Feminism and the “50 Shades” Hangover

By Jessa CrispinJuly 15, 2014

Fifty Shades of Feminism by Susie Orbach, Rachel Holmes, and Lisa Appignanesi
Hard-Core Romance by Eva Illouz

SHOULDN’T WE ALL feel a little embarrassed about the fuss we made over 50 Shades of Grey? I don’t mean the book’s fans. I mean the anti-; the book’s critics; all of us who committed time and energy to blog posts and commentary and long essays attacking E. L. James’s novel. The focus and outrage we brought to the 50 Shades backlash was remarkable, as though we were not so much critiquing a bad book as fighting a war. The situation seemed so grave. If millions and millions of women were getting off on the idea of being sexually subjugated; if the secret fantasy buried in us all is that we meet a very rich man who’ll spank us — is this the end of feminism? Is society as a whole doomed? Obviously! We must fight this scourge, we all agreed. With our opinions.

Now that everyone has woken up with a 50 Shades of Grey hangover, ashamed and trying to forget what came the night before; now that charity shops are overflowing with unwanted books: now is when the publishing industry has unleashed its official book-form responses. I have read two of these books. One is Eva Illouz’s Hard-Core Romance, the other is a British anthology called Fifty Shades of Feminism. Both take the wild success of E. L. James’s trilogy as a cue that something is going on with our culture. But one is a reasoned, thoughtful examination of gender relations, women’s desires, and the role of passion in contemporary society; the other grows from the post-Grey anxiety that oh no feminism must be dead. One is vital and interesting; the other is a disaster.


What exactly was it about 50 Shades of Grey that provoked such a powerful response in us? The Da Vinci Code divided audiences as well, but only in a hey that was fun versus the sentence structure is appalling aesthetic standard sort of way. With 50 Shades of Grey, the argument seemed to divide women into camps, and pit them against each other: one side admitting they liked to fantasize about dominant men telling them what to do; the other side wanting the first camp to know that they should be deeply ashamed of themselves. Also, this second camp reminded us: the sentence structure is appalling.

For those whose reaction to 50 Shades was antagonism rather than arousal, the anxiety often came down to this: if women like this kind of story, if they are still fantasizing about being provided for and treated like children, what does that say about the current gender divide? Wasn’t feminism supposed to correct all of that? The way it was supposed to work was that feminism would allow women to be equal to men, and women would want to be equal to men. They would get off on fantasies of running corporations themselves, not on being sexually dominated by a CEO. 50 Shades threatened this just-so story, this easy parable of a social transformation that could happen to economics and the imagination at once.

But really, 50 Shades is just the tip of our anxiety iceberg. At every turn we’re being asked whether or not feminism is working; there is a constant public debate about it that grades, examines, and questions. Every other issue of The Atlantic carries a cover story on the topic. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” “The Confidence Gap.” “All the Single Ladies.” Then there are the checklists. How many women are heads of Fortune 500 companies? In Congress? Published at The New York Times? Is this men’s fault or women’s fault? And then the surveys. How many women in positions of power at work are married? Unmarried? Have children? Is having children hard? Do women feel conflicted? How is their work-life balance? I cannot think of a single individual feminist (or human) secure enough in all of the decisions she has made and the direction her life is going to simply dismiss this constant interrogation without it installing small seeds of doubt.

She shouldn’t worry, though. After all of that surveying creates a high state of anxiety, magazines swoop in with advice about how you should be living your life. Here’s how to behave more like a man at work. Here’s how to manipulate a man into marrying you. Here’s how to exhibit all of the qualities that we labeled reprehensible when exhibited by men but now that they are performed by women are somehow all okay.

Whatever the result of those surveys, the advice that follows it seemingly has one goal: assimilation. The markers of women’s and feminism’s success — money, power, high-level employment — are the same markers as men’s success. It is strangely infrequent that anyone finds this disturbing.

