Why ‘Old-Chook Lit’ matters

The critic Daniel Mendelsohn has argued that the first role of the critic is to self-criticise. A critic’s choice of words is very revealing about the extent to which they have appraised their own values in the course of reviewing a book.

Like many fellow readers, I have been eagerly awaiting the release of Charlotte Wood’s new book The Weekend. In following the press surrounding its release, I was very disappointed to read a review in the Guardian by Susan Wyndham that stated:

Behind the laughs there is deep humanity, intellect and spirituality, qualities that mark The Weekend as much more than old-chook lit.

What exactly is old-chook lit? Is it a genre of novels about older women for older women? Because if it is, what exactly is the problem? Older women do exist and deserve to be written about. The implication in this phrase that novels featuring older women should just be read by women only perpetuates their social and literary marginalisation. This feeds into the broader problem of the dearth of literature that portrays older people, not just older women, as complex human beings in their own right, as Ceridwen Dovey has detailed in the New Yorker.

There have been flare-ups of the discussion about the invisibility of older women for as long as I can remember. Initially Wyndham’s review put me in mind of this debate. Women are constantly struggling to be seen and heard on their own terms, rather than on terms dictated by or in relation to men. So this seemingly knee-jerk characterisation of work dealing with women’s experiences as frivolous struck me as deeply problematic. It is also surprisingly out of tune with our current social context, in which the Stella and VIDA counts lay bare the gender disparity in publishing and reviewing, and the physical appearances of women writers, rather than their work, still become the subject of so-called reviews.

Further still, there is a heavy dose of irony in the use of this phrase, as Wood’s novel explores key issues around women and aging, such as financial security, the aging body, and the way older women are treated by their families and by society (see Sophia Barnes’ review in the Sydney Review of Books). Wyndham acknowledges this, writing ‘Ageism is another face of sexism: older women are shut out of work, love and financial security; men are still dominant, and now young people are patronising.’ Given this, it is even more odd that she thought it appropriate to use the phrase ‘old chook lit.’

Perhaps Wyndham was attempting, in a clunky way, to draw a distinction between popular and literary fiction. Old chook-lit falls into popular fiction, Wood’s work into the literary category. However this is also problematic, particularly because literary value has a long-held association with male writing, a connection evident as soon as we ask ourselves who gets to decide what has literary value and which writers can enter the canon.

The ANU Academic Julieanne Lamond wrote a wonderful article in the Sydney Review of Books earlier this year that teases out these questions. She traces the rise of the novel as a form, and argues that it started to be regarded as serious, rather than just entertainment, when more men started writing novels. Our idea of the canon, she argues, is shaped significantly by modernism which ‘formed itself in opposition to a notion of feminised, rapacious, disastrous popular culture. Especially popular fiction.’

Emily Maguire has also written about encountering the literary canon when she commenced university education at the age of twenty four:

When I got to uni I read a lot of amazing books I never would have come across otherwise, and I’m forever grateful for that. But I also got infected with this idea of the canon, and the associated conviction that books outside the canon are fine for a certain kind of person – but not for serious readers. Definitely not for serious writers, which is what I wanted to be.

Also, most of the books in the canon were by men. Most of them white. Many of them dead before I was born. And hey, what do you know, it turns out most of the fine-for-a-certain-kind-of-person books – the kind I’d read – were by people who didn’t fit those categories.

So the canon tells us that literature equals greatness equals men, while popular fiction equals inferiority equals women. Lamond argues further that this ‘deeply held association between masculinity and literary value’ makes it ‘easier for a work by a man to cross the line between the popular and the literary than it is for a work by a woman.’

To bolster this claim, Lamond looks at two categories of popular fiction: romance and crime. She asserts that crime fiction, a commercially successful genre, is granted more literary validity because it is dominated by men, while romance is ‘has to keep in its corner. If it’s lucky, it gets released into a bigger corner: variously described but most recently by publishers as ‘commercial fiction’, which is also feminised, also sequestered from the literary.’

Which brings us back to ‘old-chook lit.’ Granted, in a bookshop you are more likely to find Charlotte Wood’s books in the literary fiction section rather than general fiction, but taking this distinction for granted, rather than engaging with the substance of Wood’s work, is a disservice to both the author and the reading public. Critique the representation of women in a novel if it is shallow or the characters are one dimensional in a way that it reveals the author’s sexism or internalised misogyny. But don’t sideline books just because they focus on women.

