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Guest Post: A Feminist Defense of 50 Shades of Grey

by Emilie Spiegel
April 11, 2012 10:41 AM
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50 Shades of Grey
50 Shades of Grey is happening, it's happening big, and it's happening for women. I jumped on the band wagon after reading that the books were initially created as Twilight fan-fic (Twilight being the subject of my Masters thesis...) and immediately gave up three days of my life to obsessively read (and yes, re-read) the trilogy. As a woman, and especially as a feminist, I think these books are great.

I know, I know! I can hear my own subconscious screaming at me (as 50 Shades' heroine Ana Steele's does frequently through out the books), but I think there's a lot here that's positive and encouraging. Though I understand, and deeply respect, the feminist threads of mistrust towards the erotica and porn industries (women are reduced to product, mistreated, objectified), I've always stood firmly on the "sex-positive feminist" side of things. Sex is, of course, a fact of life-- and any series whose very existence attests to the fact that women also have desires (desires that deserve to be serviced, no less!) is a step in the right direction.

There is of course the issue of the BDSM in the books. Like Secretary before it, 50 Shades of Grey treats BDSM lifestyles with a degree of respect-- not pathologizing or glorifying the acts-- but rather situating them in the larger context of people's psyches, habits, and desires. I don't think BDSM is inherrently misogynistic. I just don't.

And it must be said (SPOILER ALERT) that the books aren't fully about the Dominant/Submissive relationship. Grey compromises with Ana to find a balance that they both find fulfilling and safe-- it's mentioned often throughout the books that he basically worships this woman, and that her love helps him overcome a traumatic past and work through his Dominant tendencies until he is capable of a fully committed relationship. All this without veering into the Manic-Pixie-Dream Girl garbage that would imagine Ana as the panacea for all his troubles-- and thus further enforce the idea that women serve only to comfort their men. Theirs is a fairly equitable relationship in the end-- for all his wealth (and very minor age difference- he's 27 to her 22, I believe)....Ana is the woman to get him over BDSM because she's smart, and because she doesn't take his crap.

Ultimately, the subject matter is potentially less interesting here than the fact of what this series represents-- erotica for women that is now gone fairly mainstream. Yes, we need to think about the how and why and each work out for ourselves how we feel about the story, but can't we first take a minute to be proud and happy that a female writer is having massive success forcing the world to reckon with female desire?


Emilie Spiegel is a grad student, studying the effects of Media Cultures on young women. She lives in Brooklyn.

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  • dr.blais | September 16, 2013 8:59 AMReply

    why is abusive men such a turn on to women twilight and 50 shades of rape are all about abusive men one being a pedophile stalker and the other a rapist

  • Andrea | November 26, 2012 9:34 AMReply

    Why does Ana need to get Christian over his BDSM tendencies if there is nothing wrong with it? In the world of the novel of course. Also If Christian got into BDSM because of past abuse, then that is definitely pathologizing BDSM

  • CG | November 26, 2012 9:13 AMReply

    testing this post

  • CG | November 26, 2012 8:56 AMReply

    For any woman to even hypocritically call themselves "feminists" when they like and support extremely sexist, harmful,sick,woman-hating,male violence against women,being sexualized,normalized and eroticized is totally insane,incomprehensible and they are fake traders as Twiss Butler of Washington NOW has written and said to me,they are *not* feminists,she said they are fakes and handmaidens to sexism! As I said,it's exactly like Black people calling themselves Black Civil rights supporters and activists,and then liking,using and supporting Klu Klux Klan pornography! And they can't be a true feminist who cares about women's safety from men's violence,hatred of women,and sexist inequality and then like materials that sexualize,glamorize,normalize and eroticize these harmful injustices and injuries!They are pro- sexualized pro-sexisim,pro-men's violence against women,and pro-woman-hatred!Which are sexist woman hating things to be,the total far removed opposite of what genuine feminism is and means!And in Fifty Shades the guy brutalizes her,sexually,physically,and emotionally and she as we know is portrayed as a submissive masochist who loves this sick,violent,sadistic,woman-hating man who loves to abuse her and she loves to be brutalized by him.Anyone who likes this,is turned on by this and supports this a sick,sexist,woman-hater!

  • Irene | October 18, 2012 4:25 PMReply

    I knew already that I wasn't going to read this book, but after knowing a bit more about its content, I'm POSITIVELY 100% sure that I'm not going to read it EVER!
    How on Earth such a mysoginistic crap has been written by a woman, and how on Earth can women swallow that crap, it's something that is beyond my understanding, and makes me distrust humanity, really.
    I'm not complaining about BDSM, but about the actual RAPE scenes, in which there's nothing consensual involved, but that it's excused because, you know, she had an orgasm (again, veeeeery realistic...). Yeah, I'd like to see a porn fiction made by men for men, in which the male character is raped, and this is seen as something funny and enjoyable by the male readers.
    But I guess that, after so many centuries of gender inequality, women have just lost self-respect completely.

    So no, thanks. If I have to read empowering erotica made by women for women, I choose slash fiction or yaoi. This novel just looks like your average sexist, women-thrashing porn shit, which would normally be targeted at men.

