Fifty Shades: Another Stick to Beat Women With?
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.