In her Quarterly Essay, Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny, Anna Goldsworth writes, among other things, about the messages that books such as Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey convey to female readers. Book Thingo invited readers to share some of their thoughts on the essay. (You can find a list of participants here.)
Kat’s note: Our first post in the series is by Jodi McAlister (also known as Book Thingo’s Virgin Hornypants Specialist), which I think is particularly fitting given that she has presented a paper on Fifty Shades, romance and porn (a shorter version of which you might have already read at The Popular Romance Project). Please note that I have (loosely) applied Book Thingo’s house style, so any strange non-academic-y looking formatting is all my fault! You can find Jodi’s contact details at the end of this post.
The key issue that threads its way through the 70 pages of Anna Goldsworthy’s quarterly essay Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny is female subjectivity. ‘[Feminism] has much to offer our daughters, even beyond equal pay, the vote, bodily autonomy, the right to own property, the right to have an education,’ Goldsworthy states in the essay’s final paragraph. ‘It can offer them subjectivity—but it is up to them to claim it. A liberation from the she of third person—that she who is to be looked at, or tagged in Facebook, or poked with things, like a thing—into that magnificent gender-neutral first person. I. Me.’ (Goldsworthy, 2013, 68-69).
Goldsworthy explores this idea using a number of examples. Most prevalent and important to her argument is Julia Gillard’s famous misogyny speech, but she covers a lot of ground, from social media to cosmetics to pornography to politics. If I tried to engage with everything she said, this would probably become the longest blog post in the history of the universe, so what I’m going to focus on are the areas I know stuff about: namely, pornography and Fifty Shades of Grey. This also probably isn’t going to be a review in the traditional sense of the word—instead, it’s going to be more of an elaboration, an explication, a further engagement. (Not just because I like alliteration. Although I do like alliteration. It sounds nice.)
It’s also going to be SUPER nerdy, because I am, after all, an academic type, and that is what I do. So, you know, be prepared for that.
The pornography that Goldsworthy discusses in this essay is largely ‘gonzo’ porn. This is basically porn that breaks the fourth wall. It’s immersive: instead of functioning simply as a voyeur, the viewer is located within the scene, virtually becoming part of the action. Goldsworthy calls it an ‘uber-pornography’ (Goldsworthy 46), and I think this is quite a neat way to put it. In his book The Other Victorians, Stephen Marcus argues that one of pornography’s governing tendencies is the elimination of external realities (Marcus, 1966, 44). The fact that gonzo porn tries to remove even the barrier between viewer and viewed would seem to support this notion: it’s a heightened, honed pornographic style. As Goldsworthy notes, gonzo porn is even less concerned than other forms of porn with story and instead focuses on mechanics, posing and repeatedly answering mathematical questions: ‘one body, three orifices, how many appendages?’ (Goldsworthy 46), bringing to mind Marcus’s assertion that porn ‘characteristically develops by unremitting repetition and minute mechanical variation’ (Marcus 279).
In itself, this algorithmic repetition would not seem to be an especially harmful paradigm. What is troubling, as Goldsworthy discusses, is how often the woman in gonzo porn is met with violence or degradation. As the repeated climaxes of the pornographic form evolve, she might be strangled, spat on, called names, or struck, behaviour which generally escalates and escalates. She rarely reacts, unless it is with pleasure: mostly, she just gets on with it. Getting on with it, Goldsworthy writes throughout the essay, is one of the primary ways in which women are conditioned to deal with misogyny. If they dare speak out, there are social consequences. The fantasy at work in gonzo porn would seem to be playing into this: the woman in question is repeatedly abused, but she does not complain, nor does she seem to want to complain. Considering that pornography is in many ways, as Marcus argues, a utopian genre (Marcus 268), this is deeply problematic. The woman almost literally becomes an object, a collection of orifices to be used and abused, denied any kind of agency or voice. She has no subjectivity. There is no room for her story here. She does not do—instead, she is done to.
