Archive for July, 2014


Soft Porn in Makeup: The fine print in “Fifty Shades of Grey” signs you up for more than you think

July 30, 2014


"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

You might not think of being nude, tied up, and tingling as a disguise. But that’s the reality behind E. L. James’s best-selling soft-porn romance Fifty Shades of Grey (2012). Just as some parties and carnival frolics call for fanciful masks, so does James’s bondage/sadomasochistic (BDSM) trilogy.  In the novels’ Seattle, a virginal college student named Anastasia Steele (Ana) discovers exceptional sexual pleasure and eventually idealized romantic devotion in a rich, handsome young man named Christian Grey.  Their relationship is based on a contract in which Ana agrees to become Christian’s “submissive,” willing to be beaten, spanked, and tied up, to lower her eyes in his presence, and to let him dictate her sleep, food and dress.


Nominally the novel dramatizes the partners’ search for extraordinary sexual fulfillment. In bondage (BDSM) sex, pain and submission overthrow everyday self-protective inhibitions. They excite hypervigilance and sensitivity, making you more acutely aware of your body and your partner with the whip. Fifty Shades walks readers through the sex play in a sort of “self-help eroticism.” It introduces and explains techniques of pleasure the way Cosmo does. And it manages to wink at you while sounding breathlessly earnest. This pain is really “pain,” a technique, and (ahem) comes with “safe words” to disguise the reality that the thrill of losing control is always under control—in particular, under Ana’s control. So the contract here is really a script that’s thrilling because you pretend to cut loose and let it all hang out. it uses a taste of pain to strip off the swaddling wrap of habit that keeps us safe and half-asleep in our everyday lives.


It might look as if the bondage contract overturns feminist goals of equality and independence for women. In fact the master/submissive relationship is a plot device. By the third volume the sex-partners are married and it’s shades of mum and dad. By now Ana’s in charge of her life and, in reality, the family, and Mr Fifty Shades, as if in a trance, follows her around like a puppy and keeps repeating that he loves her.


The real “master” in the novel is the creaturely urge to reproduce that’s built into us and adds another seat at the breakfast table. Mr Fifty Shades with his sex toys and sympathy is really just (to be cute) the First Mate on this kinky voyage. Like a conventional romance, that is, this one boostsself-esteem by lavishing freedom, wealth, comfort, protective love, and motherhood on an average gal. Making it with Christian becomes a way for Ana to really make it. Ana gets (as they say) to have it all.


If that sounds too pat and too good to be true, there must be more going on. And sure enough. For one thing, this is equal opportunity wish-fulfillment. It turns out that Christian’s been traumatically abused as a child, but Ana’s love heals him. And he too shares in the triumph, since he gets to be a Pygmalion helping to form Ana, his Galatea. Of course this is the borrowed plot of Hollywood’s Pretty Woman (1990), where Julia Roberts heals the rich traumatized businessman (Richard Gere) by mixing a spoonful of love with a dash of submissive street sex.


One reason for the S/M business—the beating, spanking, and humiliation—is to make it seem that Ana is earning her total wish-fulfillment through some pain, humiliation, and self-discipline. But there’s more to it than that. Think of it this way: at the start Ana is like a teenage girl worried about being forever average. In the contract, in effect, she’s sexting nude photos of herself to woo a lover, giving herself to a stranger, risking everything. She’s defying all the rules Mum teaches you. It’s especially risky because, like most people, she fears she’s not attractive and remarkable enough to land a mate. What’s more, she’s breaking the rules that held Mum back, about to outdo her. In exposing herself with Christian, Ana advertises her charms and availability—and is also neatly “punished” so the guilty daughter can get what she wants in the end without a lot of uptight ambivalence.


If you doubt this, look again at the contract. Instead of imagining it “commanding submission,” think of it in plain terms as bossy. Remember, the contract orders her to lower her eyes around Christian, let him spank her and dictate her sleep habits, food, and dress. The program demands respect and controls every phase of Ana’s life like an affluent suburbanparent totally invested in a trophy kid. In the process, her self-effacement (the “submissiveness”) can purge feelings of guilt and inadequacy and earn Mum’s love.


Yes, but Christian’s a man (!) True, but this is when you notice that Christian is as nurturing and protective as a mother. This is Janice Radway’s insight about the romance formula. No matter how buff the heroes may be on the front cover, eye patch and biceps turn into maternal nurture by the last page. For a lonesome reader, he’s a dream: he listens to you, respects you, protects you—talks to you, for heaven’s sake. Following Nancy Chodorow, Radway points out that boys grow to marry a version of mum, whereas girls have to leave mum behind. Women who become addicted romance readers (multi-volumes a week), Radway concludes, are making up for that empty spot.