The constant questioning, the incessant evaluation, is exhausting. Maybe we can read 50 Shades’s popularity less as the sign of feminism’s failure than as a response to the constant anxiety about what women’s choices mean: given all the interrogating, no wonder so many women fantasize about someone just telling them what to do. How pleasant, to have a break from the opinion polls and commentary about what your individual choices mean for women everywhere and the feature articles on how you should be doing that thing you are doing differently because it is harming your children/feminism/marriage potential. Just: eat this, do that, lean over.


But then neither of these books is about 50 Shades of Grey, not really. They are about the state of women; they are testing how it’s going for all the ladies out there. How is feminism working for you?


Illouz’s book describes the state of women as such: we are a little uncomfortable with our freedoms. Freedom seems to be experienced mostly as endless insecurity. If women are completely free to live any life they want, how on earth can they ever choose? And how will they know that they chose well? And how can they ever stop trying to improve themselves — let alone their job situation, or their love lives? We exist in a state of comparison: here are all of these other people who have chosen well, who are shiny and happy, did I choose wrong? I am less happy than they seem to be, I must have chosen wrong. What creams are they using, what college did they go to, what are they doing to each other sexually; maybe if I know that, I can make myself happy.

Her study starts by thinking through what makes a book a bestseller and what a bestseller reveals about the culture from which it comes. For an idea to catch on and sell millions of dollars in product, she posits, it cannot be a radical one. It must constellate thoughts and experiences that people are already having and yet are perhaps not yet able to articulate. (One example she uses is Robinson Crusoe, which went through six printings in the four months after it was released in 1719. Daniel Defoe’s tale of a shipwrecked man’s survival on an island was built on these very Protestant ideals that were taking over: self-sufficiency, dominion over the land, a strict work ethic, superiority to primitive native peoples.) The question then becomes, what ideas in the culture did 50 Shades constellate?

Illouz refers to women’s mass culture as a self-help culture, and judging from Oprah fiction to women-focused magazines to women-focused talk shows and movies geared toward a female audience, it seems clear she is right. And this realm — where women are meant to work on their relationships, their bodies, their psyches — is where 50 Shades got its start. What’s most interesting about Illouz’s reading of women’s culture is her sense that self-help has been staged against any sort of collective consciousness: although we are encouraged to help ourselves, because we are women, we are not encouraged to help other women. Instead, self-help seems like a kind of masculinized competitiveness, in a different and more anxious mode. It is all about self-improvement, about the attainment of happiness, which comes through individual achievement, not any sort of political or societal improvement.

Illouz, who has been writing on this subject for years, in books like Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation to Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help to Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery, knows this is how you derail movements: by turning societal problems into individual failures. In this mode, the source of inequity turns into psychological inadequacy: it’s your daddy issues that are keeping you from finding a mate, not a generally hostile dating culture and conflicting messages about sex and love; it’s your personal chemical imbalance that keeps you depressed, not a very real and unhealthy shift in the way we manage our families, our communities, our cities.

Freedom thus becomes simply anxiety. We can be theoretically grateful for our freedom to select a career path, but we may experience that choice as mostly fear and stress. We may be grateful that we can select our own sexual partners now, but we may nevertheless experience that selection process as a list of things about our own bodies that we need to fix in order to achieve the right sexual partner. And where exactly does sexual freedom intersect with intimacy? What if I do manage to have it all — the great career, the family, the house in the suburbs, the husband — and I am still miserable? It’s in this context, Illouz suggests, that we should read 50 Shades, which directly engages with these questions and offers this relationship between the two protagonists as an ideal. All you have to do is model their behavior and you can have this for yourself! Illouz rightly labels the trilogy as self-help rather than fiction.


There is no room for such questions in Fifty Shades of Feminism, which is obviously a response of some kind to Grey, but the editors — Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes, and Susie Orbach — don’t say what kind of response it’s supposed to be. A scolding? A critique? An antidote? It comes in the form of 50 women’s individual stories, short essays that are deeply personal with very little philosophy or politics. The idea seems to be that the book offers a new kind of fantasy to replace that dirty one you found in James. It aims to make feminism acceptable, cool even. It is as much a part of self-help culture as a trashy fashion magazine, or the Oprah Network, or, yes, 50 Shades of Grey.

