There has been a mad amount of “controversy” over Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James, with media pundits throwing their hands up in dismay at the shocking fact that women like smut. Folks hep to erotic romance meanwhile, scratch their heads over the hoopla, considering Fifty Shades of Grey a fairly tame sample of the genre.
Why all the fuss? Apparently many people still cannot believe that women–aside from some mysterious process that enables them to bear children–like sex. Certainly it appears to have jolted everyone to find out that women like reading about it, and even enjoy reading about kinky sex. My-o-my.
Meanwhile, in the romance biz, people are wondering how a book from a no-name press and no-name author zoomed through a million and more e-reading devices. Once we see the cross-over appeal for a million soccer moms (a mysterious soft-spoken hero takes quiet control in the bedroom, but at the same time carries a hurt that need mothering) we can all nod and carry on with our business, right? It doesn’t matter that the media folk don’t get us. It doesn’t matter when they raise their voices squeaky high at a heroine who is a virgin, but gets off on BDSM-lite. Do they really need to understand us? Do we really need to be understood?
Well, for starters, we could rant and rave at their lack of professionalism. “Mommy porn”—-hello? Do your research, people. Media analysts don’t even skim google long enough to figure out that what E L James has written is properly called an ‘erotic romance.’ Puh-lease. They also don’t recognize that Fifty Shades of Grey is not the first NYTimes best selling romantic smut and won’t be the last. Sigh. People in the romance biz must by now have rhino hides from this lack of investigative respect. The media ignoring a woman-based mega-million dollar industry is perhaps nothing new to the romance world.
HOWEVER. There was an article in Newsweek that pushed all my buttons (the April 23 & 30th issue). I simply must cry foul. Someone must call out the author of the cover essay, on her unkosher style of ‘feminism’ but also on her lack of awareness and terrible lack of arguments.
The author Katie Roiphe employs some basic moves in this article:
First she’s snobbish about the whole enterprise of Fifty Shades of Grey, and like the rest of mass media, blithely unaware that this is also the premise of an entire sub-genre of fiction. Love and kinky sex? Blech! How ‘banal’! I quote Roiphe: “…the S&M classics of the past made fewer compromises with normal life; they don’t traffic in things as banal or ordinary as love.”
Her snobbish reasons for why emotion should never go hand in hand with kink is never explained. For some reason, we should never cross the streams of our most secret sexual appetites with our desire for love. Score one for Roiphe’s prudishness. Also note the out of date terminology — she doesn’t seem familiar with the world of D/s or BDSM. She knows of no more subtle sexual palate than the black & white of old school S&M.
Secondly she argues that on one hand, this book is not really that provocative, dangerous, edgy, whathaveyou. “Why does this particular, watered-down skinny-vanilla-latte version of sadomasochism have such cachet” (page 24) when the heroine “indulges in slightly-out-there” desires? I would agree that the book is a watered-down skinny-vanilla-latte erotic romance. What’s so wrong with that? Can’t we have sex the way we want it–skinny latte style and all?
The heroine is a virgin experimenting with BDSM. In conflating the madonna-whore false paradigms of old, are we not making some progress in feminist sexuality? Meanwhile, Roiphe seems to have no appreciation for, or knowledge of, the ways women have demarcated a new landscape, plunking down erotic romance in the no-man’s land between the purple-prosed sex of the 80’s romance novel and the exploitative, derogatory, flat plotline/flat character arc narratives of porn.
Roiphe herself never points the way towards how anybody “should” be indulging in sexual fantasy. Her arguments are always against women doing/experiencing/experimenting with–never for. The book “has a semipornographic glamour, a dangerous frisson of boundary crossing, but at the same time is delivering reassuringly safe, old fashioned romantic roles.” Yeeees. That’s just the point, Ms. Roiphe. And your problem is?
I think the women who created erotic romance are pretty damn clever to have created a woman-friendly sphere where we can enjoy sexual release just the way we want it. E-readers, meanwhile, help keep these child-inappropriate books out of curious little hands.
While Fifty Shades of Grey is vastly too tame according to Roiphe, at the same time she insinuates that it, and sexual submission in general, let women (and this is Roiphe employing her best-est, most favorite tactic) avoid taking responsibility for our sexuality. In the first instance, she claims that the heroine is not taking responsibility for her oft-melting response to the BDSM tactics of her lover.
I get what she’s saying. We watch Ana melt inside as she experiences sexual submissiveness, and yet she never really admits to Grey her feelings of desire and satiation (and the dreams) that she has experienced in his hands. What Roiphe doesn’t seem to understand is that Ana is constantly renegotiating for more power in the relationship–bargaining over and over for what she wants: more love, more feelings. That’s the point of her contentiousness — she’s not actually being a hypocrite. The hero literally wants her to sign a contract for a relationship she doesn’t want and that contract (spoiler alert) never gets signed. (More spoiler) At the end she says that she knows what she wants, and if he can’t give it to her, and she won’t give him what he wants, then she needs to leave. Then she does leave. She stands her ground after trying something out and finding that it doesn’t work for her. Smells like feminism to me.
