Pardon us for getting this up so late, but we've had a lot of people traveling this summer. Anyway, author Jennifer Armintrout, who blogged her opinions of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey, sat down to speak with us about the negative messages for women in the novel and her critical thoughts overall on summer's most talked about book.
1) Can you give us some background on yourself and why you wanted to review this novel in particular?
I’m a USA Today Bestselling Author of urban fantasy or paranormal romance, depending on who you ask. I also write erotic romance and contemporary romance under my pen name, Abigail Barnette. I started writing professionally at age twenty-three, so I’ve been able to really watch my attitudes evolve along the way. All told, I’ve written eight traditionally published novels and thirteen e-books, and a handful of short stories, all written with women as the target audience. Since 50 Shades has been touted as “mommy porn” (a term I absolutely loathe) and “porn for women” (yet another term I loathe – I didn’t realize traditional pornography was off-limits or universally unappealing to women), I thought it would be professionally negligent of me to not read it. Once I did read it, I knew I had to express my thoughts on it. And when all the things I wanted to touch on didn’t fit into a reasonably sized book review, I decided to comb through it chapter by chapter.
2) We're not against romance when done well as it is a privilege of any woman to safely express her sexuality or indulge her sexual fantasies in any way she wishes. However, one of LW's big issues with the book is that Ana is presented as unbelievably innocent, having never even touched herself at age 21. Do you feel this reinforces an possibly outdated trope of untouched virgin led by experienced man? Why do you think she was presented as so inexperienced in her own desires?
It absolutley reinforces that trope, and it’s obvious that it still appeals to a large number of women. I know that virgin stories, or unexperienced, unfulfilled heroines appeal to me on an emotional level, even though intelligently I know that a woman’s sexual past doesn’t matter in the context of the romantic relationship I’m reading and enjoying. But I think it’s fairly common for a person, male or female, to long for that excitement of discovery that comes when you first start exploring your sexuality. I hate to speculate on the author’s motives or personal life, but I think maybe E.L. James was tapping into that longing, and it obviously struck a chord with readers. We also have to keep in mind that this book is not an original work, no matter how much its publishers have argued to the contrary. It’s a fanfiction work with the names changed. The main characters in 50 Shades of Grey are Bella Swan and Edward Cullen from Twilight, and in Twilight, Bella was very innocent, because she was a teenage girl. It was believable innocence. E.L. James upped Ana’s age in 50 Shades in order to write the steamier bits without breaking taboos. It’s more difficult to suspsend disbelief that a twenty-one-year-old has never masturbated than it is to believe that a seventeen-year-old has never been kissed, so I feel Ana’s virginity and total inexperience was a bad choice on her part. It might have been more believable for Ana to have had a few unsatisfying partners before she met Christian. At least she would have had some sexual agency in the plot, that way.
3) There's also a sense of shame in open sexuality. For one, after her roommate, Kate Kavanaugh has a one night stand with Christian's brother, Elliot, Ana's inner monologue is rather judgemental even though she, herself, has just spent time with Christian alone and is contemplating more. What are your thoughts on what could be seen as "slut-shaming" in what is being hailed as a "liberated" sex novel?
What are my thoughts? It’s bullshit. Can I say that? I found Ana Steele extremely unlikeable in this aspect, but again, I think it’s something that, sadly, appeals to a lot of women. There’s such a tendency among women to support this very negative kind of thinking – “The sex I’m having is okay, because I can justify it. The sex you’re having is dirty, because I refuse to apply my same justifications to your situation, as it makes it more difficult to judge you in this competition I am enjoying in my head.” It all boils down to the fact that Ana is with her first and only love. Kate has had and enjoyed consensual sex with multiple partners in the past. She isn’t sexually “pure” like Ana is, and I believe she’s used intentionally as a foil to reinforce Ana’s sexual “purity” and the alleged romance of the relationship between Ana and Christian. If Kate is a slut, then her relationship with Elliot isn’t as romantic and their love isn’t as true as Ana and Christian’s. It’s part of that virgin trope we discussed earlier. We know that Ana “belongs” body and soul to Christian, because he’s the keeper of her sexuality. If Elliot cannot be the keeper to Kate’s sexuality, because she’s owning it, well, what’s left for him? Just her as a thinking, feeling individual? Pfff, who wants that? It’s one of the aspects of the book that disgusted me most.
4) There also seems to be a running theme of subtle bashing of fellow females. Ana constantly mentioning Kate's looks, demeaning the blonde women working for Christian with numbers as if they aren't fully realized people. There's also the fact of her female rivals being given derogatory nicknames and descriptions. Do you find that at all troubling that the heroine seems to have such little respect for her fellow women?
I’m on the fence between condemning Ana’s attitudes toward other women and praising E.L. James for staying so true to the character of Bella Swan. If you remember, in Twilight, Bella interacts only grudgingly with other females, and feels constantly threatened by the physical beauty of the female Cullens. James definitely takes it a step further, and I think that both authors were laboring under the delusion that female readers would identify more with a blatantly insecure heroine. What have we been taught to do when we’re feeling insecure? Cut down another woman, because it will somehow make us better by comparison. When we see a heroine do this in a novel, we’re supposed to say to ourselves, “I will root for her, because she’s just like me.” I think there are better ways to make our heroines likeable, or even to show the reader that they’re insecure. I’m reading a great book, Tempest Rising by Nicole Peeler, where the heroine is very insecure, not about her looks, but about her past and the way she’s treated by the insular world of the small town she’s lived in her entire life. It’s refreshing, specificially because she has solid relationships with two female characters without being threatened by their looks or their sexuality, and it’s more believable. As for Ana’s derision of blondes, the blonde thing drives me crazy. Because blondes are our cultural gold standard of beauty, we see them villainized over and over in books written for women. I thought the blonde receptionist bit in 50 Shades was a particularly hamfisted “blondes are evil!” moment.
