’50 Shades of Grey’ Influences Third-Wave Feminism

By Kayla Overbey

November 14, 2012

It’s been called “mommy porn” and ridiculed for its lame writing, but for some reason I still felt drawn to pick up “50 Shades of Grey” this summer. Maybe it was the fact that itoutsold every Harry Potter book. Maybe it was because, despite its origins as Twilight fan fiction — yes, really — it’s mega-popular. Out of curiosity, I explored Amazon and found reviews that scorn the novel for its endless repetition and unrealistic sex.

I downloaded the book, which was written by British author E.L. James, onto my Kindle and secretly read everywhere: my house, the gym and my desk at work. I read it to my boyfriend over the phone and couldn’t get through one line without giggling over the absurdity. Seriously, I dare you not to laugh while reading, “I eye Christian’s toothbrush. It would be like having him in my mouth.”

The plot of this erotic novel revolves around a pretty taboo subject: BDSM, also known as bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism, for all you innocents. Ana Steele, the main character, is a 22-year-old college virgin swept off her feet by the predictably young, successful multi-billionaire Christian Grey. As their relationship progresses, so do the sticky details. Ana is introduced to a dominant/submissive relationship and Christian’s personal “red room of pain.”

The book, which was a runaway best seller after its release in 2011, has made James the best-selling author of Amazon.co.uk. But it has an impact that extends beyond record sales.

Despite the ridiculous storyline, I understand how “50 Shades of Grey” manages to walk such a thin line between sadistic porn and feminist booster. There’s a weird balance that’s solely up to interpretation. Modern “third-wave” feminists like the series because it encourages bedroom confidence. Middle-aged women and college girls everywhere are taking control of their sexuality. Local coffee houses, subways and college dorms have never seen so much BDSM.

More traditional feminists, however, say it glorifies a patriarchal society, where men make decisions and women are dominated. A man controls the main character; this situation is not pro-feminism. So, how does a book popularizing a dominant/submissive relationship and all its juicy facts fit into the feminist movement and sexual politics?

Women are at the forefront of current national issues, and the trilogy has given many female readers more confidence sexually. However, some feminists, like Marina DelVecchio, a professor of English at Durham Technical Community College, worry that these books will redefine the current interpretation of feminism in an unhelpful way.

DelVecchio, who specializes in women studies, feminism and literature, described “50 Shades of Grey” as a “literary monster” and said that women pushing the book as pro-feminism are misinterpreting the relationship between Grey and Steele.

“I can see how third wave feminists with an eye on sexual liberation would find this book empowering even though I disagree with it,” DelVecchio said.

She also said some women find it empowering because of a recent feminist push that “attributes power and equality to women’s sexual liberation.” However, she points out that Steele is not experiencing this; she’s merely learning what Grey wants her to learn, and her experiences are limited to his desires. The female lead of this supposedly woman-empowering book is not in control of her own sexuality.

“She’s constantly denied her independence and personal choices outside of the bedroom,” DelVecchio explained. “She is confined and prodded by foreign objects, not for her affinity for BDSM, but for her co-dependent need to please the man she loves.”

Katie Willits, a sophomore at Longview Community College in Lee’s Summit, Mo., disagrees. She said the content initially surprised her, but captured her attention immediately. Willits said that she never viewed the main character as completely submissive to male control. Instead, she thought the series was empowering. “I think it teaches women to want more control of their own sexuality and to be comfortable with themselves doing so,” Willits said.

This idea of sexual exploration is a strong focus in third-wave feminism. But what is third-wave feminism? The movements of the women suffragists in the 19th century and the bra-burners in the 1960s solidified feminism today. Women in those movements fought for important milestones, like women’s right to vote, equal access to education and a place in the workforce. Third-wave feminists are strongly defined by their ability to choose. They can choose to be stay-at-home moms or build high-position careers. They can choose to get married or remain single. Most relatable to “50 Shades of Grey” is the importance third-wave feminists place on women experiencing sexual liberation without being called nasty names.

For some readers, the abuses of “50 Shades of Grey” are obvious. Amanda Schulze, a junior at the University of Kansas and the reproductive justice coordinator of the Commission on the Status of Women, said she recognized the unhealthy aspects of the fictional relationship when she started reading.

“As a survivor of being in a mentally abusive relationship for two years, it was obvious to me,” she said. “[The main character] let a man control every part of her.”

Despite her personal disagreement with the novel’s message, Schulze agrees that women may possibly feel more open to exploring sexuality thanks to the book. Additionally, she doesn’t find BDSM degrading and doesn’t think Ana Steele should be a blanket representation of all women. In fact, she doesn’t think “50 Shades of Grey” is really capable of influencing the third-wave movement in a lasting way.

“I don’t think it will hinder the women’s movement because it’s a fiction novel, and it’s not doing half the work we’re doing out here. It’s not what we’re about,” Schulze said.

“50 Shades of Grey” might not be what all feminists are about, but it’s getting a lot of attention from women. Much to the dismay of some readers, like Schulze, the audience continues to grow.

“I really, really hate that my grandmother is reading this series right now,” Schulze said.

But hey, who can deny a woman her sexual liberation, even if she does have grandkids?