  • Kerri Molloy | October 8, 2012 10:33 PMReply

    Good sex is subjective :)

  • k.b. | August 29, 2012 2:09 PMReply

    Do you really think this is a book about female desire? Can female desire really ever be viewed clearly through the malformation which has bestowed it. If this is female desire, I think females are in trouble.

  • karenorbit | June 7, 2012 11:51 PMReply

    Just on chapter 6 so i dont know what is coming - ooh er. however, Even as a virgin this girl should see warning signs.

  • seb | April 26, 2012 6:08 PMReply

    Gives me more leeway to watch porn...I never knew this day would come. Now my sister's can't moan about my escapades since this crap (i mean fic) is porno in words. Call it what you want, erotica=emotional porn written down.

  • Elizabeth | April 19, 2012 3:44 PMReply

    I don't think the problem with the book is BDSM sex. I'm just tired of these books getting a pass on any kind of storytelling or editing standards just because it has a lot of sex in it. It is a badly written & edited book with little or no subtext at all. All it seems to prove is that women are just as fond of badly written porn as men are of watching badly filmed porn.

    That's not anything to cheer about.

  • Gabriel | April 19, 2012 1:54 PMReply

    So what about the writing itself? I've read excerpts and the writing seems very elementary. What's your opinion?

  • beth | July 16, 2012 6:01 PM

    absolutely unattractive prick it concerns me that people can get turned on by such a cold patronising prick. This book gives me chills, and makes me want to lament and cry over how something like this can possibley be seen as empowering for our gender. She is humiliated and degraded and mocked by him. she develops dangerous self-critique as a result of him and he changes her into a worried, emotional wreck.. REALLLY healthy reading for the average jane doe who is bombarded with patronising and demoralising culture 24/7 outside of reading time. NOTTTTT... this is disgusting.

  • karen | June 7, 2012 11:53 PM

    this guy is a turn off immediately, right?

  • Kathy | April 19, 2012 12:21 PMReply

    "Theirs is a fairly equitable relationship in the end-- for all his wealth (and very minor age difference- he's 27 to her 22, I believe)...."

    I don't believe that for a NY minute. He blames his sadism on a woman who once abused him. And 27 to 22 is not a very minor age difference. Their relationship is patriarchal to the core.

  • Kathy | April 19, 2012 12:18 PMReply

    50 Shades of Grey is 50 Shades of Misogyny.

    I do not believe an equal relationship can happen if a woman wants to be a submissive (and a man wants to be a dominant).

    What really bothers me about BDSM is that so many advocates view the roles as fixed. I have never heard a BDSM couple say, "We trade off the dominant and submissive roles."

  • lee | November 2, 2012 6:58 PM

    bdsm is meant to make you feel bad as the submissive. that's half of the fun. deal with it or don't do it. simples

  • Faye | June 21, 2012 4:47 PM

    Obviously you've never heard of switches, then. BDSM is not just black and white. This is what bothers me about novels such as 50 Shades, they promote damaging and insulting stereotypes about BDSM, for example your opinion that it is mysgynistic - something that someone with any real knowledge of BDSM knows is utter rubbish!

  • Molly | April 19, 2012 11:08 AMReply

    OMG really??? "Ana is the woman to get him over BDSM because she's smart, and because she doesn't take his crap."

    What an ill-informed load of old twaddle... please excuse my lack of an eloquent retort but your terrible article has left me fuming and so yet again I know exactly why I wrote this....

    I don't care whether you are a feminist or not, your view on BDSM and the implication that woman who somehow practise it are not feminists is insulting. I am an intelligent, educated and successful woman AND I am submissive... I chose that for myself as it makes me happy and fulfilled. We have an equal relationship that centres around our desires to be Dominant and submissive. Maybe those roles have not been well portrayed in these books but do not assume that by reading these books you are an expert on BDSM lifestyles.


  • Emilie | June 14, 2012 11:35 PM

    Thats why I said Bdsm isn't misogynistic! I agree with you. And I'm it claiming to be an expert on bdsm, Im claiming that mass public attention for female erotica is good for women

  • Tehanu | April 18, 2012 6:53 PMReply

    @Emilie: Ok, I get your point of view. However I don't believe the end justifies the means. I think we are compromising far more than we are gaining with this book.
    If erotica genre for women goes mainstream while representing an abusive, unhealthy and sexist relationship, I think we are set back years in the feminist movement. I'd rather the genre stayed low profile for that.

  • emilie | April 18, 2012 5:03 PMReply

    @tehanu: Ultimately, the subject matter is potentially less interesting here than the fact of what this series represents-- erotica for women that is now gone fairly mainstream. Yes, we need to think about the how and why and each work out for ourselves how we feel about the story, but can't we first take a minute to be proud and happy that a female writer is having massive success forcing the world to reckon with female desire?

