Ladies—Jackie from ROMANCE NOVELS FOR FEMINISTS is here with me today to delve deeply into the core themes of the 50 Shades phenomenon. We focussed on two questions:
Why do women love this fantasy?
Two reasons why I love this fantasy–they’re big and blue.
Does 50 SHADES represent a step forward in women’s sexual freedom—or a step back?
If you like 50 Shades and smart discussion – you’re in for a treat!
MADELINE IVA: I’m very interested in focusing on what it is that draws women to the 50 Shades fantasy…
JACKIE C. HORNE: To answer that, you first have to answer the question “what is the fantasy” that these books and films hold out to us? And that fantasy may be different for different readers and viewers. As a literary critic, I see three different fantasies at play in books 1 & 2. First, the fantasy that an ordinary girl (ordinary in both looks and intelligence) can catch the attention of a wealthy, handsome man (the cornerstone of much romance writing).
Second, the fantasy that said ordinary girl can rescue/save an emotionally messed-up man (again, a foundational trope in romance).
And finally, the fantasy that indulging in “kinky fuckery” is something to take pleasure in, rather than something to be ashamed of, even for an ordinary girl. The latter fantasy is the most progressive one, the most positive one as far as women’s rights and women’s sexual freedom goes. But the two former ones are what makes it safe, I think, for readers to accept the latter one. It’s the combination of all three that made the books such a phenomenon. Romance tropes as the life preserver, if you will, that allow readers to imagine themselves swimming out into the less familiar waters of sex with a touch of kink.
MADELINE IVA: I’ve never heard it stated so well, Jackie! We’ve touched upon this topic before: I see the role of BDSM in the romance genre as representing a fundamental evolution in the role of consent. Women are now asking for the sex they want and negotiating with their partners for sex that they want –or don’t want!–tons more than they used to. I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts about this after watching the first movie.
JACKIE C. HORNE: I think this depends on the reader’s relationship with BDSM and the BDSM community. In the book 50 Shades Darker, when Ana is talking about Christian’s sexual needs with Christian’s psychiatrist, Dr. Flynn explains that “of course there is such a thing as sexual sadism, but it’s not a disease; it’s a lifestyle choice. And if it’s practiced in a safe, sane relationship between consenting adults, then it’s a non-issue” (412). If you are a reader who is a sexual sadist, or who is familiar with the BDSM community, then you’re probably going to find 50 Shades problematic when it comes to consent. The reason why I didn’t read these books until you asked me to participate in this discussion was because I had heard from romance writers who write erotic & BDSM romance that the books aren’t an accurate depiction of BDSM or of the BDSM community.
MADELINE IVA: True, but there’s a crap-ton of fantasy in BDSM erotic romance already. Inaccuracies abound and many fans want the fantasy—not the reality. (Esp. when it comes to sex clubs.)
JACKIE C. HORNE: If you’re not familiar with BDSM, though, if you read the consent to kinky sex not as a realistic possibility but as a metaphor, then yes, it can definitely be a metaphor for female consent.
It takes Ana a while (all the way to the end of book 1) to figure out what she wants, and doesn’t want, out of her sexual relationship with Christian. She’s up for bondage, up for spanking, up for lighter sexual pain, all things she never would have imagined she’d liked before she met Christian.
MADELINE IVA: Yes! And in the movie — what we see dominates what we hear. What we SEE is Ana enjoying lite kinky play…In the book, which is so much internal, her confusion and ambivalence take center stage.
JACKIE C. HORNE: But in the book’s climactic scene, she realizes that she is not up for being punished, for being the object upon which Christian takes out his anger. Refusing to consent to the linking of love and male anger, the idea that male anger is always a part of male love—that may be the key shift from Old Skool romance novels to contemporary romances.
MADELINE IVA: This is a great interpretation, and I agree that if the fundamental message is not to accept male anger as a part of male love, that it’s a good one. But I don’t know….(more on that later.)
What I saw as I watched that final scene in the first movie was her seeing his emotional pain and wanting to take on his pain — like a martyr.
Meanwhile, Cara McKenna is my touchstone for an author who shows consent VERY well without bogging down the plot or making us fall out of the fantasy. 50 Shades maybe does this less well, but it might be interesting to contrast how consent is carried out in the movie vs. the book.
JACKIE C. HORNE: Did you think there were major differences between book and movie in this regard? I didn’t notice any myself, but if you have specific scenes you can point to, I’d be happy to go back and re-watch the film again.
