Fifty Shades of Sexism

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.