NYR

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Birute Regine

GET UPDATES FROM Birute Regine
 

50 Shades of F***ed Up

Posted: 04/30/2012 4:10 pm

I think Fifty Shades of Grey is pretty hot.

Sure, it's not that well-written; it's pretty hokey at times (how many times can you say, "He's so hot" in a book. Apparently a lot). It's an escape book, a naughty book, a remind-you-of -your-passion book, a nothing- new-erotica-book because dominating women has been a subject since the earliest erotica.

I also think it's flying off the shelves because it hits a deeper knowing, a chord of reality, perhaps unconscious, in women.

If you take away the titillation aspects of the book, what we see is the existing paradigm of our culture: domination that uses power over others. We live with it in business; we see it in politics, and in religion. (For example, the Pope demanding radical obedience from nuns?!)

I find it interesting that the author, E.L. James, wrote this book while going through midlife crisis, a time when you stop and reassess your life and the forces that have shaped it. I think on an unconscious level E.L. James was trying to sort out the power dynamics in our society and looking for a way out of a domination-based culture. Maybe the women readers on some level are struggling with the same question and how to get beyond this use of power.

In my research I saw this domination paradigm beginning to shift. Women in power, not all of course, are transforming the meaning of power from power over to power with, creating more mutual, collaborative environments. This use of power also faces much resistance because it challenges the status quo and requires skills that people who dominate don't generally have.

What ticks me off about Fifty Shades of Grey is not the book itself but the media's spin on it and the questions it raises and doesn't raise.

At a time when women are coming into their own power, have more economic control over their lives, sometimes earn more than their husbands, for the first time compose more than half the workforce, and have an opportunity to change the domination game by claiming their power, some in the media are using this book to ask questions like, "Are you sure you want control? Isn't it sexy to be out of control?"

As women come into power there are forces trying to pull them back in time, as we see in the assault by the GOP on women's self-determination over their bodies, where they are denied certain health benefits on one hand and then forced to do unnecessary procedures on the other. And then they are being asked, "Isn't it hot to be overpowered? Isn't this what you really want?" It makes me think of women saying "no" to sex, and being told it really means "yes."

Now this book is not going to undermine women's power, but these questions plant insidious seeds of self-doubt. By the way, Ana, the main character, is full of self-doubt: If I'm powerful will I not be sexy? Must I be submissive to get what I want? Is this what I have to be to be desirable?

This spin isn't about sex, it's about power. The bondage narrative moves women back from little power to no power. It may be played out as sex games behind the bedroom door, but it's the same aim to dominate women and maintain the status quo.

It's not just the questions that are being raised that bug me; it's also the questions that are not being raised. Why aren't we asking what's wrong with men that need to control, own, dominate, assault women? No mention of the other side of this game. I just read that domestic violence is up during the recession. So economic pressures force men to beat up their wife or girlfriend? What's that all about?

A domination culture obviously doesn't serve men either, as we see in Christian Grey, who described himself as, "fifty shades of fucked up." Men are under such enormous pressure to be dominant, king of the mountain, to be in control, to emulate strength. Christian takes this imperative to be in control to a perversion, formalized in his "room of pain." The domination game tells women that their pain is their pleasure, and for men, her pain is his pleasure. There's a bit of cross-wiring going on. Why isn't the media asking men, "Are you sure you want to hurt her?"

Ultimately, Fifty Shades of Grey says more about men than about women. Christian Grey captures a transition in our understanding of what it means to be a man in our society and our need to expand that meaning. His need for control doesn't come from strength but from vulnerability and a fear of addressing those feelings. Hope lies in his emerging nurturing side as we also see his care for Ana, a path that can lead him to becoming a whole person and toward a meaning of manhood that includes being able to hold feelings and love, and therefore be vulnerable.

Domination and submission: two sides of a dysfunctional coin.

 
 
 

Follow Birute Regine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ironbutterflies

FOLLOW BOOKS