There’s no rule that gonzo porn has to include the female participant being degraded, humiliated, or abused. However, the form itself seems fairly antithetical to female subjectivity. The viewer is never asked to step into her shoes (that I’m aware of outside of the work of Tristan Taormino, although I would love to be wrong on this point). The viewer does not become the woman, having sex with men—instead, the viewer is the man, doing sex to her. The male gaze is firmly in play here, and she is the object of it. I recently came across an interview with porn star James Deen where he argues that the actress is the true star of the pornographic film—he says:
I’m the assist, so I could be the most famous person in the world and it wouldn’t matter that much. Let’s look at sex tapes: Colin Farrell is a good-looking guy, a big celebrity, you’d think his sex tape would do really well. Octomom’s porno sold better than Colin Farrell’s. And it’s just because guys in adult film are the assist, not the star. So, you have this situation where I can be famous all day long, but if I can’t show up and deliver a good scene, no one’s gonna hire me. (James Deen on The Canyons, Social Anxiety and Sasha Grey)
This is an interesting way of looking at it, but the fact remains that if the actress is the star, it is probably because she is the one being looked at: and, in the case of gonzo porn, penetrated not only by her ‘assists’, but symbolically by the viewers. They are the subjects: she is the object.
Pornography is famously very hard to define. Following Marcus, I’ve argued before that the best way to define it is structural—it has a cyclical structure, relying on repeated climaxes. This is in contrast to the romance, which builds to a single emotional climax (McAlister, 2013, forthcoming). This usually pivots around a declaration of love—as Lisa Fletcher argues, ‘”I love you” is the narrative and ontological turning-point of heterosexual romance fictions’ (Fletcher, 2008, 1). This would seem to make the romance and pornography antithetical to each other, but texts like Fifty Shades of Grey prove that this is not necessarily the case. The generic frameworks of romance and pornography are fused: the repeated climaxes of pornography take place within the single climax structure of the romance. The way erotic romance deals with genre is something I find fascinating and something I can talk about for a very long time. (If you want to hear my thoughts on that, you can read my post at the Popular Romance Project, which is basically a shorter version of my forthcoming paper.) But if we’re thinking about Fifty Shades in relation to subjectivity, then we can see, as Goldsworthy rightly notes, a very different dynamic operating than we do in gonzo porn. This is a first-person story. There is no getting away from the fact that at its centre is Anastasia, a woman—a woman struggling with her own identity and subjectivity, as her ongoing arguments with her inner goddess and subconscious demonstrate. The first person allows us to experience her life and identify with her (if this is the way we choose to read—more on this later). While we might argue that Anastasia is relatively passive sexually and Christian does sex to her rather than has sex with her, especially in the earlier sex scenes, at the very least, her experience of sex is centred: we cannot get away from the fact that Anastasia is the ‘I’ here.
The fact that Goldsworthy picks up on this point is something I really, really like about this essay. It is so easy to hate on Fifty Shades, arguing that it is poorly written (because, let’s face it, it is) and that it depicts an abusive relationship (there’s certainly a lot that would be troubling about Ana and Christian’s relationship if it wasn’t fictional). But what it does do—and what the romance genre does as a whole—is centre female experience, female desire, female pleasure, and a female narrative. Female subjectivity is not only included in the narrative, it is integral. ‘Pussies are bullshit,’ Goldsworthy quotes porn actor/director John ‘Buttman’ Stagliano saying (Goldsworthy 49), before later going on to note that in Fifty Shades of Grey, ‘Anastasia’s pussy is not bullshit’ (Goldsworthy 58). This is such an important distinction to make. In Fifty Shades of Grey, Ana’s pleasure is not only not worth nothing, but it is one of the text’s central concerns.
