On Friday, millions of women will make their way to movie theaters to welcome the third installment of a beloved, billion-dollar franchise, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” or in this case, “Fifty Shades Freed.” In case you are unfamiliar with E.L. James’s trilogy, let me assure you that the movie’s protagonist, Anastasia Steele, will not be freed from the patriarchy. Spotted throughout with scenes of light bondage, the books’ hero, Christian Grey, spends most of the trilogy stalking, harassing and pushing Anastasia’s boundaries, sexually and physically, much to her own satisfaction.
When it first came out in 2011, “Fifty Shades of Grey” proved something of a conundrum. Why were women flocking to bookstores to purchase 125 million copies of poorly written erotic romance full of scenes of disempowerment? As law professor Amy Adler of New York University told Emma Greene in the Atlantic, “There’s an interesting tension right now between the mainstreaming of S&M that ‘Fifty Shades’ represents and also the mainstream horror at rape culture.”
That tension is not limited to “Fifty Shades.” For it’s not just James’s trilogy that traffics in tropes of sexy disempowerment. Though romance has come a long way since the rape and “forced seduction” narratives of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, the idea that consent is fungible, and that this is sexy, can still be found in many romance novels.
Of course, this was all before the #MeToo movement.
It started with men accused of inexcusable wrongdoing who have been summarily axed from public life — like Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey. Next to fall were those whose sexual impropriety was previously tolerated but no longer would be — like Leonard Lopate and Garrison Keilor. Most recently, Aziz Ansari has been caught up in reports of an evening that smacks of sexual coerciveness if not outright coercion. In an episode later recounted to the website babe.net, Ansari was aggressive. He pushed boundaries. He did weird things. He really wanted to have sex with the pseudonymous “Grace,” even though she demurred frequently.
In other words, he treated consent as though it were fungible.
And though the leading man Ansari himself plays on his TV show is much more obsequious (his partners are into him and have orgasms), his actions when hooking up with Grace should actually be pretty familiar. Think of the classic kissing scene in “Goldfinger” where Bond kisses a struggling Pussy Galore. Or think of the scene that sets off the seduction of Daenerys Targaryen in “Game of Thrones” — it starts with rape.
In popular culture and everyday conversation, as some have already pointed out, men spend a lifetime being told that sex is something you have to convince women to give up against their will.
And yet, it’s not only male-oriented culture that’s “rapey.” What we think of as traditionally female-oriented genres are just as bad if not worse. They’re full of narratives whose protagonists would be promptly fired if they were real and living in the #MeToo era. Think of “Grey’s Anatomy,” which begins as a show about a woman whose boss won’t stop hitting on her; or “Secretary,” another BDSM-inspired romantic comedy, which depicts a boss sexually humiliating his secretary — until she falls in love with him. “Fifty Shades” started out as fan fiction inspired by another million-dollar franchise, “Twilight,” written for teens yet devoured by grown women. Like Christian Grey, the “Twilight” protagonist is a brooding boundary pusher who favors stalking and breaking and entering.
As Julie Beck put it recently, “Many of the romantic heroes that made me swoon in my youth… in some way crossed, or at least blurred, the lines of consent, aggressively pursuing women with little or no regard for their desires.” Beck sees rape culture in the songs and movies of her youth, and hopes that #MeToo will spell the end of these tropes: “Our culture is beginning to complicate things, to question the value of romanticizing stories where one person chases another, or wears her down, or drags her along against her will.”
But what are we to do with the pleasure women readers and moviegoers take in nonconsensual narratives? Will #MeToo spell the end of “50 Shades of Grey”?
I don’t think so. I don’t believe rape fantasies have much to do with rape culture. There’s an obvious distinction between fiction and reality. And as feminists, we should be able to have both an absolute real-life demand for enthusiastic consent, as well as an absolute respect for the fantasy realm in which consent may not be so clear-cut.
What we are asking of men is to know that women can fantasize about non-consent, but that it is supremely unsexy when men engage in it without, well, their consent. We can still want our romance novels and our movies and our rom-coms to traffic in those tropes while not wanting men to act this way without asking.
Will future women raised in cultures blessedly freed from patriarchy no longer want to read “Fifty Shades of Grey”? Maybe! But until we are a nation of such Amazons, let us not insist that women give up on their pleasures.
We can demand a new reality while cleaving tightly to our old fantasies.
These days, I find myself often thinking of another book: Charles Dickens’s 19th-century novel “A Tale of Two Cities.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” the opening lines go. “It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”
How apt this is as a description of the #MeToo era. It is surely the best of times — we have never lived in an era that believed women so absolutely. And yet, how painful to hear these stories, to relive our own, to still be struggling against the incredulity of those who don’t believe.
An epoch in which women can both enjoy rape fantasies and expect not to be actually raped or pursued without their consent would truly be the best of times — and the best of times. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.