Hey there. Long time no see. Air kisses and that.
So apparently there’s a big hullaballoo happening again about the ‘50 Shades of Grey‘ books with the film shortly to be released. Having started to the read them, but being utterly unable to continue to because of the horrible (and not even ‘so bad it’s good’) style writing, I must say that I write as a pseudo-outsider to those women (and men) of the world whom these books are getting into quite a lather.
Roxanne Gay’s 2012 piece on the pros but more definitely the cons of the books says most of what I’d want to say about them: that they’re ridiculously written, utterly uninformed about the realities of BDSM subcultures, and ultimately more harmful than frivolous. It reminded me about a brief conversation I had with KJ Swanson, then studying at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, about a series of pieces she had written about Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books (the original inspiration for 50 Shades, which began as Twilight fan-fiction). I was thanking Swanson for her excellent essays about American Christians’ reactions to the Twilight series; we agreed that the books were destructive especially for young women to read because they (like 50 Shades) promote fairy-tale idealisations of damsels in distress, of flawed superheroes that the female protagonist must be ‘just virginal enough to change with her purity’, etc.
What KJ said to me next, however, was what really stuck. She said that while she was doing her research, she encountered two basic reactions to the Twilight books. The first was flippancy: ‘Oh yeah, I read them, they weren’t that great, no big deal, it’s just fiction.’ The second was defensiveness: ‘Yeah, they might be about vampires, but don’t they have great things to say to women about self-respect? Shouldn’t we embrace them? Don’t criticise me for reading them. That’s not your right.’ In KJ’s psychological research, these two responses were the most common responses of victims of domestic abuse with regard to their abuser: either brushing off the abuse as normal, uncommon, or not that serious, or getting highly defensive of their abuser. She concluded by saying, in a quiet way that has stuck with me ever since: ‘I got to wondering, like, is Twilight abusing our culture?’
And so to 50 Shades, the ‘adult’ spawn of the Twilight series. What, I wonder, was going through E. L. James’ mind when she was thinking up this fan-fiction piece online prior to its publication? ‘Hmm. I wonder, what is the real-world, demythologised, western cultural equivalent to the dark mysteriousness of the vampire trope? I know, bondage!’ Better minds that mine have written criticising this automatic equating of fantasy-death or vampirism with BSDM/kink and various related subcultures, and Gay’s piece brings out some of these criticisms and the Disneyfication of BDSM that 50 Shades accomplishes. What I am interested in as a theologian and a feminist, is to what degree Christians and Christian subcultures embrace, shun or even unwittingly mirror the messages and values that are communicated by the 50 Shades books, and/or the BDSM subcultures claim to portray.
Both the Twilight and 50 Shades books, written largely from the perspective of a female protagonist, concern themselves with the emotional lives of women. Empowering? Perhaps. Angsty waffling about which man/supernatural destiny to choose, or whether or not to stick with a billionaire who insists on inflicting pain during sex and controlling one’s life to the nth degree – neither of these strike me as particularly empowering. That said, it is important to highlight that Ana does agree to take the role of submissive in her relationship with Christian Grey – whether under coercion, or because she actually wants it, is a matter of three books’ worth of fairly weak plot.
The question I have is whether or not these protagonists ever attempt to define themselves not in relation to their romantic interests. I cannot see very much evidence of this attempt. This strikes me as particularly negative in Twilight, with its teenage target demographic. In 50 Shades, the centrality of female pleasure during sex may be light years ahead of common portrayals of women’s sexuality, with their effortless mutual orgasms from heterosexual penetrative sex, gleeful enthusiasm for blowjobs, etc. That said, this pleasure comes at a price – in Ana’s case, the surrendering of her freedom. In Bella’s case in Twilight, it is the surrendering of her human life.
Is this surrender an act of will? Is surrendering control ever fully an act of will, or an act of complicity within systems of patriarchy that teach women the virtue of submission, so that women internalise and promote these messages? I am not sure that giving over control is always negative, provided that there is mutuality in the (social/sexual/ecclesial/cultural) relationship, where both or all parties have a chance to take and to give. Good relationships, I would add, are not just about power and control, as if they were some sort of zero-sum equation, with only limited measures of power to be divvied up; rather, they generate power because power is not held statically but given away by both/all parties.
I do not see this generativity much in Twilight or 50 Shades.
Just this past week (February 4-7, 2015), the Pontifical Council for Culture held its Plenary Assembly in Rome. The topic for this year’s gathering was ‘Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference’. The programme does highlight a number of women speakers, both lay and religious, and perhaps not surprisingly no ordained women; and those in attendance to the conference (members of the Pontifical Council) are exclusively ordained men. The piece of artwork chosen to represent this year’s council was Man Ray’s 1936 piece ‘The Restoration of Venus’, showing a nude white female torso, without arms or legs or head, tied up in rope in a style similar to, and inspired by, bondage.
