04/30/2012 05:51 EDT | Updated 06/30/2012 05:12 EDT

HBO's "Girls" -- Is it Really Less Humiliating Now Than it Was in the '50s?

The publicity material for Girls, the HBO series that claims to be "a pop culture mirror" reflecting the real lives of 20-somethings in New York. Surely the most benighted pre-liberation '50-style womanhood couldn't be any more humiliating than the conditions that liberated modern women routinely tolerate today.

The current meme about the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey is that women have so much control in our real lives that we can afford to (because of the triumph of feminism ) or have to (because all that equality is an exhausting burden) resort to masochism in our fantasy lives. Women today play at bondage and other fantasies of powerlessness because we have so much power.

Oh, really?

"I felt like I was on this multiyear, never-ending audition to be his wife," one woman was quoted as saying in the New York Times article titled "The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage," after living with her boyfriend for four years.

"I don't think I can bear doing this for that long!" a 22-year-old women was quoted as saying in an Atlantic article after being confronted with the possibility that she'll still be single in her late thirties. She and her friends have liberated sex lives and "technical know-how" about sexual positions, but not many of them have ever had boyfriends.

The publicity material for Girls, the HBO series that claims to be "a pop culture mirror" reflecting the real lives of 20-somethings in New York, describes a male character: "Adam is the guy Hannah sleeps with sometimes -- when he decides to answer her texts. . . There may be more to him than meets the eye, but it's going to take Hannah some time to figure it out. Meanwhile, she will continue to show up on his doorstep dressed as a sex witch."

You read these things, and you want to scream, "Who told women they have to live like this?"

Surely the most benighted pre-liberation '50-style womanhood -- rushing to meet your husband at the front door, putting the martini in his hand, and sitting down in your freshly applied lipstick to listen to the all-important events of his day at the office -- couldn't be any more humiliating than the conditions that liberated modern women routinely tolerate today.

We've banished submission, obedience, and rules from our relationships. Nobody promises to obey their husbands any more. But now girls explain online how it turns them on when their boyfriends hit them in the face.

"Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret," Horace pointed out, a couple of millenia ago. "You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but it just keeps coming back" (as I'm able to translate thanks to a girl's education -- equal to any boy's -- that I'm very grateful to have received in the 20th century).

Domination and submission, power and rules, it appears, are inevitable features of the sexual landscape. I'm guessing 99 per cent of people "get" why sex shops sell handcuffs for every one who really sees the point of a foot fetish. Both men and women crave a love powerful enough to stir us up.

A whole host of modern developments -- the Pill, legal abortion, no-fault divorce, women's success in the workplace, shame-eradicating sex education (which replaced the older shame-bolstering kind) --have brought us to a place where love and sex are less obviously and necessarily life-changing than ever before.

Women today think we can keep relationships safely compartmentalized -- that we can have a manageable "sex life" on the side, while we build a real life out of the things we can control. But somehow we end up humiliating ourselves more than ever in pursuit of love. And apparently a lot of us still have a secret hankering for a yet more thoroughgoing degree of submission.

So what are our choices?

Keep going down the road of a liberation that's not all that liberating? Only play at satisfying our secret desires?

Because surely we don't want to go back to fifties -- or Victorian-style repression and oppression, do we?

Fortunately, there's a third alternative.

Consider a pre-Victorian love story with a healthy measure of domination and submission in it. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy rejoices in being "properly humbled" by Elizabeth. To our ears, Darcy's language about letting Elizabeth "see that your reproofs had been attended to" has a cheap sexual charge. But in Jane Austen's world, submission and domination aren't just toys to play with. Rules and obedience were actually taken seriously in the author's day. It wasn't simply a question of "Wives, obey your husbands," though.

Notice that both lovers are eager to humble themselves before the other, and both ultimately exult in a kind of conquest. "For herself, [Elizabeth] was humbled; but she was proud of him. Proud that in a cause of compassion and honour he had been able to get the better of himself."

That's the excitement in Darcy and Elizabeth's story -- painful humiliation and hard-won mastery of self, which blossoms into triumphant love. Darcy's first, failed proposal to Elizabeth is an inferior sort of self-abasement; he's giving way to a passion that he's still half-ashamed of.

It's only when his pride is really humbled, when Elizabeth shows him "how insufficient were all [his] pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased," that he truly abases himself before her -- and so conquers her. And Elizabeth's utter humiliation when she sees her own prejudice is a similar stepping-stone on the way to all-conquering love.

Jane Austen's kind of domination and submission is about men and women's whole personalities, not just their sexual hobbies. If we're not really satisfied with the kinds of humiliation modern love has to offer, why not try love Austen's way?