The Sunday Salon: Fifty Shades of Grey and the Devaluing of Female Sexuality

We need to have a talk about Fifty Shades of Grey.

No, not because of its origins in fandom.

And no, not because it’s a problematic depiction of the BDSM community. (I mean, it is. But that’s mostly unrelated.)

No, we need to talk about Fifty Shades of Grey because of how it’s being treated by the mainstream media; namely, because it’s not being taken seriously.

I’ll admit, my first reaction when it came to Fifty Shades of Grey was a flat “don’t talk about your porn stash in public”. Really, I thought, really? Has our instant gratification culture gotten to the point where we’ve forgotten discretion? Erotica is erotica is erotica, people. The only people who need to know what gets you going are the people you are having sex with, which surely cannot be the entire subway car. But if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s tuning out and repressing things, and tune out and repress Fifty Shades of Grey I did.

And then my roommate told me about an episode of Katie, Katie Couric’s new talk show, where her guest was the trilogy’s author, E. L. James. In her honor, the entire episode was BDSM-themed:

The kinky theme didn’t stop with that crimson glow. For one day only, the usually demure Katie logo was adorned with a pair of handcuffs naughtily looped around the “k.” And Couric herself drew whoops from the audience when she appeared at the top of the hour in a sleeveless black leather dress and sky-high stilettos — to the tune of Rihanna’s “S&M,” naturally. “Relax — this won’t hurt at all,” Couric joked, introducing herself as our “mistress” for the day. What would Matt Lauer think?!

Couric’s audience ate it all up, howling with laughter at a video clip from a Fifty Shades-themed exercise class and nodding thoughtfully when a specialist from the Kinsey Institute called the books “the sex version of the cupcake.” (It made sense in context.) When it came time to pose their own questions, they asked whether James has plans to write something from Christian Grey’s perspective (answer: maybe), if she’s got any advice for those looking to dip a toe into the world of BDSM (“I would say start with a tie, honestly”), and who she’d pick to star in the upcoming film adaptation of the series’ first novel.

Hearing this upset the both of us, even after I learned Katie is aired at 3 PM and not 8 AM, as I’d originally thought. (You have to admit, the sentence “NO ONE IS READY FOR A SEX DUNGEON AT 8 AM IN THE MORNING!” is pretty catchy, even though it’s useless here.) After my first reaction of “what did I just say about your porn stash” (because what did I just say about your porn stash? Come on, people), I was still left much more uncomfortable than oversharing normally dictated, and it took me a bit to realize why: the mainstream reaction to Fifty Shades of Grey devalues female sexuality.

I can’t speak to the books, as I’ve never read them and never will. And if the books, as problematic as they are, are useful to people who are interested in exploring their sexuality but might be afraid to do so, then that is fantastic. But that episode of Katie connected a lot of dots for me. There, Fifty Shades of Grey—and, by extension, female sexuality—is being treated as “cute” and “safe”, something to laugh and giggle at. The Kinsey Institute calls it “a cupcake”, for Pete’s sake, the least threatening baked good there is. It’s not something be taken seriously. Even the Entertainment Weekly article is bemused by it. Foz Meadows says it so much better than I can:

…Romance novels have always been sneered at, while the new vogue for disparaging various sexy, successful books as ‘mommy porn’ always makes me want to stab things — not necessarily in defense of the books themselves, but in outrage at the need to establish adult female desire, and particularly the desires of mothers, as being somehow comic, diminutive, novel. It’s a species of sexual condescension — oh, you’re 40, female and fond of orgasms? how quaint! (or how disgusting, depending on the level of misogyny involved) — that’s so entrenched we’ve almost ceased to recognize it as such.

And the media attention surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey is absolutely drenched with this attitude. Which is why any discretion about the trilogy has been thrown out the window; if we don’t take female sexuality seriously, we can talk about successful female-written and female-consumed erotica at 3 PM in the afternoon on cable television and openly read it on the subway. I mean, how adorable, women expressing sexual desire! There’s no way it’s as complex and gleefully voracious as real (male) sexuality, so let them entertain themselves with their “mommy porn” (a term that not only manages to disparage both female sexuality and mothers, but also reminds us that female sexuality is only in service of childbearing, instead of an end unto itself). It’s seriously infuriating stuff.

So, in the interests of calling spades spades and taking female sexuality seriously, let’s actually treat Fifty Shades of Grey like the erotica trilogy it is—namely, with discretion, which I absolutely cannot believe I have to tell people.

My life is insanely hectic at the moment; I’ve been bouncing between class, rehearsal, and a library conference, so I’ve been up and down middle Georgia and I am absolutely exhausted. I couldn’t tell you what I read if I tried right now, so I won’t, because I need to focus on the mountains of work I have to do today.

The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What do you make of how Fifty Shades of Grey is being treated?

18 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Fifty Shades of Grey and the Devaluing of Female Sexuality

  1. I don’t think Fifty Shades can be treated with discretion, since its massive success means that it has become a pop culture phenomenon. I haven’t read any of the trilogy myself, but I do agree that it has become a kind of shorthand to sell stuff, however closely related the stuff to be sold is or not to the source.

    It’s problematic anyway, as far as I understand, in its own treatment of female (and male) sexuality, but I also agree that the media reporting are taking it as something of a joke. Maybe if it was better written, there’d be more serious comment? But so-called women’s fiction is always denigrated, often even by the people publishing it.

    • Right. My concerns here aren’t the book itself, but the media storm surrounding it. And I don’t think if it were better written, that would elevate the conversation—it’s the concept of female sexuality, not poorly written erotica, that’s being treated so poorly here.