5) What aspects of the Ana and Christian relationship do you find troubling? What might raise the "red flags" that denote an abusive relationship, for example?
Blogger and pre-published writer Kelsey St. James has a social work background and sent me some literature about abusive relationships that really helped me pinpoint everything I found wrong with the relationship between Ana and Christian. When this book first started making media waves, Dr. Drew Pinsky said that he felt the BDSM aspect of the book was indicative of an abusive relationship. Of course, the BDSM community rushed to defend the physical parts of consensual BDSM, and the entire blow up was so badly handled by both sides that everyone ended up ignoring the real abusive relationship at the heart of the book. To my mind, there is no consensual BDSM in 50 Shades, because Ana is unable to give informed consent. She’s too inexperienced, too sexually naïve, and Christian is unwilling to explore her sexuality without those BDSM elements in play. He’s also emotionally manipulative, withholding approval or affection until he gets the consent he desires. The first time Christian spanks Ana, she considers it an assault, actually uses the words “beat” and “assault.” Those are not sex-positive words from an informed and consenting participant. There are also the blatant red flags of Christian tracking Ana’s cellphone, removing her from the safety of a public place to his hotel room when she’s unconscious, his repeated threats to rape her (although the word “rape” is never used, he tells Ana that she wouldn’t be able to stop him if he wanted to have sex with her), his “gifts” of a computer and cell phone so he can maintain constant contact with her… there are so, so many problematic things happening in this book that people aren’t bringing up, because they’re focused on whether or not the kink is acceptable. Christian openly stalks, intimidates, and threatens Ana, and blames her for making him feel negative emotions. There is nothing about their relationship that isn’t a hallmark of emotional control and abuse.
6) I also noticed a subtle recurring theme of homophobia in the novel. For example, it's the one question Ana asks that offends Christian and later on in the novel he says he'll punish her for that. Do you believe this novel has shades of homophobia?
I definitely found Ana’s embarrassment over just saying, “Are you gay?” very tiresome, and I do think their reactions to that question made Ana and Christian both come off as homophobic. But then later you’ve got Christian easily admitting that he enjoys receptive anal sex, albeit with female partners. That’s something you’re not likely to see in a lot of romance novels, or strictly male/female erotic romances, so I give James a thumbs up on that one. Too many authors would be afraid of letting their heroes admit they like butt play, because god forbid we read about a romantic hero enjoying anything that could be seen as “too gay”.
7) Have you heard of the Philadelphia Incident? What do you think this novel might do as far as enticing people who aren't ready or knowledge to enter into a rigid D/s relationship? And can you explain why you think this book might misrepresent or be harmful to the BDSM lifestyle from what you have since learned in reading up on that group?
I think that link highlights exactly why this book is harmful to the BDSM lifestyle. It doesn’t factually represent what goes on in the scene, or what is actually expected of submissives, and someone is going to go to a club or enter into a relationship expecting to fulfill their fantasy of being Ana Steele. I’m worried because while many people practice safe, consensual BDSM, there are people out there who want to exploit naïve newcomers to the scene. Their prospective prey pool has just filled to the brim because of this book. Someone who has entered into the scene through experimentation with an understanding and experienced partner is hopefully going to know what is and isn’t acceptable behavior from a dominant, and what their rights as a submissive are. People trying to come into it armed with only the knowledge they got from this book aren’t going to have those tools, because they’re not present anywhere in the text.
8) Finally, this book presents BDSM as aberrant and a lifestyle only entered into by those who are abused. Christian's background includes both neglect from a crack-addicted mother and being molested starting at age fifteen. What harm do you think these assumptions do to the BDSM community as a whole when it is often just an activity on a normal spectrum of sexuality?
Obviously, it paints everyone who engages in any level of BDSM activity as emotionally or sexually broken, when in reality, it’s just something that either turns your crank or it doesn’t. Again, we can’t forget that James was writing this as a Twilight fanfiction. She removed the element of vampirism, so she had to add something to make Edward/Christian tortured and dangerous. Since vampire myths are so tied to sexuality, why not make Christian’s sexuality tortured and dangerous? And BDSM is a perfect choice, specifically because of all the misconceptions surrounding it. It is going to create a problem for anyone who is into BDSM, because they’re going to have to defend themselves even harder than before. They’re going to have to defend themselves against allegations of abuse, they’re going to have to defend themselves against allegations of perversion, as they have had to in the past. And now, they’re going to be faced with well-intentioned people wanting to delve into their sexual and emotional history to cure them of their fetish, or judgemental people snickering at them for being damaged.
I want to be clear, though, that I don’t think this is an attitude we’re seeing just with regard to BDSM and this book. I think it’s a sad part of Western culture, that we’re always trying to figure out why we like certain things sexually. James decided to portray BDSM as something someone would only be into if they’re psychologically damaged, and that’s the same thing most people think about exotic dancers, prostitutes, really any kind of sex work. “Oh, she must have been molested, that’s why she’s a hooker.” It’s like we’re so uptight about sex, we have to have some negative reason to make it a part of our lives. No one, male or female, is allowed to own our sexuality for what it is. If I were to say, “I enjoy sex because I like to have orgasms,” someone is going to inevitably tack on a more valid (to them) reason, usually, “And you have a husband and we need to keep them happy, right?” or “And you spend all day writing those books!” We’re absolutely not supposed to want or enjoy sex, while being constantly bombared with sex at all times. No wonder everyone is so confused.