Avital Norman Nathman is a widely published author, blogger and feminist. Her blog, The Mamafesto, focuses on the way feminism and motherhood intersect. You can also reach her on Twitter @TheMamaFesto.
Every once in a while, a novel is published that grips the entire world by storm, regardless of who its intended audience originally was. J.K. Rowling’s "Harry Potter" series enjoyed this sort of phenomenon, as did Suzanne Collins’ "Hunger Games" books. For the most part, it’s quite clear what gets folks talking about these sort of books: high quality writing, well thought out characters that draw us in, and storylines that transcend age, race, and gender, providing something for almost anyone to connect with.
Can the same be said for the most recent literary phenomenon, E.L. James’ breakout series, "50 Shades of Grey"? To be fair, it has received its share of media attention, with articles written about it in most major newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times and Newsweek. It has also solidified its place in pop culture, making it into a recent "Saturday Night" Live skit, as well as on the Ellen Degeneres Show.
Yet, despite the attention from these varied media sources, what most people are focusing on is the controversy surrounding the series, rather than the literature itself. Most reviews of "50 Shades" agree that the prose is poorly written, with the editing allowing its fan fiction origins to shine through, yet that doesn’t prevent them from weighing in on what has been called the ultimate in “Mommy Porn.”
Completely condescending and demeaning nickname aside, it’s significant to note that the majority of conversations occurring around "50 Shades of Grey", as well as the majority of criticisms, revolve around the (apparently shocking) concept of women reading, and <gasp> enjoying erotic literature. It’s even gotten to the point where a county in Florida has banned the series from their libraries’ shelves for being too pornographic.
Many writers have jumped on the "50 Shades of Grey" bandwagon, expressing their own critical views, which tend to boil down to a few different schools of thought. Some feel that erotica like "50 Shades of Grey" is not only a waste of time, but can be degrading to women as well. Others jump on the fact that any woman who enjoys reading BDSM stories clearly has “rape fantasies,” and that this entire genre of literature can be potentially damaging to women.
Critique of the quality of the series aside, the issue that frustrates me the most in all of this "50 Shades of Grey" hubub is the way women are talked about in relation to reading for sexual pleasure. It’s either looked upon as cutesy, in a “mommy porn” sort of way, or otherwise it’s something to be ashamed of and hidden amongst the other books in your Kindle. So...which is it? Is this something to be tittered about amongst the other moms as they wait to pick up their kids from school, or is it something that grown up, autonomous women should feel shame and embarrassment over?
I vote for neither. I say that while "50 Shades of Grey" wouldn’t have been my first (or heck, even 50th) choice for the book that gets us all talking about this genre of literature, here we are. So, let’s talk about it like actual adults, and not treat it like the sideshow spectacle that it’s become. If this had been a book marketed toward men, would we be seeing the same sort of equal parts derision and patronizing reactions? Would the media dare coin the term “daddy porn?” Of course not.
Instead of stopping with a mainstream book that has allowed some women the space to finally talk about sexual fantasies and preferences, let’s look beyond this one book to the larger picture: The fact that women are sexual beings, and sometimes they enjoy reading erotic literature that sometimes delves into the kinky. In a society that essentially caters to men’s desires, it’s remarkable, though not surprising, when people get up in arms the moment a woman expresses some sort of desire.
Let’s move past the gendered nature of shame, where terms like “mommy porn” exist, and treat it like the reality that it is. Sure, "50 Shades of Grey" may have opened the door to talk about this, but women deserve more than knowing smirks and patronizing comments when discussing healthy female sexuality because of a book that started off as "Twilight" fanfiction.
While we can’t turn back the clock and have another book or series broach the mainstream discussion that shows the popularity of erotica and female sexuality, perhaps we can use this opportunity to begin to change the discussion of what women like or want. Who knows, perhaps the neighbor next door enjoys reading about being dominated then likes to try it out in the privacy of her bedroom, or perhaps the cashier behind the counter of the local supermarket simply enjoys reading about being spanked without any inclination to actually be spanked.
Let’s stop treating it as a farce, or fluke, or heaven forbid, a dirty secret. Let’s turn the conversation into a productive one, where we’re not judging, giggling at or shaming others for their preferences, and instead, let’s approach the topic of female sexuality head on, like it deserves to be discussed - with respect, dignity, and a few less insights from Ana’s “inner goddess.”