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Fifty Shades: Another Stick to Beat Women With?

It’s “you’re”

I know what you’re thinking – not another article about Fifty Shades of Grey. So, apologies – but I find some of the criticism of this book so offensive, that I had to write something about it.

Like millions of others, I enjoyed Fifty Shades of Grey. Yes, the writing is very clunky, it’s repetitive and over-long, and I think the publishers did readers a huge disservice by not bothering to edit it. But I can overlook some dodgy writing if I find a story compelling enough, and with the Fifty Shades trilogy, I did.

Lots of people hated it too, and that’s fine by me. I have no problem with people criticising a book that I liked. We all have different taste and are entitled to express our opinions wherever we like.*

What does bother me about the criticism of Fifty Shades, though, is that so much of it seems to be aimed at shaming women for enjoying it, making them feel stupid and berating them for their choices. The sheer level of vitriol levelled at this book is staggering – culminating in one charity calling for a book-burning – and a lot of it is based on misconceptions about the book, gleaned Chinese-whispers-style by people who don’t want to read it, but still want to have an opinion. Hence, I assume, the idea that what happens in the book is somehow akin to domestic violence, which is ludicrous, and horribly trivialising of actual domestic violence.

The argument that these books send out a harmful message to women underestimates the intelligence of female readers. The implication that we are naive, impressionable, feeble-minded creatures who can’t separate fiction from reality and need to be protected is incredibly patronising. This book is dangerous, they tell us, like Victorian fathers warning us against the perils of the ‘penny dreadful’. It will rot our fragile minds! It will give us dangerous ideas and lead us from the path of righteousness! This is particularly patronising considering the books have been (ridiculously) labelled ‘mommy porn’, so these are adult women who are apparently in danger of having their heads turned by a trashy novel.

A lot of women who identify themselves as feminists have expressed concern over what this book’s popularity tells us about sexual politics and what women want, suggesting that it undermines everything feminism has achieved, with comments like ‘years of feminism and women still want to be dominated and beaten’. Well, no. Enjoying a novel about a couple playing consensual sex games does not equate to wanting to get beaten up, and suggesting that it does sounds dangerously close to saying a scantily dressed woman is inviting rape. Besides, this is a novel, not a sociological study or self-help manual. It’s not saying anything about what women want – all it tells us is what these particular characters want in this particular story.

Yes, the phenomenal success of these books does tell us something about what women like to read and fantasise about, but that is a very different thing to what women want in real life. The story in Fifty Shades lies very firmly in the realm of fantasy – young woman swept off her feet by gorgeous young billionaire who adores her and devotes hours (days, even!) to her sexual gratification. Clearly, it is a fantasy that appeals to a large number of women. Go figure. But I very much doubt that those women expect it to happen to them in real life. On the contrary, it is the very fact that it’s so unlike real life that is a large part of its charm. It’s called escapism.

Conflating what women fantasise about with what women want is dangerous territory. Women have rich and complex fantasy lives and it’s well documented that they commonly fantasise about much darker things than having a boyfriend who’s a bit bossy and wants to have kinky sex. Fiction is a safe place to indulge and explore those fantasies. It absolutely does not follow that we want those things in real life.

I can understand that feminists find the idea of female submission threatening, but shaming women for not having ideologically correct fantasies doesn’t seem very feminist to me. Is it the project of feminism to curtail women’s desires, police our fantasies and create ever more restrictive taboos around our imaginative and creative lives? I sincerely hope not.

Another criticism that’s levelled at this book is that it romanticises an unhealthy relationship. It’s a matter of opinion whether the relationship between Ana and Christian is unhealthy, but even if it is, does that mean we shouldn’t read it? On that basis, we would have to rule out a whole rake of books. Wuthering Heights would definitely have to go – there’s nothing healthy about Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship. And what about The Great Gatsby (if you want to talk about obsessive stalkers …)?

I find the idea that women should only read ‘improving’ books with worthy role models and a wholesome message both dreary and insulting. Why is women’s fiction only considered valid if it educates as well as entertains? Must we really have some medicine in every spoonful of sugar? Why can’t we just read silly books for entertainment sometimes without it being seen to define us? Sometimes, as Cyndi Lauper sang, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this kind of concern about what are perceived as ‘men’s books’. There’s no hand-wringing about suburban dads abandoning their lawnmowers to light off and emulate the hero from the latest Dan Brown or Tom Clancy. They can read about action heroes driving fast cars, blowing things up and shagging every woman they meet, and then return to their potting sheds, completely unchanged by the experience. Surely, as the main consumers of books, and therefore experienced readers, well acquainted with the conventions of fiction, women are at least as well equipped to distinguish fiction from reality and should be credited with as much intelligence.

*Unless we’re talking about my books, of course – in which case, I’ll be taking names.

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12 comments on “Fifty Shades: Another Stick to Beat Women With?

  1. Jacqueline Christodoulou
    September 6, 2012

    ‘Women have rich and complex fantasy lives and it’s well documented that they commonly fantasise about much darker things than having a boyfriend who’s a bit bossy and wants to have kinky sex. Fiction is a safe place to indulge and explore those fantasies. It absolutely does not follow that we want those things in real life.’

