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50 Shades of Meh: Women in Pop Culture

I can recall reading about women’s fan fiction with great interest. The cultural studies work about shipping and the Kirk/Spock love triangle was fascinating to me in the early 1990s. When fan sites began to devour (pun intended) the Twilight series, I did not think this was anything particularly new or exciting. Then, the fan sites frenzy gave birth to E. L. James and her 50 Shades of Grey series. I read the first book carefully and pretty much yawned through it. The writing was similar to the Twilight  series, which was no surprise given that this book came from one of the fan sites. The book was painfully difficult to read as it was obvious that the author was not familiar with the norms in this SadoMasochism (SM) or Bondage and Discipline (BD) community. BDSM as the abbreviation.>

Right about now, most readers will think one of two things: huh and wait, how do you know about this? Well, my MA thesis was about Women and Consent. This does not make me an expert, but it certainly makes me interested in the series, the movie, and conversations related to consent in pop culture. I have been mulling over a few things about the book(s) and now the movie, which apparently has made some real money. This series has popularized grey ties and re-ignited conversations about BDSM, and the popular culture depictions of a BDSM relationship. Now, if you want to read well-written books in this area you can see the Erotica Booklists or see what Susie Bright suggests–many know her by her alter ego, Susie Sexpert.

The BDSM issue is an extremely divisive issue for feminists. In the 1980s, the sex debates/sex panics/sex wars * culminated with the emergence of “anti-sex” and “pro-sex feminists.” The lack of cohesion and agreement among feminists and others centered around the definition and understanding of women’s sexuality. One of the problems was that feminist epistemology has never been unified in terms of defining what constitutes women’s sexuality. The various sides of the debates acquired their own definitions of women’s sexuality and furthermore, what constituted a feminist sexuality. -there is one feminist sexuality? No. And, if you have followed sex positive discussions, this is still not ironed out.  For ease of discussion, though, I will refer to the two major sides of the sex debates.>

There were different, heated opinions regarding women’s exercise of power and consent. Can women consent? The anti-sex side viewed women’s sexuality as something that male-identified society defined, controlled, and used against women. By contrast the pro-sex camp acknowledged women’s power to pursue pleasure and exercise sexual consent with others in SM sex or non-SM sex. Subsequently, women’s bodies were interpreted as either a site of domination or power among the two loudest or most prominent factions. And, this might shed light on how sex positive debates are at times fraught with controversy, when perhaps they should not be.

Feminists need to take consciousness raising to the level of self-education of women’s various sexualities. It is self-effacing for feminists not to make coalitions among one another and acknowledge the diversity of the movement and identity. We must understand the history and struggles behind women’s sexuality and how this aspect informs women’s identity in society. Clearly this does not require a monolithic feminism with feminists united in one belief. Feminists must work toward developing an inclusive theory of sexuality that includes pleasure, desire, and autonomous consent to sex thinking of women as having sexual agency.

In the future an inclusive sexual theory that embraces various sexualities and sanctions sexual consent as part of women’s sexuality is auspicious. Continued research into theories of sexual politics and consent is justified and needed in the hope of someday securing equality and not playing with the same tired tropes about male dominance of women, as witnessed with the 50 Shades series. This is one of the many reasons why I think: 50 Shades of Meh. I read the book, and do not have to see the stylized version of the book from Hollywood. My safe word here: no.

*Yes, I linked to Wikipedia. It is a good synopsis and written for the lay audience. <Do not be cheeky.>

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