A Swim in Denial

What we can't think about and how it shapes us.

Soft Porn in Makeup

The fine print in "Fifty Shades of Grey" signs you up for more than you think

You might not think of being nude, tied up, and tingling as a disguise. But that’s the reality behind E. L. James’s best-selling soft-porn romance Fifty Shades of Grey (2012). Just as some parties and carnival frolics call for fanciful masks, so does James’s bondage/sadomasochistic (BDSM) trilogy.  In the novels’ Seattle, a virginal college student named Anastasia Steele (Ana) discovers exceptional sexual pleasure and eventually idealized romantic devotion in a rich, handsome young man named Christian Grey.  Their relationship is based on a contract in which Ana agrees to become Christian’s “submissive,” willing to be beaten, spanked, and tied up, to lower her eyes in his presence, and to let him dictate her sleep, food and dress.

 

Nominally the novel dramatizes the partners’ search for extraordinary sexual fulfillment. In bondage (BDSM) sex, pain and submission overthrow everyday self-protective inhibitions. They excite hypervigilance and sensitivity, making you more acutely aware of your body and your partner with the whip. Fifty Shades walks readers through the sex play in a sort of “self-help eroticism.” It introduces and explains techniques of pleasure the way Cosmo does. And it manages to wink at you while sounding breathlessly earnest. This pain is really “pain,” a technique, and (ahem) comes with “safe words” to disguise the reality that the thrill of losing control is always under control—in particular, under Ana’s control. So the contract here is really a script that’s thrilling because you pretend to cut loose and let it all hang out. it uses a taste of pain to strip off the swaddling wrap of habit that keeps us safe and half-asleep in our everyday lives.

 

It might look as if the bondage contract overturns feminist goals of equality and independence for women. In fact the master/submissive relationship is a plot device. By the third volume the sex-partners are married and it’s shades of mum and dad. By now Ana’s in charge of her life and, in reality, the family, and Mr Fifty Shades, as if in a trance, follows her around like a puppy and keeps repeating that he loves her.

 

The real “master” in the novel is the creaturely urge to reproduce that’s built into us and adds another seat at the breakfast table. Mr Fifty Shades with his sex toys and sympathy is really just (to be cute) the First Mate on this kinky voyage. Like a conventional romance, that is, this one boosts self-esteem by lavishing freedom, wealth, comfort, protective love, and motherhood on an average gal. Making it with Christian becomes a way for Ana to really make it. Ana gets (as they say) to have it all.

 

If that sounds too pat and too good to be true, there must be more going on. And sure enough. For one thing, this is equal opportunity wish-fulfillment. It turns out that Christian’s been traumatically abused as a child, but Ana’s love heals him. And he too shares in the triumph, since he gets to be a Pygmalion helping to form Ana, his Galatea. Of course this is the borrowed plot of Hollywood’s Pretty Woman (1990), where Julia Roberts heals the rich traumatized businessman (Richard Gere) by mixing a spoonful of love with a dash of submissive street sex.

 

One reason for the S/M business—the beating, spanking, and humiliation—is to make it seem that Ana is earning her total wish-fulfillment through some pain, humiliation, and self-discipline. But there’s more to it than that. Think of it this way: at the start Ana is like a teenage girl worried about being forever average. In the contract, in effect, she’s sexting nude photos of herself to woo a lover, giving herself to a stranger, risking everything. She’s defying all the rules Mum teaches you. It’s especially risky because, like most people, she fears she’s not attractive and remarkable enough to land a mate. What’s more, she’s breaking the rules that held Mum back, about to outdo her. In exposing herself with Christian, Ana advertises her charms and availability—and is also neatly “punished” so the guilty daughter can get what she wants in the end without a lot of uptight ambivalence.

