’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.)