Fifty Shades, then, tries to reconcile “the conflicting imperatives of autonomy and attachment” (70) in a 21st century society where mating rituals and gender roles have become intimidatingly improvisatory. The characters cope by substituting a contract that uses bondage to create bonds and spell out every move. What appears to be self-abandon and the discovery of some hidden authentic you turns out to be a device for loosening of inhibitions, so that the partners can learn to enjoy the intimacy that romance assumes was in them all along. —Oh, and it invites a visit from the stork.


Here’s are two chewy paradoxes:

In a time of modern anxiety about love and mating, the contract in the novel takes us back (or out) into the world of arranged marriages, in which families negotiated the future well-being of two young strangers and kin. Conventional wisdom has it that sometimes such contracts actually worked, with intimate bonds and merriment to match. Of course Romeo and Juliet warn us not to take any such thing for granted.

In a time when attitudes toward sex are gratefully relaxed and roles are less prescribed, you might expect that this freedom to explore would make for more grown-up insight.  But in Fifty Shades the plot gratuitously gives the sex partners a happy ending. Nobody has to put up with suffering, hilarity, and hard work to wise up. The contract is a basic tool of good business sense, but it also skirts the hassle of dealing with living personalities.  And in consumer capitalism—as if you didn’t know—sex and wish-fulfillment are marketing strategies that flatteringly insist it’s all about You, wonderful You. (The movie will hit the theaters next Valentines Day.)  You could be excused for wondering if signing the contract doesn’t make us more childlike.


And finally this: as fantasy, Fifty Shades is a culture’s classic effort to turn a terrifying reality—the American hysteria about terrorism and the shameful justification of torture—into a kinky recipe for romantic bliss. You could say that Jack Bauer of  “24” is the vicious godfather of Fifty Shades. This is an indication of how much the novel and its readers want to stay enchanted.  Fifty Shades equips the eventual marriage with sex toys and a locked room for pleasure, but the couple’s child and their monotonous pledges of love suggest that as the clock ticks and more candles blaze on the birthday cake, ecstatic taboo is great, but it may not be forever.


In this sense the kinky contract is disguising not only mum, old traumas, and the stork, but also the shadowy role of that other parent, Father Time.


This essay is Part Two of two parts. For Part one, see:

Resources used in this essay:


Eva Illouz, Hard-Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers, and Society (Chicago, 2014),

Kirby Farrell, Post-Traumatic Culture (Baltimore, 1998).

_________, Berserk Style in American Culture (New York, 2011)

Jan Hoffman, “Poisoned Web: A Girl’s Nude Photo and Altered Lives, New York Times, March 27, 2011.

Amy Pavuk, “Rebecca Sedwick’s suicide highlights dagers of cyberbullying,” Orlando Sentinel (Sept. 16, 2013)…

Janice Radway, Reading the Romance (Chapel Hill, 1984).



The Romance Plot

July 7, 2014

By Kirby Farrell, Ph.D.

Stories are tools for making sense of the world.  They function as parables. In dramatizing situations, they put problems in a form that helps us to think about their puzzling qualities.  In computerspeak, stories “crunch” complex information into usable form. They may follow familiar mechanical schemes, with white hats taking black hats to the cleaners and offering you a momentary wishful high. Or they can be famously enigmatic “literature” such as Heart of Darkness that admits that the world is overwhelmingly bigger than we are, and whispers, So what are you going to do about it?

Let’s not stew like English majors over Hamlet. Let’s stew over hot Romance like perplexed and sexy hominids. I was going to say “like perplexed and sexy Americans,” but romance has a worldwide appeal. Harlequin books, the romance factory, tells us they sell more than four books a second, half of them internationally.

Who can be surprised? Romance is the go-to tool for thinking about mating. And mating is supremely popular with creatures who don’t want to go extinct. That’s the simple part that the stork delivers. The personal reality is much more complicated. For women readers, romance offers a way to think about self-discovery and relationships, especially now when, like climate change, life can be unpredictably frigid or hot, and storm warnings keep wailing in the background.

