To say I am not a fan of 50 Shades of Grey is to say that the universe is kinda big, or that fire is slightly warm. Having spent two solid years of my life breaking down E.L. James’s blockbuster hit series, I consider myself something of a professional critic of the books and the phenomenon surrounding them. From its glaring similarities to Twilight (50 Shades of Grey is an unauthorized reimagining of Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling series), the depictions of unsafe and unrealistic BDSM practices, and the often-cringeworthy prose, there’s a lot to critique. But since the success of 50 Shades of Grey is driven almost entirely by female interest, is it anti-feminist to criticize it?
50 Shades of Grey isn’t just a literary copycat of Twilight, but a cultural copycat, as well. In its heyday, Twilight was lampooned not for its problematic content, but because of the audience it appealed to: teen girls and notably, the mothers of those girls, who were painted as humorously over-sexed cougars lusting after Robert Pattinson’s sparkly young flesh. And, like Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey should not go unexamined simply because it was created and consumed by women.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, the titular Christian Grey is a young man whose every whim has been indulged by parents who rescued him from a toddlerhood of physical and sexual abuse. As a teenager, his violent behavior was curbed through regular molestation by one of his mother’s friends, who groomed him into a tightly-controlled sadist. He acts out his elaborate psychosexual issues on women who resemble his dead “crack whore” mother–women like the awkward, naive Anastasia Rose Steele. From the day Christian and Ana meet, he seeks total control over her, from asking her to sign a highly detailed sex contract (the terms of which are discussed as he plies Ana with alcohol), to deciding which gynecologist she will see (under his supervision, in his home) and what birth control method she will use. He isolates her from her friends and family, going so far as to follow her across the country uninvited when she visits her mother. He warns Ana that he’ll be able to find her no matter where she tries to run, and once they’re married he has her followed by a security team that reports her every move back to him. Since the story is told in first person point of view, the reader is privy to every moment that Ana fears Christian or his reactions–including during the poorly-executed and unsafe BDSM scenes that leave Ana weeping and confused. Throughout it all, Christian gaslights Ana into believing that his bad behavior is her responsibility, until she comes to the conclusion that her unhappiness is due to her failure to love him enough.
For some women, the themes of control and rape are not a fantasy. These women see their own abusive relationships echoed in the supposed love story of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, but efforts to have their voices heard have been roundly squashed by those who seem to believe that if women enjoy something, its feminism is above reproach. E.L. James herself has said she doesn’t like to hear about the comparisons between the abusive relationship she accidentally depicted in her novel and the abuse real life women have suffered, saying in a 2012 interview, “Nothing freaks me out more than people who say this is about domestic abuse. Bringing up my book in this context trivializes the issues, doing women who actually go through it a huge disservice. It also demonizes loads of women who enjoy this lifestyle, and ignores the many, many women who tell me they’ve found the books sexually empowering.”
There’s no doubt in my mind that much of our cultural finger-wagging over the book, and now the movie, is based on our persistent belief that women, especially women “of a certain age,” should not have, or are silly for having, sexual desires. Much like the historical romances that were labelled “bodice rippers” in the last decades of the twentieth century, 50 Shades of Grey and similarly-themed erotic romances have been christened “mummy porn.” The derogatory term takes a stab at the perceived audience of 50 Shades of Grey: bored middle-class housewives reading porn on their iPads during the kids’ soccer practice. The name, and the stereotype, are meant to belittle women who have experienced a sexual reawakening after marriage and motherhood; women who, we are told, should stop having any desire but the aching need to please a husband and 2.5 children once those kiddies are squeezed out. Dismissing 50 Shades of Grey as “bad” or “trash” simply because it appeals to a largely female audience is undeniably sexist, but there is valid criticism to be levied against the franchise by survivors and experts who are trying to contextualize the realities of intimate partner abuse within this cultural phenomenon. Whose voices are we expected to value more in this situation? The women defending their right to read what they please without derision, or the women who don’t want to see abuse romanticized?
If we want to talk about 50 Shades of Grey and our love affair with fantasies of control, we can do so without mocking female sexuality. Yes, 50 Shades of Grey has empowered women, but even those things that empower us are not exempt from criticism. Women are not being harmed when the dangerous messages and themes of the books are called out, but some will be harmed if these elements aren’t explored. So when you head out to the theatre next week, don’t snicker at the women who are there to see their sexual fantasies come to life on the screen. Trust me, there’ll be plenty of actual anti-feminist material to roast.