In the past year, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (Vintage, 2012) has taken female audiences by storm. Considered equal in consumption to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, Fifty Shades of Grey has become the series that women are obsessed with. The paradoxical issue with this ravenous consumption is that the book is centered on bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism (BDSM). And as much as this is how the book is sold to the public, the story is more erotic than sexually deviant as these BDSM activities imply.
But the question remains, why do housewives and mommies rave as much as they do about this particular book, when it supports the objectification and submission of women?
Here are some dangerous myths perpetuated in this book about men and women:
The Virgin vs. the Deviant: An age-old concept, historically, women have been forced to remain virgins until they are wed or find true love, never being allowed to become sexually aware of their personal likes or dislikes. I have mentioned it before, but again, I find Margaret Atwood’s words in her essay “Pornography” radiating throughout my reading of these texts. She observes that while boys are raised on porn, girls are raised on romance novels, and when the two meet, violence ensues. He expects the whore, and the young girl expects the gentle prince. This pair meets expecting different things: he attacks, and she submits, waiting for the romance. It’s violent, rape, and irreversible. In this trilogy, Anastasia Steele, the first-person protagonist, is a twenty-four-year old virgin. She’s beautiful, smart, and a literature major, although the only story she can conjure up in her narrative is Wuthering Heights and a few other novels wherein the girl is a virgin and the guy is experienced. And when she falls in love with Christian Grey, a beautiful and successful businessman, she expects love and romance. Instead, he gives her a contract to sign, as to her limits and expectations for a BDSM relationship. Steele has to be a virgin in this book, because another experienced woman, like her roommate, Kathryn, would never give in to BDSM willingly. And as she’s a blank slate, he can teach her a kind of sex that she had never been aware of, a kind of sex that is deviant and submissive and offensive. But because she doesn’t know any better—hasn’t had any other kind of sex—virtue and intrigue can be discovered in the sex that he offers her. If deviant sex is all a woman knows—all a man knows, since Christian Grey had only been exposed to this kind of sex himself at the age of fifteen—then that is the only kind of sex that will appeal to her until she can discover the other.
A Woman’s Love Can Change Men: One of the many reasons women don’t leave abusive relationships is because the women believe that the men will change. If a woman is patient enough, kind enough, forgiving enough, then the man will be altered by her love for him. This is not how it really is in abusive relationships. People are how they are designed, and abuse is abuse. Fifty shades of “fucked up,” as Anastasia frequently refers to him, Christian Grey has a troubled past: his mother was a crack whore and her pimp used Christian’s toddler chest as his ashtray. Haunted by these memories, Grey is a man who doesn’t feel worthy of love—the nice kind of love that doesn’t require bondage, whips, and chains. E.L. James asks that we forgive him for this. Anastasia asks us to forgive him for this, since she uses this history as a means of softening his moody and dark side. E.L. James also asks us to believe that we, as women, because we are innocent, soft, and inherently maternal and loving, have the power to alter a man’s history, to change him. If we show him real love—that he is worthy of love—he will become virtuous. Christian Grey is not a villain, but he has a dark side that only therapy will change, not a woman. “He objectifies her, don’t get me wrong,” one educated woman said to me about this book, “but he changes, because of Anastasia and the love she has for him.” No one has the power to change anyone, but this trilogy offers us the stereotype that women are virtuous and self-sacrificing by nature, willing to give up their needs and wants in order to appease their men.
The Female Submissive: What both Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey accomplish is to perpetuate the ideal of the “angel in the house,” as Virginia Woolf penned in regards to the submissive woman in her era. Both Twilight‘s Bella and Fifty Shades of Grey‘s Anastasia are virgins. Both of them find themselves overcome by the experienced and brooding heroes with dark histories. This idea that the good girl is intoxicated by the bad boy is a motif in movies and literature, but why is it so intoxicating? Why cannot our heroines be strong, experienced, and not so easily overcome by bad boys and by the darkness they embody? These romances reinforce an ideology that continues to place women beneath men—literally and symbolically. It shows how men perceive women, not how we perceive ourselves. Feminist theory teaches that women’s bodies and place in society have been defined by men, since we all live in patriarchal societies ruled by them. Even though two women have written these books, they are reinforcing the erotic representation of women as men would portray them. Men love the sweetness and innocence of women, but they also want to see that innocence turn to a dark and erotic form. Both Bella and Anastasia do turn. In Twilight, we see Bella’s sexual desire for her vampire hero, Edward. She tries to have sex with him for a few books, but he denies her because he may hurt her in his passion. With Anastasia, we see another virgin chained to a rack, being introduced to an anal plug and one orgasm after another. But she loves it. They’re both innocent “submissives” with sweet and quiet strength; and they are both turned, by the men they love, into dark mistresses intoxicated by sex.
These books tell women that they want not only to be objectified, their bodies ravaged by objects and men for whom they will attach themselves to the rack to please, but also that they want to be dominated—in the bedroom and outside of it. It’s pornography in its purest form, and pornography thrives because men demand it. In this case, Both Meyer and James are helping to the contribution of it, enabling the industry and patriarchy, and indoctrinating the idea that women want to be subjugated for the sake of love. One mom said to me, “This book has saved my marriage,” which proves that women now must bring handcuffs to the bedroom and assume the submissive and servile position in bed to keep the romance alive in their marriage. These books are not helping us form our own identities as women, or helping us locate our own sexual desires exclusive to what pleases men in bed. They like the school girl in the parochial uniform, as we have seen in Glee, Britney Spears’ “Oops… I Did it Again” music video, Kill Bill‘s Gogo Yubari, the 17-year-old sadistic girl, who also reeks of sexual appeal. Women don’t find this kind of demure image of girlhood tainted with darkness; men do. But Meyer and James have successfully “turned” the mainstream female reader into the housewife who can only save her marriage by putting on a school uniform while being handcuffed to a rack. There is nothing feminist in this. There is nothing empowering or progressive about these women writers, who reinforce stereotypical ideals of womanhood, and it is sad that we are buying into it.
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute’s Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.