This is our truth, tell us yours
I’m not going to take issue witb the critique of E L James’ novel, although it does all sound a little familiar. Indeed, some of it has aspects of 9 1/2 weeks (or is that just the American settings), and, according to Maya at feministing, the same driving theme, that men who do BDSM are poor, damaged flowers who, but for some long concealed trauma, would be nice happy Stepford husbands settling for a weekly bout of desultory pleasure in the missionary position after Match of the Day, or, if they’re new men, a Marks and Spencer £10 meal for two and a glass of really average Chardonnay. These two quotes are terrific;
“‘Why don’t you like to be touched?’ I whisper, staring up into soft gray eyes. ‘Because I’m fifty shades of fucked up, Anastasia.’
” ‘The woman who brought me into this world was a crack whore, Anastasia …’ I slip into a dazed and exhausted sleep, dreaming of a four-year-old gray-eyed boy in a dark, scary, miserable place.’ ”
That theme, that to be a male dominant is to act out some past trauma, is not the theme of this short post, even if it is almost child like in its simplicity and naive in its understanding of the psyche. However, one, non sexual aspect of Katie Roiphe’s article that Maya didn’t mention caught my eye.
Take a look at the first quote from Katie Roiphe in Maya’s excellent article; ‘it is basically my only justification for writing a whole cultural trend piece about how working women are into sexual submission these days.’
Lurking behind that quote, which makes me wish god would strike down anyone gauche enough to write cultural trend pieces and admit it, is the message that something is different today compared to some mythical past where things were different.
Roiphe says “It is probably no coincidence that, as more books like The Richer Sex by Liza Mundy and Hanna Rosin’s forthcoming The End of Men appear, there is a renewed popular interest in the stylized theater of female powerlessness. “
Culture isn’t like that.
I try to be a good marxist and keep my base and superstructure in their proper places, but cultural trend pieces that seek meaning from ephemera (and wank fodder like ’50 shades of grey’ is, by definition, ephemeral) test that determination. The Story of O, for instance, had meaning precisely because it captured and made real the debate about sexual desire and masochism in a world where bourgeois feminism was re-emerging as a force. Indeed, the Story of O would have remained elegant and well written wank fodder if Simone de Beauvoir had not existed; Rene and O only have cultural significance as archetypes because Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir also existed.
Reading Roiphe’s article, and Maya’s response, I’m struck by the desperate search for movement in both articles, the search for some dynamic that gives significance to a series of novels that sound like Jane Eyre with lube and less literary skill.
Another thought strikes me as I write, and that’s the metaphor of the journey, of BDSM as a progressive experience, moving from one thing to another along a pathway. Journeys are powerful metaphors within the narrative of BDSM literature; O’s first journey to the chateau is as erotic as any of the scenes that follow, with its air of tension and of hidden futures. It’s easy to understand why writers with a column to fill search for a social journey or movement to attach their musings to, but it’s frustrating at best and at worst condescending to assume that the number of people intrigued by submission or domination might change because a novel is published.
As often happens with these posts, I realise I’ve just got to my understanding of my frustration with Roiphe’s cultural trend piece as I write. To be fair to Roiphe she’s looking for changes in the base to explain the movement she claims to see in the superstructure (hence the association between ‘working women’ and ‘submission’ as if they’re both new phenomena) but it’s a shallow association that assumes that women did not work before they entered the field of waged work (because being the enabler who makes it possible for other people to be wage slaves isn’t real work, one must assume). Women have always worked, and it has always been a pressured, difficult and challenging experience – therefore, they must always have experienced sexual fantasies beyond the limits of the conventional, even within the limits of Roiphe’s association of ‘working women’ with ‘submission’. Roiphe seems to have missed that point, seeking movement where there is nothing new, other than some really good marketing for some wank fodder. The alternative view of Roiphe’s search for a dynamic is that, somehow, culture is determined from above, and that a novel can lead rather than follow the trend. As a marxist, I think that’s nonsense, on a par with mistaking ephemera for art.