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The fake feminism of Fifty Shades Two trilogies of BDSM represent a surrender of women's agency

How liberating. (50 Shades of Gray, Universal Films)

How liberating. (50 Shades of Gray, Universal Films)


June 8, 2021   5 mins

Sometime in 2009, Erika Mitchell seems to have had the most profitable wank in history. After reading Stephanie Meyer’s YA vampire romance Twilight series, Mitchell began writing a fanfiction called Master of the Universe under the pen name “Snowqueens Icedragon”; Master of the Universe eventually became the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy of erotic novels, and Snowqueens Icedragon became E. L. James.

Since signing on with a mainstream publisher in 2012, she’s sold over 150 million copies of her books worldwide. Last week, she released Freed, the final part of a retelling of the original Fifty Shades novels from the male love interest’s perspective. Again, James is following Meyer here, whose Midnight Sun (leaked in 2008 though not officially published until 2020) is the masculine take on the Twilight story.

Following, and, as usual, going further. Where Meyer contented herself with one volume of perspective-shifting, James has gone for a do-over on all three of hers; and where Meyer’s books sustained an atmosphere of age-appropriate repression and Mormon-appropriate sexual repulsion (Meyer is LDS), James went the whole hog-tied way into BDSM. James took the characters and relationships from Twilight, and rewrote the story to suit herself. “All my fantasies in there, and that’s it,” she said in 2012.

Edward Cullen still met Bella Swan, only now he wasn’t a 103-year-old vampire, and she wasn’t a depressed high-school virgin with a maddening tendency to bleed. He became an emotionally repressed (and very handsome) billionaire; she became a shy, klutzy (but beautiful!) student. In Twilight, Bella’s love helps Edward learn to control his instinct to suck her like a Capri-Sun; in Master of the Universe, Bella teaches Edward that there’s more to sex than trussing a woman up with cable ties and lovelessly banging her senseless.

Eventually Edward was renamed “Christian Grey” and Bella turned into “Anastasia Steele”; the whole thing was reworked and presented as an original fiction, and the cultural phenomenon we all know and masturbate to/hold in contempt was born. And there is so much contempt for James. Deriding her is as much of a compulsion for large chunks of the public as paddling Ana’s pert behind is for Christian. Feminists said she glorified abuse; BDSM-ers said she made BDSM look bad; conservatives said she was corrupting public decency; the sneery tag “mommy porn” was invented to describe her work.

And everyone, but everyone, said she couldn’t write. “In fact, if I were a member of the Christian Right, sitting on my front porch decrying the decadent morals of working American women, what would be most alarming about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomena… is that millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level,” wrote Katie Roiphe in a 2012 article for Newsweek asking why the collective female libido seemed to have achieved a consensus around submission.

Part of the strangeness of the reaction to Fifty Shades — both the passion of its fans, and the dismay of its detractors — is that it’s nothing very new, and nor would James ever pretend it was. As much as it owes to Twilight, and to the collaborative inventions of fanfiction, it’s also part of the grand tradition of the bonkbuster, which dates back to the 1970s. And the bonkbuster has always loved a bad boy: the caddish Rupert Campbell-Black, of Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire Chronicles, would make no better of a boyfriend than Christian Grey.

But bonkbusters also tended to celebrate variety and adventure for their heroines, not only sexually but professionally. Anastasia Steele is a retreat from that: a one-man woman whose eventual career is a gift of her wealthy husband (he buys a publisher for her run) and who gives up her surname when she marries him. After all the benefits of second-wave feminism, it seemed like what straight women really wanted was not to have it all but to give it all up; and they wanted it enough to buy James’s fantasies not just once but twice over.

Retelling might, in fact, be too strong a word for what James has done in her Christian-narrated novels. Comparisons of Master of the Universe and Fifty Shades suggest the shift from one to the other was not that extensive after all (Master of the Universe has been almost totally erased from the internet now); similarly, when you look at the original trilogy and the new one side-by-side, there’s often very little difference to detect.

For example, the first time Christian gets Ana off, he does it by playing with her breasts in a “slow, sensual assault”. This continues until her “whole body sings with sweet agony”, at which point she tells us: “He kisses me, deeply, his tongue in my mouth absorbing my cries.” From his perspective, this is a “lascivious assault”, which ends when “I move quickly to kiss her, capturing her cries in my mouth.”

Where we do get new information from the Grey version, it’s mostly reassuring confirmation that he was always secretly concerned about Anastasia’s consent (take that, feminists worried about BDSM/BDSMers worried about being confused with rapists!), and childhood memories of his mother that help to explain his emotional remoteness. It’s not exactly Rashomon, but then, being Rashomon would be very much against the spirit of Fifty Shades. Nobody came here for the fracturing of reality into multiple perspectives, thank you very much.

