After nearly three years of writing about kink, feminism, and pop culture, I’m so tired of talking about a certain novel that I now make a point of only referring to it as “that book.”
Criticizing Fifty Shades of Grey on either feminist or literary grounds is pretty much like shooting gray-eyed fish in a barrel. Having re-read it recently, I can certainly offer no defense of its style, characters, plotline, or its relationship with reality.
Where I am going to defend both the book and the movie, however, is on the charge that the key relationship is bad for women. Many people believe that that this fairly vanilla story is a romanticized tale about an abuser named Christian Grey and a battered woman named Anastasia Steele. This week, for example, critic Erin Gloria Ryan wrote on Jezebel that 50 Shades of Grey “glorifies the sort of domineering masculine violence that lands women outside of [author E.L.] James’s jill off fantasyland in the hospital, in domestic violence shelters.” Emma Green at the Atlantic said the sex in the story feels abusive because “sometimes, Ana says yes to sex she’s uncomfortable with because she’s too shy to speak her mind, or because she’s afraid of losing Christian.” Other people have argued that Fifty Shades’ popularity will lead to a spike in domestic violence.
While it’s a not great book by any means, I feel like Fifty Shades has gotten an unfair amount of flack. As someone who has read a fair bit of kinky literature, I believe we need to be wary of cherry-picking decontextualized instances from one book, while ignoring all others. In the same breath that critics condemn Fifty Shades, some point to the 2002 film Secretary as a positive alternative—but that film has its own lack of negotiation, lack of explicit consent, and dodgy power structure where a boss uses his position to dominate an emotionally vulnerable female subordinate. Where is the condemnation of Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester, and Heathcliff—those heroes of romantic literature—for being emotionally and sometimes physically abusive sociopaths?
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