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Comment: Fifty Shades of Grey - the opposite of feminism?

3rd July 2012
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Coined ‘mummy porn’, the trilogy, which originally started as Twilight fan fiction, has broken print sales records across the globe and has ignited discussion so widespread it is impossible to avoid - as is the controversy.

Just a simple Google search leads to countless strands of thought on the novels, from ones heralding it as the most liberating, feminist literature of our generation, ones scathing of EL James’ submissive ‘heroine’, to ones disgruntled at the coinage ‘mummy porn’. Many have deemed this novel the opposite of feminism, but is it? 

Feminists have been scathing concerning the submissive qualities of protagonist Anastasia Steele. She is presented as an innocent 24-year-old virgin, raised on love stories, pure until she meets dark Christian, raised on danger and lust. Fifty Shades has exaggerated the roles, Anastasia repeatedly saying she adores the romance of English literature, Christian raised by a crack addict mother, used as an ashtray by her partner. Why can’t she be stronger and resist his ‘bad boy’ nature? Some have even written that the book is a demonstration of how women can’t handle equality, suggesting we instead enjoy submission.

But are the books really anti-feminist? Isn’t the fact that Anastasia manages to change the ‘fifty shades of fucked up’ Grey an example of otherwise? She explores things on her own terms, discovering her own sexual boundaries. For those who claim the trilogy has saved their marriage, at least the book is liberating women to reveal fantasies. BDSM is not glorified; we are allowed to make our own minds up.

If the issue of feminism should be raised at all, it shouldn’t be in the sex. The book accepts there can be male and female submissives, that the submissive calls the shots and does not glorify it in any way. Anastasia makes her own choices. Sex does not have to be equal or balanced if the parties are happy. Personally, the only point I would pick up on is Christian Grey as a character. Emilie Spiegel wrote that Anastasia is able to change him because ‘she doesn’t take his crap’. Yes, occasionally, she says ‘no’ to his requests. She tells him she will decide what she eats (what a strong, inspirational woman), but she leaves herself in a position where she cries constantly, deals with his incessant jealousy that, like the Twilight saga, we are expected to take for love. She is left with minimal contact to her friends and family, instead satisfying his need for her. She may not take some of his ‘crap’, but she certainly takes more than what we would expect of a woman in modern day society – more anti-feminist than anything sexual they do. Like Meyers did with Twilight, she has tried to pass this off as a deep, all consuming love.

Regardless, the book has caused a disproportionate outcry. Is this not essentially a story about a young couple who face some (albeit, large) problems and end up happily ever after? Admittedly the ‘her love saved him’ storyline is a little more than repetitive, but this is true of many romances. The actual relationship is nothing more than a complicated, teenage love story. The bondage part is also not particularly controversial – it is discussed openly and fairly. The only reason we can’t escape the series is because it is different and deals with an issue considered taboo.

It is cringe-worthy (the ‘red room of pain’ anyone?), poorly written and the debate it has attracted is unjustified. But debate is never bad. It wouldn’t be the book of my choice to get it going, but the fact that people across the country are talking about these matters is a positive. If someone reads it and gets pleasure of it, good on them! If not, stop reading. Just be careful what you suggest to your partner tonight...




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