On Friday, millions of women made their way to movie theaters to welcome “Fifty Shades Freed,” the third installment of the beloved billion-dollar franchise. 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. Between scenes of light bondage, the hero, Christian Grey, spends most of the series stalking, harassing and pushing Anastasia’s boundaries, sexually and physically, much to her satisfaction.
When it came out in 2011, “Fifty Shades of Grey” proved something of a conundrum. Why were women flocking to bookstores to purchase tens of millions of copies of a poorly written erotic romance full of scenes of disempowerment? As New York University law professor Amy Adler told Emma Green 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.” Romance fiction has come a long way since the rape and “forced seduction” narratives of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, but the idea that consent is fungible, and that this is sexy, can still be found in many novels.
Will the #MeToo era change that?
Some have blamed portrayals of questionable consent in popular culture for rape culture, arguing that men spend a lifetime being told that sex is something you have to persuade women to give up against their will. Think of the classic scenein “Goldfinger” when James Bond kisses a struggling Pussy Galore and she eventually kisses him back. Or the seduction of Daenerys Targaryen by her husband in “Game of Thrones,” which begins with rape.
But what we think of as female-oriented works can be just as bad. They’re full of protagonists who would be promptly fired if they were real and living in our time. Think of “Grey’s Anatomy,” which began as a show about a woman whose boss wouldn’t stop hitting on her; or “Secretary,” another BDSM-inspired romantic comedy, which depicts a lawyer sexually humiliating his secretary — until she falls in love with him. “Fifty Shades” started out as fan fiction inspired by another billion-dollar franchise, “Twilight ,” which was 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. He literally ends his love interest’s life.
As Julie Beck put it recently in the Atlantic, “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 she grew up with and hopes those tropes are ending: “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 that female readers and moviegoers still take in nonconsensual narratives?
Get rid of them, say some, like the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “The Fifty Shades franchise is advertised as an erotic romance, but in reality it is a story of sexual violence,” reads a news release I got this past week. “If we are ready to transform how our culture treats women — from exploitative to empowering — we need to stop making and watching films like Fifty Shades Freed that glamorize sexual violence against women.”
The truth is that rape fantasies don’t 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 and 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 quasi-consent but that it is supremely unsexy when men engage in it. We can want romance novels and movies and rom-coms to indulge those ideas without wanting them to leap into real life.
Perhaps future women raised in cultures blessedly freed from patriarchy will no longer want to read “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But until we are a nation of such Amazons, let us not insist that women give up their pleasures. We can demand a new reality while enjoying 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.”
What an apt description of the #MeToo era. It is surely the best of times — we have never lived in a period when women were believed so readily. And yet, how painful to hear these stories, to relive our own, to still struggle against the incredulity of those who don’t believe.
A time when women can both enjoy rape fantasies and expect never to be raped or pursued without their consent would truly be the best of times. It’s not too much to ask for.
This story has been updated.