50 Shades of Grey is happening, it's happening big, and it's happening for women. I jumped on the band wagon after reading that the books were initially created as Twilight fan-fic (Twilight being the subject of my Masters thesis…) and immediately gave up three days of my life to obsessively read (and yes, re-read) the trilogy. As a woman, and especially as a feminist, I think these books are great.
I know, I know! I can hear my own subconscious screaming at me (as 50 Shades' heroine Ana Steele's does frequently through out the books), but I think there's a lot here that's positive and encouraging. Though I understand, and deeply respect, the feminist threads of mistrust towards the erotica and porn industries (women are reduced to product, mistreated, objectified), I've always stood firmly on the "sex-positive feminist" side of things. Sex is, of course, a fact of life– and any series whose very existence attests to the fact that women also have desires (desires that deserve to be serviced, no less!) is a step in the right direction.
There is of course the issue of the BDSM in the books. Like Secretary before it, 50 Shades of Grey treats BDSM lifestyles with a degree of respect– not pathologizing or glorifying the acts– but rather situating them in the larger context of people's psyches, habits, and desires. I don't think BDSM is inherrently misogynistic. I just don't.
And it must be said (SPOILER ALERT) that the books aren't fully about the Dominant/Submissive relationship. Grey compromises with Ana to find a balance that they both find fulfilling and safe– it's mentioned often throughout the books that he basically worships this woman, and that her love helps him overcome a traumatic past and work through his Dominant tendencies until he is capable of a fully committed relationship. All this without veering into the Manic-Pixie-Dream Girl garbage that would imagine Ana as the panacea for all his troubles– and thus further enforce the idea that women serve only to comfort their men. Theirs is a fairly equitable relationship in the end– for all his wealth (and very minor age difference- he's 27 to her 22, I believe)….Ana is the woman to get him over BDSM because she's smart, and because she doesn't take his crap.
Ultimately, the subject matter is potentially less interesting here than the fact of what this series represents– erotica for women that is now gone fairly mainstream. Yes, we need to think about the how and why and each work out for ourselves how we feel about the story, but can't we first take a minute to be proud and happy that a female writer is having massive success forcing the world to reckon with female desire?
Emilie Spiegel is a grad student, studying the effects of Media Cultures on young women. She lives in Brooklyn.