The book and movie perpetuate the idea that the abuse and sexual control of women is sexy.
One of the great virtues of insomnia, otherwise a deplorable problem, is the found time to do silly things for no good reason. During two sleepless weeks in 2013, I stayed up every night and read the Twilight books and then, for good measure, their fan fiction follow up, the Fifty Shades trilogy. As I read, I vacillated between giggling at some execrable, entertaining writing and amazement that anyone could think these books were transgressive.
It was like eating too much sweet, pink, and airy cotton candy. Then eating some more. Then feeling kind of sick and wishing you hadn’t because of the empty calories. Then being glad you did, because you probably wouldn’t touch the stuff again.
The disturbing thing about these stories, however, was that young teenagers voraciously consumed Twilight and many of them will see Fifty Shades of Grey. A few years ago, many people thought the Twilight books and movies were just fine for early teens because Twilight had “no sex.” Those children, only a few years older, are a prime target market for the film Fifty Shades of Grey and millions have, no doubt, also read the books. Both franchises normalize coercive sexuality and abuse. If you put them on a spectrum, however, you’d have to start with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Consider the immediate narrative similarities:
- Innocent, younger, virginal girl/woman
- Damaged, older, more experienced boy/man
- Female characters are relatively poor
- Male characters are relatively wealthy and their lives filled with luxury
- Male characters engage in controlling access to food, clothes
- Male characters practice controlling/stalking behaviors such as following, eavesdropping, spying and this is considered a sign of love
- Female characters are systematically isolated from their friends and family
- Male characters are violent and physically overwhelming
- Female character’s love, or the quest for that love, “change” the male character and make him less “monstrous”
- Female characters learn to anticipate and “manage” male anger to reduce stress, risk.
There are many ways to interpret all three as portraying strong women, in control of their destinies. Regardless, however, these similarities remain valid, and both subtle and not-so-subtle abuse fills these stories. (Practitioners of BDSM disavow the books’ portrayals, arguing that the depictions do not reflect safe/consensual practices, but are about indefensible sexual and emotional violence.)
In the case of Fifty Shades, a recent analysis of the books revealed that “Emotional abuse is present in nearly every interaction.” Researchers make a compelling case, and provide backup for it, that stalking, intimidation, and sexual violence (including using alcohol to compromise consent) are pervasive. Anastasia, the protagonist, is described many times as feeling constant threat and described experiencing physical symptoms associated with it (“my stomach churns from his threats”); her identity changes and she becomes quick to “manage” Christian’s anger so that there is no violence.
When I was 12 I had limited access to books and an insatiable appetite, so to speak, for reading. So I raided my strict and pious Anglican great aunt’s library and over the course of six months, in compulsive fashion, read more than 200 of Barbara Cartland’s yummy, romance novels. These books were fluff and their sexual submission/dominance themes were hilariously masked in language, not sex. Without fail, these slim volumes featured innocent virginal girls “locked” in embraces with masculine men—the “strapping” kind. They were permeated by imagery in which the protagonists were represented, for sublimation and discretion, by or as horses. These men, who were surrounded by “lustrous” leather and carried exquisite riding crops, were almost always characterized by how they handled their “mounts,” through the use of said crops, bridles, saddles, boots, brushes, and more.
The horses the girl and man “rode” were “uncontrollable” and needed “taming.” Passion was literally “unbridled.” The girl, when she did ride, was special because she could, unlike her peers, “handle” a “powerful stallion.” The man was almost always filled with rage and damaged by his mother.
Barbara Cartland, by the way, sold more than 700 MILLION books long before Fifty Shades “transformed” the romance book industry which is a $1.3 billion a year genre, bigger than science fiction, mystery, or religion/inspirational categories. There is no more a “renewed popular interest in the stylized theater of female powerlessness,” suggested as a criticism of feminism, evidenced by the coincidence of these themes with the publication of books like The Richer Sex or The End of Men, than was evidenced by the coincidence of the success of the Marquis de Sade’s near simultaneous 18th century Justine with Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.
The only revolutionary thing about the books was that they were read by millions of women who used the privacy of e-readers to bypass traditional shame regarding women’s consumption of sexually explicit materials. A woman sitting in a carpool line or on a bus as she commutes to work can’t very well read a book with an explicit name or cover, or magazine filled with porn, but an e-reader? No problem.
Which gets us back to teenagers consuming this media with virtually no helpful input from adults.
Seventy-three percent of parents never talk to their children about intimate partner abuse. An Avon Foundation study conducted last year by the No More anti-domestic violence coalition found that 1 in 10 people between the ages of 14 and 21 have already committed an act of sexual violence, most but not nearly all of them, boys. Eighty percent those on the receiving end of violence are girls (18% were boys and 5% were transgender youth). Twenty-five percent of teenage girls report being physically assaulted by boys they are involved with. Coercive sexual practices are readily evident in the texting patterns of kids as young as 12.
The teenagers most likely to have sexually assaulted a peer are affluent, white boys. Those with the highest propensity consumed more pornography, a cultural artifact that is, arguably the ultimate expression of angry, controlling, gendered sexual entitlement.
“He was polite, intense, smart, really intimidating,”
“There’s really not much to know about me,”
“I exercise control in all things,”
“I am incapable of leaving you alone,”
“I had a rough start in life…”
Beauty and the Beast? Twilight? Or the best direct quotes from the Fifty Shades movie voiceover? How can people not talk to their kids about this? (The first time I had to have this conversation with a roomful of 12 and 14 year old kids was when they were loudly singing along to Rihanna’s “S&M”: Now the pain is my pleasure…Sticks and stones may break my bones…But chains and whips excite me.” They had no idea what this song was about and no one had discussed it with them. The song spent months at the top of the charts.)
The movie has a Valentine’s Day release and will, almost inevitably, be phenomenally successful. The story is a traditionally comforting and familiar one. Actors are sympathetic and beautiful, the sexual tension high, the soundtrack filled with excellent performers and millions are being poured into its marketing. Many people will write about how feminist or anti-feminist the movie is and the morality police will freak out.
None of this is new.
From my perspective, this movie perpetuates the idea that the abuse and sexual control of women is sexy and what “real” and “edgy” sex is about. This is hardly the first time that a young woman, overwhelmingly portrayed in our media as sexually passive objects, will be depicted as a naïve, manipulated, physically overwhelmed savior of a hurt, damaged, “controlling” rich man.
What would be new this time is if parents used the film to talk to openly to teenagers about how love, romance, trust, consent, anger, control, and gender are represented and distorted in these narratives.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.