50 Shades of South

When the book came out, you saw frazzled young mothers with purses full of sippy-cups and crumbs ducking behind stacks, a coffee in one hand and a book in the other. People were furtively reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the T. And when the movie was released (on Valentine’s Day, which is more than a little messed up), complete with pounding remixes and promises that the “fantasies provoked” would be “countless,” the hype – and the cultural reach – exploded. There were countless jokes on late-night TV. E.L. James was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.” Fifty Shades replaced the Bible in the night-stand drawers of hotel rooms. It’s been called mom-porn, it’s been called misogynistic, it’s been called downright abusive, but whatever you think about Fifty Shades of Grey, all 100 million books and all $23.2 million in ticket sales have affected our perceptions as a society.


It seems there is an opposite and equal backlash, a coalition of feminists and social justice bloggers who spread the word far and wide that Fifty Shades is trash. So why all the fuss? Why is everyone so wrapped up in whether or not everyone else has seen another naughty blockbuster? Sure, Fifty Shades is appealing because it’s sexy and controversial, but there is more to it than that. This movie touches on dominance, something we avoid talking about. The ideas of dominance and submission, the gender divide between growing outward or into oneself, and the stereotypes of the hyper-dominant male and the delicate, yielding female are not found only in Sam Taylor-Johnson movies. In some form or another, they’re here at South.


“The first time I was ever called a slut was in 5th grade.” Not a phrase you would expect from a South senior. But, unfortunately, this is where we are in terms of how we view sexuality. In Newton? In a city of well-meaning, vegan-dining, SUV-driving, iPhone-toting professionals? Well, yes. Despite Newton’s reputation, some of the ugly bits of Fifty Shades are realities here. Newton is in many senses a bubble. This is a suburb of safe streets, sandwiched between urban neighborhoods to the east and pretty much a bunch of trees to the west. This is where kids jump through hoops from braces to learner’s permits to SATs to Ivy Leagues. This is a nice neighborhood, but there exists a deficit in Newton’s niceness and safety – despite its low crime rate and high incomes. You won’t find this deficit measured on the census, either. The problem plaguing Newton is the gender split in who has the simple right to their own body. Because that is truly what is at the root of Fifty Shades. It is not the sex, but the validation of a woman’s body, of her existence, by some forceful display of manliness.


We’ve seen this idea before. Fifty Shades seems like a modern take on Sleeping Beauty, in which the studly prince makes the mousy chore girl come alive. In both cases, the limp love interest has no idea what she is missing until she meets her hero. And in Fifty Shades, Anastasia’s character is molded to her male counterparts’ objectives. The raw idea of male validation is everywhere. Think Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” which seems like a great self-love anthem until she justifies it with male approval, because after all, “boys like a little more booty to hold at night.” This is just one of the many times a woman, in pop culture and in everyday life, is expected to be concave; to collapse her limbs into a role in relation to a man. Women are not seen as their own entities.


In high-earning Newton, the situation is no different: a woman’s body does not belong to her. Catcalling is all too common for a city of high ideals and outstanding education and seems almost a twisted rite of passage for teenage girls, squeezed between 8th grade graduation and learning to drive a car. Girls who are harassed are often expected to see it as a compliment, or to blame it on the blinding force of testosterone. The male sex drive is overwhelmingly more accepted and expected as normal, so it can be used as an excuse. The phrase “boys will be boys” sounds all too familiar, while there is really no counterpart to excuse the behavior of females.


We learn to absorb negative messages early. These messages tell us that there is one ideal, and that for a woman, that ideal is to be accommodating. A female freshman comments, “I think we’re taught from a very young age, even if the people around us do not intend to do this at all, that men are dominant. It’s…in popular music, in advertisements, in Disney movies, even just everyday people…” Despite some progress (Frozen’s Elsa does experience character development unrelated to a guy) there is yet to be a Disney Princess who towers over her prince. And anyone who has survived rendition after whiny karaoke rendition of “Let it Go” knows the sheer influence of Disney on kids.


