“Hard-Core Romance is a wonderfully creative piece of cultural analysis. Writing from a feminist-sociological perspective, Eva Illouz tells us how Fifty Shades of Grey became an international bestseller by providing fantasy resolutions to real-life female dilemmas, and self-help for the douleurs of contemporary heterosexuality. A most timely intervention.”– Laura Kipnis, author of How to Become a Scandal
Buy this book: Hard-Core Romance
A Woman’s Novel
This is a women’s novel, written by a woman, read (mostly) by women, clearly marketed to women, and more appreciated by women than by men. As a German man living in London whose reaction I solicited through e-mail put it: “My girlfriend was fascinated by the book and told me that she believes ‘every man should read this book in order to understand what women want from a man.’” With such a ringing endorsement, I flicked through a few pages of the book, then put it aside. I was speechless. It contained some of the worst writing I have ever seen and a plot that made my toenails curl. An article published on the web stresses the point aptly: “The bondage-inflected romance novel 50 Shades of Grey has topped the New York Times bestseller lists for 10 weeks, followed at numbers two and three by its two sequels. It’s been most popular with women, especially moms, leading many to call it (dismissively or worshipfully, depending on their point of view) ‘mommy porn’” (North 2012). This opinion is shared by the readers themselves, as illustrated by the author of a book blog:
I enjoyed 50 Shades of Grey enough to pick up the next book in the series, but I never dreamed I’d spend 1,000 words defending it. Perhaps, I’m really defending myself and other women who read the book and didn’t hate it, or actually loved it, or whatever. Because a lot of the eye-rolling at this book feels like the usual attack on women and the things women like and the usual underestimation of our ability to know our own minds. (Harris 2012)
Without a doubt, the book enacts contemporary women’s fantasies.
But what exactly are “women’s” fantasies? The novel treads highly familiar ground for women. Since the eighteenth century, and most definitely since the nineteenth, with the institutionalization of the private sphere and of the emotional family (defined as a unit whose vocation is to forge and maintain emotional bonds between its members), romance novels have given expression to women’s search for love and matrimony in a pleasurable formula in which the heroine meets an attractive but dark and threatening man, who later reveals himself to love her and be devoted to her (Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is a prototype, and even Samuel Richardson’s bestseller Pamela may be viewed as an initiator of this genre). Fifty Shades of Grey is an almost caricatural version of a gothic romance in its use of such familiar themes: the innocent and virtuous but opinionated young woman who works for a rich man who behaves to her in a seemingly hurtful way, with the novel progressively revealing his tangled past, his vulnerability, and his uncompromised devotion to her.
The second way in which this novel is tailor-made for women is in its graphic exposition of sex within the account of a conventional heterosexual relationship geared to women who live in conventional domestic frameworks (“mommy porn”). The mommy porn genre takes place in the context of the “pornification” of culture—the mainstreaming of pornography in culture—and the growing consumption of pornography by women. Undoubtedly, Fifty Shades’s depiction of sex is a part of this worldwide trend. Yet the terms “mommy porn” and “pornification” ignore the complex cultural structure of women’s sexuality—which serves the purposes of not only pleasure, freedom, and power but also identity projects and the management of close and intimate relationships. If the nineteenth-century novel was about the self-discovery of a young woman through love, contemporary popular texts aimed at women now ask, what is to be discovered about oneself when engaging in an active sex life, free of matrimonial goals and constraints? Sexual liberation has provided new practices for women to “reclaim” sexuality as a positive and moral aspect of their identity (see, for example, the worldwide success of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues as a direct expression of this reclaiming of women’s sex and body).