The grand fantasy of Fifty Shades isn’t really the spanking or the restraints or any of the other delightful perversions that Christian introduces Ana to. It’s that a woman could know a (billionaire, handsome) man completely and, by loving him, redeem him. Through all the business in the Red Room of Pain, Ana achieves the ultimate in vanilla: straight, monogamous intimacy. To that end, nothing could be hotter than the revelation that Christian and Ana were having almost the exact same subjective experiences all along.

I don’t share a lot of the moral concerns about Fifty Shades. Yes, much of what occurs between Christian and Ana would be deeply alarming if it happened in a real relationship, but prissy fussing about how it misrepresents consent overlooks the fact that this is happening in a fiction. People who enjoy submission are also enjoying a fiction: it’s necessary to believe in your own resistance in order to extract the pleasure of being possessed.

So however careless Christian appears to be about Ana’s boundaries, readers know that she ultimately wants to be totally his; and they know also that her surrender becomes a way of mastering him. Even writing as infelicitous as James’s has a huge advantage over visual pornography when it comes to sex, in that it can show us its characters from the inside, and fulfil the part of the fantasy which is about feeling rather than simply doing (or being done to). If there’s danger in Fifty Shades, it’s not the sex so much as the romance.

To love someone is always to be slightly at the mercy of the unknowability of the other. Ana is able to overcome that with what the rewrite trilogy now confirms is perfect understanding. But in the real world, there is much that women are never going to comprehend about the men they love, however much they prostrate themselves in the effort — and much that men never make any effort to understand about the women who love them. More than horsewhips and hemp ropes, it’s that gulf of sympathy that leaves real-life people hurt.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

So is the painful conclusion that men and women don’t understand each other so well?
“But in the real world, there is much that women are never going to comprehend about the men they love, however much they prostrate themselves in the effort — and much that men never make any effort to understand about the women who love them.”
Isn’t the asymmetry in that a bit unfair on us chaps?

Last edited 2 years ago by Terry Needham
Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

We’ll quite… “Women can’t, but men can’t be bothered” seems to be the point… Bizarrely she’s taken a piece of pulp fiction written by a woman and used it to draw a negative conclusion about what goes on in men’s heads. It would be annoying if it wasn’t so funny.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

Not just “women can’t [understand], men can’t be bothered “
 also, remarkably, women have “men they love” while men have “women who love them”.

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

Actually, that bit completely passed me by, well spotted. Incredible stuff…but of course it’s “male fragility” if you point it out.

Mark Preston
Mark Preston
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Quite misandrist I’d say and I’m angry that the editors would let such comments be published.

Bertie B
Bertie B
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

I only logged in to say that – and you had already done it for me. Well said Sir, well said!

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

My main objection to Fifty Shades as with the Da Vinci Code is that it is terribly written pabulum purposed for people who have no literary aesthetic sensibility at all. Nor indeed intelligence. It is a reflection of how low the intellectual and aesthetic standards set by modern education are.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Brynjar Johansson
Brynjar Johansson
2 years ago

What a condescending, self-serving comment.

I found 50 shades average, the da Vinci code entertaining and (gasp) even enjoyed the Avengers movies.

I also have a MSc in laser-based complex weapons systems and diplomas in geo-politics, management and counter insurgency. I’ve probably forgotten more on planning military operations than you’ll ever know. But I suppose I have no intelligence either…

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

I suppose you can be intelligent in one sphere and enjoy stupid entertainment. It doesn’t make the entertainment less stupid, it just suggests you’re uncritical. A Big Mac is not a healthy meal just because you enjoy it.

Ian Wigg
Ian Wigg
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

As many nutritionists have stated, a Big Mac is a relatively healthy meal so long as you don’t have fries and a sugary beverage to go with it.

Lindsay Gatward
Lindsay Gatward
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Surely enjoying particular stupid entertainment is typical of intelligence and being critical is often subjective irrational and emotional. Sometimes you are even aware your own objection is very much your own and not really reasonable but you still feel it?

Last edited 2 years ago by Lindsay Gatward
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

I’ve always enjoyed Schwarzenegger and latterly Jason Statham movies but I wouldn’t suggest they’re of very high quality (although Arnie’s 80s oeuvre looks better and better by the day).

G Harris
G Harris
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

That finally answers the long baffling question as to why Jason Statham was put on this earth.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

I have a Blue Peter badge

G Harris
G Harris
2 years ago

The real shield deal or just a competition winners?

Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
2 years ago

Don’t be so hard on yourself!