Another New Territory review

My final review for for New Territory has been published on the ACT Writers Centre’s blog Capital Letters. In this piece, I reflect on the impact of ‘Friends’ societies and organisations in supporting our arts institutions, and the significant role they have played in shaping Canberra’s civic ‘artscape’. It is unlikely the National Museum of Australia would ever have been built without the advocacy the Museum’s Friends. Read more

New Post for New Territory

Below is my second piece for New Territory, which is a rumination on our responsibilities vis a vis acknowledging artists’ dark sides in the #metoo era. It is a response to Rozanna Lilley’s Do Oysters Get Bored? I was lucky to see Rozanna speak at the recent Canberra Writers Festival.

I wasn’t paid a cent/ that’s what made it art: Confronting Power and Abuse in the Arts

In the #metoo era, revelations of sexual misconduct by artists are swiftly followed by public debate about whether we should continue to view their work. For some, viewing the work is an act of complicity with the abuser. Others maintain that knowledge of an artist’s questionable proclivities should not preclude an appreciation of their work.

Rozanna Lilley has been caught up in these debates after the release of her book Do Oysters Get Bored?  It is a “hybrid” book, with over half of it consisting of essays that blend memoir and social commentary, and the remainder comprising autobiographical poetry. While Lilley ostensibly set out to write about the way her autistic son Oscar experiences the world, she also reflects on the sexual exploitation she and her sister Kate experienced as teenagers in the 1970s by men who frequented her parents’ social circle, including the venerated Labor speechwriter Bob Ellis and the late photographer and child pornographer David Hamilton. Furthermore, Lilley reveals that her mother, the late writer Dorothy Hewett, played a part in facilitating the abuse.

Lilley herself has conflicted views on separating artists from their work. She feels uncomfortable watching Woody Allen films, but believes her mother’s contribution to the Australian literary scene should continue to be acknowledged. She continues to participate in public celebrations of Hewett’s work, and did not support calls for UWA Press to rename the Dorothy Hewett Unpublished Manuscript Award (it subsequently retained its name).

But ultimately for Lilley, in writing this book the question of separating the artist and their work was secondary. Her concern was to claim her right to tell her story. Lilley asserts that the behaviour detailed in her book was widely known in arts circles, but at the time people didn’t care. She said to me, “[t]hey didn’t stop to think about how that world was experienced from the perspective of children” and that herself and her sister “were thought of, and largely treated as, props in our mother’s life.”

Now in her fifties, Lilley says she felt able to write the book because both her parents have passed away. She does not feel a duty to protect her mother’s reputation, or other peoples’. But nor is it open slather. Instead, she offers a nuanced reflection on her parents’ pursuit of a bohemian lifestyle, and how the “unconventional” sexual dynamics of her formative years have echoed throughout her life.

Lilley resists the straightforward narrative of uncomplicated victimhood that our society has crafted for victims of sexual abuse. Instead she emphasises ambivalence, in which pleasure and shame are inextricably linked. In the essay “Fear of Flying”, she recounts that at 13 she was both “flattered and afraid” when a male family friend made advances towards her, and that “nothing had prepared [her] for the intolerable sadness and shameful longing [she] experienced on that trip home.”

Such feelings were exacerbated by, if not directly a result of, the messages she received from her mother. For Hewett, ratcheting up notches on the bedhead had social currency, and she explicitly encouraged her daughters to have sex from a young age. She put Rozanna on the pill at 14, although by then she was already sexually active. Hewett impressed on her daughters her view that the worst thing you could do was tease men; if you encouraged desire, you had to act on it. Except sometimes encouraging desire just meant being a fourteen-year-old girl.

Furthermore, Hewett was in direct sexual competition with her daughters. Rose told the festival audience that her sister Kate, two years her elder, was at one stage in a de facto relationship with a man whom her mother was also, with their knowledge, conducting an affair. An acquaintance observed to Hewett, within earshot of a teenage Rozanna, that her daughters were her “surrogates,” implying that she could extend her sexual life through them.

Lilley says Hewett could cut off conversations through “sheer force of personality” and would make it clear to her children that she wouldn’t tolerate criticism of her lifestyle or ideology. But ultimately, Hewett’s escape from judgement was sustained through a larger fantasy underpinned by “naïve libertarianism.” In leading a bohemian lifestyle, Hewett constructed an alternate reality in which sexual experiences were not conceptualised as resulting from, or reifying, power imbalances. According to Lilley, her mother “imaginatively recast these predations as adventures, confirming our familial superiority to restrictive moral norms.”

