50 Shades of Empowerment

E.L. James’s infamous 50 Shades of Grey­: work of erotica? Pornographic literature? Rape fantasy? Or perhaps a different approach–what about a source of female empowerment? The sexual evolution of Anastasia as a character in James’s trilogy serves as just that.

Despite the backlash James’s trilogy has received, I view 50 Shades to be an enlightening and non-normative exploration of female pleasure that is ultimately empowering to its female readers.

When we’re first introduced to Anastasia she is a meek, shy, virgin who seems to have little experience with men at all despite being a senior in college. Anastasia at the end of book three, 50 Shades Freed, is 180 degrees different from how she began (in a good way). She is a mother and devoted wife, but much more than that she has explored almost every ounce of her sexuality in the past three books. Furthermore, she is a working woman and the successful leader of SIP, which is proving rather profitable. In order to see the full transformation of Anastasia, it’s crucial to read all three books. Reading only the first book, and ending on the cliffhanger that it does, leaves a bad taste in your mouth about the nature of Christian and Ana’s relationship. I believe this is why Dr. Drew Pinsky considers the book to be a rape fantasy. In the following clip, Dr. Pinsky explains that he wishes he could get the time back from reading the first book and wouldn’t dare reading the other two despite how much his female cohost, Simone Bienne insists otherwise. Bienne echoes the belief I carry about the trilogy and how it is sexually empowering for wives and single women alike.

In an article from The Guardian, author Allison Flood cites the words of Eva Illouz, a sociology professor at the Hebrew University who finds the book to be more of a “self-help book” than a pornographic novel. Illouz explains that, “Pornographic texts are intended explicitly to arouse sexually, usually, a male and solitary viewer. Fifty Shades, on the other hand, is written assuming the presence of a partner. The sexual scenes are not written to arouse the eye but meant to instruct men and women on inventive and efficient ways to improve their sexual pleasure.” She then goes on to cite the example of when Christian suggests that Ana doesn’t use the bathroom before sex because a fuller bladder makes for a more intense orgasm. This discourse between two partners and just having consideration for each other’s sexual enjoyment, in general, would never occur in rape cases. Yes some of the sex scenes can be steamy and include domination and submission but when taken out of context, they’re just consensual sexual endeavors by two loving partners. However, readers do not get to fully see that loving relationship until later in the series.

Another article from The Guardian is an interview between James and Rachel Cooke about the success the series has garnered (at the time of the interview in 2012, the books were bringing in about a million a week), in which James says of the book, “The sex is interesting but loads of books have sex in them, some of them quite graphic sex. You want to know: what is going to happen to these two people? Will she break him down in the end? Because, of course, she’s far stronger than he is.” James is imminent on portraying Ana’s strength in all three books. In fact, in our class discussions we talked about how in their relationship it oftentimes appeared that Ana held more power (i.e. when they were negotiating the never-signed contract and she felt comfortable refining some of the clauses, such as her exercise routine). Ana is far from a submissive or passive character but it takes more than reading the first book to see that. Later in the series the reader see’s the power Ana holds over Christian, she break’s down his walls–eventually being able to touch him, make eye contact, and even marry the once seemingly impenetrable bachelor who refused to view sex as “making love.” Ana is not a victim but rather a fierce, and poignant character who has just as much power in the relationship as Christian, if not more.

This approach to 50 Shades is consistent with the following salient quote from the introduction to The Feminist Porn Book. It says “Millions of female readers embraced the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy…not for its depictions of oppression, but for its exploration of erotic freedom. Women-authored erotica and pornography speaks to fantasies women actually have, fantasies that are located in a world where women must negotiate power constantly, including in their imaginations and desires.” It goes on to explain that just like the criteria to win a Feminist Porn Award requires, “these books and the feminist porn movement show that ‘women are taking control of their own fantasies (even when that fantasy is to hand over control).” That last part in parenthesis is what Dr. Drew, and others who view the book as a rape fantasy, should seek to understand. Even though it may seem against what is socially ”acceptable” when it comes to sex, Ana’s take on sexual pleasure should not be condemned or instantly assumed to be nonconsensual.

In a society where rape culture, strict binaries, heteronormativity, and other restrictive sexual standards dictate what is socially acceptable, it is only instinct to view BDSM culture as bizarre, potentially painful, foreign, or just downright confusing. Just like the confusion people feel towards polyamorous relationships or asexuality– any non-normative manifestations of sexuality tend to confuse people and cause them to form judgments without even a thorough understanding. People who take this approach to 50 Shades of Grey should first read all three books and then read them again analyzing them from a female sexuality lens. Not all people are going to like these books but it’s important to at least acknowledge the role they play (pun intended) in female sexual empowerment.

What are your takes on James’s motive behind these books? Do you think they would be perceived differently if written by a male author? When the whole 50 Shades craze began there was a trend that occurred in which many female readers felt they had to hide that they were reading it. My mom bought the series on her kindle for fear of being judged as she read in the airport. What does it say about our society that women have to hide or feel ashamed when reading a book that many people are aware explores female sexuality? Is reading and learning about a woman’s own sexuality something to be ashamed of in our culture? Do you think women will feel less embarrassed to go see the film than they felt when reading the series? Why? Is there a socially acceptable difference between an on screen steamy production and an erotic novel?

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