50 Shades of Feminine Submission

4 Aug

This article was originally written for and published in the Unite Society website.

Yes, I am a woman who can read Fifty Shades of Grey without turning fifty shades of crimson. I have read erotica a lot in the past (grew up in the internet age, he-llo!). And although the hullabaloo around this series led me to believe otherwise, this is really like most other badly written erotica that are available online for free.

But here’s the catch. It’s not free. It’s selling out faster than Harry Potter. (Yes, people are paying for bad porn in the internet age.) And people just can’t seem to stop talking about it! On Twitter, on the Ellen Degeneres Show, with friends – you either love it or hate it, but you definitely talk about it. All the polarizing opinions around this bad soft porn novel smell of very good PR.

In the day and age of flash-in-the-pan trends powered by the all-pervasive PR and marketing teams, this would not worry me too much. As a feminist, what I do find worrying however, is what this discussion is doing to women and sexual freedom. Let me elaborate.

Badly written books are not criminal.

We are a nation of snobs. Yes, me included. And perhaps it’s not always a bad thing – to be a discerning audience. However, I think it becomes problematic when we start judging people based on what they read. The whole feminist furore about the phrase ‘mummy porn’ was completely justified – categorizing and making judgements about the Fifty Shades readers’ sex-life (before and after) is completely unacceptable.

Having read the books, I have to say that the language and storyline are contrite. I don’t really think much of E.L. James’ writing and erotic imagination. But its not much worse than most free erotic novels. The main reason such a hue and cry has been made about it being poorly written is because the publishing industry has decided to make a bestseller out of this book. Perhaps we need to critique the workings of the publishing industry with more intensity and focus less on critiquing women who decide to pick up a copy of Fifty Shades because their two best friends are reading it. That’s just why word-of-mouth PR works!

Why should BDSM take the heat?

Anastasia is by no means a feminist icon. She is a pushover, too overwhelmed in the presence of a wealthy, controlling man, and touts her ‘inexperience’ and ‘virginity’ around as virtues. But her taking pleasure in being tied up and dominated is not what makes her an antithesis of a feminist icon.

Most working BDSM relationships are based on trust, love, lust and power-sharing, just as most non BDSM or ‘vanilla’ relationships are. Sexism is not inherent in such relationships. What we have in Fifty Shades is a fetishization of the BDSM lifestyle to fit in with the fantasies that are already present in mainstream media, i.e., male aggression and female supplication.

Granted, Fifty Shades is not groundbreaking. It does not question or challenge the heteronormative power relations. But neither does it portray women in a more derogatory way than most other romance novels. In short, BDSM is not the culprit, mainstream cultural narratives are.

Why are we not asking the right questions?

Instead of pointing fingers at a ‘fringe’ sexual lifestyle (if sexism against women is a fringe practice, then we wouldn’t need feminism), we should probably be asking some more pertinent questions. Why should women making an informed choice in their sex lives to be a sub (to either a man or a woman) be seen as being weak and unable to look after themselves? Surely the mainstream cultural narratives that draws caricatures of weak women who love overbearing and dominating men, are to blame for the conflation of women in sub positions in BDSM relationships with women who are yet to be introduced to women’s rights to speak up and bring home the bacon!

Also, while there is much discussion about why ‘women’ (note that its not ‘some women’) love to be dominated, why are we not talking about women doms and male subs? Yes, that’s a BDSM thing too! It’s not all about 50 shades of feminine submission.

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