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“50 Shades” isn’t mainstreaming female sexual abuse; it’s mainstreaming female sex fantasy

February 16, 2015

My latest blog post for the Independent Women’s Forum:

Far from aiming to “objectify” women, Fifty Shades is entirely told from a woman’s point of view. The trilogy’s author is a woman, her protagonist is a woman, her readership was nearly 100 percent women, and the film’s audience contains, from what I’m told, darned few men.

Furthermore it’s also 100 percent pure female fantasy, with overtones of every female fantasy that’s ever been written: A plain-Jane catches the eye of a handsome and wealthy but troubled man who becomes obsessed with her (Jane Eyre). She is the only one who can find the secret to his heart and transform him into a real boyfriend (Beauty and the Beast—I got this idea from former blogger Alias Clio). He showers her with expensive presents (Pretty Woman). He exercises enticing alpha-male dominance by whipping and violating her in grande luxe surroundings (The Story of O). He takes erotic charge of her life (Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett upstairs and throwing her onto the bed).

The problem with Fifty Shades, as I see it, is the same problem that these other romance narratives pose for their female readership: not “mainstreaming” sexual and emotional abuse but, rather, confusing fantasy with real life. Feminist haranguing to the contrary, many women crave dominant men. And because we discourage men from taking charge in real life these days (that’s “patriarchy”), women increasingly try to live out fantasies in which men take charge. They waste their time with “bad boys.” They pine over men who are out of their league. They imagine that a night of sex with a rich, handsome guy will automatically lead to a marriage proposal.

Posted by Charlotte Allen

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4 Comments
  1. Kristi Herman permalink

    The original Beauty and the Beast: http://www.artpassions.net/stories/beauty_and_the_beast_story.html and here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beauty_and_the_Beast is the opposite of the Disney version.

    In the original, even though Beauty is a kind compassionate girl, she has to see beyond the Beast’s horrible countenance to learn to love who he is as a person. She gradually does so, and even sees him as not ugly the more she grows to know him, even before his transformation back into a handsome prince. The Disney version is a complete inversion of the original, even making the Beast illiterate and unmannered, which he is not in the original.

    Yes, the Disney tale is the insipid girl tames bad boy into being good, presumably just like 50 Shades (I say presumably, because I haven’t bothered to read it). The original required Beauty to grow and mature and become worthy of the Beast compared to the new version in which the Beast has to grow and mature for her.

  2. aliasclio permalink

    I do not think you are reading the story with sufficient attention. Even the Beaumont story (a more didactic version of an earlier model) makes it plain that the merchant is trading his daughter to the Beast, in return for his life, as punishment for his having tried to take a rose from the Beast’s garden. Neither the father’s actions nor the Beast’s are admirable or worthy; they both treat Beauty as a piece of property. The Beast, who is unloved and unloving at the story’s beginning, must indeed reform in order to be worthy of Beauty. Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories suggests that the ur-version of the tale is the myth of the rape of Europa.

    The ugly origin of the story is almost certainly the fact that for much of human history women were indeed prizes captured and traded (not to say raped) in war. and that women might well find themselves suddenly mated to their rapists or to their community’s mortal enemies. What to do then but try to humanize them if possible? These were real and almost immemorial parts of female experience. I think we should consider the possibility that there is perhaps a deep, hind-brain knowledge of this built into our genes, which is why we keep falling for these stories against our better judgment.

  3. Kristi Herman permalink

    I agree about the merchant, though if he his daughter doesn’t take his place then there is simply no story at all, so it comes off far more as a device to get the story going more than anything.

    But I don’t think you are reading the part of the Beast with sufficient attention yourself. Yes, he is unloved, namely because he is so ugly as even the kind hearted Beauty makes plain. The Beast has to win over the Beauty despite his ugliness, more than he has to change for the Beauty.

    I think any woman (or man) would be flattered to think that they could look beyond the physical attributes and see the value of a person.

    Also, there is a bit of deep hind-brain knowledge that to many woman that the groom may be a bit of a Beast but his trunks full of gold, multitude of servants and beautiful palace more than make up for it.

    • aliasclio permalink

      Well, trunks full of gold probably belong to the realm of fore-brain knowledge rather than to that of the hind-brain! But I take your point. For the rest, hmm. Don’t quite buy it. Of course stories need a device to get them going, but this one is more than merely a device; it has a particular moral tone to it that puts Beauty in mortal danger from the moment she enters the house. However, the Beast is changed by loving here, and she learns to love him because of that change. That’s as far as I’m able to go in your direction; perhaps it’s not enough to satisfy your reading of the story, though.

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