    Completely agree. Nancy Friday’s ‘My Secret Garden’ contains the narratives to from a study about women’s fantasies and and explanation of them, and anyone who is upset by FSOG should read this book.

    I find the assumption that women (and men) would want to exactly emulate the contents to FSOG very annoying (and to be honest, how boring would that be? ‘Come on love, lets do page 136 tonight.’) It’s just another example of shallow understanding of the human condition, assuming that we are all social dopes.

    If it’s true that we all internalise and replicate everything that goes on in fictional narrative, then the whole crime fiction genre, and certainly most of Will Self’s books should be banned :-) Thankfully, even as an avid reader of crime fiction, I’ve managed not to murder anyone so far.

  2. clodaghm
    September 6, 2012

    Thanks, Jacqui! I was thinking of Nancy Friday’s ‘My Secret Garden’ when writing this. Anyone who finds the content of Fifty Shades shocking should read that for an eye-opener!

    What’s on page 136, then? ;) Seriously, though, I have seen this book criticised for not giving proper instruction in BDSM. What next? ‘Don’t try this at home’ stickers for our books?

  3. diane
    September 6, 2012

    Well said, Clodagh! I read the first page of FSOG, realised it wasn’t for me (I thought the writing defined the term “purple prose”) and put it down. But I find the eyebrow-raising and pearl-clutching about it to be incredibly patronising, and much more insulting to women than the book itself.

    I do think there is room for a sociological inquiry into how our fantasies are affected by patriarchal ideals, and vice versa — I don’t think it’s coincidental that so much kink seems to be about women’s submission and male dominance.

    But to condemn women for their private fantasies or what they consider erotica is even less empowering. I actually think something really interesting is happening with FSOG in that we’re seeing women’s sexual desire go public in a way we haven’t seen before, and which is much more common with men’s desires. That obviously makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

  4. Lyra's Musings
    September 6, 2012

    I haven’t read the book yet – not sure if I will, but the controversy around the book intrigues me. It seem that some people are outraged that women enjoy sexually explicit material yet they are untroubled by late night on HBO, Cinemax which shows women acting out sexually under a patriarchial gaze. It seems wrong that women who read erotica and Fifty Shades get branded with a Scarlett Letter Hester Prynne would have recognized.

    On a different note, I’m troubled by the idea of a Target Fifty Shades product line. I don’t want to explain a butt plug to my young children when we are picking up our prescriptions. I admit to discomfort there, but I also experience the same discomfort walking past a highly sexualized Victoria’s Secret display with the kiddos.

    If nothing else, the debate is interesting, particularly when combined with real life debates about a woman’s right to choose and government mandidated ultrasounds. Seems like there is a lot of general fear over women being able to govern their own bodies.

    • diane
      September 6, 2012

      Yes, I think the same. The idea of women actually enjoying and taking control of their sex lives seems to threaten a lot of people.

      We don’t have Target here, but they’re selling butt plugs now?! I do kind of admire the destigmatising of those kinds of products (pharmacies here have started selling a sex toy or two alongside the condoms) and think it’s good to be open with kids about them, but on the other hand, sometimes kids are too young and it’s disturbing to think how sexualised an environment they have to grow up in now.

  5. clodaghm
    September 6, 2012

    Thanks, Diane!

    I agree about the prose – I’m not about to defend FSOG on the basis of literary merit. But sometimes you just enjoy a little junk food, even though you know it’s not good for you.

    • diane
      September 6, 2012

      Well, god knows I enjoy junk food! :)

  6. clodaghm
    September 6, 2012

    Thanks for your comment, Lyra. The idea of women being interested in sex does seem to make a lot of people uncomfortable – especially when it’s older women (moms, no less!). It makes you wonder where they think all those babies came from.

  7. MJ Conner
    September 6, 2012

    Those books put ideas in my mind that I’m proud to say I’ve tried out with my husband! Holy cow – after 15 years together and all we’ve been through, we needed a little umph in our sex life. When we went to the sex toys boutique, the saleswoman asked me if I’d read the Fifty Shades books, because clearly I wasn’t a regular there and I didn’t even know what some of the stuff I wanted was called. I could only explain how it was used… Those books were fun to read – entertaining. There is nothing wrong with that.

  8. zouarvehat
    September 9, 2012

    I agree with your article substantially, but really – after all the crap “smart” people have heaped on have taken for turning the “Twilight” books into best sellers, you’d think criticizing them for their choice of elevating “50” would be redundant…

    • zouarvehat
      September 9, 2012

      I agree with your article substantially, but really – after all the crap “smart” people have heaped on “women” for turning the “Twilight” books into best sellers, you’d think criticizing them for their choice of elevating “50″ would be redundant… (sorry bad edit in previous comment)

      • clodaghm
        September 9, 2012

        I agree we’ve heard it all before with Twilight. Twilight is a little different in that it was a YA book, so in that case they could claim (however validly) that its readers were young and impressionable. (Personally, I think teen readers are a lot smarter than they’re credited with being, but that’s another story.) Fifty Shades is clearly an adult book, so they have no excuse for treating the readers like idiots.

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This entry was posted on September 6, 2012 by in Bea Feminist, Bea Literary.
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