I finished all three Shades books a few weeks ago.
My experience with these novels has been stimulating, perplexing and infuriating.
I can’t remember where I first heard about the books but I do know that I was one of the first among my friends to open that naughty cover and plunge into the world E.L. James created. I was immediately swept up in Anastasia’s story and hated myself in the morning for that. The feminist in me was appalled but the sex goddess in me was, well, totally turned on.
You see I am a pornography virgin, or at least I was three books ago! Its not that I am a prude— its that I never felt the urge to flick on the late night pay per view. But as I read Fifty Shades I began to wonder if I had missed something.
I had a conversation with a friend who was also caught in the haze of Fifty Shades about the silver balls. If you haven’t read the book, I am not going to explain these to you but if you have you know exactly of which shiny objects I am speaking. My friend acted like I must have been living under a rock to not know about these little orbs of pleasure.
Yet, besides the cheap thrills I couldn’t understand why I was intrigued by a story about a young woman, my own daughters age, entering into a relationship where she was not only dominated but tortured.
While I read I had to block out Jiminy Cricket telling me that I was a traitor to my almost completed degree in Gender Studies. I took a cold shower and tried to evaluate the phenomena from an academic point of view.
Katie Roiphe offers a theory for the popularity of the novels. She claims that the novels are a reflection an inner conflict many women feel with their growing dominance in all spheres of life. While women may be on top in the boardroom, Roiphe posits, we also have a visceral, irresistible, enduring desire to be dominated by a man in the bedroom. Which explains the heretofore unknown rise in popularity of the Dominant/Submissive relationship. In other words, women aren’t really comfortable being dominant and will take a ritualized performance of submission as a salve for this discomfort.
Not a very feminist point of view and I am not convinced. I imagine if I were to do a proper analysis this theory would prove hard to prove. Frankly it feels as offensive as the books.
So it was a few weeks ago that I heard Gloria Steinem speak about her new documentary on HBO. I highly recommend this film as it chronicles the struggles women endured and continue to endure in our quest for equality and respect. As I sat in the audience I
realized what I had inherited from this brilliant, brave and beautiful activist. I inherited a responsibility to protect the progress women have achieved in business and politics as well as in their personal lives in any way I can , any where the opportunity presents.
I worry that books like Fifty Shades diminish women’s attention to this responsibility with the promise of male rescue and awesome, mind blowing sex. ( even if the only way to get that is with handcuffs and spanking, as if we have done something wrong.)
These novels then are not merely harmless pornography but are yet another way to chip away the idea that a woman can fully participate in a life outside the home and also be a good wife, mother and lover.
Not long ago I would have thought these debates settled but all one has to do is gaze upon the laws being passed in State Legislatures across the country that curtail access to birth control and abortion to see this is not so. Let’s not forget what really liberated women-The Pill.
How is it then that I still read all three novels? It is hard to understand what propelled me beyond the first. I mean E.L. James is not Tolstoy and the descriptions of what they were doing was redundant and, c’mon, not physically possible. So , Yawn to the nipple clips and ho hum to the silver balls because by the end of the trilogy she had managed to make even those things seem routine. And what of Anastasia? What was her reward for agreeing to play by Grey’s rules? She became a docile rescuer of a damaged soul dedicated to him and his needs. A truly regressive role model.
The fact is I had wandered off an important path while reading and stunk with regret.
I resolve then, to support women who are running for office, give to Planned Parenthood and embrace the fifty shades of feminism in all its complexity.