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

I read the first three pages of the Da Vinci Code and had to give up before the joy of the English language was drained away forever.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Bertie B
Bertie B
2 years ago

Kinda enjoyed the film, glad I didn’t invest enough into it to read the book.

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
2 years ago

Yes, it is a condescending comment, and I’m sure you’re very clever, but the da Vinci code is bl**Dy awful.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

I think one must be careful to make the distinction between intelligence per se and applied or lived or functional intelligence. I know not a few bright but ‘stoopid is as stoopid does’ people.

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago

“But in the real world, there is much that women are never going to comprehend about the men they love, however much they prostrate themselves in the effort — and much that men never make any effort to understand about the women who love them.”
Are you sure that you are not projecting your own, clearly unhappy experiences with male partners onto the rest of MANkind?
Which I suppose is less painful than indulging in some critical self-reflection.
But in the age of ultra-narcissism and self-declared victimhood, who still does that?
When some Islamist nutter kills an innocent civilian do you also then stand in judgement of all Muslims?
No. So why make such equally ridiculous and sweeping generalisations about men?
A woman, doubtless possessed of agency, intelligence, ambition and confidence, writes a seemingly awful book about her BDSM fantasies, and yet you apportion the “blame” to “men”.
This entire article is an example of cheap, childish, woke-inflected misandry.
Thankfully, however, it is very much out of character with the usually insightful, intelligent and thought-provoking fare we read here.

Last edited 2 years ago by Eddie Johnson
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Shortly into 50 Shades I put it down. I found it to be an embarrassingly badly written, corny and clumsy attempt at writing which only succeeded in being the worst erotica I’ve ever read. The only emotions it aroused in me were contempt and also a tinge of sadness that this might be the only ‘erotica’ many women would ever read.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Trouble is, Lesley, all erotica is bad. The least bad is Delta of Venus, although the stories still sag badly in between episodes of slap and tickle, because not enough happens. The characters in The Story of O frankly all need to invest in a really fierce curry, to remind themselves what their bottoms are supposed to be for. Fanny Hill was clearly written by a man and the Belle de Jour blog felt like it was. Try reading The 120 Days of Sodom and I defy anybody to make it past the first afternoon (did anyone except de Sade ever refer to their unit as an “engine”? Really?)
Certain fiction genres are very hard to execute successfully – ghost stories, notably. Erotica is another such. Perhaps the most dispiriting thing about tut like 50 Shades is the arrogance of the writer in imagining that their tripe is any good where nobody else’s before ever was.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

You need to get around a bit more Jon. I’ve read quite a bit of titillating literature, starting with a book called ‘The Impossible Horse’ which I took out of the children’s section of the library when I was about 10.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

“Un gros engin” looks like it’s still idiomatic, from the French pornsites I’m being offered.
Maybe a confusion that sheds a new light on why we’re all driving German cars not French ones.

David J
David J
2 years ago

I tried to read it at peak-50 excitement, but got no further than 20-odd pages in.
It might have morphed into high art later, but I’ll never know…

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  David J

Don’t try again


Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

The women in my workplace were really sold on it

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Don’t engage these women in serious conversation and certainly don’t bed them. You could be subjected to a word like ‘crikey’ at a critical “erotic” moment.

Galleta De Pollo
Galleta De Pollo
2 years ago

Yeah. Because men are notoriously particular.

Mel Bass
Mel Bass
2 years ago

You did better than me. I never even got as far as the so-called erotica. I managed only as far as page three before deciding that it was so clumsily written as to be unreadable. Strangely, all of my friends, both male and female, were besotted with the dreadful thing and kept trying to press it on me to read, with some idiot even giving me a copy for Christmas (I know, I’m ungrateful, but the nearest charity shop probably made a quid on it).

Galvatron Stephens
Galvatron Stephens
2 years ago

Feminism doesn’t believe in female agency anyway, because all men are responsible for all men do and women are only responsible for the good things women do. If women do something bad, it’s either not that bad because men do worse things or not that bad because the patriarchy made her do it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Galvatron Stephens
Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago

Indeed. Either way, women are fundamentally weak-willed, emotionally dependent on men, utterly devoid of agency, self-confidence and ambition, and invariably helpless victims.
Perhaps I’ve just been lucky, but I can honestly say that this depressing image Ms Ditum paints of her gender, does not correspond to any of the women I’ve been fortunate enough to meet in life – be it partners, close female relatives or colleagues.

Last edited 2 years ago by Eddie Johnson
Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago

No girl is answerable for how she feels about something. Are you saying she should be?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

I’ve only two thoughts about chick-lit myself.
One is that it really ought to be sold by weight. The other is that I feel desperately sorry for the partners of anyone who finds it erotic.

Nigel H
Nigel H
2 years ago

Well done Sarah, an article as bad as the book you are writing about. Is this some kind of a “divide by zero” error?

Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
2 years ago

In real life, billionaire-sugarbaby relationships exist, but the gentlemen look more like Rupert Murdoch. But reality doesn’t sell novels.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

there is…much that men never make any effort to understand about the women who love them

Men aren’t here to understand women, and are within their rights not to find them even especially interesting.

Galleta De Pollo
Galleta De Pollo
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Heh

Last edited 2 years ago by Galleta De Pollo
Galleta De Pollo
Galleta De Pollo
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Refreshingly honest. Now admit you are all enthralled with at least one “John Thomas” and cannot fathom any female not being so and we can get on with women not being here to admire your “John Thomas” and being within their rights to not find them and you anything but revolting.

Mark Preston
Mark Preston
2 years ago

I wonder if the fact that Christian was a gazillionaire had anything to do with Bella letting him do all those unspeakable things?

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Preston

I’m sure she’d have been just as happy to get tied up and f***ed by Gaz the window cleaner. Or maybe not.

Galleta De Pollo
Galleta De Pollo
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

Yeah and Weinstein’s wife would have totally married him if he worked for roto rooter.

and being a rich powerful dude he totally got off on pleasing his partners.

Stephen Crossley
Stephen Crossley
2 years ago

Surely there is an interesting article to be written by a female journalist on why the Fifty Shades series have been so phenomenally popular with female readers. I’m sure an exploration of the desires unleashed by the series would be of enormous interest to both sexes and help to close the gap in understanding between them.
I understand that may not fit with the established feminist narrative but come on Sarah et al, why not give it a go?

Galleta De Pollo
Galleta De Pollo
2 years ago

He’s rich and doesn’t just come home and make her suck him off. Duh.

Galleta De Pollo
Galleta De Pollo
2 years ago

Also why it’s fiction. Haha

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

I could’nt bring myself to read this article, but I have read some of the comments, some very funny.
I’ve never read the books, not my cup of tea really, but I do think erotic writing seems to turn women on more than men, who seem to prefer images, which is an interesting distinction in itself.
There has always been a strong tradition of smut in this country and long may it last, it does’nt have to be literary to entertain us, pretty harmless really. Feminism is irrelevant.
Here’s an Anglo-Saxon riddle :
I’m a strange creature, for I satisfy women,
a service to the neighbours! No one suffers
at my hands except for my slayer.
I grow very tall, erect in a bed,
I’m hairy underneath. From time to time
a beautiful girl, the brave daughter
of some churl dares to hold me,
grips my russet skin, robs me of my head
and puts me in the pantry. At once that girl
with plaited hair who has confined me
remembers our meeting. Her eye moistens.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Saucy.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

The answer is, of course, an onion.

G Harris
G Harris
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Prithee, can I play fair maiden?

What’s long and thin, covered in skin, red in parts and goes in tarts?

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

I can only think you must mean rhubarb (my lord).

G Harris
G Harris
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Bingo-eth 😉

Nikki Hayes
Nikki Hayes
2 years ago

There are so many good authors out there who write about BDSM – in decent English and, either they are in the lifestyle themselves or they have done extensive research (James proudly admitted to having done zero research). Aside from the fact that the writing is about the level of a sex crazed 15 year old, it is an incredibly poor represention of the real life BDSM lifestyle. I couldn’t even finish the first book – complete trash! The tampon scene makes me feel somewhat nauseous.

lewisjclark25
lewisjclark25
2 years ago

I can’t comment on the films or books.

But I bet all of the criticisms they receive has had EL James crying…
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

… all the way to the bank.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

“I forced myself to read ‘Fifty Shades’ to the end just to see how bad the writing was.” Does anyone except the writer believe this drivel?

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
2 years ago

JBP spoke very cogently on the “50 Shades” phenomenon. One wonders if he is correct that it is an over-correction to a world where traditional masculinity (which many women actually crave) is decried and suppressed. Maybe women are hungry for men who are tough, dominant, and don’t wear a man-bun?
I personally think 50 shades is the height of bunk and smarm, but 150 million women disagree with me, so I have to consider the phenomenon seriously.

Galleta De Pollo
Galleta De Pollo
2 years ago

I scanned it through for the sex bits but found it 
 meh.

Galleta De Pollo
Galleta De Pollo
2 years ago

Hahahahaha.

Last edited 2 years ago by Galleta De Pollo
Galleta De Pollo
Galleta De Pollo
2 years ago

Hahaha all these “men” writing comments for women as if straight women don’t know even Hugh Grant picked up hooks whilst with Liz Hurley.

women wish you weren’t selfish pigs. In vain, but that’s what they want. :::shrugs:::: I hear straight women talk.