Microaggressions: The everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment. Those who inflict microaggressions are often unaware that they have done anything to harm or demean another person.
I first heard about the wildly popular novel Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James nearly a year ago. I overheard a friend mentioning an epidemic known as “mommy porn.” I wasn’t sure what she was talking about until months later. Someone asked me if I had read or heard about Fifty Shades of Grey. When I said no, they proceeded to tell me that the book was essentially a harlequin porn novel based on a Twilight fan fiction, where the vampire turns the protagonist into his sex slave. The associated term “mommy porn” came from the idea that industrious and strong-willed women would secretly love being dominated sexually by a man, for it is every strong woman’s dream to submit since they are otherwise in charge of everything else: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/50-shades-grey-women-turned-sexual-submission/story?id=16059118#.UFC2f5biETA
From there, Fifty Shades of Grey began appearing everywhere I looked. Every other post on my Facebook wall was about how everyone recently started reading it. Women I worked with brought copies with them to read on their lunch breaks. I had in the past read the first 1.5 books of the Twilight series before giving up on them, and I had no intention of reading Fifty Shades. However, I loathe the idea of speaking poorly a book online without having read it first.
Acquiring a copy was almost a covert mission. I felt like a raccoon, furtively raiding a dumpster in fear of being caught. I crept into Barnes and Noble and perused the aisles in secrecy. To my relief I couldn’t find it in the literature section. I couldn’t even find it in the aisle devoted to the bodice-ripper romance novels. I finally found a display on an endcap next to the Colorado driving maps, near the mystery section. I pretended to be very interested in something titled Death of a Schoolgirl: the Jane Eyre Chronicles while some young man took his time selecting a map. There were three novel installments for sale as well as some magazine praising the “Fifty Shades Culture” as spawned by the trilogy. After checking my surroundings, I snatched the first book and a magazine copy from the display and scurried to the front, concealing the titles. I left the store feeling ashamed. Outside the weather was growing blustery and gray, as if the souls of Poe and Steinbeck were growing angry with me.
Upon doing a little research, I discovered that Fifty Shades of Grey is, in fact, a bastardized fan fiction based on the Twilight series. Originally published as a short story entitled Master of the Universe, it appeared on a prolific Twilight website under the pen name “Snowqueen Icedragon.” Evidently James was asked to remove the story due to the explicit content, but it was so popular that not only was it hosted on a different website, but she was also offered a book deal. So the vampire became a millionaire and a few names were changed. You can see the original postings in 2010 at this link: http://deedeesfanfictionrecommendations.blogspot.com/2010/01/master-of-universe-by-snowqueens.html?zx=1b50335201f77969
More evidence of the novel’s solid literary merit can be found at this link: http://www.booksnreview.com/articles/974/20120908/fifty-shades-grey-author-e-l-james.html
Then it was time to start reading. I flipped through the magazine first, and it was exactly what I had expected. Fluffy articles such as “Who Do You Think Should Play Christian Grey in the Movie?!” and “50 Shades Inspired Cocktails!!” dominated the majority of it. The book itself only took me a day and a half to finish, not because I couldn’t put it down, but simply because it’s easy to breeze through. Simply put, girl (Anastasia Steele) meets the tortured billionaire megahunk (Christian Grey). Megahunk turns out to be a BDSM sex god, they start screwing, they unwittingly fall in love, she eventually leaves him because it’s all too overwhelming (!). They reunite and eventually marry in books two and three, which I Googled as I have no intention of reading them.
The supposedly outrageous sex scenes didn’t seem too outrageous to me. After the initial coupling, they were a little repetitive. Her porcelain skin, his intoxicating smell, the unending passion, and so on. The parts that seemed passably unique to me were the details of Grey’s BDSM lifestyle, such as the contracts that Ana Steele had to sign, or Grey’s “red room of pain.” But that aside, the book really isn’t all that remarkable. The plot and characters reek of Twilight influence. It’s a typical drippy heroine who complains of being too skinny and how her blue eyes are “too big.” The man is hot, rich, with a mansion and a nice car. There are a lot of flamboyant soap-opera character names and obvious plot devices. There is a lot of gasping, a lot of tingling of electricity at the touch of their fingertips, a lot of crying into pillows late at night. A lot of ice cubes tinkling in cocktail glasses.
