This bonus content post is me participating in the Feminist Friday series hosted by Transatlantic Blonde, co-hosted this week at Circus Queen. Follow the link below to read other bloggers’ entries, from the current and past edition.
True to form, I’m weeks behind everyone else on anything topical, but I finally read the book everyone has been talking about: Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Which meant I finally had an opinion on the cover story that Newsweek ran about it that, back in April. Look! Here’s the cover. Note the claim that “Surrender is a feminist dream.”
Here’s the text of the article, “Spanking Goes Mainstream,” by Katie Roiphe.
(Regarding the actual book as a work of fiction, meh. They did the whole domination/rape/romance thing better in the 1980s as costume drama, where you at least got descriptions of fancy dresses and usually learned a little bit about history, too. 50 Shades of Grey is nothing new, and not a particularly interesting example of its genre. But I’m not here to write a book review. Let’s move on to the Skepticism part of the program, in which we examine what profound and well-argued insight compelled Newsweek to put a picture of a pretty naked lady on its cover.)
The article starts out innocuously enough (you’re going to have to read it on your own, because I am not going to do a lot of quote-blocking from it), but by the third paragraph dubious claims appear. “The current vogue for domination” is tossed out as if everyone agrees that there is a current vogue for domination, based on nothing but the popularity of this book and the appearance of a new premium cable television show (Girls) on HBO, which at the time of publication had aired maybe one or two episodes to the few people who paid extra for a channel like that. Farther down, Roiphe names a movie–A Dangerous Method, which was directed, written, and produced by men, FYI–as an indication of sexual domination as a “current cultural interest.” (Later on she refers to the 2002 movie Secretary.) Roiphe refers to an unpublished book, a study published in 2009, and to an episode of that brand-new show before claiming that “Free will is a burden for women” and that equality (not shown, in the article or in society at large) is something that women need a vacation from, being being equal to men is dreary and hard. And then she names a few books about sadomasochism published in decades past, and starts to spin some theories on this evidence, theories that end in some conclusions about women that include that being dominated by men is a fantasy basically shared by all women, and finally that women are stupid and desperate to read a book so poorly written, or else so anxious to get into S&M that they overlook the quality of the book. (Roiphe’s assessment of the book; you’ve already read mine above.) Furthermore, the quality of the book is so bad that even members of the Christian Right can see it. Boy, these feminist working American women be stupid, amirite? Amirite?
1. Equality is not what women want.
2. They want to be dominated, and will put up with bad writing to get it.
3. This is true because of this book and that brand-new show and that movie.
Critiques of this essay from a multiple of perspectives are everywhere. (Here’s one from New York Daily News, for example.) I could even say a bunch of specific things about almost any paragraph in her article, but someone’s already probably said it better than me already (remember, I am late to the party). I’ll limit myself to pointing out the flaws in the structure of this argument. The author has picked out a hunch she’s had about society–in this case that equality is hard on women and feminists really just want to surrender to men but feel guilty about saying so? The point of the article broadens towards the end–and then hops on some faddish thing to make her point. Look! Here’s a popular book that everyone is reading! And here’s this show that just came out that has this character doing this thing! And women everywhere agree. And we can put a naked woman–a blindfolded naked woman–on the cover to boot!
First Point: This is not good reporting. It’s not good newsmaking, it’s not good research, and it’s not teaching anyone anything about what women want. For all that the article purports to be insight into the mind of the younger generation of working women, no actual working women or fans of the book are interviewed. It’s true that the book has been at the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List for a long time, but there is no evidence to suggest that the television show Girls or the movie A Dangerous Method have in any way influenced or reflect women in any great numbers. (And just because men greenlight television shows and movies doesn’t mean women want what’s inside them, either.)
Second Point: Let’s play a game! Let’s pick a book, a movie, and a television show that are popular in a given year and make a theory about all women from it. I’ll start.
American women are attracted to younger men because they long for their own youth, back when they didn’t realize the full extent of their inequality. Scenes of female animals going on murderous rampages are projections of their (the human American women) desire to trample over the assholes who perpetuate nonsense about their desires and abilities, but in animal form so they don’t have to get into this whole thing where a bunch of men dismiss their anger as hysterics or spin it into some extended whine about how the real victims of sexism are themselves.
Third Point: Crap like this does damage. Actual damage to actual women and actual feminists, who would say if they were asked that constantly negotiating around the boundaries of gender limitations and fighting all the time just to keep their small gains in career advancement and bodily autonomy from regressing is exhausting and that actual equality would be the vacation. That you can read a popular book for a million reasons (I read it for book club) and not be an advocate of its contents, and that a few references to a meta-study in a crap magazine and a sound byte from the author of an unpublished book that might have nothing to do with the article is not science. And using naked women to sell bogus journalism is exploitative in a number of ways. And bringing working women into the picture and pitting them against feminists based on some idea that theory doesn’t match real life so throw out theory (?) drives a wedge between two groups of people who are not at odds and aren’t even two groups of people. But hey! Naked lady on the cover! And blindfolded, too, so readers (more than half of whom are men) can imagine doing whatever they want to her, and it’s what she actually secretly wants, too, but is too cowed by other women to admit out loud. Which makes those men feminists, too, I guess.
You know what happens in the book 50 Shades of Grey? SPOILER: (Highlight the text to read it.) He beats her until she cries during sex and she leaves him. The book ends with them apart. END SPOILER You know what that signifies to me? That even in this book, this book that is the cornerstone of “proof” that working women really just want some man to tell them what to do, women don’t want what Roiphe says women want. It’s like nobody at Newsweek; even read the book or contemplated the “evidence” that supported the article’s conclusions, and just went straight to pictures of naked ladies.
To be fair, it’s a really fun game, and it’s your turn.