Friday, July 25, 2014

Fifty Shades of Grey: How Feminism Has Brought Us Full Circle to Gender Exploitation

Editor's Note: This post was originally published on 5/7/12. I'm sharing it again because of the hoopla over the Fifty Shades of Grey trailer, which was released this week.

In 1848, the first women’s rights convention assembled in Seneca Falls, New York. Those gathered wrote up a Declaration of Sentiments, which accused men of trying “to destroy [woman’s] confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.” Recognizing that women had a lot to offer a society that didn’t always welcome them, this group set out to change the world.

Their efforts ushered in the feminist movement, though progress oftentimes seemed slow. It took nearly a half century before Colorado gave women the vote, several more decades for the federal government to agree, and another 43 years after that before equal pay for equal work came to fruition. Yet because of that pioneering front, women can now teach elementary school classes or college courses, become nurses or doctors, stay at home with the children or work for NASA. And for all of those opportunities, we owe the feminist movement an enormous debt of gratitude.

Yet somewhere along the way, feminists stopped their admirable struggle for equality and started demanding supremacy instead. As their efforts grew more and more militant, sexism became a one-way street where women were always the victims and men the evil perpetrators. This meant that even the most inoffensive action could be construed as misogyny. Opening doors, paying for dates, telling women they looked beautiful: It was all labeled unacceptably backwards behavior. And before long, men began accepting the feminists’ premise that masculinity was shameful.

Some men came to embrace that depiction, using it as an excuse to act like cretins, especially towards the opposite sex. Others overcompensated to the opposite extreme, becoming tragic pushovers concerning women. Constantly worried about saying or doing the wrong thing around women, men learned how to use misdirection and manipulation to get what they wanted, dancing around issues and changing the subject – when they found any modicum of courage at all – instead of speaking their minds maturely. No longer acting with honor and leadership, they came nowhere near to reaching their full potential.

In short, because the real definition of masculinity had been so severely altered, they began behaving like they had no idea how to behave at all, a trend that continues today.

Not surprisingly, this degradation of the opposite sex puts women in a bind as well. The genders are supposed to complement each other in every way. Common feminine traits like compassion and consideration contrast perfectly with their masculine counterparts to make life and living possible. Without one, the other is incomplete and automatically seeks to find what it’s missing. Unfortunately, since militant feminism altered masculinity over the decades, western women today often don’t have a clear example of what they want and need. So they ignorantly accept substitutes, many of which are downright demeaning, disgusting and even dangerous.

Enter female British writer E L James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which hit the bookshelves last June. The first installment in an erotic trilogy, it follows recent college grad Anastasia “Ana” Steele as she falls for Christian Grey, a rich and handsome bachelor with a darker side who rapidly admits he is “fifty shades of f*cked up.” Considering how his favorite pastime is domineering and downright abusing sexually complacent women, he’s not wrong.

Grey lures the all-too willing Ana into his world of bondage, domination, sadism and masochism, complete with a “red room of pain” and a contract detailing how to behave as a “submissive.” While the supposedly sexy main male character is easing the virginal protagonist into the world of BDSM, she rolls her eyes at him, a cardinal sin that he harshly spanks her for. That punishment is a threat he continues to hold over her to keep her from defying him again.

For her part, Ana continuously pushes her allotted boundaries, a characteristic that is supposed to make readers think she is strong-willed. Yet her overarching actions show otherwise when she continues to romantically associate with Grey, knowing full well that he abuses women – submissive though they are – and wants to similarly mistreat her. She still agrees (admittedly with conditions) to sign his contract, address him only as “Sir” in his “playroom,” and submit to “punishment” sex, all while accepting the idea that he alone controls their physical relationship.

Grey continuously tries to brainwash her into accepting his lifestyle as natural and even beneficial. Readers can find one such example on page 224, where he tells Ana:

“If you were my sub, you wouldn’t have to think about this. It would be easy… All those decisions – all the wearying thought processes behind them. The ‘is this the right thing to do? Should this happen here? Can it happen now?’ You wouldn’t have to worry about any of that detail. That’s what I’d do as your Dom…”

Her responses to his domineering are equally disturbing, as on page 227, after he spanks her:

“I rise stiffly and put my sweatpants back on. They chafe a little against my still-smarting behind. I’m so confused by my reaction. I remember him saying—I can’t remember when—that I would feel so much better after a good hiding. How can that be so? I really don’t get it. But strangely, I do. I can’t say that I enjoyed the experience. In fact, I would still go a long way to avoid it, but now… I have this safe, weird, bathed in afterglow, sated feeling.”