The majority of the feminist critique I found in regards to the novel is mostly based on the BDSM aspect of the character’s sexual relationship. Feminists are appalled that “mommy porn” is popular with women because it glamorizes a dominated, masochist approach to sex. They do not approve of the idea of women being handcuffed, dominated, whipped, and so on. They think it’s a little too similar to sexual coercion and abuse, and that it encourages women to sexualize themselves to an extreme. For example: http://www.hercircleezine.com/2012/05/02/anti-feminist-ideals-in-fifty-shades-of-grey/, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/fifty-shades-of-feminist-sneering-at-mummy-porn/story-e6frg7bo-1226428481063. That very aspect is the same reason, however, that the book is hailed by the other demographic of female readers. They claim it normalizes certain sexual behaviors and desires, opening up new worlds to women, particularly those who have been married for years or who feel the need to spice up their sex lives. The book’s popularity makes the BDSM relationship more mainstream, and therefore more acceptable.
As a feminist, I don’t see the sexual domination aspect of the book offensive. I recognize that the book’s representation of the BDSM culture is flawed, as pointed out by the writer of the BizzyBiz Blog (also a hilarious blow-by-blow, pun intended, account of how verbose the novel isn’t). But regarding the offending sexuality, to E.L. James’ credit, her character Grey makes it very clear to Steele that she must first agree to every sexual act they perform. He makes sure she knows that she can walk out at any time. They negotiate safe words, limits, and certain off-limit acts. She even has to sign a consent contract. I believe that in the real world, if two people enjoy this type of sex and agree to similar terms beforehand, there is nothing wrong with it. Who am I to accuse the entire BDSM population of being sexist, depraved, or abusive? Honestly, what two consenting adults do in the bedroom is none of my business.
However, my ultimate deduction is that Fifty Shades of Grey is a sexist book. I do have a problem with it, and my problem is the microaggression.
A microaggression is an offhand comment, joke, allusion, or the like that communicate a derogatory message to someone because they are a member of a marginalized or disenfranchised group. Microaggressions are sneaky – the people delivering them as well as the people on the receiving end don’t always register them. Therefore, both parties allow for a small divide to occur and both parties perpetuate the continuation of the divide. An example of a microaggression would be someone saying telling a young physicist that she is “really good at science for a girl” or presuming that a woman doesn’t know how to use a hammer. By not recognizing or commenting on it, the perpetrator is left feeling that it’s okay to regard women as slightly inferior and the victim is left feeling accustomed to being slightly marginalized. These microaggressions subconsciously begin to add up over time. They are prevalent in all aspects of our society, ranging from sexism to racism to homophobia. Check out this article, written by my friend from college Linda Henneburg regarding her time as an intern at CERN: http://lindahenneberg.com/post/7576670960/woman-nonphysicist-cern
Fifty Shades of Grey is completely riddled with these microaggressions, most likely due to its origins in Twilight, a book very heavy with dated gender roles, male control and female meekness. Another theory is that the microaggressions stem from the Mormon author’s ideas of gender specific roles and ideal female behavior. I’m not accusing Twilight of being Mormon propaganda, nor am I accusing Mormonism of being anti-woman: however, when the author comes from a certain religious background that helps define her role in a “good” relationship, the influences thereof are sure to reveal themselves. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/24/mormon-influence-imagery_n_623487.html
The romantic interactions that have so many young women reeling in Twilight (and, by extension, Fifty Shades) boil down to this:
• If a man truly loves you, he will play hot-and-cold with you
• You should give a man many chances even if he scares you
• Stalking is romantic
• You need a man to take care of you, because you cannot take care of yourself
• Your life is otherwise empty without a man
• It means he loves you when he begins to dictate every part of your life such as what car you drive, what you eat, where you work, etc
• You should give up your other male friends so your man won’t be jealous
• It is romantic to be conquered and considered someone’s property
• Your ultimate goal should be marriage
• It is romantic when a man threatens to kill himself if he cannot have you
• You should only touch or have sex with a man on his terms and conditions
• A man should make your decisions
• Romantic fulfillment comes from having your entire life completely absorbed by a man
The list goes on, but I’ll stop.
