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