Anastasia Steele is not for everyone. She is regularly criticised as being insipid and personality-less, while at the same time derided for the choices she makes. Goldsworthy notes that one of the many ways women are often robbed of their subjectivity is through an insistence that they speak of, to, and about every woman’s experience. She uses Lena Dunham as an example, noting that she and Girls have worn a lot of criticism for not speaking for the entire female gender (‘I think I might be the voice of my generation,’ Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath states, which she then immediately modifies to, ‘Or at least a voice, of a generation.’) (Goldsworthy 63). I think we can see this notion reflected in a lot of criticism of Fifty Shades: even if she is an everywoman, Anastasia does not speak to every woman. This is a sign, I think, not just of Anastasia’s subjectivity, but of the reader’s. In her essay ‘The Androgynous Reader’ in the 1992 collection Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, Laura Kinsale argues that it is regularly assumed that the female reader identifies directly with the heroine (mirroring, one could argue, the forced identification that takes place in gonzo porn), when this is not necessarily the case. She contends that instead of identifying with the heroine, the reader often competes with her. She writes:
That is what the heroine of this kind of romance represents: a placeholder. Feminists need not tremble for the reader—she does not identify with, admire, or internalise the characteristics of either a stupidly submissive or an irksomely independent heroine. The reader thinks about what she would have done in the heroine’s place. The reader measures the heroine by a tough yardstick, asking the character to live up to the reader’s standards, not vice versa. (Kinsale in Krentz, 1992, 32)
To put this in another way: reading a story in which another woman is the subject, the reader thinks about what choices she would have made, creating an imaginary story in which she is the subject. The romance—even one as arguably bad as Fifty Shades—can become in this sense, a kind of exploration of female action. Readers certainly judge Anastasia for the choices she makes, and this, I think, is symptomatic of this kind of engagement with the text. In The Transformation of Intimacy, Anthony Giddens argues that ‘romantic love introduced the idea of a narrative into an individual’s life’ (Giddens, 1991, 39-40). In the modern romance, this narrative is almost always the woman’s: it is a genre in which she is the subject, and her reading of it unlocks the potential for another kind of subjectivity.
This point about the centring of the female experience is one that I think a lot of older criticism of romance, as well as contemporary popular discourse, has missed or discussed in unproductive ways, and I am very glad that it is one Goldsworthy makes in relation to Fifty Shades. The other point she makes about Ana’s passivity is, I think, a little more fraught: she argues that because BDSM is not Anastasia’s fantasy, her arousal can be shame-free (Goldsworthy 57). This seems to be an echo of the argument around rape/forced seduction scenes in the ‘old skool’ sweet savage romances of the 1970s and 1980s—being forced into it meant that the heroine got to have sex and still be considered a good girl—but I’m not sure how well that is supported in Fifty Shades. Although Anastasia is hyper-virginal, I don’t think shame is a major textual preoccupation. Goldsworthy argues that Ana’s ‘passivity is a defence mechanism’ (Goldsworthy 57), and while there might be something to this, I really think the fantasy at work in Fifty Shades is more to do with not having to work for an orgasm than anything else.
But this is a nitpick in what is otherwise a refreshing argument. Goldsworthy writes that, ‘Desire, at least, is a form of subjectivity. Is it feminist to tell women their arousal is not good enough?’ (Goldsworthy 59). Whether we’re thinking about Fifty Shades specifically or romance more generally, this is such an important point to consider, and I’m very glad Goldsworthy raised it. In romance, women are allowed to be the subjects of their own narratives, to openly and actively want things. As Judith Arnold puts it in her essay ‘Women Do’ in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women:
To read romance fiction is to confront the strength of women, the variety of their experience, and the validity of their aspirations and accomplishments. To appreciate the kind of romance fiction I write is to admit that women can do, and that given the opportunity, they can change the world for the better. (Arnold in Krentz, 1992, 139)
The problem, as Goldsworthy’s essay makes us painfully aware, is that women are not afforded the same level of subjectivity in society and culture more broadly. It is persistently denied, whether by reducing a woman to her appearance or demanding she speaks for all women everywhere (Goldsworthy 63). She writes, ‘That men should do and women should be remains a persistent bias of our culture’ (Goldsworthy 17): men are permitted to be subjects, while women are, as they are in gonzo porn, reduced to objects, who are done to rather than doing. Even if the structures of equality are present, while women are objects in a male narrative, it has not been achieved. Women, Goldsworthy pointedly and persuasively argues, are still fighting to tell their stories in first person.
Academic works cited
Fletcher, L. (2008). Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Ashgate.
Giddens, A. (1991). The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Wiley.
Goldsworthy, A. (2013). Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny. Black Inc., pp.1-79.
Krentz, JA (ed.) (1992). Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Marcus, S. (1966). The Other Victorians. A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth Century England. Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
McAlister, J. (2013), ‘Breaking the Hard Limits: Romance, Pornography, and Genre in the Fifty Shades Trilogy’ at Eighth Global Conference on The Erotic, Mansfield College, Oxford University, 17-19 September 2013.