In Fifty Shades of Grey, Grey begins to control Steele’s life outside of the confines of the bedroom, such as “punishing her” with spanks and slaps whenever she rolls her eyes at him, getting extremely angry and threatening to punish her when she gets a drink with a male friend, and the like. He forbids her from driving her old car and insists she accepts the new one he buys her, demands that she eats what and when he decides, gets her a computer and a phone so he can always be in touch with her and sends her patronizing messages when she doesn’t comply. She is repeatedly told that she may not do certain things and she must remember that she “belongs to him.” This behavior, if removed from the book an applied to a real life relationship, would be considered a red flag of domestic abuse.
“Well, if you were mine, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week after the stunt you pulled yesterday. You didn’t eat, you got drunk, you put yourself at risk.” pg. 67
“The Submissive will eat regularly to maintain her health and well-being from a prescribed list of foods…the Submissive will wear clothing only approved by the Dominant…the Submissive will visit a beauty salon of the Dominant’s choosing at times to be decided by the Dominant and undergo whatever treatments the Dominant sees fit.” pg 105-106
“Dear Ms. Steele, I refer to my e-mail dated May 24, 2011, send at 1:27 and the definition contained therein. Do you ever think you’ll be able to do what you’re told?” pg. 210
“I’m mad because you never mentioned [traveling to] Georgia to me. I’m mad because you went drinking with that guy…and I’m mad…because you closed your legs on me.” pg.348
“Anastasia, you know where the bathroom is. Today, at this point in our strange arrangement, you don’t need my permission to use it.” pg. 359
“‘Anastasia, enough,’ he snaps back sternly…I’m skating on thin ice, and I’m heading into danger. ‘I’ll put your across my knee.’…And I know that’s it. I cannot ask him any further questions about her because he will lose it with me.” -pg. 434
“‘Can I treat you?’ I ask Christian…’pay for this meal?’ He frowns at me. ‘Are you trying to completely emasculate me?'” pg. 454
“Dear Miss Steele, You are simply exquisite…Take some Advil – this is not a request. And don’t drive your Beetle again, I will know.” pg. 281
If this book written by a man, women would most likely see Fifty Shades of Grey as sexist. However, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are written by women for women, and the popularization of the book by women just goes to show that we have become so desensitized to microaggressions that the sexism in the book doesn’t even faze us. We, by buying into these literary fads, are only perpetuating the problem because not only are we condoning this kind of behavior, but we are starting to desire it from men as proof of love or masculinity or devotion. The way to stop sexism is to teach women that accepting micro-aggressions from men and other women is not okay and that we shouldn’t overlook or “accept” them as normal. If we turn these fictional men into our idea of the perfect man, we will essentially be rewarding men for being sexist and controlling.
If someone reads Fifty Shades of Grey and it helps them spice up their own sexual relationships, that’s fine. If people read Twilight and wind up re-capturing the magic with their special someone, then congratulations. However, I hope that women who cater to these literary fads do not reassess what makes a healthy relationship dynamic based on these books. These books are emphasizing all the wrong things to female readers when it comes to self respect and independence, to having a partnership with a man, a relationship of equals. Drowning in your man gives him license to control you. Unfortunately, when a man controls you, you are only perpetuating the mindset that drives lawmakers to restrict our social and reproductive rights.
Check out the links page for the Microaggressions online blog.
PS If you are interested in reading novels that respectfully and accurately represent a woman’s culture, I recommend reading White Oleander by Janet Fitch. An excellent non-traditional love story can be found in The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Euginides. Furthermore, we at Generation: Handmaid will always give a wholehearted endorsement to anything by Margaret Atwood.
“What’s going on…has nothing to do with passion or love or romance or any of those other notions that we used to titillate ourselves with… it seems odd that women once spent such time and energy reading abut such things, thinking about them, worrying about them, writing about them. They are so obviously recreational.”
-Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
James, E.L. “Fifty Shades of Grey.” New York: First Vintage Books, 2012. Print.