Did this woman choose to be tied up for her sexual pleasure, or the pleasure of her partner, or both? The closest the Pontifical Council seems to get to such a debate is in the session entitled, ‘Women and Religion, flight or new forms of participation in in the life of the Church?’ which the Council’s website describes thus:
The reflection looks at the spaces proposed to women in the life of the Church, and if women are made to feel welcome in light of specific and changed cultural and social sensibilities. The pastors will ask themselves whether the way women participate in the life of the Church functions today.
A few observations about this summary in relation to this artwork:
* This work, made by a male artist, co-opted for use as representational of women’s cultures by a group of men, to me speaks clearly of an objectifying gaze (in classic feminist literature ‘the male gaze’) on women. It is a gaze that decapitates, dismembers, ties up and finally ignores its subject’s self-definition. A woman with all her body parts intact would still have the ability to recall classical sculpture traditions, forge controversial links with sexual subculture as related to, opposed to, or similar to church subcultures.
* That the woman in this work is tied up in ropes reminiscent of bondage activity is interesting for its interesting parallels to BDSM discussions about agency. To what degree do women in any church have the same degree of agency, or ability to make choices about their own lives, as men? (We’l return to this below)
* Not only is this woman’s body tied up and submitted to an objectifying gaze, it is also whitewashed and youthful. One interpretation of this piece, in light of the plenary ‘flight or new forms of participation in the life of the church’, could be that the only women who find a place in the church (whether a ‘new form’ or more traditional form of participation) are those that meet with this standard: one that idealises the young and virginal, identifies with ‘white’ cultures, and submits to being tied up in the strictures of the church. This is not to say that young, white women are necessarily and directly complicit in wrongs committed to churches to which they might belong; it is to say that women who would not choose ‘flight’ must still choose to submit, and preferably to minimise any ways in which their lived realities contradict a young, ‘white’ ideal.
I comment on the Pontifical Council not only or primarily because I want to criticise the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of women; other churches and indeed religions can be just as intentionally oppressive. The deliberate use of this artwork, and its resonance with the messages of 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight, however, begs scrutiny from any responsible Christian feminist. Defenders of the Council’s choice might say that this work conjures images of Christ’s torturous route to Golgatha, willingly submitting to pain for the greater gain of the work of Salvation. There is an entire body of feminist (and non-feminist) theological literature critiquing whether or not this sadomasochism belongs at the heart of the Christian faith and I will not rehearse it all here. Yes, orthodox Christians may say, we need a Saviour who fully understands and has endured human suffering, pain, oppression, and injustice. But when the church becomes complicit in the cause of these things, what then?
Another way to read this art work’s use by the Council would be to say that it was chosen to represent the many silenced voices of women in scripture and Christians history; women who were bound, burned, impaled, witch-hunted, denied full participation, etc. Perhaps the Council as well as other church organisations have just attempted to ‘do their homework’. This piece, one might say, is the only accurate representation of women’s historical relationship with the Christian church. Though this charitable reading might bring a sense of relief to reader, I think that it is the most deceptively and in fact insidious. This piece draws direct inspiration from BDSM, not from forced violence women found, for example, throughout the book of Judges. Keeping in mind the fact that the majority of those who willingly engage in BDSM do so not as E. L. James has portrayed it (a virginal young woman having her horizons infinitely widened by a man who likes inflicting pain and control) but instead as more equal/consensual partners, its choice by the council to represent women’s culture says: ‘we are trying to remember women’s culture throughout history, and we want to pay attention to its injustices’. But instead of accomplishing its goal, the use of this piece forces a mis-remembering of the female body, one that has consented to be bound and consented to have pain inflicted upon it. It is a convenient glossing over of millennia of women’s stories of trauma with the brush, ‘well, she asked for it.’
It is this use of Ray’s art work that I find most deeply troubling. It shows a deep disconnect between the church and the realities of women’s experience and culture. It displays the same ignorance and even romanticisation of BDSM as 50 Shades of Grey, and sidesteps important questions of women’s cultural, religious and sexual agency by making assumptions about pain, constraint, and willingness. In the same way that KJ Swanson wondered whether Twilight was abusing our culture, it is perhaps up to us to wondering whether 50 Shades of Grey and, in this instance, the Pontifical Council, are both making mainstream and misrepresenting BSDM in a way that does no justice to women, whether they practice BDSM or not.
Micol Forti of the Vatican’s Contemporary Art Collection reportedly said that this piece ‘is not a headless or armless body’ but a ‘reflection on the classic tradition and possibility of rediscovering a role in contemporary life’. Well, Ms. Forti, the sculpture’s head, arms and legs haven’t been painted with invisible paint. And if classical artistic or ecclesial traditions do include women asking to be bound and brought pain during sex, I – and, it seems, the vast majority of western women – would very much like to see the evidence.