After that compliant subjugation, Ana emails him her thoughts (p. 292):

“Dear Mr. Grey,

You wanted to know why I felt confused after you—which euphemism should we apply—spanked, punished, beat, assaulted me. Well, during the whole alarming process, I felt demeaned, debased, and abused. And much to my mortification, you’re right, I was aroused, and that was unexpected…

What really worries me was how I felt afterward. And that’s more difficult to articulate. I was happy that you were happy. I felt relieved that it wasn’t as painful as I thought it would be. And when I was lying in your arms, I felt… sated. But I feel very uncomfortable, guilty even, feeling that way. It doesn’t sit well with me, and I’m confused as a result…”

To which he responds (p. 293-294):

“Miss Steele.

To answer your points:
  • I’ll go with spanking—as that’s what it was.
  • So you felt demeaned, debased, abused, and assaulted… Do you really feel like this or do you think you ought to feel like this? Two very different things. If that is how you feel, do you think you could just try to embrace these feelings, deal with them, for me? That’s what a submissive would do…
  • Yes, you were aroused, which in turn was very arousing, there’s nothing wrong with that…
  • Punishment spanking hurts far more than sensual spanking—so that’s about as hard as it gets, unless, of course, you commit some major transgression, in which case I’ll use some implement to punish you with…
  • Don’t waste your energy on guilt, feelings of wrongdoing, etc. We are consenting adults and what we do behind closed doors is between ourselves. You need to free your mind and listen to your body…
That last point is especially telling, since men’s bodies are usually stronger than women’s. So for Grey to encourage her to follow her body – which he can largely manipulate at will – over her conscience is yet another indication that he wants to control her, not compliment her. Worse yet, while he’s strong enough to force his will, she proves herself weaker than him in other areas, ones where women are supposed to be stronger. She allows him to psychologically instead of physically enslave her, freely opening up her conscience so that he can brainwash her into believing that backwards is forward, wrong is right, and slavery is freedom.

Essentially, Grey wants “to destroy” Ana’s “confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life,” the exact kind of life feminism was supposed to deliver us from.

And she lets him.

According to the female author of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” female readers are supposed to find Christian Grey incredibly sexy. The female protagonist certainly does (at least until the very end of the book when her psychologically and physically abusive “boyfriend” goes a step too far. That’s when she finally leaves him, though only until the second book). And judging by the series’ ever-growing cult-like following, its predominantly female reader base is all too happy to see Ana go scurrying right back into Grey’s grasp. In fact, there are a number of those readers who seem like they would gladly switch places with her if it only meant they could kneel at the main male character’s feet.

Their delighted response with such anti-feminist material really only leaves three conclusions to draw. Either:

1.     Women are exceptionally stupid and think they want something from men that they wouldn’t actually enjoy
2.     Women are naturally subservient creatures who really do want and/or need to be controlled by men
3.     Women are desperately looking for something in men that they can’t quite identify

While people in general (men as well as women) can be exceptionally stupid, there is absolutely no argument to be made for conclusion number two. Women are not naturally subservient creatures just looking for the right guy to spank them into submission. Thinking otherwise is misogynistic and completely lacking in any factual basis.

So that leaves option number three: That women want men to act like men again, a role that includes being willing to lead and fight and provide when necessary… not domineer, control and patronize. Yet because it’s so difficult to find members of the opposite sex who are willing to meet their own potential, we too often settle for less. We allow society’s seedier characters – the men who accept their traditional strength but ignore the rest of their assets – to dictate how we feel about sex and sexuality. We allow them to turn us into physical playthings that compliantly bend to their will, whether in the way we dress, how we conduct ourselves, what goals we reach for and how far we’ll go to keep them. And then after they’ve used and abused us, we look around at the more genteel men who seem to run away from their own shadows, and we still find ourselves unsatisfied.

Essentially, we want the best of both worlds, which is exactly what we’re created to crave. We weren’t happy being subjugated before the feminist movement and we’re not happy being the sometime subjugators after it. Like the kind of men we really want to find, we’re meant to be a complicated mix of life’s elements, both strong and yielding.

Knowing that, perhaps it’s time for both men and women to convene again under a new declaration: One that supports masculinity and femininity for all they’re worth separately and together. Because what the genders need to realize is that they’re both worth a lot. And until we stop fighting that fact, nobody is going to be very happy. Or fulfilled… No matter what the current form of feminism, E L James or the Fifty Shades of Grey fan following might try to say to the contrary.

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