“Please, Ana, let me make love to you.”
“Yes,” I whisper, because that’s why I’m here. (50 Shades of Grey, 113)
MADELINE IVA: I’m thinking of the contract stuff. In the movie she was actively negotiating with him face to face and crossing out elements she vetoed. It seemed like there was energy to this exchange. To me this showed strong female agency — and have we ever seen a woman in a film before negotiating over sex so thoroughly? (Excepting scenes with sex workers–and even then not so much.)
In the book, meanwhile, the contract seemed (this is my interpretation) a packet of doom. It seemed to make her cringe, and the details dwelt upon had to do with total control over her as well as painful sex acts. It dragged her down into a pit of (again my take) “No, no, no, no, OMG. Am I going to have to do this stuff? Gah!”
JACKIE C. HORNE: Oh, yes, the contract scene is so great in the film! It shows Ana being far more empowered, and really enjoying the negotiating with Christian. Many film reviews cite that scene as the best thing in the movie.
In the book, the language of the contract appears not just once, but four times (at least in part). Is it just sloppy writing, that repetition? Or is there something really important in that legal language to James? The idea that this is a business relationship, rather than a personal one, to Christian? Which is an idea that Ana ultimately cannot accept.
MADELINE IVA: I’m interesting in talking about Jamie Dornan as a man/actor who was a kind of reluctant participant himself in the movie. Yes, he did it for his career, and didn’t have long to think about his choice. Also he is most definitely NOT a fan of the life style.
Dakota Johnson seems to have adapted a bit more (maybe because it’s the corner stone of her career?)
There are interviews where Dornan apologized profusely to Dakota Johnson before each take. Do we care as much about male consent as we do about female consent? Is this going to be a problem? (Is it one already? Can men refuse sex without having their sexuality challenged, or facing aggressive repercussions –even if not physical violence?)
JACKIE C. HORNE: Your questions make me think about 15-year-old Christian, at the start of his affair with Elena. Did he consent? He says he did, but Ana is consistently appalled by the mere thought of an adult woman inviting a 15-year-old boy to have (kinky) sex with her. Ana never asks Christian to tell her more about his experience; she instantly assumes that he had no agency, no ability to consent, that he was molested and abused.
I was disappointed that the books, which initially reserve judgment on this issue (was Christian abused? Or was his relationship with Elena a positive, even life-saving one?) end up coming down hard on the side of abuse by the end of book 2. Rather than presenting Ana’s intense jealousy of Elena as misguided or immature, the end of book 2 reinforces the idea that Ana is right to be wary of Elena. I thought this a very sexist move, complete with bitch-slap for the erring woman (not by Ana, but by Christian’s adopted mother).
I wished we could have heard more about Christian’s experience with Elena, that Ana had been more curious rather than judgmental about it. In some ways, you could say that Ana is infantilizing Christian by refusing to grant that even as a 15-year-old, he might have been capable of making informed decisions about his sexual desires.
MADELINE IVA: And this goes back to the core fantasies. What you saw as the ordinary young woman saving/healing the wounded man I saw as a kind of mothering thing — the power of soothing. “Let me make the hurt go away” kind of actions.
No cigarette burn scars on his chest in the first movie. Whoops! They fixed it for the second film.
JACKIE C. HORNE: The larger issue—about male consent in general—is an interesting one. Yes, a man who turns down a chance to have sex is still likely to have his masculinity, or his heterosexuality, called into question, even in this day and age. But a man who turns down BDSM sex, or feels squicky about it, there’s something different going on there. BDSM sex isn’t as widely accepted, as widely admired, as straight heterosexual sex; there’s a taint attached to it for many people. Wanting to dominate women is a big no-no in our purportedly post-feminist age. So not consenting to participate in Dom/sub sex, or expressing uneasiness or discomfort with having to act as if you enjoy it, can be read by many as a positive thing, an endorsement of more equal power during sex between partners. A women’s rights kind of thing, no?
MADELINE IVA: Well, I actually know men who say “whatever she wants sexually I kinda have to do” and that with one man it’s kinky stuff with his wife. He’s okay with it, because she enjoys it. With another man it’s about his incredible discomfort playing out semi-rape fantasies with women he’s having sex with…I think part of his discomfort involves reinforcing the perception that in some way he LOOKS predatory, etc.