    I agree there's still a lot thats problematic about their relationship in the narrative, what I'm interested in is that phenomenon the book represents and its attendant forced reckoning of female desire

  • Tehanu | April 16, 2012 8:50 PMReply

    I DO wonder why you call yourself a feminist. The Feminist Movement seeks equallity between men and women. How can you, with that premise, defend a book in whick the female is not the equal of the male but his pet?
    You said that he adores her. It's true. He adores her so much that he wants her whole world to begin and end with him (his words not mine). How exactly is that healthy? How exactly does that meet with the feminists ideas? He doesn't let her go anywhere without telling her, he doesn't accept she having friends, he gets so mad at her that she's afraid... I just don't understand.
    The BDSM is fine, that's the least of my concerns.
    Sorry for my bad english.

  • beth | July 16, 2012 6:04 PM

    AMEN AMEN AMEN AMEN amen amen amen.. :) read my comment further up too!

  • KURZ | April 16, 2012 2:04 PMReply

    I have read the books and loved them. Lets remember this is fiction and FUN. How many of us wish to be wisked away in a magical love affair .. All of us.. All my friends have been reading and are loving it We are all married and are reminded of the days before we got married and the carefee sex and fun we had before the stresses of life got ahold of us with jobs kids husbands and household Its fun to fall away to your mind and dream of all the fun stuff happening in the books Some of our husbands are very happy this last couple of weeks with the extra attention> Books are fun not everything has to be a life lesson

  • beth | July 16, 2012 6:06 PM

    underestimating ANYTHING that so greatly affects society as ""fun"" is the most dangerous and immature thing anyone can do, im sure the commedian that recently made rape jokes on stage humiliating a woman and forcing her to leave whilst continuing to sugggest that abuse of her would be "funny"" woulod say the same thing. but its not fun. its not ok. its sick.

  • Kim | June 7, 2012 10:42 AM

    I don't believe the book is the culprit for anti-feminist propaganda. It is the fact that it is so popular. What does that say about our culture and the women who are swept away by this misogynistic plot. There is a deeper issue here. I wonder if opening this "fantasy" of slave and master isn't a dangerous idea to be toyed with.

  • Guest | April 16, 2012 12:49 AMReply

    Yuck. Glad I'll never read this stuff. Now that I know the ending at least I can take comfort in the fact that he eventually quits this sicko behavior and (hopefully) gets some much-needed professional help.

    (Disclaimer: I'm 16 and "s_x negative." Meaning that I think all s_x is just ew-yuck-blech and death cab for cooties. Never mind prison s_x which seems to be the case here. I wish there could be something put in the food or water supply that makes people stop doing this.)

  • ann | April 13, 2012 3:39 PMReply

    Finally! Someone who's read the books and gets them. Thank you. Also, while the book isn't a great piece of literature there are parts of it that are well-written. E.L. James creates a compelling (and believable) emotional and physical relationship between Ana and Christian, and that's what makes the books relatable; We can all somehow put ourselves in Ana's shoes. Yes, Ana is a virgin and hasn't been exposed to BDSM but I think James portrays Ana's reactions and inner conflict about liking some of what Christian does to her very well and realistically.
    And I have to say, my book group has tried to find a follow-up book to read and we've sampled many of the other 'erotica' books out there and none of them are as good or relatable as this one. They all describe the sex scenes in a very crass manner and have a pretty thin love story behind them.

  • Emilie | April 11, 2012 5:30 PMReply

    Budmin thanks for your interest but it's not published

  • Linn | April 12, 2012 12:21 PM

    Yet. It's not published yet. :) Perhaps something you could think about...

  • budmin | April 11, 2012 1:43 PMReply

    @EMILIE is there any place in particular I could find a copy of your Twilight thesis?

  • M | April 11, 2012 12:21 PMReply

    Women writing about female desire isn't a bad thing, and the books are certainly compelling and tap into Stephenie Meyers' trajectory of intense romantic connection, but for me, this isn't an issue of BDSM, porn, and risque behaviour, but how it's used.

    This isn't the story of two equal and experienced adults agreeing to participate in this lifestyle. The book takes each problematic aspect from the source material, removes the supernatural rationale, and then exacerbates every behaviour to the extreme. She is the uber-innocent girl crushing on the experienced predator, pushing herself into a lifestyle she doesn't understand because of her lust. He wants her so much that it doesn't take long for him to accept her virginity and keep pushing. Their discussions on the matter are often perfunctory; she often doesn't get very far before getting swept up in passion. And for me, most importantly, there are so many issues she has with him that she lets a large number of them slide because she likes him and she's picking her battles. She gets him to ease off on sadist leanings, but lets him control many other facets and moments of her life. There are extreme jealousies and possessiveness not properly addressed, not to mention the ramifications of how his actions have left the women of his past and how this relationship cuts her off from her friends and family. She doesn't take all of his "crap," but she takes a lot of it -- well beyond what any woman should deal with in a modern relationship.

    It's entertaining, for sure, but there's too many questionable facets for it to so easily wear a feminist label.

  • Linn | April 11, 2012 11:54 AMReply

    Fascinating. Thank you for sharing your insights, Ms. Spiegel.

  • Monica | April 11, 2012 11:52 AMReply

    Great! I read many times.

  • Banotti | April 11, 2012 11:10 AMReply


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