 

If you doubt this, look again at the contract. Instead of imagining it “commanding submission,” think of it in plain terms as bossy. Remember, the contract orders her to lower her eyes around Christian, let him spank her and dictate her sleep habits, food, and dress. The program demands respect and controls every phase of Ana’s life like an affluent suburban parent totally invested in a trophy kid. In the process, her self-effacement (the “submissiveness”) can purge feelings of guilt and inadequacy and earn Mum’s love.

 

Yes, but Christian’s a man (!) True, but this is when you notice that Christian is as nurturing and protective as a mother. This is Janice Radway’s insight about the romance formula. No matter how buff the heroes may be on the front cover, eye patch and biceps turn into maternal nurture by the last page. For a lonesome reader, he’s a dream: he listens to you, respects you, protects you—talks to you, for heaven’s sake. Following Nancy Chodorow, Radway points out that boys grow to marry a version of mum, whereas girls have to leave mum behind. Women who become addicted romance readers (multi-volumes a week), Radway concludes, are making up for that empty spot.

 

Fifty Shades, then, tries to reconcile “the conflicting imperatives of autonomy and attachment” (70) in a 21st century society where mating rituals and gender roles have become intimidatingly improvisatory. The characters cope by substituting a contract that uses bondage to create bonds and spell out every move. What appears to be self-abandon and the discovery of some hidden authentic you turns out to be a device for loosening of inhibitions, so that the partners can learn to enjoy the intimacy that romance assumes was in them all along. —Oh, and it invites a visit from the stork.

 

Here’s are two chewy paradoxes:

In a time of modern anxiety about love and mating, the contract in the novel takes us back (or out) into the world of arranged marriages, in which families negotiated the future well-being of two young strangers and kin. Conventional wisdom has it that sometimes such contracts actually worked, with intimate bonds and merriment to match. Of course Romeo and Juliet warn us not to take any such thing for granted.

 In a time when attitudes toward sex are gratefully relaxed and roles are less prescribed, you might expect that this freedom to explore would make for more grown-up insight.  But in Fifty Shades the plot gratuitously gives the sex partners a happy ending. Nobody has to put up with suffering, hilarity, and hard work to wise up. The contract is a basic tool of good business sense, but it also skirts the hassle of dealing with living personalities.  And in consumer capitalism—as if you didn't know—sex and wish-fulfillment are marketing strategies that flatteringly insist it’s all about You, wonderful You. (The movie will hit the theaters next Valentines Day.)  You could be excused for wondering if signing the contract doesn't make us more childlike.

 

And finally this: as fantasy, Fifty Shades is a culture's classic effort to turn a terrifying reality—the American hysteria about terrorism and the shameful justification of torture—into a kinky recipe for romantic bliss. You could say that Jack Bauer of  "24" is the vicious godfather of Fifty Shades. This is an indication of how much the novel and its readers want to stay enchanted.  Fifty Shades equips the eventual marriage with sex toys and a locked room for pleasure, but the couple’s child and their monotonous pledges of love suggest that as the clock ticks and more candles blaze on the birthday cake, ecstatic taboo is great, but it may not be forever. 

 

In this sense the kinky contract is disguising not only mum, old traumas, and the stork, but also the shadowy role of that other parent, Father Time.

 

This essay is Part Two of two parts. For Part one, see: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/swim-in-denial/201407/the-romance-plot

Resources used in this essay: 

 

Eva Illouz, Hard-Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers, and Society (Chicago, 2014), 

Kirby Farrell, Post-Traumatic Culture (Baltimore, 1998).

_________, Berserk Style in American Culture (New York, 2011)

Jan Hoffman, “Poisoned Web: A Girl’s Nude Photo and Altered Lives, New York Times, March 27, 2011.

Amy Pavuk, "Rebecca Sedwick's suicide highlights dagers of cyberbullying," Orlando Sentinel (Sept. 16, 2013)

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/breakingnews/os-cyberbu...

Janice Radway, Reading the Romance (Chapel Hill, 1984).

Kirby Farrell, Ph.D.'s most recent book is Berserk Style in American Culture.

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