JACKIE C. HORNE: I haven’t heard similar stories from any of my male friends or acquaintances. But your friends’ experiences do show how men can be subject to (or even victims of) sexual stereotypes. (I’m in the midst of reading a book about a gay asexual man, and he feels quite similarly, that he is surrounded by the imperative “men always want sex”). No man, or woman, should feel like they HAVE to do anything, sex-wise, that they don’t want to do. Ever. I hope your latter friend can find women to date who won’t push him to play the semi-rape game.
MADELINE IVA: Yup, I agree. The singles world of dating, hook-ups, etc, is a jungle—the price we pay for more sexual freedom seems to be more social pressure about sex and displaying sexuality in increasingly artificial ways.
Part of the conundrum of playing up one’s sexuality is that some men I know have that bad boy vibe, but at heart they’re good guys. They draw women to them, but eventually hit an impasse when looks and who he is just doesn’t match her expectations. In this film the bad boy is gradually revealed as a ‘good boy’ on the inside. So maybe there’s hope for my friends…
Moving on! Has Trump ruined billionaire romances? Or put a significant dent in them? I remember thinking: “Consent all you want young woman from a poor family. Once you’re in handcuffs in his home he could do anything he wanted to you and probably get away with it…” and I know this is a direct line of thinking from the news/publicity about Trump during the election…
Yet there’s always one side in the romance world shouting “IT”S JUST A FANTASY!” Is there a problem with saying it’s all just a fantasy? And what are we to do with the constant demand from women for forbidden sexual fantasy? Should we be pragmatic and accept this?
OR for instance, (as one who grew up watching male fantasies of women in the media), do we understand that this has deeply impacted and harmed our culture?
JACKIE C. HORNE: I was recently interviewed by a reporter for the Village Voice, who asked if I thought the billionaire romance trend had contributed to the acceptance of Trump by many women. Rather than ruining billionaire romances, Trump might be the logical outcome of this romance trend. Because billionaire romances paper over the trouble that actual billionaires present, don’t they? Unlike saintly Christian, whom we only ever see engaging in business that is meant to help the powerless (donating food to Darfur; developing solar technology; donating money to the university to develop sustainable food programs), most real-life billionaires make their money through capitalistic competition, competition that often relies on shortchanging the average Joe (or average Ana) worker. To fantasize about a powerful billionaire falling for them, women have to forget or ignore all the other women (and men) upon whom his billions were built, and upon whom his continued wealth still relies.
And they also have to keep imagining that the only path to power is an indirect one, by being in a relationship with a wealthy man, rather than imagining that they could gain power themselves. Those are both fantasies that limit, rather than empower, women.
So I don’t buy the “it’s just a fantasy” explanation/excuse. What is the fantasy, and why are we having it? That’s a far more productive question, and avenue for exploration.
MADELINE IVA: I have no problem with this, only sometimes the liberal peeps can be as judgmental and shaming as conservatives without exploring the needs, frustrations, and context of those who are very different from them in terms of race or class. If we could explore all of these issues without a dose of shaming, it would be nice.
But you know, scientific research on sexuality seems to indicate that what sexually turns us on seems to be fixed. Maybe the “Why” of the fantasy and the turn on go back to that slushy mix of our evolution and what we were exposed to in our youth/teens and that’s that…Which takes us right back to your point about Christian’s first sexual experiences…
Let’s turn to talking about the differences between the first book and movie. Some things just not translate well from book to movie? I don’t recall when in the book he showed up in Savannah that it was as big a deal to me. But in the movie I had an involuntary “Stalker!” reaction. He seemed so much creepier in the movie. Or is this just that I’m coming off watching him in THE FALL where he played a serial killer? ; >
JACKIE C. HORNE: Funny, I had just the opposite reaction!
MADELINE IVA: — Okay, I hang my head and accept that I am having a post-The Fall Dornan experience.
JACKIE C. HORNE: I thought he was far creepier in the book than he was in the film. Dornan just smiled too much to feel like the controlling Christian of the books to me! (Must say I’ve never seen The Fall, though). The film cut out many of book-Christian’s more stalker-y/controlling moves—no mention of him moving her to first class on the plane without asking her, and he’s not so insistent about her eating all the time—so he didn’t come across as quite so control-freakish in the film as he does in the book.
MADELINE IVA: The eating thing. Ugh! It also made Ana seem SO PASSIVE and waify/victim-y.