Yet it is the casting off of social restrictions for which Hewett’s work is so prized. As Jane Jervis-Read pointed out on the Meanjin blog recently, Hewett’s grand ongoing project was to fuse her literary persona with the characters she created. In addition to putting her stories on the page, Hewett also acted them out, and involved her daughters in this elaborate web. A key example is the participation of Rozanna Lilley in Hewett’s sexually graphic film Journey Among Women. The mirroring of Hewett’s life and art also means, however, that her work is full of clues as to what was occurring in her house. Lilley pointed out in correspondence to me that while she feels her mother’s brave writing should be admired, she wanted to acknowledge the cost “of living that particular kind of imagined life for those of us who were caught in the riptide.”

In her poem “Child Pornographer” Lilley notes ironically, “I wasn’t paid a cent/ that’s what made it art.” This reminds us that art is not sacred; it can be created in contexts which give rise to, or reinforce, distasteful or downright exploitative economies and power relationships. Lilley’s book is a timely reminder to temper the emotional side of our engagement with art with an intellectual reckoning of the artist’s creative processes, and the context in which art is made. All is well with exploring a more liberated experience in fiction or art, but in real life power hurts when it is used against you. Lilley has done society a favour by placing the suffering inflicted by some of our most revered artists on the historical record and pointing out the false virtues at play when the mythology of the artist is used to cloak child abuse and silence victims.

After reading Lilley’s book, it is up to the individual reader whether they will persist with reading Dorothy Hewett, Bob Ellis, and the rest. But if they do they will have their eyes open, and should question whether unadulterated veneration is a mature, or ethical, response.

Death, denial and red tape: How our society and hospital system fail the elderly

I entered this essay in the 2017 Horne Prize.

We have an abundance of clichés about how to live and die well: approach each day as if it is your last, have no regrets. Yet, for a society that breezily acknowledges death is part of life, we have a profound lack of understanding of our own needs as we age and move towards death.

Moreover, the clichés overlook the great paradox of our existence- that we need to deny death in order to go about our daily lives. Georgia Blain wrote in her memoir The Museum of Words as she was dying from a brain tumour that perhaps we can only live with our mortality by denying it.

As bearable as it may make our existence, denial, unfortunately, does not bode well for negotiating the bureaucratic realities that have embedded themselves in the process of departing this world. Bureaucracy would like us to be organised about death. Get a will. Before you lose your marbles designate a family member to act with power of attorney. Resuscitate or don’t resuscitate? Organ donation? Make sure everything is in writing, please- for your own good and your family’s. Surely you don’t want your children squabbling over when you’d like your oxygen turned off?

Often, events do not unfold with the logic that red tape demands. Time goes before we know it, and the hazy spectre of death becomes a reality that we may still not be prepared to face in our seventies and eighties. A routine check-up, an operation or the onset of a chronic condition can lead to a medical and bureaucratic maze. This was made disturbingly clear to my family in 2016 as we watched my maternal grandfather die a horrible death in a Queensland hospital.

Grandad had gotten old and his body was breaking down, besieged by out of control chronic conditions. Diabetes, a gangrenous ulcer on his heel, and, as we would later find out, cirrhosis of the liver and brain damage. He had lost so much but would continue to keep losing bits of himself in that hospital, most of all his dignity.

As I entered his hospital room for the first time, the smell of pus settled itself in my nostrils, displacing the nauseating hospital olfactory combination of bleach and urine.

I cast my eyes down to his missing heel, which had been hacked away in surgery the previous week. The surgeon had said that Grandad would probably lose his leg, but he would try to save it, which he had. What was left didn’t look dead, exactly, but you couldn’t really say it was alive. It looked like meat, the red giving way to white the way it does on pancetta or bacon. It didn’t seem part of him anymore.

There was no denying that death was in the room. I experienced the realisation of its presence from a point of view outside of myself, like I was in a film and the camera was zooming up to me as it does when a character realises something important.

The thing I had dreaded had started: waiting, powerless, by a relative’s bedside as they slipped away. My family had so far come through relatively unscathed in that department. The deaths we had experienced had been sudden. We had not lost anyone to cancer, had not endured chemotherapy schedules, scans and the stealthily approaching hospice.

My mother, too, realised that his days were numbered. It wasn’t apparent whether Grandad himself had realised; he just looked scared, with his blankets drawn up around his chin.