But, like many texts claiming to represent contemporary feminist thought, there is not much thinking involved. People share their stories of how feminism helped them and why it is important to be a feminist. Reading Fifty Shades of Feminism after Illouz’s book, however, it’s easy to see the anthology’s aggressive instruction to call oneself a feminist, at all costs, as the opposite of a collective political gesture. Instead, it comes off as the most important self-help move of all.

What becomes clear, reading these two books together, is that people have been misinterpreting “the personal is political” for about as long as people have been saying it. We’ve mistakenly taken it to mean that if I take care of myself, if I achieve acclaim or money or success, because I am a woman, then that is a political victory. Or, talking about myself and sharing my story is a political act.

In this model, though, sharing your story is the important thing, not listening to others’. The enthusiastic responses to Grey often moved surprisingly quickly from “finally, a book that understands me, that voices my fantasy or my desire” to a collective “this is what women truly want.” Individual fantasy came to take the guise of collective freedom, which only really emphasizes that women need to learn to stop assuming their personal desires and experiences are universal. It’s an old habit, picked up from years of men treating women as one uniform block, but I can’t imagine why we still perpetuate it.

The writers of Feminism respond to the variety within women’s desires with indifference at best, and condescension at worst. Here, they say: unless you are a deluded old cow, this is what you should want, this is what will make you happy. Think this, do this, believe this, use these words and not these others. They come off, in the end, much like Christian Grey does in the series: patronizing, didactic, and domineering. If anything, the Feminist writers are less fun than Christian: at least he provides multiple orgasms.


The civil rights and feminist movements did something remarkable: they dismantled the hierarchy that had ruled society for centuries. The stakes of this, as philosopher Allessandro Biral and psychologist Valeria Ugazio have explored, are tremendous. It’s an incomplete job, of course, but with every generation of white boys not raised to believe they have dominion over everyone else, and every generation of everyone else who are raised to believe they do not have to be subservient, the hierarchy will fade into history.

But something has to replace the hierarchy. What we’ve chosen as a replacement, it seems, is a not-dissimilar power dynamic. If everyone is equal, and the playing field is (theoretically) level, then the only thing keeping you from your success is yourself. The fight then becomes to gain power. And indeed, many of the essays in Fifty Shades of Feminism deal explicitly with power: the having it, the claiming of it, the pursuit of it, the longing for it. (Illouz always focuses her conversation about 50 Shades of Grey on the power dynamic that’s the entire basis of the novel. Christian has all of the power, in the forms of sexual experience, wealth, age, and his high-level job, and Anastasia uses her powerlessness to paradoxically gain access to his power. Her virginity, her sexual inexperience, her youth, her formlessness, her emotions are used as weapons, and in the end she, in a way, dominates him.)

There are obvious problems with this set-up, and it’s questionable whether this actually counts as “progress” or is maybe not simply a reshuffling of the same old deck. Even if gender isn’t necessarily the determinative factor, there’s still the powerful and the powerless. What these books help us see is that once you get into this mindset, focused on the acquisition of power, the people around you are less likely to look like human beings and more like useful tools. Which is why it is alarming that the language in Fifty Shades of Feminism is overwhelmingly more about individual aspiration — a dozen writers complaining about their difficulty in “moving up the ladder” at work, and so on — than about creating a more compassionate society. Because that could have been the goal of the removal of hierarchy, a society that is not structured around power but around empathy and compassion. A world based not around “I got mine” but around “We have ours.”

I don’t mean to be naive: there were obvious barriers in place that would have kept this from happening. But what’s worrisome about reading Fifty Shades of Feminism is the sense it gives that collective improvement doesn’t even seem to be the goal anymore. It’s disappointing, but not exactly surprising. The bullied become the bullies. The abused become the abusers.

Being kept from something, for centuries, makes a person, a group of people, a whole gender, fixate with desire. That thing, that thing that has been kept from me, it will be mine.


The editors of Feminism saw the success of Grey and decided the problem was not that women might be ambivalent about feminism; the problem was that their message was not getting across. And their message is: feminism is for everyone.