The messages we internalize as kids take an ugly turn in the context of sexuality. Based on the messages the media spoon-feeds to us, the purpose of a woman’s sex life is to please a man. As another female freshman points out, “if you have sex as a guy, you’re a player. If you’re a girl, you’re a slut.” A Boston sophomore male echoes that “if a man is dominant, he’s taking control. If a woman is taking control, she’s considered a freak.” It seems that sluts and other derogatory names only serve to keep a woman from enjoying herself and reveling in her sexuality, and thereby secure male dominance. Regardless, slut-shaming and society’s extreme discomfort with a female in control make clear that the unhealthy and rigid gender roles in Fifty Shades represent some larger truth.


There exists perverse paradox: a woman’s autonomy and sexuality as a whole are not respected, but her sex is valuable – if the hoopla that surrounds gender roles, slut shaming, and sexual expectations is any indication. A woman’s sex is worth something in the way a product is worth something.


How does power play into this? If sex is a commodity, then consent is currency. From the messages in Fifty Shades, a woman’s value, and thus her power, lies in her body and her sexual prowess. This one-sided view of a woman, combined with an imbalance of power between genders, breeds the unhealthy idea that consent is something a woman owes to her sexual partner. A woman in complete control of her body is a woman with the upper hand, and one look at the shaming of sexually aware or powerful women shows how uncomfortable society feels about women with the upper hand. A female junior comments, “I’ve been asked to do things that I don’t want to do, and even after saying no, been asked again a couple times. This person did not mean to pressure me…I think they just felt entitled to ask.” Perhaps subconsciously, there seems to be the idea that a man is doing a woman a favor by taking control. He is then relieving her of the position so ill-perceived by the rest of society. He is saving her from the role of dominance– a role that, in our culture’s eye, should only be held by a man.


When a woman’s sexuality is seen as something close to monetary, it’s all too easy to confuse her sex appeal with her humanity. This, too, appears in Fifty Shades. Ana Steele is a pale, flavorless character, from her delicate skin and innocent deer eyes to her lack of passion, confidence, or any defining characteristic. Yes, the movie isn’t a great model for portraying anyone, really. But at least Christian Grey gets a complicated, tragic backstory. He has an aura of power and success from the time they meet. Ana Steele has her virginity and a whole lot of insecurity. Though her character’s only portrayed value is her sex appeal, the movie is so focused on sex that we accept her as fuller than she is. Her sexuality is a convenient replacement for her soul.


It is not just in movies that we reduce women to their sexuality. A female junior expresses:I’ll never forget a time when one of my best friends was mad at me and told me ‘you’re just a slut.’ The words cut through me, as somebody that I actually cared about thought of me in this way.” In reality, sexuality is only a fraction of identity. Yet, if a woman’s value is only seen sexually, such as in Ana Steele’s dangerously hollow character, condemning her sex life, even as a joke, discredits all that she is.


It’s not as if poor representations of female characters always create impossibly binding gender roles in real-life relationships. Some feel they’ve found a way to avoid the stereotypes. A female senior comments, “I’m not afraid to communicate what I do and do not want, and I feel that attitude attracts similar minded people.” Yet the overwhelming trend is of discomfort and shame due to some arbitrary standard. Movies like Fifty Shades of Grey perpetuate that arbitrary standard, and it’s not kept away from Newton South High School by a high technology budget or anti-bullying seminars.


To be fair, whether or not Fifty Shades is your cup of tea (and I can’t say that it’s mine), it can be seen as a blessing in disguise. The reason for Fifty Shades’ sudden and insane popularity is rooted in how little the topics of dominance and submission are openly discussed. The madness behind the story is fueled as much by discomfort as by straightforward appeal.  


Are we getting better? It’s difficult to say. As an optimist, I like to say yes. I like to say that for every movie like Fifty Shades, there are women who bring us forward: Malala Yousafzai and her unbreakable spirit, the eloquent and iron-willed Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Emma Watson, whose work as a UN Women National Ambassador has showed that a woman’s femininity does not have to detract from her intelligence or ability to make change. I hope we continue to raise girls who never learn to doubt their strength and their value. I hope that one day I can walk on Newton’s nicely paved streets without worrying about being harassed.


Most importantly, I hope for recognition of a very real problem. The raw influence of the book and movie can hopefully spark discussion of an issue too often swept under the rug — that here, yes, here, in a liberal town in a liberal state, Fifty Shades of Grey is not a warped deviance from societal perception but a window into an uncomfortable truth.

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