The eruption of ‘mommy porn’ typified in E.L James’ 50 Shades series has been argued by some as a marker for female sexual empowerment. I will agree that it has enlightened a change in coffee table conversation, in a similar way to the emergence of Ann Summers’ parties; but here’s the rub – the series isn’t actually representative of BDSM or female empowerment – it’s simply about male possession.
If I preclude its fanfic origins, which bristle my literary snobbery, and state the book’s critical fact – Ana just isn’t into the BDSM thing; she simply submits, agrees to a one-sided contract, wishes to simultaneously fix, and please, her man. She represents the virgin-whore dichotomy and is, for me, the very notion of subjugation, her ‘journey’ concludes with a life provided through moneyed male privilege, and has a couple of kids thrown into the clichéd, Hollywood bargain; the Red Room of Pain is presumably reserved for naughty weekends in grateful exchange for the ‘normality’ Christian now provides.
In many respects, 50 Shades is not dissimilar to the writings of de Sade – readers read it for the sex, but ignore the P/politics; de Sade’s diatribes about religion, morality, power and virtue are largely ignored – in the same way the patriarchal overtones of this book are readily dismissed. So does this do any real harm? It can be argued this facilitates and reinforces male sexual dominance, and in my opinion, it does; this is in itself an issue, but the other problem is that this is bound up (pardon the pun) within the context of BDSM.
BDSM is an exchange of power within a reciprocal, respectful understanding – it is about trust, communication and honesty in relation to each party’s notions of sex, sexuality and sensuality. So for me – the porn element of 50 Shades (and its ilk) merely creates opportunities to use BDSM to mask domestic abuse and a highly dysfunctional relationship.
Now before the anti-porn brigade sign me up as a fully fledged member (there I go again), I was intrigued when porn actor, James Deen, was up for the Christian Grey role, in the anticipated film adaptation. Hollywood wasn’t quite ready for that, but a number of Deen’s films provide a more honest insight into BDSM (even within the patriarchal boundaries of the porn industry); women have full and frank conversations about their fantasies, desires and needs within the context of the shoot – these discussions are more revealing than any ‘mommy porn’ you care to mention.
Whilst I can accept that 50 Shades has opened up new coffee table dialogues – these are shaped by an incredibly narrow, and misconstrued representation of BDSM; there is little to facilitate female empowerment since women once again find themselves at the mercy of the double standard. If women talk about their fantasies (and act upon them), that makes them a deviant and therefore unworthy of commitment; if they don’t engage in the male version of this sexual engagement, they won’t get the ‘happy ending’ of marriage. One can barely imagine what would happen if women decided that that particular prize wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be…
In light of this, Grey’s statement as their nuptials conclude is probably the most telling; ‘Finally, you’re mine.’ It rankled me in the same way as ‘Reader, I married him’ in Jane Eyre; there is nothing empowered in becoming a possession, and there is little to be learnt about female sexuality shrouded in the trappings of stereotypes. 50 Shades – feminist? Nope. Liberating? Certainly not. Dangerous? Absolutely – no safe word makes patriarchy stop in this exchange; ‘mommy porn’ has a broad societal appeal – perhaps that’s because it’s reflective of broader society?