Fifty Shades of Grey is unquestionably inscribed in this trend and subscribes to the unforgettable injunction issued by feminist writer Germaine Greer: “Lady, Love your Cunt.” (And Naomi Wolf ’s recent Vagina seems to have followed that trail.) But such reclaiming of one’s body and sexuality interacts (or comes into conflict) with another traditional thick woman’s social world, made of sentiments, obligations to others, and domestic bonds. Sexual freedom, for women, is complexly entangled with the longing for intimacy, which is why it has generated a question that has reverberated in women’s popular culture for the last six decades: what ought to be the value, the form, and the limits of a free sexuality? For example, the worldwide TV series and phenomenon Sex and the City (and more recently the widely popular HBO Girls) revolves around the question of what is a “female point of view” on sexuality, whether the longing for monogamous love is or is not compatible with feminist politics (McRobbie 1991, 94). If Fifty Shades of Grey is a women’s novel, it is precisely in the sense that, for women, sexuality is at once a site of self-knowledge and self-identity and a problem. More than for men, modern women’s sexuality has been caught in the tensions between sexual freedom and the traditional social structure of the family, between the desire for individual pleasure and the injunction to fulfill the duties of a domestic unit. This is in turn the reason why Fifty Shades of Grey cannot be characterized as being simply and only mommy porn—unless one naively assumes that the romance is the “pretext” to wrap the sex in the pink paper of sentiments. In fact, the opposite is the case: it is the sex that is the pink paper in which the love story is wrapped. For in the new culture of sexual autonomy, it is the fantasy of and for total love that has become unavowable. In an April 2013 interview in the French magazine Le Point, the famous French writer Michel Houellebecq commented on the notion that love had become unavowable. He was asked by the journalist if he still believed in love. Houellebecq replied:
MH: People believe in it. And I believe in it too. . . . In fact, people believe in it today much more than during my childhood.
MH: I don’t know. We can try to understand. We can say they don’t believe in politics anymore, or in brotherhood. That they pretend they believe in friendship, without fooling themselves entirely. So they still form couples, or at least try to. They think it is sad to live alone. Then there is this aggressive attitude against love, you know, like during the 1970s. The stupid idea according to which sentimentality is more pornographic than pornography. I was never shocked either by pornography or by sentimentality.
Houellebecq suggests that the portrayal and experience of love are now in crisis: people have sentimental longings they cannot acknowledge anymore, and this is because, I would argue, heteronormativity—the norms regulating men and women’s relationships—has itself run into a crisis. As Lauren Berlant (1995) claims: “At moments of crisis, persons violate the zones of privacy that give them privilege and protection in order to fix something social that feels threatening: they practice politics, they generate publicity, they act in public, but in the name of privacy.” Fifty Shades of Grey gives publicity to what has become a crisis of sexual privacy.
For the nonsociologist, sex is the sinful or the pleasurable act we do in the privacy of our bedroom. For the sociologist, sex and sexuality are an axis around which the social order is organized, an axis that binds or divides people in specific and predictable patterns. Whom one is allowed or prohibited to have sex with; how sexuality connects to morality; what relationship there is between pleasurable sex and biological reproduction; who can be paid for sex and who can’t; what are the different forms of cash transfer in sex; and what is defined as legal or illegal sex—these are only some of the questions asked by sociologists about sexuality. Sexuality is a chief subject matter for the sociologist because it is socially regulated and because its social regulation is hidden from view—in fact, made invisible. Having sex is a way of performing and reproducing social and cultural structures because sexuality contains responses to such questions as who has power (e.g., a free Greek man would have been viewed as morally inferior if he was penetrated anally by a slave; he had to be the penetrator); what the role of desire is in one’s subjectivity (it is given full legitimacy in consumer culture and very little in Christian monastic life); what the proper organizational framework for sexuality is (connubial bedroom, brothel, nightclub, mystery religious cults like those of Bacchus or Dionysus); or what place sexuality has in morality (a mark of depravity in Christian culture or a mark of self-realization in a culture dominated by Freudianism). Sexuality is never just the sheer encounter of two bodies, but also a way of enacting society’s social hierarchies and morality (sexual transgressions are no less defined by society, for they make sense only in reference to a norm). That sexuality is always social is true even when, or especially when, it is “free.”
Modern sexuality contains quintessential elements of what it means to be a competent and full member of a modern society. First and foremost, sexuality has been one of the central cultural vectors carrying forth the modernist watchword “freedom.” Through the influence of Freudian (and postFreudian) culture, sexuality became crucial for the formation of the self, a site of self-discovery, self-knowledge, and selfrealization. It is at once a site to discover and speak about the truth of the self and a site to shape the autonomy of the self. This is the reason why many of the chief dramas of modern selfhood have been scripted as dramas of sexuality—for example, coming of age, coming out of the closet, discovering and being able to achieve multiple orgasms, and, more recently, coming to terms with sexual trauma. Sexuality thus not only is about the autotelic experience of pleasure (for its own sake) with no reference to reproduction; it also stages and mobilizes some key motives of the definition of the good modern self, selfpossessed, self-knowing, and hedonist (able to pursue her or his utilities and satisfaction).
