Forever master and servant

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe
Édouard Manet

E.L. James has published another novel.

The formula used to engender “The Mister” repeats itself to a sickening exhaustion: rich, older man meets young, vulnerable girl and exchanges her rescue for sex. Therefore, the names and other details are almost irrelevant and E.L. James remains true to herself.

E.L. James’ work can be criticised in many ways.  We can torment ourselves over her poor mastery of the English language, we can address the flatness of the characters and absence of an actual plot, we can focus on the level of childish absurdity of the narrative, or on the outrageous amount of 125 million copies (and counting) sold worldwide . However, all those aspects are absolutely subjective and picking one of them to analyse the E.L. James phenomenon is not only far too reductive but also morally patronising with regards to all the faithful readers. After all, 125 million of them – as many as the inhabitants of the whole Russian Federation – cannot be wrong. When Fifty Shades of Grey came out, I remember seeing many of my co-workers, friends, and acquaintances, of all ages and with different social-economic backgrounds, becoming obsessed about it.

Needless to say, they were all women. And that is scary.

Scary because a book about bad sex, rape, harassment, stalking and humiliation of a defenceless girl by a powerful man is sold and bought as being sexually and romantically stimulating.

So, unless the 125 million readers are all inexperienced virgins like the heroines of her books, I assume that most of the women who read Fifty Shades of Grey are grown-ups and therefore had, at some point of their lives, sentimental/ sexual relationships. Then, it would be pertinent to ask how can fully grown-up women make romantic projections about the utterly nonsensical, mostly silly interactions between the two characters? And that question leads to others:

What kind of experiences with men did these women have?

If such sceneries are sexually arousing, how much in tune with their sexuality and libido are these women and what role their male partners play in the sexual and relational narratives of their lives?

Why is still female submission and sexual exploitation a turn on, not only for men but also, apparently, for women?

Scary is trying to imagine a cultural context in which all of those variables come together in a background that explains the success of this formula repeated to insanity.

But actually, we don’t need to leave too much to imagination. Factors that contribute to such panorama are far from being few.

In a culture in which porn is the replacement for sexual education as well as the subliminal inspiration for everyday sex, how cannot female sexuality remain anchored in the past?

In a culture that reinforces the gendered old clichés mistaken either with nature, either with sexual empowerment as the foundations of the relationships between men and women, how can mutual respect and understanding be promoted?

In a culture where the female body is devoid of humanity by being exposed and sold in every possible way, how can women connect to themselves and to their own biology?

Thus, the problem is not E.L. James but the culturally shaped sexual stereotypes that inspire her formula. The author would be a harmless, British middle-aged woman with unfulfilled writing aspirations and her novels would have remained unpublished in one of her drawers if massive cultural patterns wouldn’t give sense to the fantasies that inspire those same novels.

Therefore, bad sex is the norm. And by bad sex i mean submission of women’s desires to the male sexual prerogatives and the use of sexuality to reproduce and crystallize relationships of power between men and women and in which women and the mere objects of male sexual pleasure. Inevitably, the main ingredient of bad sex is inequality and inequality is synonym of disrespect and disregard for women’s needs and wishes. The obvious result becomes then the lack of recognition of women as social and sexual agents.

It is then that inequality becomes sexy. And sexy is women standing way below men: at work, at home, in bed, under their hand, their whip or their gaze. Looking up, in hope or dismay, but knowing our own place. That is our best side and the right perspective, the one that makes us look desirable before everybody’s eyes, including our own.

Pleasing men is still, whether we accept it or not, the main source for women’s validation and gratification, sexual or not.

An endless number of essays and reviews can be written worldwide about how outrageous the adherence of the public to monumental attacks to female empowerment is – like Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, Story of O and hundreds of years of more or less cheap romantic literary productions – but until inequality between sexes remains untackled, the same formula that enchanted our great-grandmothers will forever enchant us.

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