Fifty Shades of Grey: A Feminist Reading

By Lauren Ferguson

A few years ago when the newest book fad began to take shape, I was thrilled to learn that erotica, in the form of Fifty Shades of Grey, had made it into the main stream. Fifty Shades of Grey became a best-seller, acquired a rabid fan base, and this month the movie version of the first book was released. Initially, all I knew about the mega-popular series was that it was erotic and discussed BDSM, and I was overjoyed at the fact that this book began to allow women to openly discuss their sexuality. I was seeing friends, family, and complete strangers openly talk about reading the books, which was a beacon saying that they were not only reading, but enjoying, erotic material. At the time, it seemed like the best thing in the world. Not only were people imbibing pornography that was victim-free, but it was freeing women’s sexuality and ending kink-shaming. But then, I actually picked up the book.

What Fifty Shades of Grey has actually proven to be is my worst nightmare. On the surface, the series seems almost feminist, but it simply glorifies relationship abuse and portrays BDSM culture incorrectly. First and foremost, I would like to make it very clear that, as long as two adults have given complete consent, I have no problem with kinks – as long as they stay only during intercourse. Fifty Shades crosses the line into abuse when the main character, Christian Grey, lets his kinks leak out of the bedroom and into Anastasia’s and his relationship.

What readers of Fifty Shades don’t get is a perspective on real BDSM. Although the book may be an introduction into the BDSM culture for some readers, it should not be treated as a guide book on how to do it properly. BDSM is about caring for your partner and Fifty Shades seems to miss that idea entirely. The act of giving your whole body to another is a very intimate act, and requires both parties’ complete consent for it to be done with enjoyment on both sides. Properly performed BDSM involves very specific values: consent, clear communication, and aftercare, none of which the book depicts. In fact, the submissive character, Anastasia Steele, often seems adverse to what her partner wants:

“‘No,’ I protest, kicking him off of me. He stops. ‘If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet too. And if you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you.'”

The character of Christian Grey repeatedly ignores his partner’s needs and wants, crossing the line from consent to abuse. While normal BDSM focuses on adhering to your partner’s wishes, Christian seems more concerned with pushing Anastasia’s boundaries rather than respecting her. The issue lies in the fact that the main character is not always enthusiastically consenting to Christian. In fact, oftentimes she clearly doesn’t want it, says no, or doesn’t seem ready for what Christian wants of her:

“He’d probably like to beat seven shades of shit out of me. The thought is depressing.”

My main issue with Christian Grey is that he desires domination not only from his partner sexually, but through her entire life. He stalks, threatens, screams at her, and brings the violent nature of BDSM out of the bedroom and into their relationship. Christian Grey doesn’t want a BDSM relationship with Anastasia because it is a consensual act pleasing both partners. In fact, Grey is a broken, abusive partner that covers up his abuse as a ‘kink’. Fifty Shades doesn’t only display BDSM in an incorrect light, it also normalizes abuse.

What may seem to resolve the issue of abuse in Fifty Shades is that the series ends with Anastasia having ‘fixed’ Christian. He is okay with having a ‘vanilla’ relationship, and they are married with a family. What’s more wholesome that that? Unfortunately, this ending is problematic as well – it demonstrates that one may be able to fix their abuser. The notion of being able to change someone is dangerous, especially for the victim, as abuse cannot be solved through a relationship. Unfortunately, the book through and through apathetically depicts abuse as normal, sending a scary message to its almost completely female fan base.

What makes me furious about the entire franchise is that I really, really want to love it. I want there to be a sex-positive phenomenon so big that every person in America knows about it. I want women to feel okay about enjoying their sexuality, I want the end of kink-shaming, and I want people to read books (even if they aren’t exactly Shakespeare). But the Fifty Shades franchise doesn’t do this. It normalizes abuse while being paraded as women-friendly, and equates BDSM with abuse. While I was cautiously optimistic about this franchise, it has proven to not only be too good to be true, but downright awful. Please, find erotica that turns you on and excites you, just be aware of the line between abuse and consent, and steer clear of problematic relationships.

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Lauren Ferguson

The author

Lauren Ferguson is queer female writer and art team member for the Feminine Inquiry. She is currently a student at The University of Texas majoring in Art History and English honors. Her free time is spent fighting as a wanted vigilante and talking about Tom Waits.

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