The second way in which sexuality is crucial to modern selfhood lies in the fact that it has been a highly effective tool to socialize individuals into consumer culture, as it demands an unprecedented amount of consumer practices (e.g., “sexiness” demands a perpetual grooming of the body through sport, cosmetics, and fashion; meeting partners demands an ongoing act of consumption in the leisure sphere in bars and restaurants; the sexual act often entails the consumption of sexual aids, toys, and pornography). As a practice in which the body is publicly and privately displayed, modern sexuality represents a crucial site for the formation of the consumer self, defined by its ability to make choices, to pursue one’s self-interest, and to undertake pleasurable pursuits.
Sexuality conveys yet a third aspect of modern selfhood. It has become the terrain around which heterosexual and homosexual women and men have redefined the purpose of marriage, love, and reproduction through such notions as equality and consent. Sexuality is thus not only a hedonist project but a political and moral one as well, saturated with the injunction to display ideals of equality and consent.
Sexuality has been the conveyor belt for the cultural “modernization” of men and women, a privileged site for enacting the modernist value of freedom, the ability to exercise consumer choice, and the awareness of rights as equal subjects. In becoming the site for cultural modernity, sexuality also became the site for its characteristic paradoxes and aporias: sexual encounters are regulated by the normative ideals of freedom, autonomy, and an implicitly contractual relationship, in which the freedom of each party is always implicitly kept. In sexuality, two subjectivities must negotiate consent, symmetry, and reciprocity, each retaining his and her right to define or redefine the meaning of the encounter and to leave at any moment. (This is what Anthony Giddens  called the “pure relationship.”) But the free and contractual character of modern relations is also what makes them replete with uncertainty: which obligations and commitments, exactly, does sexuality entail? It has become difficult, if not impossible, to say. Fifty Shades of Grey articulates the uncertainty that has come to inhere in sexuality. In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey encodes the various forms of uncertainty contained in sexuality and resolves them in a relationship of unambiguous romance and love induced by sexuality. Sexuality is not subsequent to love—which made it replete with emotional certainty—but precedes it, and has thus become one more arena of negotiation between two selves. The pleasure of reading this novel— regardless of its poor quality—derives from the fact that it articulates both the set of tensions that plague modern heterosexual relationships and a contemporary utopia of sexual love, resuscitated from the ashes of the conventions of romantic passion and oxymoronically envisioned in a sadomasochistic relationship.
Desire or Autonomy?
Falling in love entails a loss of sovereignty. In romanticism, it is felt as an exalted and direct experience of passion as a primal and raw force of nature. But in modernity, the loss of sovereignty is a problem, a condition that threatens the integrity of the self because it threatens its autonomy in seeming to surrender to another’s will. This is because in modernity autonomy is the master cultural code of selfhood, encoded in the legal and economic spheres and in the realm of psychic well-being. A plethora of psychological discourses aim to provide techniques to learn autonomy by calling on women and men (but mostly women) to approach passion with suspicion and to monitor the mechanism of self-abandonment and self-sacrifice. To that extent, we may say that autonomy and passion have become antithetical. Along this modernist vein, Fifty Shades of Grey is a novel about what it means to lose one’s sovereignty while pursuing one’s autonomy.
In the first volume, Ana and Christian’s initial encounter consists in defining very clearly their respective positions (“submissive” and “dominant”) and the conditions under which Christian will not lose control. As the contract stipulates: “The Submissive shall serve the Dominant in any way the Dominant sees fit and shall endeavor to please the Dominant at all times to the best of her ability.” But Christian wants more than Ana’s submission; he wants her to will it: “I want you to willingly surrender yourself to me, in all things,” he tells her. Where the “new man” (i.e., the man who has taken heed of feminism) would have said, “I need you” (i.e., an expression of his vulnerability), Christian says instead, “I need you to need me,” an expression of a vulnerable and imperious masculinity—because for submission to be complete, the dominant must transform the very core of the submissive’s desire, making her or him want to subject the self to another’s will. As Roger Scruton put it, sadism is “paradoxical” (2006, 13), and this paradox is inherent in desire: we want the object of our desire to also become the object of our will, but we need him to remain a subject, that is, to have an autonomous will and desire, for only a subject can be desired, and only a subject can, in turn, give us the feeling of being truly desired. In that sense, the sadist is in the same paradoxical position as Hegel’s Master in his dialectic of the master and the slave: to dominate another means to erase their will; but domination can be truly achieved only if it rules over a free consciousness that recognizes one’s lordship. The consciousness that the Master aims to subdue, but that he needs, will eventually become aware of itself, become autonomous, and rebel against the Master.
