Is “Fifty Shades of Grey” a Step Backward for Feminism?

Is “Fifty Shades of Grey” a Step Backward for Feminism? February 11, 2015

handcuffsAnyone who has been paying attention to the popular culture buzz knows that the book, “Fifty Shades of Grey” was one of the biggest hits in erotic fiction in years. And now it’s coming to the silver screen on, of all days, Valentine’s Day.

Of course, there’s the obvious voyeuristic intrigue of seeing good looking movie stars with their clothes off. then we add in the taboo of Sadomasochism (BDSM). As one who feels like puritanical sexual values have done more harm than many realize, and as a bit of a social libertarian, I don’t tend to find sexual adventurousness between two consenting adults to be particularly objectionable – or even scintillating – at least on a socio-cultural level.

As a Christian, I do believe that sexual expression within a relationship should honor the fact that we’re all divinely inspired and created, though how that is defined and expressed is not necessarily our business. On a personal level, I find it hard to understand how acts that would be considered abusive in any other context is loving or honoring of ourselves or others. But that’s just me.

According to Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, Theology Professor at Chicago Theological Seminary, there’s a more specific concern at that fewer have acknowledged, specifically with regard to the normalization of eroticized abuse of women within popular culture.

Put another way: it’s one thing to engage in sadomasochistic sexual encounters; it’s another to consider such acts performed by a wealthy, powerful man against a quiet, less powerful woman to be public entertainment.

Thistlewaite writes in her forthcoming book, Women’s Bodies as Battlefields: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women (Palgrave Macmillan 2015), also noted in a recent article by her on The Huffington Post,  that “Eroticized violence in fiction, whether in films or novels, is treacherous because it promotes the idea that women desire to be treated violently. Violence against women then becomes part of the very construction of the nature of love and desire in societies, orchestrating the eroticizing of bodily pain itself and deadening the impulses to compassion and empathy.”

In addition to the concern that such media may imply that women generally seek out to be dominated, or even physically abused, as an act of love or erotic gratification, I wonder if the popularity of such work is, in part, due to the continued rise in power of women generally in western culture. Is there, to some degree, an attraction toward the re-establishment of patriarchal dominance within our ever-changing cultural landscape, even if on an unconscious level?

I’m posing this more as a rhetorical suggestion or as a question namely because I’m not settled on the answer. Moreover, as a privileged middle class straight white male, I’m not likely the world’s best authority on such issues. But as a husband of a powerful woman, and as a father to a girl who I hope can learn from her mother’s example, I’m concerned.

It’s not often that I ever come off as prudish, as I’m usually the one pressing the envelopes of propriety. But if people are going to go see this movie – and you can rest assured many will, regardless of reviews – we should do so fully aware of the implications such content has on us, our children and on society if it becomes normalized to the point that it’s assumed that this is a typical, healthy dimension of sexual intimacy.

(If you want to learn more about emerging protests against the yet-to-be-released movie, search the hashtags “#50ShadesIsAbuse” #50dollarsNot50Shades” (the latter being a call to donate to domestic violence nonprofits), or read more about the movie boycott in a recent TIME Magazine article.)

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  • I think I echo most of your concerns. However, I don’t think 50 Shades can be considered a “step back” for feminism. (Of course, I haven’t read the series, but based on what I know, I have no desire to read – or watch – this poorly written glamorization of abuse).
    But, not all women are feminists. We’ve have been raised in a society that says being overtaken/dominated (although not necessarily in BDSM ways) is romantic, and that our greatest glory is being a man’s prize possession. That’s just normal for us – and as a result, women can be misogynists too, even if subconsciously. So when a woman publishes this kind of novel and other women eat it up, it’s hardly a step back for feminism; it’s just showcasing how sick society already is.
    Well, that was a long comment. My apologies. But I’m glad people are discussing this.

    • Chris Dagostino

      “Well, that was a long comment.”

      It was a good one too. From what I’ve read over the past few weeks, the book is much darker than I initially thought. What does it say that so many (especially women) readers devoured it?

      As for the question at hand, it depends on the type of Feminist. The sex-positive types probably appreciate the fact that it was written by a woman, while the Dworkin types would take an eniterly different stance.

