OK, Fifty Shades of Grey. I haven’t even seen the movie, much less read the trilogy (I’m allergic to bad writing). But the film raked in a record-setting $81.7 million this past weekend, and it’s also raked in a huge amount of commentary.
The reactions include alarm: Samantha Fields at The Mary Sue argues that Fifty Shades “grooms women for abuse” by encouraging them to view a fantasy about whips, chains, penthouses, and a six-pack-sporting billionaire, Christian Grey (James Dornan), as having something to do with reality. “I dated Christian Grey,” Fields writes, reminiscing about a handsome fellow member of her church who wasn’t very nice to her:
He broke our engagement three months before the wedding; his only explanation was that he couldn’t trust me to be “properly submissive.” I had been willful, defiant, had disobeyed him in recent months, and because of that he would not bestow upon me the title of “wife.” In the religious subculture we came from, I had committed a grave sin when I told him he couldn’t treat me badly anymore, and in the view of most of my friends and leaders, I deserved to get dumped.
Doesn’t sound much like what I’ve read about Grey, whose main religious interests seems to be his private helicopter and his collection of ties.
Then there’s Hanna Rosin at Slate XX, who thinks Fifty Shades, far from being about bondage and masochism, actually conveys a subtle feminist message, as its self-possessed heroine, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) dramatizes California’s new law on affirmative consent:
When they are finished negotiating Christian suggests [expletive-ing] her on the glass conference table, but Anastasia says she wants to leave. “You want to leave but your body tells me something different,” he says, analyzing her reddening complexion, her knees squeezed tight. While he’s trying to convince her that no means yes, she’s calling on her inner Sheryl Sandberg. She relaxes her knees, coolly walks out to her VW Beetle, and says goodbye.
Well, maybe. And then there’s the well-meaning Paul S. Loverde, Catholic bishop of Arlington, writing for First Things:
I wonder what our decision to objectify women in situations of sexual violence—and to support the industry which fuels it—says about us and about our society? Though by the entertainment industry’s standards this movie is not classified as pornographic, it normalizes the intertwining of sex and violence, that old pornographic standby.
But the bishop, like me, probably hasn’t seen the movie.
Far from aiming to “objectify” women, Fifty Shades is entirely told from a woman’s point of view. The trilogy’s author is a woman, her protagonist is a woman, her readership was nearly 100 percent women, and the film’s audience contains, from what I’m told, darned few men.
Furthermore it’s also 100 percent pure female fantasy, with overtones of every female fantasy that’s ever been written: A plain-Jane catches the eye of a handsome and wealthy but troubled man who becomes obsessed with her (Jane Eyre). She is the only one who can find the secret to his heart and transform him into a real boyfriend (Beauty and the Beast—I got this idea from former blogger Alias Clio). He showers her with expensive presents (Pretty Woman). He exercises enticing alpha-male dominance by whipping and violating her in grande luxe surroundings (The Story of O). He takes erotic charge of her life (Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett upstairs and throwing her onto the bed).
The problem with Fifty Shades, as I see it, is the same problem that these other romance narratives pose for their female readership: not “mainstreaming” sexual and emotional abuse but, rather, confusing fantasy with real life. Feminist haranguing to the contrary, many women crave dominant men. And because we discourage men from taking charge in real life these days (that’s “patriarchy”), women increasingly try to live out fantasies in which men take charge. They waste their time with “bad boys.” They pine over men who are out of their league. They imagine that a night of sex with a rich, handsome guy will automatically lead to a marriage proposal.
Fifty Shades is a minefield for women, but it’s a different minefield from the one that the commentators are writing about.