Indeed, at the end of volume 1 Ana leaves Christian, unwilling to surrender to his “needs” because in the process of negotiating with him about his needs, Ana has become aware of needs of her own, thus affirming her autonomy. This is the explicit reason she invokes for refusing to sign the BDSM contract: “Not sure why this [Clause 2] is solely for my benefit— i.e., to explore my sensuality and limits. I’m sure I wouldn’t need a ten page contract to do that! Surely this is for your benefit.” Autonomy can thus be defined as an awareness of the conditions under which one will not relinquish his or her equality with another. This is the position opposite to that of the masochist, best exemplified by the character of O in Pauline Réage’s famous Story of O ( 2012), in which the heroine accedes to being whipped, tortured, and defiled for the sake of her love for René. Story of O ultimately suggests that the logic of female heterosexual love is masochistic and that such logic leads to the erasure of the self: “She did not wish to die, but if torture was the price she had to pay to keep her lover’s love, then she only hoped he was pleased that she had endured it.”
Ana, in contrast, leaves Christian despite her love for him, and this act brings the narrative to a Hegelian moment: it compels Christian to “recognize” her, that is, to fall in love with her because of her assertion of autonomy. After one of Christian’s “I love you”s, Ana asks, “Despite my disobedience?” Christian replies, “Because of your disobedience” (vol. 2). A relationship that started as Christian’s attempt to dominate Ana and turn her into a Sub, a slave, becomes a “struggle for recognition,” an endless verbal joust with the Dom progressively submitting to the will of the Sub, resonating with the tales in which the weak (the Sub) turns out to be the truly powerful one (the Dom). (Again, I owe this remark to Dana Kaplan.) Christian relinquishes his will to power and wants instead to be recognized by Ana. “You are one challenging woman, Ana Steele,” he says repeatedly and lovingly (vo1.1). It is another’s autonomy that kindles our own desire and our love—we desire another in his or her autonomy. And our own desire in turn generates another’s desire. “One desires the desire of another—even a child knows this” (Brand 2012, 25).
The core of the fantasy of Fifty Shades of Grey has to do with the emotional dynamic it depicts: one where the autonomy of Ana and the power of Christian create each other’s desire, and one where the submission of the one to the other’s will creates further autonomy and desire. As Ana describes: “He clicks something on the bar [where her ankles are attached with cuffs], then pushes, so my legs spread further. Whoa, three feet apart. My mouth drops open, and I take a deep breath. Fuck, this is hot. I’m on fire, restless and needy” (vol. 2).
Ana’s desire is here at once submissive and autonomous, further provoking Christian’s desire of and his own submission to her: “You never cease to amaze me, Ana. You’re so wet,” he incessantly repeats.
When he ties her hands after she has a powerful orgasm: “In a daze I do as I’m told. He pulls both my hands backward and cuffs them to the bar, next to my ankles. Oh . . . My knees are drawn up, my ass in the air, utterly vulnerable, completely his. ‘Ana, you look so beautiful.’ His voice is full of wonder, and I hear the rip of foil.”
These descriptions have the same monotonous structure: her agency is denied, and affirmed in the very movement of being denied, because her autonomy creates his desire, which makes her vulnerable, which in turn generates his vulnerability; through the exertion of his power, he subjects her to him but becomes in that movement subjugated by and to her, furthering her own autonomy.