The surgeon stopped by and gave a run-down of the latest technology they were going to employ on Grandad’s ailing leg. Tubing was plugged into the bandage and suction was applied to keep the wound drained. This would restore the bacon to human flesh, he told us.

We asked the surgeon for advice on Grandad’s cirrhosis but he shook his head. He was a vascular surgeon; we would have to talk to the liver specialist about that.

On our return the next day we discovered Grandad had deteriorated, developing delirium overnight. The staff said this could be due to the after-effects of general anaesthetic, an infection, stress or the build-up of toxins in his system due to his failing liver.

A kind nurse let me into the staff kitchen to make a cup of tea for my mother who was crying in the corridor. After handing it over to her and removing her to the lounge area, I nabbed one of the orderlies outside Grandad’s room, whom I mistook for a nurse.

Is he dying? I asked.

No, the minder replied. Well, not that we know of.

Grandad lived alone in Queensland, my mother lived in Perth, myself in Canberra. I hadn’t seen him for a number of years. My mother had seen him three months previously, at which time he had seemed his normal self. Consequently, we felt the rapid deterioration could not herald anything except inexorable decline.

In the lounge we regrouped and discussed how to make the best use of our time, deciding to do the things necessary for Grandad to receive appropriate care: establish what the time frame was for restoration of his dying leg, organise for him to be discharged to a nursing home, pack up his flat.

Such plans were quickly thwarted. The doctor and social worker said it wasn’t possible to even consider a nursing home. He simply didn’t have the right paperwork. No advanced care directive, no power of attorney. We would have to go through a legal process to determine if he still had capacity, which could take months, and at the end of it my mother may not even be appointed as guardian. A third party from the tribunal may have to preside over his fate.

This was confusing as we had been told he was delirious. Didn’t that mean his capacity was affected? Well, yes and no, said the doctor. When he’s delirious, he doesn’t have capacity. When he is not delirious, he has capacity. You’ve got the right to make decisions for him when he’s delirious, but when he comes out of it he could reverse anything that was decided for him.

On a practical level, surely someone would have to make decisions for him, we argued. Given he no longer knew what city he lived in and could not take himself to the toilet, we assumed he could not return home. He also lived high up in an apartment complex and we were worried that in his confused state he may go over the balcony.

No, said the doctor and social worker. He’s not in the right ward, you see. These decisions on his care needs aren’t made in the acute surgical ward; when he goes to the rehab ward, he will be assessed by an occupational therapist, and a decision will be made then what care should made available after his discharge.

We returned to our separate cities, thinking we would not see him alive again.

*

A couple of weeks later I got another phone call directly from the doctor. My grandad had lapsed into a coma, and we should get there right away. I was on a plane the next day and met my mother at the airport.

We returned to the hospital, this time to the rehab ward. It struck me as odd to have a patient in a coma in the rehab ward. I saw patients walking the corridors with walking frames. Others were going through the motions of simulated daily activities with the team of occupational therapists.

Immediately, I felt anger sweep through me. He shouldn’t be here, in this ward designed for people who could build themselves up and return to their normal lives. He was dying, as we had instantly identified in our previous visit.

Shortly after, Grandad appeared in the corridor. We were shocked and confused, having been told he was comatose. The doctor responded that he had been unresponsive to all stimuli for the last twenty-four hours, which technically meant he had been in a coma.

At a meeting with the resident and an experienced general practitioner based in the ward, we asked what the next steps were.

Little had changed. He was still in and out of delirium. But now, having changed wards, the staff we were dealing with had to communicate more fully with us.

They suggested we get the aged care assessment process started. The GP gave a word of warning- it could take more than three months, which was longer than Grandad was now expected to live.

But we knew he was dying before, we protested. We wanted to get this process started nearly two months ago.

Each ward has its own goals, was the reply.

We decided on a go gentle approach. He would keep up his medication and was allowed to sit outside in the sun, which he did- all day. But the doctors would not continue with any invasive treatment. It wasn’t clear if he was technically being palliated as he was still in the rehab ward.

He was allowed to have lunch with us in the downstairs cafeteria where we could procure him roast meat and vegetables instead of sick smelling mush.

Thinking Grandad wouldn’t make it to the first weekend in September, we pretended one day that it was Father’s Day. The staff got in on the act and wished him a happy day.