  2. As far as I can tell, “Fifty Shades” is treated with condescension not because of its connection with female sexuality, but instead because it is so juvenile and so absurd that it truly does merit that treatment. These same laughable qualities are also why everyone feels like they can talk about it openly – few people take it seriously, so it’s safe to giggle over. More serious (and better written) efforts, that spring from and appeal to female sexuality, do not receive the same treatment. The most prominent example is probably “The Story of O.”

    And I think it’s probably a good thing that women be allowed to talk about their “porn stashes,” since men do it a lot. Isn’t it better to be open about the fact that women can enjoy erotica? Shame shouldn’t make them keep quiet about liking such things.

    • I can’t imagine its status as a bestseller is wholly due to people buying it to laugh at how juvenile and absurd it is. The reality is that people—mostly women—are buying it and, for better or worse, enjoying it. Mainstream media coverage is most concerned with that fact; I’ve not seen anything like Katie or Entertainment Weekly comment on the quality of the thing when reporting on the phenomenon. The quality of the book is irrelevant when we’re focusing on the phenomenon surrounding it.

      I can’t speak to contemporary mainstream media coverage of The Story of O; while, obviously, it’s also female-authored BDSM erotica, it’s French (instant class!), had the mystery of the author surrounding it for years, and earned feminist ire.

      I’m not talking about shame. Shame is, obviously, bad. But I’m talking about discretion—namely, there is such a thing as a time and a place for something. If anyone wants to discuss their porn stashes in a private conversation with someone, that’s obviously totally fine. But the analog to reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the subway is reading Playboy on the subway. Why is the former considering cute when the latter is, frankly, threatening?

  3. First of all, I freaking love your sharp wit: “The only people who need to know what gets you going are the people you are having sex with, which surely cannot be the entire subway car.” Hah! Second, this is an interesting perspective; I hadn’t thought of it that way. But it’s true. We’ve progressed from the Victorian era, when women officially had no sexuality, but women discussing their sexuality openly is still considered fodder for light humor. That is disturbing. Can you imagine the reaction to a bunch of dudes discussing their proclivity for BDSM on a talk show? Unless they all happened to be flamboyantly gay, no one would think it was “cute” or cause for a televised theme party. 🙂

    • Thank you!

      And exactly. Were E. L. James an Erik instead of an Erika, you can bet your bottom dollar that it wouldn’t be treated this way. And if they were flamboyantly gay, that would “feminize” them in the eyes of the mainstream and make their sexuality a joke and cute. Think of Jack on Will & Grace, who could express sexual desire for men because he was the funny, nonthreatening one. It’s just infuriating!

  4. Are there baked goods that aren’t unthreatening? I agree with everything you’re saying! I just can’t think of any baked good you could compare a book to and not have it sound patronizing.

  5. I’m really not keen on the “mommy porn” thing, all it does, if we consider the book is badly written and a poor representation of bdsm, is suggest that mothers don’t read “quality” books, and are likely unintelligent and naive, and of course lacking when it comes to amount of sex – and all of that is an overall stereotype of a large demographic. It links up with what you’re saying, it’s something that’s considered good to laugh at. I suppose it all depends on why these “mommys” are reading it, because the media seems to think they are doing it for serious reasons – need for erotic lit – which doesn’t exactly gel with the laughter. I guess it’s considered ok to laugh at mums, if it was all about career women or even just younger women would there be the same reaction, or rather would such treatment be acceptable?

    • It’s okay to laugh at mums, because no one takes them seriously as sexual agents. Look at the hideous stereotype of the black mammy—maternal and utterly desexed. If it were younger women, I think there’d be some moral concern, despite the fact that most of the erotica in Twilight fandom is written by young women.

  6. Not having read the books, I find them funny mostly because of all the talk they’ve received. To me, Fifty Shades of Grey has become just like anything else that gets more air time than it’s worth. Certainly I can’t speak for the person who first made a big deal about it, nor do we know who that is, obviously, but it is probably significant that it began as Twilight fan fiction, considering the huge fan base Twilight has, and most of them young girls. My guess is that most previously written erotica was not directed toward a youth audience, and since we all know how much discretion teenage girls (and guys for that matter) have on Facebook, it’s not a big surprise that Twilight fans probably read it first on the internet and shared it, giggling, with their friends. It’s true that the media has turned it into something negative and condescending towards women, but I think it probably wouldn’t have gotten so much attention in the first place if teenagers weren’t so giggly about sex, especially BDSM.

    • Women have been writing erotic fanfiction since 1974; fandom is mostly made up of women (teenagers and older), and, obviously, the Twilight fandom leans very female. I don’t have the statistics and I can’t be sure, but I have a feeling that Fifty Shades of Grey‘s success back when it was Master of the Universe wasn’t due to giggly teenagers, but women (teenagers and older!) enjoying the content as is and passing it around. I recommend reading the Foz Meadows article I link to in this article; it talks about fanfiction as a space for women to explore their sexuality safely.

  7. I have a lot of mixed feelings about Fifty Shades, but I’ll try to stick to the topic. The first time I hear the phrase “mommy porn” I cringed. What an awful, demeaning phrase. Like you say, it makes women (ahem) around my age just jokes, a punchline. I heard Fifty Shades referenced on 2 different comedy shows this week. I also can’t stand TV shows like Real Housewives, which cater to the same kind of thinking. Women of a certain age and everything they do are a joke. It’s so annoying. I’m disappointed in Katie. She could have done the show without the “cupcake” and really taken the topic to interesting places, but no, she had to go there.

    • Exactly. I’ve been a bit more focused recently on the devaluing of what teenage girls and the media they consume, but it seems like if you’re not a conventionally attractive young woman (i.e., in your twenties, white, symmetrical, and thin), your desires aren’t taken seriously–so teenage girls and adult women’s desires are treated as adorable, twee, and laughable. The idea that women have to be attractive to justify being a human being is just rage-inducing.

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