerful than your willpower;
* hang in though he overwhelms you emotionally by alternating between brooding, anger, and indulgent humor because you fear his leaving will rob you of this emotional drug cocktail/roller-coaster;
* hang in because he is really motivated by love deep down rather than by his observable possessiveness and mental illness.

And hang in with reading Fifty Shades if you don’t think we already have enough sexual, physical, and psychological abuse of women. Hang in if you think overwhelming, romantic sex is better than an intimate relationship. Hang in if you think women belong in the boudoir, not the boardroom. But I’m not going to buy the rest of the Grey trilogy.

This post examines how Fifty Shades of Grey is a classic example of domestic violence by outlining quite clearly how the characters conform to the Domestic Violence Checklist. Read it, honestly, this is so important. Another important article to read is Suzanne Moore’s excellent critique, in which she concludes that “what is dangerous and horrible about Fifty Shades of Grey is nothing to do with sex.” Exactly, it’s about power and control. It’s about playing on old stereotypes and turning them into questionable romance. It’s about entering the mindset of an abuser and rapist and selling it as ‘erotica’. There’s something really sad about our culture when this is held up as the epitome of ‘sexiness’. And it says a lot about our culture well beyond the intimate confines of the bedroom.

Image source: Who needs feminism? This guy does.


Petra said...

I downloaded the book quite a while back alreayd but haven't read it yet. there is so much talk about it, and I didn't feel I can read it without being already swayed in one direction. I hear your concerns and outrage. it's not really surprising that books like this become a success these days, though, is it? it's a sad state of affairs...

Sasha said...

If I ever needed another reason to never pick up Fifty Shades I think I've now built up quite an arsenal. I can understand reading it to understand popular culture but it comes to a point where I just cannot handle the drivel being pushed at me. Anger sometimes wins and, in this case, I think I shall let it. I'm out of courses for the summer, why not give myself that little break?

In other words, I love both of your guest articles. They were thought provoking and had some absolutely fantastic links. Bad Romance: Women's Suffrage is just about one of the greatest things I have ever seen on Youtube.

Thanks for sharing!

Stef said...

As soon as I heard that Fifty Shades originated as Twilight fanfiction I knew I wasn't going to read it. I supposed what it does is take a step further what Twilight started: this complete infatuation with a tall dark stranger who dictates the protagonist's life while she pretends to make her own choices. But to be honest, when I look at the DV checklist, Twilight sounds almost harmless.

I will, however, never get over the scene in "Breaking Dawn" where Bella wakes up in a destroyed bed, covered in bruises, and she can't even remember having sex because she passed out but it must have been AWESOME.
I just genuinely fail to understand why women find these stories appealing (and the writing anywhere near tolerable).

The comments to Suzanne Moore's post make me sad.

rooth said...

That image is AWESOME. And I haven't read the book. I'm not okay with it and use that time on the tons of other books out there.

If Jane said...

I have heard about the book. I find it disturbing that it is being hailed as the book to spice up your sex life and the one that discusses female sexual desires. Yes we live in sad sad sad times.
But thank you Hila again for standing up and voicing your opinion...I know that it is not always easy but you set a fine example.

BrigittaR said...

I actually had no idea about the content of 50 Shades until this post. When it blew up a few months back I asked my local book seller about it. He said he didn't know why it was popular and apparently it was 'sexy'.

Now I am disturbed by how many women I know who have posted their love for this book on Facebook. Almost as disturbing is that these same women (mid 30's) post about their love for the young men in the Twilight films.


Niina said...

I started to listen it as an audiobook but after a few hours gave up on it. It was so hideous and I am perplexed by it´s popularity. What is it in there that apparently relates to so many people? And you´re right: it´s not the sex that´s frightening but the representation of (power) relations. Not to mention the language.I feel sorry that such a good title is wasted for that ;-)

Miss Bibliophile said...