The go gentle approach was not interpreted the same by all staff. One day a liver specialist turned up and suggested he test the fluid in Grandad’s abdominal cavity for infection.

Oh no, we are not doing that stuff anymore, we said.

‘Well I wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t think it would help.’

In the face of his expertise we acquiesced, only to receive an incredulous phone call from the resident asking us if we had decided to abandon the go gentle approach.

No, the specialist said it was necessary.

‘It’s not, and he could get an infection from the procedure itself. I’ll cancel it.’

My mother was calling around nursing homes, finding barely any that would consider taking him without the power of attorney paperwork sorted. One promising home with a nice garden warned they would not take him if he was prone to “wandering.”

What does this mean? Will he have to stay in his room because he doesn’t like that. He likes sitting outside in the sun.

‘Well taking yourself off for a bit of a stroll might be tolerated, but “exit-seeking” behaviour is too much of a risk. He could wander out the front door on to the main road in front of a bus.’

We were desperate so we assured the nurse Grandad’s behaviour wasn’t exit-seeking, but of course it bloody was- he didn’t want to be in hospital. He asked us every day when he could leave, and said, gesturing towards the nurses, they won’t let you outside. It’s criminal.

More relatives flew in from Perth and packed up his flat, signed off from his landlord. Grandad was now technically homeless.

*

Grandad spent two nights in a nursing home, then was returned to hospital because he was “highly agitated”. He continued to lapse in and out of consciousness and remained delirious until he fell into his final coma.

But the bureaucratic shemozzle did not end even with Grandad’s death. The gas company would not close Grandad’s account because, according to their records, no one else was authorised to carry out transactions except Grandad. They continued to send my mother his bills.

The day he died, the power of attorney directive came through from the tribunal. The social worker took responsibility for notifying the court. You’re too late, he’s dead.

My mother suffered hugely from this experience. Her physical and mental health endured an enormous assault, as did her bank account, with numerous return trips between Perth and Queensland, taxis, hotel stays, meals, and the fee for a consultant to find a nursing home when my parents could no longer keep looking on their own while dealing with everything else.

Having tried to navigate our way through numerous dead ends, we all came away from the experience with the same questions: why couldn’t the hospital staff just listen to us? Why didn’t they tell us the truth at the beginning? And why was it so hard to get the care that Grandad not only deserved, but required?

What made the whole experience so much more painful was that we knew from the beginning that Grandad was dying and wanted to put measures in place for his care, but the staff on the ward did not see it as their place to acknowledge this reality. They were focussed on doing their job, which was to make a sick person better.

When you have cancer, there is a point at which your specialists level with you: your treatment has become ineffective and you have three months, two years, six weeks.

When you are elderly it is all a bit of a hassle for the white coats. Much better if you shuffle off of your own accord, out of the hospital. In a nursing home, that’s what they are there for.

The doctors on the wards would all say they complied with accepted medical ethics, but my Grandad’s treatment was not really respectful. He only went to palliative care when he lapsed into his final coma. He was never told he was dying; the GP in the rehab ward decided it would be too much of a shock for him to know the truth.

Instead, every morning at about 11, the same doctor would come round and tap him on the shoulder. ‘Hello Jim, have you moved your bowels today?’

What was the point of all this?

No one was overtly ageist- but it is a reflection of the way our society does not know how to relate to elderly people that there were no appropriate care pathways for him.

The medical doctor and writer Karen Hitchcock has argued for our society’s attitude to the elderly to be rethought. In her brilliant Quarterly Essay Dear Life, Dr Hitchcock wrote:

I wonder if the main problem, the first problem, is not that we deny death, but that we deny the entire thing: that we will grow old, that we will be like them…if we saw the elderly as valuable members of society and our future selves- rather than infantilised creatures, leaking from every orifice, their past and their features macerated and blurred- we would not treat them in the ways we do: failing to provide community supports to extend independence, letting them starve in hospitals ill-designed to house them, letting them languish in emergency departments for twenty-four hours while we attend to those we consider more important. Why is it so difficult to look at an 80-year-old and see an individual?

Grandad’s death was not, in one sense, out of the ordinary. An out of control condition led to the discovery of a myriad of other problems, intervention by a disparate group of specialists and a lack of coordination of care leading to a dismal quality of life. All this was complicated by the lack of paperwork. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous that he could not die a dignified death simply because he did not have the right paperwork. A year on I think his “complex medical history” allowed him to be handballed and his age meant he was not a priority.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has done some work on end of life care. In their Australia’s Health 2016 report, they stated:

A wide-ranging, standardised experience of end-of-life care measure for patients and carers, applicable to all death trajectories would also provide insight into whether services are supporting an experience of ‘dying well’, and how Australians feel about their end-of-life care.