      • Ronixis

        The sex-positive feminists that I’ve read generally dislike it for its bad portrayal of a BDSM relationship (or, more specifically, possibly the fact that it does this and doesn’t really acknowledge that this is what’s happening). They also, as far as I’ve read, say that the writing just isn’t very good. I’ve actually seen multiple in-depth deconstructions of the book from people who seem to identify as sex-positive feminists.

  • friendly reader

    A friend of mine who’s into D/s has read the first book and posts quite a few things on Facebook about how “50 Shades” does NOT represent what actual loving, kinky relationships look like, so don’t feel like you’re being a prude. A lot of people are upset by how Christian bars her from using a safe words (a big no-no), pushes her into being a submissive when she really doesn’t want to, threatens her, has sex with her against her will, stalks her, etc. etc. The book glamorizing an abusive relationship by pretending it’s just “kinky.”

  • Adventurous Lady

    Regardless of religious backgrounds, what’s wrong with this movie is that the woman is poor student who is being abused by a wealthy powerful businessman. This shows what our society is all about.
    It could have been a much better story if the woman was also in a power position such as a Corporate Lawyer or a CEO of a rival company or a politician, who is in the same socio-economic level.
    Then as women who respect ourselves we could have enjoyed it. If you watch it as a couple you will never be able to enjoy any adventurous love making because of the abuse message this movie contains

    • Guest

      I could not agree more.

    • -_-

      “Then as women who respect ourselves we could have enjoyed it.”

      Just want to let you know I am one of the women who love it when a man has the upper hand against a woman depending on the situation. So stop making it seem like every woman has a problem with the book because if the majority did it wouldn’t of been a big hit.

      Far as I’m concern you’re just another soft-heart female adding onto the gender stereotype that women are so weak that we can’t handle a simple fictional movie. In other words get over it. There are women who are attracted to dominant men and the last thing we want is a man who literally has to ask our permission for everything. If you’re into men like that fine, but don’t bring normal females, like me, who are into dominant males into your pitiful world of emotion.

      • Phoenix_Chakra

        I honestly don’t think she meant to patronize all women. I just think shes concerned about the overtones in the movie that could arguably be seen as stereotypical to women. There’s no need to be condescending and refer to women who don’t see things the way you do as “abnormal”. Not all women like being dominated, even though some do, others have different preferences. People aren’t all the same and have different tastes. You’re entitled to what you like, as are we. But there’s no reason to be rude towards someone or label them.

        love and peace~

  • Alan Christensen

    From the little of it I’ve read, it’s mainly a step backward for good writing.

  • Lil

    “it’s another to consider such acts performed by a wealthy, powerful man against a quiet, less powerful woman to be public entertainment.”

    Yet if it was the other way around you can rest assure the feminists would be shouting, “Girl power,” just like they did with the movie Gone Girl.

    Other than I like dominant men of any kind and just because I’m into dominant men does not mean I’m seeking out to be abused. A man can be poor or middle class, but be a hard worker at that and still have a dominant side and I’d still love him.

    “I wonder if the popularity of such work is, in part, due to the continued rise in power of women generally in western culture.”

    Are you kidding me? And yet you wonder why both genders back away from the feminist label because of such arrogance you and others show.

    “Moreover, as a privileged middle class straight white male…”

    Oh my God…so you’re one of those men. Pathetic…I feel sorry for your daughter and thank God you don’t have a son.

    To finish this off it’s men like you that’s disrespectful and very annoying to females like me. To actually think that women are too weak to handle a fictional movie is implying that you don’t think we can handle anything so we need a useless label, feminism, for constant protection.

    And what really took the cake is you just had to mention the fictional “patriarchy”. I really loathe males like you and it’s pretty obvious you don’t care what happens to your own gender considering there are areas where men are struggling. Good luck with your little boycott while the movie makes loads of money than you could ever make.

  • JasonSteiner

    When i was growing up in the 70s and 80s it seemed women hated dominant males. I really enjoyed that time period, it felt like we were evolving as a culture. Now with the popularity of 50 Shades and dom men in general it seems we are going back to the caveman days. Very disturbing.