I completely agree with everything you have to say here. I read some excerpts from 50 Shades of Grey in an article that was mostly intended to poke fun at the book. Yes, the writing was laughably bad, but the subject matter is what truly boggled my mind. I don't see how anyone could view that as a fun fantasy or as some kind romantic escapism. The excerpts of some of the "love" scenes were scarily similar to the scenes of rape and power struggle in another vastly popular book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Hila said...

Petra: no, not surprising at all. The thing is, I'm also aware that by critiquing it, I'll probably be accused of not 'getting the point' of erotica. It feels like a double-bind trying to talk about this.

Sasha: I love that video too - it's better than the original.

Stef: Yeah, the comments make me feel a bit sad. I've also read a few in defense of the series, along the lines of, 'but you don't get BDSM'. I get it; it may not appeal to me, but I'm not a prude. But like Twilight, the control, the abuse, etc. extends well beyond the bedroom or erotic fantasy.

Rooth: I totally get that!

If Jane: There are actually plenty of other better erotic fiction writers out there, so I'm not knocking the genre. I hate the characters and the plot.

BrigittaR: I'm disturbed too. Although, I don't like the level of snobbishness aimed at the book, because I'm not a snob; it's the nature of the story and characters that disturbs me.

Niina: haha, true! They took your title ;)

Miss Bibliophile: oh yes, it does remind me of The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo - but that book was clear about how dangerous it is to treat women like this. This book thinks it's 'sexy'. That's what gets me: not the erotica, or role-playing, or the sex, but the implications of the characterisations beyond all that.

Kate said...

These are issues that really popped up for me as well, though I haven't read it because I couldn't get past the poor writing. At the same time, my own personal fantasies often involve older men, power games, and some of the themes that come up in this book. Does that make me a bad feminist? In real life, I abhor that behaviour in men as well, but still I find some of the situations arousing. And I am not sure where to go from there.

Hila said...

Kate: Absolutely not! There's no such thing as a 'bad feminist' - I don't play those judgement games. There's a big difference for me between fantasy/role-playing and real relationships. This series takes the themes of domination, control, violence, etc., well beyond the role of fantasy and holds them up as emblematic material for a 'loving' relationship and gender roles. That's my problem. Like I said, these things move well beyond the bedroom in the series, and that's disturbing for me.

Also, I definitely didn't mean to suggest that somehow relationships with older men are 'wrong', or anything remotely like that. I was just picking up on a general theme in romance novels where characters are aligned in old stereotypes of virginal young girl, experienced older man, playing upon the familiar virgin/whore dichotomy imposed on women.

I actually like the romance genre, so this is not a beat-up of it, or anyone who enjoys it. I just question what kind of things it romanticises sometimes, rather than the actual genre itself or the people who enjoy it. Does that make sense? I hope it does.

Soph said...

Hey Hila,

Probably brace yourself for Ruby Sparks then - narcissism on a grand scale. The woman doesn't even get to be real or separate from the author-guy's desire. Ugh.

odessa said...

oh my (haha!)...i don't know where to begin with this book. i was so angry while reading it that i wanted to throw it out of the window. and then i read FB status updates from friends who "adore" christian grey and i'm livid. really, you find a person like that attractive? sigh.

what's even more bothersome is that they are apparently having a movie adaptation. just great. as if we need anymore creepy stalkers/control freaks like edward cullen to swoon over.

Hila said...

Soph: oh gag, I'm sure we'll end up talking about this in person when you return ... hope you're having a blast! xoxo

Odessa: I've entered a state of denial about the movie adaptation, I just don't want to know anymore ;)

Anonymous said... This awesome review (with gifs) sums it up in a nutshell. My god.

Hila said...

Anonymous: Damn, that's one good review. Thanks for posting this link. I wish I knew what your name was so I could thank you properly. I laughed and nodded reading this.

Kat said...

Hi Hila,
I'm designing a course of Feminism and Pop Culture for a non-credit Continuing Education class fror this fall.

I would love to get your feedback and maybe any recommendations for literature, films, music, and art with feminist-inspired themes.
Thank you,
Kind wishes from montreal,

Hila said...

Hi Kat, I think it would be more practical to discuss this via email, so send me one and we'll go from there.