I imagine how this aspiration would play out for my Grandad. Instead of being asked about his bowels, a white coat approaches him and says, ‘are you satisfied with the quality of your dying experience?’

If he had been cognisant, my Grandad probably would have said, ‘Actually, I would prefer not to die.’

I can’t help feeling that standardised tests and surveys distract us from what is really at stake. My family desperately needed what Karen Hitchcock wrote about in her Quarterly Essay- understanding on a human level, rather than an approach that was purely medical and bureaucratic. Doctors should have looked at him and thought, if that was my father, would I want him to be treated like this? If it was me would I settle for this?

Because if we had a choice, none of us would.

The faux-liberation of Fifty Shades

The Fifty Shades trilogy is emblematic of a cultural shift whereby the meaning of female empowerment has been turned on its head. We need to understand that “raunchy” and “liberated” are not synonyms.

I happened to be working in a library in 2012 when the first Fifty Shades was published. We were inundated with women of all ages wanting to read it. It appeared that reading it gave you access to a kind of club. If you weren’t into it you were told you were missing out.

The first film adaptation was released in 2015. Though the hype has died down a little, the commercial viability of the franchise has remained, with the release of the latest Fifty Shades film roughly coinciding with Valentines Day.

In Australia, the release of the films has coincided with a time of increased awareness-raising about domestic violence. After Rosie Batty was named Australian of the Year in 2015, the Australian media went into a frenzy on the issue. The statistic “one woman dies every week because of domestic violence in Australia” became a mantra, and for a time, a link to a story about this appeared on the page of every news item about domestic violence. Since 2012, there have been significant public inquiries into abuse that have shocked us, including the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sex Abuse, and the release of the Human Rights Commission’s investigation into sexual assault on Australian university campuses.

So how is it that a series of badly written books about a woman who gets into a relationship with a man who beats her became increasingly popular while our society simultaneously condemned domestic and gender violence? And why were women, the series’ target audience, seemingly lapping the series up?

The journalist Ariel Levy pondered similar questions in her 2006 book Female Chauvinist Pigs, which examined the rise of raunch culture. This is a culture which centres on highly sexualised images of women, and which achieved mainstream dominance through commercial distribution via pornography and advertising.  Levy noted that “[o]nly thirty years (my lifetime) ago, our mothers were “burning their bras” and picketing Playboy, and suddenly we were getting implants and wearing the bunny logo as supposed symbols of our liberation.” The women she interviewed viewed the pervasiveness of raunch culture as a sign that the feminist project had been achieved because women now had the right to be a part of “the frat party of popular culture, where men had been enjoying themselves all along.” In other words, women are now participating in the degradation of themselves and other women in the name of sexual liberation.

The influence of raunch culture is evident in our daily lives. There is the periodic flare-up of anxiety about the sexualised imagery teenagers post on Facebook. Recreational pole dancing has been popularised, and I have encountered university-educated women in their twenties and thirties who have taken it up “for exercise”. Brazilian waxing is also common. As the anti-pornography campaigner Gail Dines has pointed out, this practice came from pornography – it was a strategy employed to make female genitalia more visible to the camera. Now it is an expectation in the intimate lives of mainstream Australians.

Fifty Shades further exacerbated these developments; amid the frenzy following the first book’s publication, media reports began circulating in North America, the UK and Australia which suggested that the books were also influencing the sexual practices of “ordinary people”. Sex shops stocked outfits and accessories, such as chains and whips, based on those used in the books. Classes sprang up teaching women and couples how to engage in BDSM (Bondage, Discipline and Sadomasochism) “safely.” When Hugh Hefner died in September 2017, he was lauded for “revolutionising” women’s sexuality, yet, as Suzanne Moore pointed out in the Guardian, “strip it all back and he was a man who bought and sold women to other men.”

The Fifty Shades trilogy is emblematic of a cultural shift whereby the meaning of female empowerment has been turned on its head. The assertion from some quarters that Fifty Shades is in fact a product of feminism relies on the assumption that the explicit portrayal of a woman engaging in sexual behaviour is an empowering departure from the age-old belief in women’s sexual passivity. Anastasia gets satisfaction out of her encounters with Mr Grey, and, after all, the series was written by a woman for other women. How could this possibly be construed as sexist or retrograde?

