Fifty Shades of Grey is notable mostly for how not-notable it is. There are endless variations on the tale of the good-hearted woman who submits to a beastly, abusive man, and through the power of her loving submission, turns him into a good man: Beauty and the Beast, My Fair Lady, Pretty Woman, and of course, Twilight, on which Fifty Shades of Grey is based. Reams of analysis has been written about how these stories are simply the romanticization of abusive relationships, and how the addition of the BDSM element does little more than make the violent subtext of the stories a little less subtle.
But then there are the people who object to Fifty Shades mostly because it’s got so much sex. Yes, the year is 2015, and yet the idea that women might enjoy having their erotic imaginations tickled is still enough to send the hands dashing for a set of pearls to clutch. Here are five of the most ridiculously sex-phobic reactions to Fifty Shades of Grey.
1) Ross Douthat is concerned. Ross Douthat of the New York Times has, in recent months, handed his entire column over to the art of concern trolling, particularly arguing that silly feminists, no doubt crippled by their silly girl brains, are too dumb to understand that the best way to achieve women’s equality is to strip them of their right to sexual autonomy. His Fifty Shades of Grey riff is more of the same, pinning the existence of oppression itself on the sexual revolution: “It’s the revolution that’s been better for fraternity brothers than their female guests, better for the rich than the poor, better for the beautiful than the plain, better for liberated adults than fatherless children ... and so on down a long, depressing list.”
By this logic, the 19th century, known for its sexual repression, should have been a wonderland of equality, free of sexism, racism and classism. In reality, it was an era when slavery was legal, women didn’t have the vote, and wage inequality created Dickensian conditions for the working class. In contrast, the era post-sexual revolution, while not perfect by any measure, is one where women are slowly gaining power and rape rates are in a free-fall. Only a fool would argue that sexual liberation has correlated with a decline in women’s equality. Sadly, such a fool has a column at the New York Times.
2) Chris Hedges is outraged. From the left, but engaging in the same sex-is-bad-for-women concern trolling comes Chris Hedges at Truthdig, who, with the help of feminist Gail Dines, uses the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey to lambast porn. “Porn, like global capitalism, is where human beings are sent to die,” he writes. What follows is a series of utterly unsubstantiated claims: porn makes men unable to become aroused by partnered sex; porn encourages men to rape and beat women; porn has led to the “destruction of intimacy and connectedness"—and there’s some kind of corporate conspiracy to cover up these effects. As with Douthat, the entire piece relies on the easily debunked notion that the 19th and early 20th centuries were a better time for women. To buy Hedges’ argument, you have to assume that marriages in the Mad Menera were happier and more connected. In reality, people who grew up with easy access to porn get divorced a lot less often, suggesting that it’s not actually destroying our ability to make our relationships work.
3) John Nolte thinks Fifty Shades shows those feminists! It’s not entirely certain what, exactly, John Nolte is trying to argue in his Fifty Shades of Grey essay for Breitbart. All he knows is, having seen the film, that it somehow proves feminism is all wrong. He argues that the movie is “a piece of Orwellian feminist horseshit that dresses up male control as romance and agreeing to be abused and dominated as feminist empowerment.” His evidence that feminism has somehow made women less powerful is to point to the movie’s popularity: “The chicks are eating it up and the terrible men who love to treat them like disposable sex toys could not be more delighted … or empowered.”
In the real world, no one has actually promoted this movie as feminist, and most feminist writing on it has been negative. The actual explanation for the movie is simple: Just because women have made great strides doesn’t mean sexism is over. More to the point, this story is hardly some innovative narrative sprung from our feminist era. As noted at the beginning of this article, the story of the gentle beauty taming the savage beast is a bit of misogynist propaganda that has been retold throughout history in fairy tales, ancient mythology, romance novels, and in Hollywood movies. The only thing Fifty Shades adds is some BDSM and graphic sex. Nor is there anything new about women eating this story. Throughout history, most women have been told they have no choice but to be submissive to men. The fantasy that you will be rewarded for your submission with a loving husband is popular in those circumstances, but it is, in the end, just a fantasy.
4) Fighting Fifty Shades through ridiculous Christian memes. “Which book would you rather guide your daughter’s life choices?” reads the caption of a popular meme flying around Christian circles on Facebook and other social media. Underneath the caption are two books: Fifty Shades of Grey and the Bible. The photo invokes a strange world unlike any most of us have ever seen, a world where women are allowed only one book to read in a lifetime and are expected to treat that book not as entertainment but as a guidebook to their entire lives. Also hilarious is the ready assumption that the Bible has a better message for women than Fifty Shades of Grey. Sure, Fifty Shadesfalsely implies that women can turn bad men good by submitting to them. But the Bible argues that the proper thing for a holy man to do when a mob of rapists come to his door demanding his houseguests is to offer them his daughters to rape instead. Fifty Shades of Grey may be misogynist, but at least it doesn’t hold itself out as a guidebook to life. In that, it has the edge over the Bible.
5) Blame Bill Clinton for it! Armond White of National Review actually bothered to write words about Fifty Shades of Grey, even though a recording of him saying, “Harumph” would have gotten the job done with more efficiency. While his review has a lot of florid, pseudo-intellectual language—references to 19th-century novelists famous enough that National Review readers have heard of them, boilerplate whining about how “emotional, spiritual needs” are being destroyed by “carnal gratification and nihilism”—the real gem in the review is the swipes taken at Bill Clinton, even though he has nothing to do with the movie: “In the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky era that obviously spawned the 50 Shades plot, this movie might have been a salvo in the culture wars; today it’s just a commercial bonanza.”
“Rich, empowered men like Grey are shown to lead and seduce us, while a new consumerist myth (replacing rugged individualism) suggests that our naïve affection — the opposite of buyer’s remorse — can redeem them, just as Bill Clinton has been redeemed and sanctioned by the mainstream media.”
We get it, National Review. Al Gore may not have invented the Internet, but you still continue to believe that Bill Clinton invented sex, a transgression you will never, ever forgive him for. And every time you’re reminded that sex is a thing people do, you will shake your fist at the sky, damning the day Bill Clinton taught a nation that you can do more than pee with those parts down there.