As philosopher Roy Brand notices, “the stability of this system [of desire] is always at risk, for I cannot possess the desire of another. The offering of desire must be mutual, circular, and self-supporting: I desire your desire desiring my desire and so on” (2012, 74). This dynamic is not only circular but highly fragile. Desire, autonomy, negotiation, reciprocity, and equality are forces that push and pull relationships in directions that are very difficult to predict. This is why romantic relationships have become unpredictable, or “chaotic,” in Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim’s (2002) felicitous formulation. But in Fifty Shades, Christian’s power and Ana’s autonomy do not create chaos, that is, a dynamic process in which each moves away from the other; instead, it generates their own and the other’s perpetual desire.
And suddenly the nature of his kiss alters, no longer sweet, reverential, and admiring, but carnal, deep, and devouring— his tongue invading my mouth, taking not giving, his kiss possessing a desperate, needy edge. As desire courses through my blood, awakening every muscle and sinew in its wake, I feel a frisson of alarm. Oh Fifty, what’s wrong? He inhales sharply and groans. “Oh, what you do to me,” he murmurs, lost and raw. He moves suddenly, lying down on top of me, pressing me into the mattress–one hand cupping my chin, the other skimming over my body, my breast, my waist, my hip, and around my behind. He kisses me again, pushing his leg between mine, raising my knee, and grinding against me, his erection straining against our clothes and my sex. (vol. 3)
The novel fulfills a modern type of fantasy, which is not that of eternal or perfect love; on the contrary, Ana and Christian’s love seems constantly fraught with struggles and negotiations. The powerful fantasy they enact is one in which the struggle over autonomy and power does not conflict with desire but generates it. In that sense, the novel manages to resolve the fundamental tension of desire in modernity by making the normally opposed logic of desire and autonomy closely interlocked. As Ana herself says: “It’s very confusing being with you. You don’t want me to defy you, but then you like my ‘smart mouth.’ You want obedience, except when you don’t, so you can punish me. I just don’t know which is up when I’m with you’” (vol. 1). While the imperative of autonomy in the real world of real relationships is an obstacle to relationships because it creates distance in the autonomous person and uncertainty in the desiring person, this conundrum has been here resolved: “I like defying you,” Ana says, to which Christian responds: “‘I know. And it’s made me so . . . happy.’ He smiles down at me through his bemusement” (vol. 3). While the dynamic of desire is normally opposed to autonomy (desire makes the subject vulnerable and dependant), desire here only feeds the project of autonomy in a teleological movement that comes to reinforce the very meaning of heteronormativity. Indeed, as some scholars have argued, heteronormative sex is sex with a purpose, with a story, with a goal (marriage, love, shared life, a child). It is, in short, sex with an identity, as opposed precisely to the kind of sex of demonstrated by O, which is ultimately to dissolve the self.
The Problem with Equality, or “Just Fucking Fuck Me, Already”
Feminism is no longer only a political movement but has also become a cultural code, used in advertising, TV series, movies, and romance novels (Cantor 1988; Freeman 2001). Affirming this cultural code often involves nothing more than paying lip service to the moral force and political demands of feminism and has even made feminism lose its political edge, becoming an empty gesture (McRobbie 1991).
This cultural code of feminism has transformed the ways in which gender, sexuality, and the family are portrayed in mass media. My point is not that Fifty Shades is a feminist book (it obviously isn’t, because it does not offer an alternative to traditional heteronormativity), but rather that its narrative structure and characters have self-consciously incorporated the feminist cultural code, much like many other areas of popular culture. The critiques of the book as being antifeminist have entirely missed the point, but readers have not failed to noticed the presence of the feminist code: “The book actually keeps its female protagonist in charge of everything that happens in the bedroom. She has the power. The couple in 50 Shades only pretends to be slave and master. Anastasia is actually the one setting the rules (she renegotiates the sex contract on just about every page) and Christian accedes to all her wishes” (Liner 2012).
Anastasia Steele is an almost parodic model of assertiveness: she always knows quickly and clearly what her emotional needs are (emotional needs are by definition elusive); she coolly and competently rebuffs the psychological and physical aggression of Christian’s ex-lovers; she threatens to fire a woman who looks at her attractive husband too insistently. She refuses to change her name when they get married; she punches a man who grabs her in a discotheque; she refuses to benefit from any advantage that Christian’s position as owner of the publishing company in which she works would give her. She insists on treating him when they go out, despite his extravagant wealth; she insists on going out to meet her friends, despite the danger to her physical security; she shoots guns. And far from least, she proves herself to be a highly competent and liberated sexual partner. In short, Ana is the model of assertiveness envisioned by feminism, and it is as such that she has been self-consciously encoded in the narrative.