Fifty Shades fits in neatly with raunch culture, and raunch culture perpetuates backward male-dominated ideas about women. The explicit rendering of sexual details in the Fifty Shades books and the targeting of a female audience situates the series as commercial dynamite for a society in which raunch culture is normalised and aspirational. Despite being marketed as an erotic romance, it is a work of pornography, meaning the sex portrayed is repetitive, predictable and unrealistic. Consequently, the series reinforces many of the negative stereotypes found in pornography, including assumptions about women’s sexual availability which Anne Summers called out in her 1975 book Damned Whores and God’s Police: you are either available all the time, or you hate sex. This is reflected in the characters’ names: Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Anastasia’s name conjures up an image of coldness and unavailability: her sexual inexperience is elided with frigidity. Meanwhile, Christian’s name suggests a man who is mysterious and whose actions occupy ambiguous terrain. He is not presented as a figure to be condemned by the reader.

Such connotations are further fostered by a bizarre narrative device employed by the author: the existence of a contract between the two characters in which the man is referred to as the “dominant” and the woman as the “submissive.” The contract states that “The submissive agrees to serve the dominant in all ways,” which includes allowing him to beat her when he feels like it.

The violence, albeit a sanitised version of BDSM, heralds a new phase in women’s struggle for equality and respect. The beatings Mr Grey metes out are not presented as wrong. Rather, they are part of Anastasia’s sexual awakening.  Anastasia refers – repeatedly – to her “inner goddess” dancing during their encounters. If one were to attempt a deeper reading of such clunky and unsophisticated prose, one may suggest that Anastasia is tapping into her inner bad girl – the voracious and undiscriminating one-dimensional sex object that is consistent with the dominant male view of women’s perpetual sexual availability. There is a misogynist cliché that there is a bad girl in all of us. Women who flaunt their status as Fifty Shades readers and viewers conform to this cliché. They claim membership to a club, which is like the playboy mansion but at the level of our society: conform to men’s desires and you shall enter. All women have to do is accept the implicit contract – which Anastasia is forced to sign in the book – that admittance entails subordination.

There is a problem, however, in discarding this plot device simply as a laughable example of bad writing, as Andrew O’Hagan did in the London Review of Books. It is the maintenance of men’s power that is at the heart of abuse of women by men. Power is at the centre of the latest celebrity sex scandal involving two decades of allegations against the heavy weight producer Harvey Weinstein, and a myriad of other male celebrities and figures of authority. In the Guardian, British actress Romola Garai, who alleges sexual harassment by Weinstein, gave an insightful analysis of his behaviour towards young women: he put them in “humiliating situations” to prove “he had the power to do it”. Furthermore, Garai stated that: “The transaction was just that I was there…The point was that he could get a young woman to do that, that I didn’t have a choice, that it was humiliating for me and that he had the power. It was an abuse of power.”

The symbolism of a powerful man taking advantage of women was encapsulated by the notorious “pussy grabbing” clip which was brought to light during the US presidential election campaign. That Donald Trump tried to brush it off as “locker room talk” is inexcusable, but telling: it highlights the fact that men who subscribe to the “locker room” ideology don’t understand (or don’t care) that such ideas permeate the public sphere where women bear the brunt of it.

And yet women aspire to be Anastasia Steele. The prevalence of raunch culture and the way that both sexes participate in it and consume it belies the fact that, despite paying lip service to gender violence, we don’t really understand it. We refuse to acknowledge that gender violence and raunch culture are two sides of the same coin. We deplore sexual double standards, and agree that women’s sexual needs should be considered in addition to men’s and that sex should be “consensual” and “respectful”. But the representation of the “liberated” woman’s sexuality conforms to images cooked up for men in the form of the submissive sex object- whether that is a pole dancer, a porn star or Anastasia Steele. Then our degradation is served back up to us as entertainment and we consume it. While we rush to be part of the latest overblown fantasy, like Fifty Shades, there are women struggling to break free from violent relationships in real life. As Levy articulated in Female Chauvinist Pigs: “‘Raunchy’ and ‘liberated’ are not synonyms. It is worth asking if this bawdy world… we have resurrected reflects how far we’ve come, or how far we have left to go.”

 

Key reads

Female Chauvinist Pigs, by Ariel Levy

Damned Whores and God’s Police, by Anne Summers