Although I may feel a little squeamish about someone who enters into a relationship wanting love when it’s clearly off the table, as well as any “I’ll try what you want to save the relationship” theme, I think we should note that there is a real double standard at work in our society. While men are good at “negotiating for what they want” women are held to be fruitlessly engaged in “trying to change men”. Let’s face it, men are much more comfortable than we are about negotiating, and it’s high time we sharpen our tactics in demanding what we need and desire without undue sacrifice. We can use more models of women negotiating for what they want in fiction and in our world. The heroine Ana, does not change herself for the hero, and she does not try to change him. She negotiates, and when he cannot meet her demands, she leaves. Score one for Ana.
Here’s the problem with Roiphe’s lack of argument: she burples with sinister implications in between her canvasing the latest texts, movies, and trends regarding women’s sexuality. She insinuates what the book’s popularity symbolizes. That women want to be rid of their “free will”, that they want humiliation, but they are cowardly, because they don’t want to admit it. That, as usual, (in Roiphe’s mind) they don’t accept responsibility for their sexuality. “She works crazy hours. She takes care of the kids. She earns more money. She manages her team. At the end of the day, she wants to be…spanked?” If true, Roiphe implies, then reading books like these may give rise to greater female powerlessness in the future or stop our rise to equality. Roiphe implies that we are actually surrendering our power when we fantasize about sexual surrender, using books like Fifty Shades of Grey.
Ha. First of all, we all know that fantasy and reality are two very different things. A woman wanting to read about spanking when she comes home from a hard day of work is very different from a woman who actually wants a spanking. A woman who comes home from a hard day of work probably wants help with getting dinner on the table and then, if she’s lucky, a bath. She may not have the energy to initiate sex, or even put on something attractive and slinky. She may find it far easier to read about a hero who wants to take care of everything when it comes to sex while she soaks in the tub, exhausted.
Again, I see a mass of problems with Roiphe’s insinuations. There is a double standard at play, as well as an ignorance of most American women, and finally, some attempts to deliberately mis-interpret the nature of enjoying BDSM and D/s.
Roiphe is being naive about how power and responsibility work. A woman who works crazy hours, takes care of the kids, the house, the extended relations, the emotional management of her relationship, and so much other wife work has a vast amount of responsibility. There is a long understood cliche about how powerful judges and politicians, etc. visit the dominatrix in order to gain sexual release while at the same time letting go of their power and responsibilities for a while. Why wouldn’t women — who bear so much responsibility in their lives — desire the same thing? Or if not the real life complications of sex-work for cash transactions, than a fantasy of the same release?
Roiphe in the past has been given the critique that “she appears to be unfamiliar, indeed, with anything much beyond the rather rareified atmosphere of American universities.” (The Independent, ’94) I think that quote applies here as well. She doesn’t seem to want to talk about what the issues are with Fifty Shades of Grey until first she re-configurings the audience for the book. She makes a point of arguing that the demographic of women reading the book is more young (20’s-30’s), more urban, and more liberal than one would expect. It’s these women that Roiphe likes to demonize for not taking responsibility for their sexuality.
Roiphe indicates that there is something wrong with these women (and taste-less, perhaps, in others who aren’t Roiphe’s demographic.) Something is wrong with women who are drawn to your proto-erotic romance hero: a man who exudes power, who is comfortable with himself, yet wishes to shoulder a woman’s burdens, while at the same time expertly reading her emotions and thoughts with great sensitivity. Roiphe needs to understand that we’re dreaming of a new kind of masculinity. After all, if women can learn to anticipate the needs and feelings of all those around us that we care for, why can’t men learn to do the same thing? If we have learned an uber-competence in juggling work, home, and the care and feeding of our relationships, why can’t men do the same thing — or at least take care of the part in bed?
Finally, as researchers patiently tried to explain to Roiphe, “fantasies of submission” can involve “the wish to be beyond will, beyond thought.” They are talking about a kind of zen-ish living-in-the-moment state of mind. Roiphe, however, deliberately misconstrues what they say to mean that women find their free will a burden and wish to be rid of it. This seems to be such a willfully perverse mis-understanding of not only what the researchers tried to explain, but also of the reasons behind why women would enjoy dominant/submissive fantasies.
Women are losing their sense of sexual repression, they are not losing their free will. They are breaking free from conservative societal notions of shame about sexual fantasies every time they buy an erotic romance. Reading erotic romance fantasies is a prime example of free will expressed and repressive chains dropped.
If Roiphe seems blind to aspects of how real women live and think, it’s because it’s not in her best interests to do so. She’s made a career out of being a one trick pony. She comments on the latest experiment in feminism from her supposedly progressive, supposedly feminist, liberal view, and deliberately attempts to incite outrage. Her style in the past has incorporated insensitivity about topics like date-rape. Denying that women take responsibility for their sexuality, she’s proclaimed in the past, “If you feel bad, it’s probably helpful to think that you’ve been date-raped.” It gained her notoriety then, and it makes her money now. Like the staff of the National Enquirer, she poses her questions and facts in a deliberately provocative manner because getting a rise out of her readers is the only thing that keeps her in print with national magazines and newspapers.
Meanwhile, we can watch and wait to see how 50 Shades of Grey may have opened the door of erotic romance to new readers who will make their opinions heard through Amazon reviews or the comment sections of author blogs. I, for one, welcome your comments here.