(This story was published on Political Fiber’s website on November 14, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. The research and story are by me, the graphic was designed by Kelly Stroda. See the original here.)

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‘Hunger Games’ themes mirror current political frustrations

By Kayla Overbey

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

‘Hunger Games’ Themes Mirror Current Political Frustrations

Then I remember Peeta’s words on the roof. “Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than a piece in their games.” And for the first time, I understand what he means.

I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own. That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I.

— “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins

Millions of fans around the world have participated in the craze of  “The Hunger Games.” In the U.S. alone, 23.5 million books have sold since publication in 2008. The movie adaptation broke box office records, taking in $155 million its first opening weekend in North America, according to the New York Times.

“The Hunger Games,” a trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins set in a post-apocalyptic America, were written for young-adults. However, the plot, which focuses on character Katniss Everdeen and her struggle to survive a gladiator-esque fight to the death against an authoritarian government, gained widespread popularity with a broader audience. As the story went viral, readers noticed political elements, some of which are comparable to the U.S. government.

The plot is fueled by themes of extreme poverty, violence as entertainment, gaping disparity between classes and imminent revolution. The government, known as the Capitol, exerts power with ruthless force by annually hosting the Hunger Games, a competition in which two teenagers from each of the 12 Districts compete.

The reward? Food, which is desperately needed by the starving lower districts but almost always ends up in wealthier hands.

The realistic tone and setting of the books has some readers wondering if such a government could actually exist. Aaron Pope, a University of Kansas junior from Topeka, said the books give an example of a government that has “thrown in the towel” and given up on its citizens.

“I feel like ‘The Hunger Games’ takes a look at what our society is now and amplifies it to a more extreme measure in order to show what we could become,” Pope said.

As for class disparity and poverty, Pope said the Capitol “is a government that recognizes this problem and deals with the situation by trying to act like there is no real problem.”

Cause for rebellion

In the books, the gap between economic classes is cause for a rebellion. The situation seems eerily familiar to the Occupy Wall Street movement, which inspired a string of revolts in 2011 and 2012. In the “Hunger Games,” the districts’ rebellion against the Capitol and the wealthy oppressors was successful because of the story’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen. However, the Occupy movement quickly lost its momentum. It’s this trust in the individual that Pope thinks is lacking in American political movements and elections. The passion behind the cause is what made Katniss’ revolution stick, said Pope.

“She didn’t make the easy decisions that won over ‘voters.’ She made the tough decision to stand up for what she believed in, and that belief inspired a nation,” Pope said.

The theme of control through fear has also received reactions from readers. The competitors in “The Hunger Games” are chosen against their will to fight to the death, as only one tribute may appear victorious. None of the districts rise against the Capitol in objection. Laurissa Marcotte, University of Kansas freshman from Hays, Kan., compared this to past military drafts and other government actions.

“The Capitol uses food and other necessities so that [the people] will put up with the Hunger Games,” she said.

Marcotte said the PATRIOT Act of 2001 and the Transportation Security Administration are similar examples of this overstretch of governmental power.

“Both of these violate privacy rights, but people were so fearful after 9/11 that they were willing to sacrifice that right for a sense of security,” Marcotte said.

The PATRIOT Act of 2001 and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) were both passed after 9/11, pushing the government toward greater measures of safety. The act and administration both allow government officials to monitor any private citizen’s activity and heighten travel security to prevent further terrorist attacks.

Entertaining the masses

The books have even raised questions about competitive reality television shows like “Survivor.” In the novel, the murder of teenagers for sport is celebrated and watched as nationwide entertainment with popularity levels rivaling those of the Olympics.

While some wonder whether U.S. entertainment could eventually accept violence casually, Janni Aragon, University of Victoria political scientist, believes that the comparison is more metaphorical than realistic.

“Do we see an interest in vapid reality TV and fewer people concerned with voting or real politics? In a sense, yes. Do we have people performing for the masses, losing any shred of decency while they try to gain popularity or fame? Yes,” Aragon said. “But are they competing to the death? No. Maybe the death of thoughtfulness, but that is a different conversation.”

While the comparisons may seem surprising, political themes are commonly found in dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. Aragon explained that fiction acts as a safeguard for authors to express their political feelings without facing negativity.

“This is usually the point for the author to comment on politics in a way that is safer,” she said.

Some believe that the political themes of “The Hunger Games” will influence a youthful generation to feel negatively toward government, but that’s unlikely. Historically, novels like “1984,” “Brave New World,” “Battle Royale” and others have all had negative governmental undertones without strong repercussions.

Marcotte believes “The Hunger Games” will follow that trend.

“I’m not sure if I’d say the trilogy has really affected young adult perception of government,” said Marcotte. “I think dystopian fiction is popular because it’s exciting. They’re just a cool story for most young adults.”

Feature image illustration credit: Scholastic Inc./Flickr 

Donald Sutherland discusses his role as President Snow in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games and about how he hopes the story wakes up this generation of youth to their place in the political world.

Contact Kayla Overbey at kayla@politicalfiber.com.

(This story was published by Political Fiber on September 25, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. You can read the original publication here.)