For depicting a dominant/submissive relationship and BDSM sex, some critics say the Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy is anti-feminist.
Clare Phillipson of domestic violence charity Wearside Women In Need recently said it could incite violence against women: “I do not think I can put into words how vile I think this book is and how dangerous I think the idea is that you get a sophisticated but naive, young woman (heroine Anastasia Steele) and a much richer, abusive older man (Christian Grey) who beats her up and does some dreadful things to her sexually.”
So, are they right?
Fifty Shades is almost certainly not anti-feminist to the extent of promoting misogynist violence. There has never been proof of some feminists’ claims that violent porn promotes violence against women, so why would these books’ BDSM scenes? Violence against women is rooted in women’s inequality within the structures of class society.
Depicting submission fantasies is not necessarily anti-feminist either; sexual fantasies do not equate to political aspirations. Some feminists say fantasies allow space to explore issues of power; even “rape” fantasies retain consent in the sense that we’re ultimately in control.
At the first Feminist Fightback conference in 2006, radical feminists abused women who expressed rape fantasies: shaming women in a way that mirrors the moralistic, slut-shaming right. In my view, feminism should promote, rather than restrict, women’s sexual freedom.
Fifty Shades is not “feminist” for reasons I will come to later. But it is “liberationist” on a basic level which feminists should value: it is about a young woman discovering and enjoying sex. Critics sneer at Anastasia Steele’s internal monologue, full of things like, “Oh my… He wants me… and I want him”; her “inner goddess” is always doing “backflips”, “somersaults” or “pirouettes”. But I actually found the style enjoyable and the sexual discovery affirming to read.
The shamelessness of women reading this fastest-ever-selling adult novel on public transport, and the intrigue — bordering on alarm — this caused social commentators, also marks this “phenomenon” as something to be embraced, in my view.
But all the “pro-sex” liberationism is in contrast with the book’s conservative core.
Yes, Fifty Shades explores BDSM. But ironically, Christian Grey’s BDSM predilection is used in the books as a figure for his psychologically damaged state: “fifty shades of fucked up”. He’s had a hard upbringing, he’s the son of a “crack-whore” mother. At one point Anastasia “glimpses the extent of his depravity” and learns “he is not capable of love”. This creates suspense: will this untouchable, distant hero ever break through the barriers to “real” romance? Rather than being promoted, violence is a barrier to the conservative conclusion the books strain towards.
Anastasia Steele is a strong character, who openly tells Christian he’s a control freak and stalker. The books trace her increasing mastery, rather than submission, in the relationship.
But they are not feminist: the object of her mastery is a conservative, romantic ending. She heals her “man in need”, brings him “into the light”, so he can fulfil her need to be “loved and cherished”. The bright, witty, newly-graduated woman we meet at first settles down into domesticity, dependent on her billionaire bloke. It’s what she wanted; it’s not a tale of complete submission, but it’s an anti-feminist tragedy!
All in all, this anti-feminist tragedy is no more conservative than 99% of chick-lit romance. Its controversy is that it’s full of sex, which is ironically probably the most progressive thing about it. It might encourage women to embrace sex; it’s not likely to encourage us to throw off romantic conventions in exchange for women’s liberation… but since when did romantic fiction do that anyway?
The sexual politics of Fifty Shades shouldn’t be judged more stringently just because its content is sexual.