Shades of Grey, Bits of Magic? (On women’s increasingly bold embrace of sexuality.)
This past year has seen the emergence of some extremely popular sexual material aimed directly at heterosexual women consumers.And the stuff has spread like wildfire.I am referring here of course to the best-selling“s&m lite” book (and soon to be film) Fifty Shades of Grey and to the immensely-successful movie about male strippers, “Magic Mike.”
Neither of these products is without controversy.Many people have argued that even though both the book and the movie are being marketed to women, they nonetheless serve to reinforce a patriarchal conceptualization of sexuality.That they only further eroticize of male centrality (in the case of “Magic Mike”) and male supremacy (in Fifty Shades of Grey). And that all may well be the case.
But I think I get myself out onto pretty thin ice if, as a man, I start to assert (or even begin to develop!) judgments about what sorts of things that women should and should not find erotic.That is a topic that is far better left to women themselves to sort out.And isn’t it possible that just what turns a person on can really only be sorted out on an individual level?
The cultural context of “sexy.” One thing that is true about sexuality is that for most people what we find to be arousing is a mix of both nature and nurture.We live in a culture that eroticizes certain looks, certain styles, and certain behaviours.And, being social beings, many of us resonate with that stuff, even if the social messages behind it are murky or possibly oppressive.For instance, there is nothing inherently erotic about a woman wearing a pair of 4-inch stiletto heels.And some people say that the very act of wearing high heels actually disempowers women.But a whole lot of other people (both men and women – many feminists included) find the image of a woman in stilettos to be very sexy.
Given that the images that are all around us affect us on numerous levels, is it reasonable to expect that the stuff of our daydreams (not to mention our night dreams!) will always prove to be every bit as pure as our politics?And even if such an expectation is reasonable, just what should feminist-informed politics say about high heels? Are they empowering? Or disempowering? Both? The answer to that question is far from clear. And is it really an affront to social justice and to gender equality everywhere for a woman to perhaps fantasize about being ravished by some handsome stranger? Does imagining such a coupling somehow put a woman’s feminist credentials in jeopardy? I know some very strong feminist women who would strongly disagree with that!
And of course finding some of the explicit sex scenes in Fifty Shades of Grey to be pretty hot does not necessarily mean that one endorses s&m in one’s own day-to-day life. Nor does it suggest that one supports the male dominance that is depicted throughout the book.Yes, Christian Grey is a very creepy guy. Some of his behaviors qualify as stalking – which when unwelcome is an extremely disturbing and often terrifying thing to encounter. (But, perversely, when that level of uninvited attention is actually welcome, it is relatively indistinguishable from traditional ideas of romance – see, for example, any number of Bryan Adams or Melissa Etheridge “love” songs.)
And the fact is that many women throughout the world are finding some of the sex scenes in Fifty Shades of Grey to be quite… distracting. And these days a lot of women are also finding watching male strippers on the big screen to be a little distracting as well.Women are flocking to “Magic Mike” in droves.In many places it has become a popular “girls night out” activity...And yes, the movie is male-centric.And yes, it is hetero-focused. And yes, hooting and hollering at a nude, gyrating, hot male body is highly superficial. One can hardly assert that the women who go to see this film are committing an act of revolution!
Or can one? On the other hand, maybe going to see that film is a revolutionary act.I think it is quite possible that we are seeing a sea change happening in the culture when it comes to women’s sexuality.When Fifty Shades of Grey is selling out in suburban bookstores, and when it’s Fifty Shades of Grey-- and not “Hints from Heloise” or What to Expect: The Toddler Years -- that the commuting mom next to you on the train is reading on her Kindle, there is definitely something going on.When a local bookseller in my socially conservative small town chooses to devote a whole window display to handcuffs, whips, and quotes from that book, there is a change in the air.When women are publicly announcing on Facebook that they are going to go out “with the girls” to watch a movie that features hot male strippers, a shift is occurring.
Unapologetically sexual. I do not think this change we are seeing reflects a whole-hearted (or even marginal) embrace of s&m, or a sudden desire on the part of most women to spend a whole lot of time watching male strippers.But I do think there is a shift going on where a whole lot of women are publicly discussing and exploring and experiencing their sexuality in a way that has never happened before.And they are doing it without apology.
It is almost as if they are saying: “Yes, I am a sexual being.You got a problem with that?”
A legacy of “Slutwalk”? And who knows, maybe the feminist activists who last year created the world-wide phenomenon of the “Slutwalk” deserve some of the credit for the changes we are seeing.
(In 2011, after a Toronto police officer stated to a group of university students that maybe women wouldn’t get raped if they didn’t dresslike “sluts,” the women took to the streets.Dressed just like “sluts.”And it became a global happening, occurring around the world.Those brave women made it okay to be publicly sexy.They said that it is okay to be overtly sexual without fear of retaliation or retribution or rape.Those women claimed their right to be a “slut” if they choose to be one.)
They were exhibiting an overt, unapologetic female sexuality. So rather than pick apart some of the media products that are contributing to (and capitalizing on) this wave of female sexual consumerism, maybe it’s just better to leave them alone for a little while.Yes, they are hetero-normative, and it is true that there is nothing new to be seen in the power relationships that they depict.But as more and more women continue to unabashedly embrace such overtly sexual forms of entertainment, there will no doubt be a greater variety of products emerging for them to choose from. So this time, maybe we should avoid having a situation where “the perfect becomes the enemy of the good.”In my opinion, the stuff that is coming out now is indeed far from perfect.But it is a whole lot better than what has come before, and I look forward with anticipation to what comes next. It will likely be much better.
And, please, let us make sure as we discuss the relative merits of these sexualized books and movies that are coming our way, that we are not making women feel bad about their sexual thoughts or desires. Because there’s definitely nothing revolutionary about making a woman feel bad about wanting to embrace the pleasures of the flesh. There is no Magic in shaming a woman for her sexuality.