Some readers take in a novel a day, like vitamins or gin tonics. That sounds creepy until you remember that people who watch TV news faithfully can be addicted to daily tales of criminals nabbed, movie stars rehabbed, orphans and coal miners rescued, and other narrow escapes from oblivion. Heroic rescue from death is another face of the fertility fantasy in romantic love. Who wouldn’t want more life?

In the romance formula of the 20thC, the heroine is a young virgin, pretty but not glamorous, independent but not aggressively feminist, cut off from her usual support network and naturally a bit lonesome. The formula hero is older, more experienced, apparently recovering from bruising intimacy. He’s successful, with a robust credit card, and with an interesting rather than a pretty face.  According Bantam’s old 1980s Soft Romance specs, he might be a cruise ship captain or “an owner of vast estates.” He’s made it.

When they’re together at first, the ingénue and hero wrangle a bit to establish their positions on the game board. After some touch-n-go and tentative  tingling, he proposes. As the Trafalmadoreans in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five keep asking, Are you mating yet?

You can see the outlines of heroic rescue here. The heroine rises from the threat of nonentity (social death) to become an esteemed wife at the top of the food chain. Her virginity guarantees that the kids will be authentic, and his wealth insures that they’ll flourish at the dinner table and a Harvard commencement. For the couple, in different ways, the story prescribes an ideal economy. She trades her virginity, her specialness, for a future of reassuring fertility. He shares his prestige and his “vast estates” with her, trading his sterile solo success for love and family: fertility. Swept along by endorphins and romantic lingo—“fingertips” not “hands” touching—the couple fulfills biology’s and society’s standing order for posterity and immortality.

In this way the “realistic” romance reveals its kinship with its fairy tale cousins such as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Rumpelstiltskin,” in which magic spells, sleep, and captivity in the unheated tower are markers for death which the right kiss can overcome.

Consider St. George. In paintings (check em out online), a reptilian dragon threatens to devour a walled city. The beast is voracious, surrounded by bones and leftovers, a caricature of our own human compulsion to kill and eat other living things three times a day, all year round. The dragon’s cold-blooded and dwells underground like Satan. The Princess of the city has agreed to sacrifice herself if the dragon will spare her fellow citizens. She’s young, lovely, prayerful, and not a biter.

Along comes George, in armor with a blazing red cross. He’s on horseback, mounted high above the dragon (spiritual, aristocratic). He skewers the dragon, marries the Princess, and they together they go on to rule the walled city. (Her Dad conveniently disappears with the slain dragon.)

The George story shows you antecedents of the romance: aristocratic courtly love, the lethal warrior tamed to Christlike chivalry and protecting the self-sacrificing young woman. Mating, the couple overcome death and take over city hall, then come dynastic diapers and teething toys.

In the Disney Beauty and the Beast twist, the Prince is St. George crippled by his inner dragon. Following the 20thC formula, Belle defies his beastly pouting and liberates his royal pedigree, becoming the most prestigious woman in the kingdom. They mate in a waltz, to the servants’ applause.

Everybody wants to be rescued, whether by messiahs, movie stars, commandos, or a lover.  —Oh, and doctors and vitamin quacks.

These days romance feints at democracy, though mating elevates the modern girl even as it brings her consort back to intimate, emotional life. The climax of the plot is a form of conversion experience for both parties, offering a prestigious position in a idealized social world of money and baby. It’s not far-fetched to notice that the romance story is implicated in the economic inequality that protects ambitious billionaires while beggaring the working poor.

As for that red cross on George’s armor: in modern romance the meek don’t inherit the earth. If the modest heroine marries her way to the top, the top is there because she’s marrying a guy associated with Christ the redeemer. That’s a patriarchal fantasy that only a dragon could swallow nowadays. The giveaway is the idea that George can slay the dragon. That’s a specific religious belief. In the world of wedding cakes and vast estates, you can’t get rid of death and our creaturely limits with the poke of a spear.

These days, reports from the dating frontlines tell us, social life is changing so radically that it’s getting hard to tell the players apart. The runaway—or epidemic—bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey seems to recommend bondage, discipline, sadomasochism, contracts, and safe words as the tools you need to make sense of it all. The grim reaper and the grim raper are behind every locked door and yet gone the next morning, leaving only a dent in the pillow and a cold space on the mattress.

More on this around the next bend in da Nile.

Resources used in this essay:

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York, 1977)

Kirby Farrell, “Traumatic Heroism,” Post-Traumatic Culture (Baltimore, 1999).

Eva Illouz, Hard-Core Romance (Chicago, 2014).

Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance (Chapel Hill, 1991).