In this week’s Entertainment Weekly, frequent Vanity Fair contributor Leslie Bennetts wrote a piece entitled “Sex, Lies, & Fifty Shades.” I’m not going to use this space to tell you why you shouldn’t waste your time seeing the movie Fifty Shades of Grey this weekend or that the success of the book has been a dramatic example of how badly we misunderstand intimate relationships. There are plenty of articles and blogs out there on that subject already.
Instead, I want to comment on Bennetts’ analysis of why she thinks this story has been so successful. In her five-page article (uncharacteristically long for EW), she provides a fairly standard presentation of the script that women have never had control of their sexuality until the recent past, how S&M sexuality is not about feminine guilt over freedom, and how the shape of feminine sexual expression is undergoing transformation. She’s not writing an academic piece, but still, her arguments are so riddled with unsubstantiated presumption as to call into question the value of the article as a whole. Still, let me present you with a few key points.
First, she unapologetically calls the book “pornography,” which is honest, but which is also contrary to many of the book’s fans that I’ve spoken to (generally 21-year old female college students). This is important: by owning this descriptor, we are admitting that we are comfortable with the complete mainstreaming of pornography into massive commercial success.
But after this, we get to the statement of her thesis and it’s a very important one. She writes, “The real reasons for the popularity [of the book]…are rooted in what it actually means to live life in a female body.” She goes on to explain that the “transgressive” thoughts of modern women do not necessarily translate into what they actually want to do in the real world…as if our thoughts have no effect on how we live in our bodies. In fact, she sees S&M sexuality as a willful acceptance on the part of a woman to express traditional gender roles writ large, which is a pretty horrible way to look at men.
Then Bennetts describes how Anastasia turns the tables on Christian by her sexual submission by ultimately demonstrating her control over him *and* she experiences mind-blowing orgasms while her lover inflicts humiliating pain on her. “The princess saves the prince.” This is a hideously ugly way to look at male-female intimacy: instead of love and self-sacrifice defining their relationship, happiness is mired in games of power and control. But everyone is happy and consenting, so it’s all OK. Forgive my rationality: how can anyone not see how broken this is?
The final part of her article is a sobering anecdotal litany of bodily transgressions she and her friends have experienced that have never been reported as crimes. Her point: women experience bodily violation in all sorts of ways far beyond what constitutes illegal behavior in our culture. She says this is the sad truth about living in a woman’s body in the 21st century. And I can’t disagree.
So she comes to her conclusion: no one should pontificate about the meaning of women’s bodies because our traditional paradigms of male-female dynamics are still present in something like Fifty Shades of Grey. Her point is that we don’t know what the real future of female sexuality is, but the success of the book reveals women’s new open-mindedness for the future.
Do you see the problem? Bennetts identifies that it is difficult to be a woman’s body in the world today, but she also asserts that S&M sexuality is merely a confirmation of traditional gender roles and that we may be at the tip of the iceberg of transgression against traditional ideas. Her conclusion is confusing when it is not contradictory. She fails to see that her starting premise regarding the meanings of body and relationship are seriously flawed.
The meaning of women’s bodies leads us to another event from this week: the release of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Hannah Davis, the 24-year old cover model, is seen on the cover pulling down her bikini bottoms so far that we can practically see where her future children will come from. What’s the narrative of a woman’s body here? Is it fun in the sun, enjoying the beach weather? Nope. Instead, the model’s facial expression and bodily action makes her not a subject of aesthetic appreciation, but instead an object for sexual use by another.
What’s even worse is that the Photoshop job done on this young woman makes her “revelation,” as it were, not as an adult woman, but rather as possessing the secondary sex characteristics of a prepubescent girl. So not only is she reduced to being an object for sexual consumption, but she is further infantilized in the process.
So what is the meaning of a woman’s body? Neither 50 Shades of Grey nor Sports Illustrated give us a satisfying answer to this question, as each presents women as either objects to be used or as subjects who need to subject themselves to the fantasy that by their humiliating de-personalization, they will find happily ever after. Until we take women’s bodies seriously in the fullness of their revelation, which should not neglect their distinctive capacities to give life and love, we’ll continue to be confused. This Valentine’s Day, if you are in a romantic relationship, show love and respect for the fullness of your beloved’s personhood, in the awesome, wondrous way in which they image the Creator. Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!