Published on April 23rd, 2012 | by tomkolovos5
For White Girls Who Have Considered Sadomasochism When Domestic Violence Is Not Enough
I’ve re-purposed and slightly modifiied Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “luxury rap” to describe the current fascination by white, upper and middle class women–who may or may not work outside the home –with the faux postfeminist novel 50 Shades of Grey.
Maureen Dowd rightly interjects that its author, E L James, writes like “a Brontë devoid of talent.”
Which is why Katie Roiphe, who takes on the task of providing a psycho-sexual explanation of the book’s popularity in the current issue of Newsweek, could rightly be said to write like a Barbie deployed in her Dream House.
Which is to say cloistered from reality.
If that doesn’t quite make sense to you immediately look at the image on the cover of Newsweek that accompanies the article. When you think of sadomasochism in general, is this the image that pops up in your head? A white Kate Moss-like skeleton in full makeup with some obsessively chic Yves Saint Laurent couture-like bow tied silk kerchief as a blindfold?
I’m willing to bet not. I’m also willing to bet that few of you will buy Ms Roiphe’s explanation that as the dominance of women in the socioeconomic landscape, fueled by feminism itself, increases “the more theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender offer a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality.”
Tell that to my Greek mother, a working class immigrant who met my Greek “labourer” father–that’s how his occupation is listed on my birth certificate–in Australia and stayed married to him until the day she died, despite the fact for most of their 45 year marriage he was physically abusive.
I bring up this highly personal–and until just now very secret painful life experience–because working class immigrant life didn’t offer my mother the luxury to escape a violent marriage in the 1960’s, especially with two children–one with Down Syndrome no less–let alone to escape into thoughts of whips and chains in her fantasy life.
I can assure you, though I heard her cry many, many times as a child, I never once heard her hum or sing me “He hit me and it felt like a kiss” as a lullaby. Ever.
What rings entirely false with Ms Roiphe’s explanation is that it is premised on a heterogeneous, heterosexual, class specific group luxury and its own very limited imagination beyond the safety of suburban gated communities and doorman buildings–perfectly safe from violence, both economic and physical– and casts it as the dominant psycho-sexual titillation in the name of feminism and all women.
Laurie Penny rather nicely and bluntly sums it up as follows:
Here are some non-standard sexual trends that editors at Newsweek, Glamour and Cosmopolitan are less keen to make headlines out of: poor women fucking. Black women fucking. Queer women fucking. Old women fucking. Fat women fucking, ugly women fucking, bossy, arrogant women fucking. Women who are dominant in bed. Women who like to penetrate men with big pink strap-ons. Women who want multiple sexual partners at once or in succession. Women who just want to go to bed early with a cup of tea, an Anna Span DVD and a spiked dildo the size of an eggplant. Here are some more: sex workers who want to be treated like workers, rather than social pariahs. Men who want to get fucked. Men who are gentle and submissive in bed. Men who don’t enjoy penetrative sex. Men for whom sex is an overwhelming emotional experience. I guarantee you that all of these things go on, but any of them might actually destabilise for a second our cultural narrative of sex, gender and power, so none of them are allowed to be ‘trends’.
Even if you don’t immediately stray into Ms. Laurie’s territory of privileged exclusion in your head, perhaps you’ve strayed into a movie theater in recent weeks to see “The Hunger Games,” which offers a concurrent and inconvenient counterpoint to 50 Shades of Grey and Ms. Roiphe’s analysis.
In that film, which is itself derived from a wildly popular series of books by Suzanne Collins, the heroine is anything but a privileged, submissive, boy crazy reality show caricature. In her review of the film, Manohla Dargis writes:
What invests Katniss with such exciting promise and keeps you rapt even when the film proves less than equally thrilling is that she also doesn’t need saving, even if she’s at an age when, most movies still insist, women go weak at the knees and whimper and weep while waiting to be saved. Again and again Katniss rescues herself with resourcefulness, guts and true aim, a combination that makes her insistently watchable.
Neither looking to be saved nor humiliated. Can that be possible?
Of course it can, just as it is quite possible that the appeal of 50 Shades of Grey to a certain privileged audience is due to psycho-sexual explanations other than those offered by Ms Roiphe.
I have argued in my piece “Hester Aspirin (or, Good Christian Bitches of the GOP” that Rush Limbaugh’s assault on Sandra Fluke cannot be seen apart from the consequences of “America’s fixation with shows like ‘The Real Housewives,’ ‘The Jersey Shore,’ ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘Keeping Up With The Kardsahians.'”
Humiliation fantasies are and have been the cultural norm for women, so if they internalize them, it’s because that’s what’s available for both men and women to internalize. I found Mr. Limbaugh’s demand that Ms. Fluke be made to broadcast her sexual activity online in exchange for contraception particularly insidious in that it took very little historical time for reality television to create a new cultural norm:
What is new is this notion that if a woman is to engage the political culture about female sexuality and reproduction, then she must be reduced to the stereotypes of the popular culture now prevalent on reality television: not just a slut but a “performer” for our entertainment, who in exchange for our approval –and Limabugh’s– documents and broadcasts her sexual life as compensation.
More recently, I’ve begun to wonder whether the wars in Iraq and Afganistan, Gitmo, waterboarding, torture, enhanced interrogation et al. have numbed and even glorified acts of violence to most of the middle class in the name of the war on terror.
Ten years now this is the new normal.
Again it is a reality insidiously and conveniently filtered for us by an all volunteer, low income, predominantly non white “other.” We have bought ourselves the luxury of physical safety, but I wonder how that will manifest itself in our collective imaginations.
Only sex scandals get you in trouble in America. Wars of choice or abuse of power, not so much.
Perhaps it is that naughtiness that has already manifested itself in the safety of posh suburbia, where the humiliation looks a lot like what’s between the covers of Vogue or on the cover of Newsweek.
Tom Kolovos is EIC of aControlledSubstance.com