I did the unthinkable. I saw Fifty Shades Darker. In theaters. By myself.

It was just as bad as I thought it would be. I can get past the ridiculous plot, the #NotMyChristian controversies, and the people who insisted that it can’t be a very romantic movie if the leads have no chemistry. I will also forgive the editors for lacking finesse in the storytelling, which seemed to throw graphic sex in as transition filler, rather than as the natural progression of the narrative. I will forgive it, but if I’m being honest, that was the most disappointing element of the cinematography for me. Note to Fifty Shades director/producers: please see Outlander for the right way to build and utilize sexual tension.

My qualm was instead with the presentation of BDSM. Because I am an historian of sex, marginalizing sexual minorities always makes me uncomfortable. Softcore pornographic sex scene in a movie theater full of strangers? Not very troubling. But when the storyline turned into revelations about Christian Grey’s violent and abusive childhood as the “cause” of his sexual interest in BDSM — that was where I switched off.

Obviously I am not the first to have these thoughts. A quick Google or JStor search will reveal a wealth of criticisms, from scholars of sex and sexuality, and from the BDSM community more generally. But up until a week ago, I ignored all things Fifty Shades. I don’t think I’m quite the intended demographic. Also, it’s just not my jam. If I’m going to read romance, there had better be a) supernatural creatures; b) Scottish Highlanders; c) witchcraft; or d) all of the above. Ideally all of the above. I went into this movie with little first-hand knowledge about the books, and I did not see the first movie. My dislike for the film stems largely from the “there must be something wrong with him” trope that happens oh-so-often in the fictionalization of contemporary sexual minorities.

I am a person, and I do not live under a rock, so I knew before going to this movie that the books approximate some kind of BDSM fantasy world to titillate readers. And in the same week that Fifty Shades Darker was scheduled to come out, I happened to be writing a syllabus and course proposal for a Sex in Modern History class for Spring 2018. I’ve been thinking about what I might assign students to read in this course for a while. Fifty Shades of Grey is one of the books with which I’ve been toying. But I’d never actually read it myself, so I decided to take the plunge and waste a Friday morning at my favorite AMC getting my first exposure to the Fifty Shades phenomenon.

The Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James (Mozart/Flickr|CC BY 2.0)

I did not enjoy the film. I will not be screening it in class (which is probably for the best, since I’m not tenured, and I would like to have a job for 2018-19). But I think the book will actually achieve what I want it to achieve. I want my students to think about ways that those with marginalized sexualities have built community and identity through titillating literature. There is a canon of more common staples of sex history literature, like Radclyffe Hall’s A Well of Loneliness, or John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, or John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure). But let’s face it; as truly foundational as A Well of Loneliness is, it is so sad, and not particularly salacious.

My plan is to contextualize Fifty Shades in the longer history of pornographic/romance novels introducing sexually marginalized communities to the world. Students will first select a lesbian pulp fiction novel from the 1950s, from a list that I will provide. They will present on the novel they select, and we will discuss and tie it all back to the historical studies like Kennedy and Davis’s Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold. After we’ve established a basis for learning about and beyond the pulp, however — paying attention to the stereotypes, the misinformation, and the challenges inherent in reading fiction for history — we will turn to the contemporary example.

The BDSM community has reacted to the Fifty Shades phenomenon quite openly (certainly an unthinkable enterprise for lesbians in the 1950s). There has been some hesitant but real appreciation that the books have expanded interest in kink and BDSM. Some have even praised the books for the promotion of a sex-positive “sexual awakening.” But backlash is more common. In particular, critics challenge the portrayal of BDSM through an abusive and controlling relationship, and in a character with childhood trauma of sexual and domestic violence. I want my students to read this book within that context, and the novel will be paired with independent research investigations into statements from BDSM community members about Fifty Shades, and critiques of the series and film adaptations.

Cover art for Women’s Barracks, Beebo Brinker, and The Third Sex. (Wikimedia Commons)

To be clear, mid-20th century lesbian pulp was not all happy endings and rainbows. Pulp perpetuated the stereotypes and fears of the general public. Masculine females preyed on young, impressionable teen girls. Women were lured out of heterosexual relationships by lesbian lovers. Schools for girls, harems, and women’s auxiliary corps were rife with girl-on-girl action. And, to assuage the masses — and quite in the style of Hall’s Well of Loneliness — many of these female relationships ended in tragedy.

These novels are rarely written for the sexual minorities they represent. They have to, after all, sell, and writing for a minority is not a particularly effective way to turn a profit. But they still succeed in reaching those minorities. Even within the stories themselves, the significance of the literary tradition reveals itself. Like Stephen Gordon sneaking into her father’s library to read about the sexual inverts in the sexological medical texts, or Beebo Brinker reading about two girls who loved each other until one committed suicide, lesbian literature was instrumental in shaping identity and a sense of connection for the same-sex desiring women it touched.1 This, despite the sad and unflattering ways that same-sex desiring women are portrayed in so many of these novels.

It remains to be seen if popular novels like Fifty Shades will serve the same purpose for BDSM. It is, after all, no Justine in its content. Anastasia and Christian engage in mostly vanilla sex, with one silk necktie to break up the monotony. But the discussions they have about what BDSM can be are important. They are akin to the pulp character talking about love for another woman, or sexual inversion as a sexological concept — they give words and phrases to feelings and desires of which the uninitiated may otherwise be ignorant. This sort of literature, whether written from experience, fantasy, or some combination, puts the language of the sexual minority into the mainstream dialogue. And in the long run, surely that is of value? Or at least worth considering in a course on Sex in Modern History.

Notes

  1. Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (1928) 204; Ann Bannon, Beebo Brinker (Cleis Press: 1962) 50-51. Return to text.

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2 Comments

sujaykentlyn

Heartily agree, in every respect.
But what I find most interesting, sociologically, has been the appetite of mainstream Western heterosexual women for these books/films. While emphatically acknowledging the difference between fantasy and real-life (e.g. fantasising about rape does NOT mean you actually want to be raped) I do want to ask – does this have anything to say about female (and of course male) economic, personal and sexual empowerment at this particular point in time, and about the role class and privilege play in this? Will ‘ordinary’ women be satisfied with this fictional exploration of ‘deviant’ sexuality, or will it open the door to further exploration of their own sexuality? Given the (appalling) quality of the actual writing/plot/character development itself, there’s clearly something powerful at work here. Or has the public imagination already moved on?

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Averill Earls

I’ve thought about this a bit, but not particularly extensively — I’d welcome anyone else who is a scholar of this literature to chime in. There is something fascinating about romance lit genre more generally, and the audience it so clearly maintains. There aren’t that many books alongside the US Weeklies and O! Magazine at the grocery checkout, but romance novels are always there among the other impulse buy bait. Not just BDSM-flavored, either, but consider the extreme opposite – Nursing Clio editor Sarah’s favorite – Amish romance, in which there are oodles of sexual tension but zero release. I am not sure if it is specific to Fifty Shades, or if it is tied to sexual empowerment. It is fantasy, and fantasy is not without tangible and psychological effects in the real world. See Annette Timm’s work on fantasy and the Holocaust. Also, an older article on the trilogy from Nursing Clio has an interesting take. “It challenges the reader to consider her own soft and hard limits. Fifty Shades makes you ask yourself, if you had a lover that you trusted without hesitation, that you knew wanted only to please you in every way, what would you let him do?” https://nursingclio.org/2012/05/10/fifty-shades-of-healthy-sex-8/

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