(Disclaimer – I’ve never watched or read it. I may be talking out of my backside. Also this piece may contain triggers about things like rape.)
Let’s lump 50 Shades of Gray and the Twilight Saga together as part of the same phenomenon on the basis that both portray emotionally controlling relationships in which women are systematically abused. What’s that all about? Why do people want to read or watch this? Who wants to be demeaned and abused? It’s a profound mystery up there with the fact that rape fantasy is a thing that exists.
I think that this is part of a wider phenomenon that is not just something that is about women. Of course, if a man wants to get his kicks by being chained up by a dominatrix in black leather and stiletto heels our emotional responses to that might span a range of feelings, but fear for the man’s self-esteem is not usually one of them. The difference between this and the response we might have to a woman who plays a submissive role in a relationship – whether in a sexual sense or not – is about ongoing power imbalances in society. We fear more for a woman who is submissive because there is perceived to be a higher risk of the role becoming habitual or even permanent, or lasting trauma or damage to her self-worth.
If I understand it correctly (a pretty big assumption, I admit), much of the appeal of things like ritual humiliation, rape fantasy, or BDSM is about handing over control. A person who, during most of their daily life, is expected to wield large amounts of responsibility might experience an immense release in temporarily giving up their autonomy to someone with a whip and a red leather thong. Perhaps it’s not surprising, with the growth of feminism and women being generally more self-determining and holding positions of greater responsibility, that fiction aimed at women that flirts with these kinds of ideas should become more popular. Hence Christian Gray and Edward Cullen, I guess.
Does this make the kind of fiction that is epitomized by Twilight and 50 Shades benign? Should we perhaps even celebrate it, as marker of the success of feminism? The jury’s still out. I’m not yet convinced that male and female roles have equalized sufficiently to make indulging in these fantasies risk free. Moreover, the kind of man who will take the existence of submission or rape fantasies to justify harassment or actual rape (“all women want it really”) still exists and still preys on vulnerable women. These fantasies can be dangerous. I don’t argue that we should suppress them entirely, but if we’re going to indulge in them we need to pay attention to context.
I guess what I’m really saying is: don’t forget the safe word, guys.