The problem with trying to universalize feminism is that requires the amputation of its radical wing, the wing that does actually believe there is something better possible than just assimilating into a world of men’s devising. There are radical voices in feminism — Virginie Despentes, Laura Kipnis, bell hooks, Sarah Schulman, Rebecca Solnit, Yasmin Nair — but those included in this book are uniformly very safe, very unthreatening.

No fewer than six essays reference the stereotype of the hairy-legged, man-hating, frothing-at-the-mouth angry feminist and then declare: don’t worry, we’re not one of those! Any sort of societal critique is thrown at a patriarchal straw man, as if all we have to do is get 50 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs to be female and an equal number of female bylines at The New York Times to have a better world. They seem to forget that assholes are assholes. Women are not naturally more empathetic, compassionate, nurturing than men are, although it’s fun to think so when you’re not in a position to disprove this.


In this anthology, feminism becomes less a political philosophy and more of a justification for narcissism. Every decision that each person makes can be explained away with “because feminism.” Want an epidural and to bottle-feed? That’s feminism! Want to get married and move to the suburbs? Feminism! Do you want to make a big deal out of refusing to diet or maybe instead spend a lot of time playing around with clothes and makeup? Either way, both are feminist! Here, feminism is not used as a filter to assist with the decision-making process. The argument presented is this: your action is feminist because you are choosing for yourself. The result is a “feminism” that’s not only depoliticized but also desocialized: “feminism” becomes a word to slap onto a choice after the fact, as a way to protect a decision from any criticism.

Unless, of course, you, the reader, choose differently than the writers in the book, and then the condemnation comes down hard. Pornography, high heels, and bikini waxes, prostitution and other forms of sex work, refusing to label yourself as a feminist, plastic surgery, sexual submission, and reading 50 Shades of Grey: all these are listed as crimes against humanity, betrayals against the sisterhood.

I’ve advocated, here, collectivity. But there’s a difference between collectivity and the kind of “sisterhood” advocated in Fifty Shades of Feminism, which is simply self-interest in a social guise. Beware the woman going on and on about the sisterhood. She’s likely to be the first one to stick the knife in the moment your back is turned.


Illouz reveals a conflict in contemporary society: the anxiety of freedom versus the desire for intimacy, and the search for meaning on a consumerist marketplace. And where the writers of Feminism see only apocalyptic gender dynamics in Grey, Illouz sees a kind of androgyny. In her reading, 50 Shades of Grey is a story of a woman who helps a man awaken his emotional side and a man who helps a woman awaken her ambitious and autonomous side, until they become equals.

In this reading, Grey answers modern conflicts about the gender of power by finding the center way between them. No wonder so many women signed on. I get to have a satisfying, meaningful career, while being totally emotionally bonded, and have rocking sex? It’s a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that’s appeal is understandable.

50 Shades of Grey was not the end of feminism; it was simply a sexual fantasy based in the world we currently live in, one of power dynamics not only in the capitalist workplace but also between the sexes. Manipulation is a skill each gender uses to manage the other: men are taught how to “game” women into having sex with them, women are taught how to manipulate men into marriage and coupledom. Sex is what men think they want, and monogamous, long-term relationships are what women think they want. Instead of being secret and underground, though, Grey just places those same dynamics aboveground in the forms of physical pain, domination, and submission. The only difference I see between these two struggles is in the visibility. 


At least Illouz doesn’t feign to believe there is an easy answer to all of this. She is not a self-help writer, she is not part of the corroded “women’s culture” Fifty Shades of Feminism seems to represent. She knows that ditching your high heels for something more reasonable is not going to make you score higher on the feminist assessment scale.

Fifty Shades of Feminism is not a sign that society is coming to an end, that feminism as a whole is doomed. (Although you would be forgiven for thinking so after reading, “Crying. But these are not tears. They are just sequins.”) It is merely, much like Grey, a symptom of a current conflict.


Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of Bookslut.com.

LARB Contributor

Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of the literary magazines Bookslut.com and Spoliamag.com. Her first book, The Dead Ladies Project, will be released by the University of Chicago in the Fall of 2015.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!