JACKIE C. HORNE: On the other hand, in book 1, when Ana teases Christian in an email “Have you sought therapy for your stalker tendencies?” he tells her (and us) that “I pay the eminent Dr. Flynn a small fortune with regard to my stalker and other tendencies” (290). This reassured me; I had thought from what people had told me about the books that they normalized stalkery/über-controlling male behavior. That Christian is actively seeing a psychiatrist about his issues sends the opposite message: that stalkery/über-controlling behavior is psychologically problematic. I was disappointed that Christian’s shrink did not make it into the film.
MADELINE IVA: Yes! Anastasia seemed to enjoy most of what they did a whole lot more in the movie than her internals showed in the book. And did that tilt the scales of problems some people had with the book?
JACKIE C. HORNE: For all that we get so much of her internal thoughts in the books, Anastasia of the novels is a pretty empty character. That’s not a good or a bad thing; it’s just a way of telling a story, a way that allows the reader more easily to project herself into the novel than if Ana’s character had more individuality, had been more fully developed. Ironically, though we get little of her internal thoughts in the film, seeing Dakota Johnson up on the screen made her more of a person to me, an individual with thoughts and emotions different from mine, rather than just an empty placeholder for me to project myself onto.
The lack of access to Ana’s thoughts makes her wishy-washy-ness re: the kinky sex less apparent. I agree that in the film, she seems to enjoy the kinky sex more than she does in the books. And that made the story more interesting to me—the story of a woman exploring the boundaries of her own sexual desires.
MADELINE IVA: I agree that Dakota Johnson did a great job of seeming vulnerable and kinda raw in her own skin, but also very fluid and interesting in the kinky scenes. She also just seemed older, which I found reassuring…
Going back to how this series explores typical/conservative romance values side by side with the more progressive idea of a young woman exploring kinky sex—Ultimately, Ana rejects kinky sex. Do you think that this is on par with the other more conservative values of the book’s romantic tropes and again, makes it more safe for more conservative romance readers to accept it? (Noting that this move seems to enrage many BDSM erotic romance authors more than anything else.)
Are we back to the “forced seduction” sexual tropes of the 80’s? In those romance novels it was okay for the woman to have sex in those situations because she didn’t ask for it… In the 50 Shades franchise, is it okay for Ana to explore BDSM-lite because ultimately she rejects it and therefore is still ‘a good girl’?
Meanwhile, what are we in the audience doing throughout the movie if not enjoying Ana’s engaging in forbidden kink?
We’re doing WHAT? Everyone seems to agree that both actors are much more comfortable filming together now. Not surprising, given the success of the franchise, and the boost to their respective careers.
JACKIE C. HORNE: Funny, I was thinking about what title I would give this discussion and came up with “Having your kink and condemning it too”!
I agree with you that Ana’s disgust with and rejection of the punishment aspect of Dom/sub play does dovetail with the more conservative values of the book’s romance tropes. Her rejection gives readers an “out,” a having your cake and eating it too safety valve. Which does undercut the progressive message to a large degree.
But on the other hand, Ana doesn’t rejects ALL kink (at least by the end of book 2). As I noted above, she enjoys being tied up, being restrained, being spanked. And in DARKER the book, she’s bugging Christian all the time to go back to the Red Room of Pain. Which doesn’t seem to me to be just about serving Christian’s needs; it seems to be a deep curiosity of her own about kinky sex.
Ana’s rejection of Christian’s sadism (and the book’s rejection of that label for him) enrages many BDSM erotic romance authors because Ana’s decision at the end of book 1 has a larger ideological weight: it tells the reader that the power dynamics in ALL Dom/sub relationships are both shameful AND are signs of psychological damage that needs to be repaired. Which is exactly the opposite message of current psychological thinking, as Dr. Flynn explains. Someone is a sadist just because he (or she) is one, not because he or she was traumatized as a child.
Perhaps Ana should pay Dr. Flynn (or another qualified psychologist) a visit to talk about her own ambivalences about BDSM?
MADELINE IVA: Perhaps!
Thank you Jackie SO MUCH for chatting with me! And readers, don’t forget our KAMA SUTRA giveaway. All you have to do is hit our pink subscribe button above and to the right.
This giveaway includes massage oil, candle, soap, and lip balm. (Continental US only!)
Madeline Iva writes fantasy and paranormal romance. Her fantasy romance, WICKED APPRENTICE, featuring a magic geek heroine, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and through iTunes. Sign up for Madeline Iva news & give aways.