5 reasons why '50 Shades' is actually a feminist masterpiece
You might have Fifty Shades of Grey chalked up as a sexist, badly-written, pathologising, heteronormative piece of gibberish. And you'd be right. However, should you feel like "doing a Zizek" on this bit of cultural inanity and justifying to your feminist mates why you should waste precious hours of your life reading/watching this nonsense, here are some ideas:
1. It's a two-hour exploration of consent
Very rarely in Hollywood films does sexual consent feature; much less is it eroticised. 50 Shades however, is a long (yes, too long) conversation about exactly that. In this story, no means no, and the process of negotiating "yes" is explored in patient, time-consuming detail. The plot consists entirely of heroine Anastasia's deliberations over the terms of a dominant-submissive contract, which she must sign before Mr Grey will proceed with their kinky relationship. But not only is consent insisted upon and explicitly negotiated, it is shown as sexy. Mr Grey is calculated to appeal on account of his refusal to engage in non-consensual activity; he asks in detail about what Anastasia is willing to try, and always waits for an honest answer.
However, the contract in question is pre-written by Mr Grey, and Anastasia is essentially given a "take it or leave it" ultimatum - not very consensual you might say. Which brings me to point two...
2. It shows the impossibility of negotiating with patriarchal power
EL James hits us over the head with the awe-inspiring extent of Mr Grey's economic power. He has endless sports cars at the ready, and an ability to command an outlandish variety of airborne crafts as well. His office skyscraper towers like a phallic totem over Anastasia's puny form. He has his own driver, constantly turning up to ferry Anastasia about, and a vast penthouse apartment.
The young heroine does her best to negotiate the terms of Mr Grey's proposed sex contract in an attempt to preserve her autonomy. In the film adaptation, this attempt to negotiate culminates in a beautifully metaphorical "business meeting" in which Anastasia turns up to Mr Grey's office, clad in business clothes and attempts to seal the deal as an equal, taking him through the paperwork point by point. The "glass ceiling" allegory of illusory equality is impossible to ignore. What a beautiful metaphor for women's impossible position in the worlds of business and sex - already starting at a hopeless disadvantage and trying, failing, to modify an arrangement that has been long decided upon by the men already in charge. What chance does our young heroine have of securing an equal settlement, when the odds of age, money, power and desire are stacked so clearly against her?
3. It is "Mummy porn"
The media is saturated daily with fantasies, storylines and desires which pander to men. (Whether they reflect what men actually want is another question.) However badly-written, cheesy and ham-fisted an attempt, this is porn aimed at women, and in my book any contribution to this little cultural pool is welcome. You only have to look at Jamie Dornan's awkward, wooden struts and poses to see just how unfamiliar it is for a male actor to be explicitly directed for the female gaze. Or maybe he's just a terrible actor. Either way...
4. It makes the limits of stereotyped gender roles explicit
He is sexy and desirable because of his cold, aloof dominance. She is sexy and desirable because she is young, helpless, pliable. Each of these archetypal characters (or caricatures) acts out the pleasures as well as the limits of heteronormative gender roles. The submission she must show in order to get close to him requires her to sacrifice her adult autonomy. His powerful, mind-reading sexual prowess prevents him from being vulnerable, thwarting a deep desire to give and receive love. Each visibly struggles to negotiate which pleasure to sacrifice to the spurious demands of the gendered protocol. What more feminist exposition of the damaging masquerade of "masculinity" and "femininity"?
5. It illustrates a contemporary, "emancipated" female dilemma
50 Shades arguably sets out the idealized "deal" that women are told they will get, when they cooperate with male dominance: safety, commitment, financial security, and of course hot sex. Obviously this isn't how patriarchy works in practice, and I tend to read this kind of role-stereotyped SM fiction as a plaintive, "isn't this what I signed up for - not the low wages, harassment and insecurity of real-life inequality?". Christian Grey is the idealized patriarch who might just make male privilege a tolerable pill to swallow. But even he isn't quite attractive enough for Anastasia's choice to be a quick one. In her interminable deliberation, is she not enacting a dilemma faced by many "emancipated" Western women today? The choice of whether to take the sexist "deal" with all its seductive, problematic infantilisation; or to make the sacrifice of saying no - of turning our backs on the cosy familiarity of giving in to male privilege and demanding something, as Anastasia would say, "more"?