Feminism is a radical movement in the etymological sense of that word: it went to the very root of women’s social being and tried to transform the very nature of their own (and men’s) desire. While feminism’s claim to economic equality (same pay for same work) does not meet with significant moral objections any longer, the attempt to reform the structure of heterosexual desire has met with opposition even from women who otherwise espouse the call to economic equality. While feminism has made progress in the workplace (demanding equal pay and representation in positions of leadership), women have become ever more sexualized in the consumer and media spheres, further deepening the grip of men’s control and women’s own resistance to feminism. The sexualization of women’s identity has been incessantly promoted through the images of the sexed, sexualized, and sexy body, which has successfully performed its sexualized femininity through sex with men and through the intensive use of consumer culture (for an illustration of this, see Sex and the City). It is through sex and sexuality that women are made to perform a simulacrum of their emancipation. Why then, have sexuality and desire proved to be such reluctant arenas for women’s equality?
In a much-discussed article about Fifty Shades of Grey, Katie Roiphe makes a further claim: ” To a certain, I guess, rather large, population, it [Fifty Shades of Grey] has a semipornographic glamour, a dangerous frisson of boundary crossing, but at the same time is delivering reassuringly safe, old-fashioned romantic roles” (2012). Roiphe continues: “In the realm of private fantasy, the allure of sexual submission, even in its extremes, is remarkably widespread. An analysis of 20 studies published in Psychology Today estimates that between 31 percent and 57 percent of women entertain fantasies where they are forced to have sex.” Quoting Daphne Merkin from the New Yorker (February 1996), Roiphe further muses: “Equality between men and women, or even the pretext of it, takes a lot of work and may not in any case be the surest route to sexual excitement.” Roiphe here echoes an increasingly loud litany lamenting the fact that equality has brought the demise of sexual desire (forcefully exposed, for example, in Cristina Nehring’s successful A Vindication of Love). Equality, critics claim, is not very sexy because it demands consent, negotiation, which is another way to say that it demands procedures. Men who have learned the lessons of feminism lack sexual directness and vigor; women long for a form of masculinity that is more stylized, sure of itself, and playful. But this only pushes further the question, why is traditional masculinity pleasurable in fantasy? In other words, why are some of women’s fantasies still caught in patriarchy?
The premodern bonds between men and women were based on what we may call metaphorically a feudal social system: men dominated women; that is, men received women’s sexual and domestic services in exchange for which men granted women their (presumed) protection. The traditional men provided economically for his dependents (women and children) and defended them with his body. This unequal social system was based on a bond of reciprocal dependence. Inequality— translated into protectiveness—thus contained undeniable forms of pleasure, an important one being the clarity of the gender roles it implied. In contrast, equality is intrinsically more muddled because it cannot fix roles or values to roles. In that sense, equality is less pleasurable because it generates uncertainty and ambivalence.
The second pleasure found in inequality is that in translating power into protectiveness, it creates a “natural” mutual dependency and thick emotional glue. Equality, on the contrary, does not create a sense of obligation but rather an awareness of each one’s own needs and rights, which can potentially conflict with the rights and needs of the other. The moral claims made by equality are thus by definition less emotionally binding to another.
The third pleasure found in inequality resides in the fact that when they are not negotiated, roles generate emotions that are more spontaneous and immediate, because well-scripted social roles do not require negotiation or even reflexiveness, a capacity to reflect on the relation itself while it is unfolding. Egalitarian norms unscript roles and identities and turn relationships into entities that must be negotiated through “communication.” As a blog writer put it: “It’s become generally accepted that communication is the key to good sex— communication tips have become a cornerstone of sex guides for everyone from Christian couples to sex slaves. But talking can be difficult, and maybe the popularity of 50 Shades is in part a backlash against the admonishment to talk, a sign that sometimes people yearn for someone who just knows” (North 2012). A Seattle woman expressed this sentiment in a Craigslist (2008) ad that went viral, under the heading “Just fucking fuck me, already.” And so did Jessa, of Girls: when a man she picked up in a bar asked if it was okay to put his hand in her pants, she responded, “Never ask me that again in my whole life.” “Maybe 50 Shades of Grey speaks to women’s desire not to have to speak” (North). What this reader refers to as “not to have to speak” is another way of saying “not to have to negotiate,” where negotiation results from the fact that women are responsible for preserving a state of pragmatic and emotional equality with their partners.
