On Sunday (March 8) we celebrated International Women’s Day – a day to reflect on just how far we have come in achieving equality.
This presents a good opportunity to discuss how the intricacies of sexual and emotional relationships are navigated in two of the biggest recent blockbuster films and novels – 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight.
These representations raise questions over how we engage in a meaningful dialogue with young people about sexuality in a world where 50 Shades and Twilight reign supreme.
The book 50 Shades of Grey has been criticised for romanticising domestic violence, mental health issues, and its childish repertoire of words used to describe body parts, experiences and sex.
But the pressing question about the enormous success of the books and the first film is: why now?
Why during a period of proclaimed post-feminist equality for women and girls in education, work, and the public sphere do we see the fetishisation of a narrative of masculine sexual dominance and feminine sexual pathology writ large in the popular cultural imaginary?
Also critical for an educational audience are pedagogical questions about what type of fantasies does 50 Shades sell to women and girls?
Given widely documented panics over the sexualisation of children and girls and the questions of gender equity and on-going sexual double standards raised in debates on the impact of sexualisation of femininity on girls’ self esteem, are texts that normalise male sexual dominance simply playful fun?
Interestingly, from a juvenile fiction perspective (and what girls and young women are reading), 50 Shades emerged from Twilight fan-fiction. This explains the similarities both in writing style and reliance on staid and limiting gender roles.
For instance in Twilight, we see Bella presented as a shy, clumsy teen caught in a love triangle between an emotionally abusive werewolf and an emotionally abusive vampire. In 50 Shades, we have Anastasia, similarly depicted as a shy, socially awkward young women – both authors emphasise the fragility and naïvety of the female leads, paying attention, and lending support to how “necessary” the role of the male lead is in keeping them safe.
What is interesting is how the construction of the relationships between Bella and Edward in Twilight and Anastasia and Christian in 50 Shades rely on very stereotypical notions of male sexual desire as hardwired aggression, with girls and women the passive objects of prey.
The gendered and sexual relationships presented in both books are worrying at best, dangerous at worst. The authors also draw on notions of vulnerability, sexual innocence and yet being up for whatever the man desires as the ideal version of sexual desirability and “sexy femininity”.
These tropes are very interesting in relation to sex and relationships education (SRE), which has been critiqued internationally as leaving girls’ sexual desires and pleasure largely absent from the curriculum.
Sex education is widely critiqued as foregrounding boys “parts” (through use of condoms on erect penises, for instance) and suggests implicitly and explicitly that male sex drives are to be managed by girls in appropriate ways to promote sexual health and virginity.
Books like 50 Shades and Twilight perpetuate the idea that a woman’s worth is somehow inextricably linked to the state of her hymen and widespread purity myths. Anastasia is desirable because she has never had sex; Christian is desirable because he has.
50 Shades presents Anastasia as passive, naïve and sexually insatiable once Christian opens her eyes to the world of sex – naturally she entered the relationship a virgin while he came to the bed of pain a gifted lover. This further reinforces the double standards around male “players” and female “slut shaming” that are so pervasive in society.
Broadly speaking women are expected to be sexy but not sexual; sexually active women run the wrath of being morally condemned for sexual activity, whereas sexually active men are able to maintain both a moral high ground and “legend” status. This plays out in relation to contemporary problems with lad culture and rape culture.
In 50 Shades we have an account of one man’s sense of entitlement and the unpaid, unappreciated emotional or affective labour performed by Anastasia. She is constantly checking herself throughout the books, wary of upsetting, angering or confusing Christian.
Anastasia breaks down several times, blaming herself for Christian’s inability to love her the way she wants to be loved. This victim-blaming response has been widely critiqued in legal and criminological debates as neglecting attention to gendered power dynamics and debates around sexual consent.
Anastasia justifies his aggressive behaviour, brushing it off as the result of a bad childhood. She also makes repeated allowances because he has never had a relationship before. Much of this is typical of discourse surrounding survivors of domestic violence. She is isolated from her friends and family; add or change a few words and you have a crime report on domestic violence – all under the romantic guise of wanting to keep her safe and loving her.
In Twilight and 50 Shades, the relationships the women have are presented as paramount but also literally integral to their bodily survival. Girls and women are presented as incomplete if they are not sexually desired (and loved) by men. Men are presented as the granter of esteem to women.
Bella and Anatasia literally fall apart when their relationships break down (both stop eating). The internalisation and self-punishment through bodily control in the face of male rejection echoes psychological notions of women’s internalisation and pathologisation of aggression. Women are unable to cope rationally with aggression so they internalise and self-destruct. Endorsing and legitimating this narrative is relevant in relation to debates that naturalise female passive aggressive behaviour as well as debates on anorexia and self-harm. By shrinking themselves into insignificance, the narratives play into a story of male power and heroism, which relies on an idea of male saviours, duty bound to swoop in and “save” girls and women.
Returning to SRE, if we think of the books as sexual pedagogy writ large in popular culture, the worry is they will leave girls and boys and men and women feeling inadequate about their sexual experiences.
Men will think it is as easy as providing a quick fumble and nipple bite to please a woman, whereas girls might worry that there is something wrong with them if it takes longer than 30 seconds to be in the mood and in a position where they can orgasm.
Perhaps being suspended from the ceiling for a spanking twice a day does provide a potent if ridiculous fantasy for some, and maybe some of 50 Shades is innocent fun.
But storylines that legitimise the sexual pathologisation of women and celebrate male sexual and economic dominance mean that as feminists we need to continue opening up debate about possibilities for forms of femininity that do not subsume questions of feminine pleasure, desire and fantasy to the role of sexually and emotionally servicing men.
Jessica Ringrose is professor of sociology of gender and education and Emilie Lawrence a PhD student at UCL Institute of Education, London.