I would argue, then, that the backlash against feminism is a longing for patriarchy, not because women long for domination per se but because they long for the emotional bonds and glue that accompanied, hid, justified, and made domination invisible, as if one could separate male protectiveness from the feudal system of domination in which men granted such protectiveness. In other words, modern femininity has to face the still widely prevalent power of males, minus the feudal code of protectiveness that regulated the inferior status of women. This is why the narrative of Fifty Shades articulates an archetypal masculinity: it is in fact a protective masculinity, reminiscent of what I have just called feudal masculinity.
Examples abound: “They want what is mine,” Christian says about Ana’s potential suitors. “‘Mine’ he repeats, his eyes glowing possessively” (vol. 2). Or on the day of their wedding: “With infinite slowness, he unfastens each button, all the way down my back. ‘I love you so much.’ Trailing kisses from the nape of my neck to the edge of my shoulder. Between each kiss he murmurs, ‘I.Want.You.So.Much.I.Want.To.Be. Inside. You. You. Are. Mine’” (vol. 3). Or when they decide to get married, on the day of the ceremony, Ray—Ana’s stepfather—tells Christian: “Look after my girl, Christian,” Christian replies, “I fully intend to, Ray.” In a typical male rite de passage, Ana enters matrimony with one protective man passing her to another protective man. And thus, despite his immense wealth, Christian refuses to have Ana sign a pre-nup—a testimony to his capacity to subscribe to a nonmodern, that is, a noncontractual, marriage.
The male gesture that is fantasized about here and that is performed by Christian throughout the three novels is noncontractual protectiveness accompanied by moral equality. Such acts of protection and possessiveness are too frequent not to mean something important. They reflect the ambivalence of many women vis-à-vis the ways in which feminism has transformed traditional masculinity and femininity and the relation of the sexes into a contractual bond. I would argue that such ambivalence is not due to the fact that feminism has stripped away love from its mystique (this is the claim made by detractors of feminism) but rather from the fact that the feminist revolution has remained selective (affecting more women than men) and unfinished (the economic sphere and the family are still largely patriarchal). It is the selectiveness and the unfinished character of the feminist revolution that have made intimate and sexual relations so fraught with difficulties. The longing for the sexual domination of men is not a longing for their social domination as such. Rather, it is a longing for a mode of sociality in which love and sexuality did not produce anxiety, negotiation, and uncertainty.
So insistent is Christian’s protectiveness that it becomes a feminist question self-consciously raised in the story itself: is his protectiveness a form of control and even stalking? Ana refuses to be controlled but slowly discovers through her sexuality that yielding to the domination of another is pleasurable. The apprenticeship works if her autonomy is accompanied by the apprenticeship of her submissiveness. The narrative of Fifty Shades is thus able to encode in the character of Ana simultaneously her hyperassertiveness, her self-emancipation through sexuality, and her sexual submissiveness to a male’s power and protectiveness.
Christian harbors a form of hyperprotectiveness that is both the sign of traditional masculinity and its justification. His protectiveness is here disconnected from the legal, moral, and cultural order that disenfranchised women. This protectiveness is symbolically pleasurable because it is connected to the modern categorical imperative to experience daily multiple orgasms. Christian Grey combines the ultracommitted traditional patriarch with the sexual athlete who knows and cultivates all the nooks and crannies of women’s bodies and female sexuality. In that sense, the fantasy that is at the core of the story is a prime example of “false consciousness”: it mixes the emotional power of the traditional patriarch—economically powerful and sexually dominant—with the playful, multiorgasmic, intensely pleasurable, and autotelic sexuality that is the hallmark of feminist sexual politics.
Copyright notice: "How to Find Emotional Certainty in a World of Sexual Uncertainty," an excerpt drawn and adapted from chapter two of Eva Illouz's Hard-Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers, and Society, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2015 by University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)
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