Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey: lessons for women

I can see two lessons, although there are almost certainly more.

The first lesson: "I am Heathcliff."

For those who haven't read Wuthering Heights, Cathy says that. If you take it literally, you have  mature understanding of what the novel is about.

Emily Bronte is a much better writer than E.L. James. I suspect you already knew that. But you shouldn't imagine that her being a much better writer makes Wuthering Heights any less of a fantasy tale. There is far more wish fulfillment in the book than psychological insight.

Wish fulfillment? Well, yes, because Cathy gets a thrill out of imagining all the sexual passion (which sexual passion is "sublimated" as hate and destruction in the novel) she is capable of. I know, she's dead for a lot of it, but that's the way fantasy works. Think of the five-year-old who, angry at their mother, imagines their own death and "how sorry mommy would be then". Cathy is that five-year-old writ large, which is why it's great to devour the book when you're 17 and not so great to still be passionately reading it at as an adult. (And it should tell just how unfeminist this novel is, despite claims to the contrary, that Emily Bronte and her readers have to project all this passion onto a man before they can believe in it.)

But, here's the thing, in order to have a fantasy, you have to play both parts. Heathcliff isn't the perfect soul mate for Cathy because he doesn't exist. She projects him onto the world. That's what makes Emily Bronte such a great writer. She wasn't such a great human being but she really knew how to write. The same goes for Charlotte. Heathcliff isn't a man and neither is Mr. Rochester. They are both placeholders onto which women's emotions can be projected.

It's okay to do that, provided you know that is what you are doing.

To be really good at relating to men, especially at relating to men sexually, you have to be able to imagine what it's like to be him having sex with you. Okay, you fantasize about a man doing things to you. Now try to put yourself into the head of that man. What's his motivation? What attracts him to you and why does he want to relate to you sexually in this way and how does that fit into the rest of his life? If the only answer you can come up with is "because he's a psycho-creep like Heathcliff or Christian Grey", we have a problem.

The second lesson: is like unto the first

I overheard a man flirting with my wife a couple of years ago. We were at a book reading and she was standing in line to have her copy of the book signed. The man in front of her in line, started a conversation. They talked about the book they were holding for a while (it was about FDR) and then he introduced Fifty Shades into the conversation. He did that because he'd liked the way the conversation had gone so far and was looking for a little risqué fun. Here is how he did it with some comments from me in square brackets.

"I'm rather ashamed of what I'm reading now."

[No, he isn't ashamed at all. When men are really ashamed of something, they try to hide it. He brought it up this way because he's hoping she will be intrigued and her willingness to be intrigued is something he wants to know about. She didn't slam the door shut so he kept going.]

"It has something to do with the colour grey."

[The point of this silly, parabolic way of approaching the subject was to find out how much my wife knew and what she thought of what she knew. If she knows enough about the book to figure out what he is talking about from this vague hint and if she is intrigued enough to encourage a man she doesn't know continue talk about a book that features kinky sex, they both can have some fun with this. She giggled approvingly so he continued but not in the way you'd guess.]

"My wife has me reading it. She says I could learn a lot from it."

[He has just dissed his wife. He is discussing something about her that he should have kept private with another woman and he is doing so in a way that will make this other woman think less of his wife.]

He wasn't actually proposing to my wife that, should he decide to take up the kinky suggestions that his wife meant him to take up, he would rather do it with her than with his wife but that is what he was thinking and he didn't mind the thought that she might figure that out but he did it in a mild enough way that he still had plausible deniability vis-a-vis both my wife and his.

But let's leave that aside. What's the lesson? It's this: if you want to have a more fulfilling and adventurous sex life, you should focus your efforts on being the sort of woman whom an actual man would want to have a wild sexual affair with. But you won't be able to do that if you hate yourself and the problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it's aimed at women who don't like themselves very much.

And you can see this in the character of our heroine old what's-her-name-oh-never-matter-who-cares. She's this mousy, boring little thing whom no one but a damaged creep who can't hold himself back from would ever have anything to do with. This isn't an imagined type. I've known several women (and men) who ranged from pretty good looking to quite beautiful who never managed to connect with anyone. In the movie she's actually played by a confident woman who merely acts at being those things and then later acts at being a woman transformed by the experience.

The problem with Cathy saying "I am Heathcliff" is not that she projects her fantasies onto a man but that she impoverishes herself by taking all her passion and drive away from herself and giving it to someone else. She'd be much better off if she developed and nurtured this side of herself but she isn't going to do that because she hates herself. If you pin her down on the subject, she'll say that no one would take her seriously if she did but there are men who would love nothing more than to take her seriously in that role and she may even already be married to one of them but it will never happen because she hates herself and expresses this self-hatred by deciding that no one would ever take her seriously as an exciting lover. (Except maybe some psych creep like Heathcliff or Christian Grey.)

There are, of course, women more interesting and sexier than her. Lots of them and if she goes about looking for such women she'll fund them. Even Dakota Johnson could do that if that is what she set about doing it. But why do that? Wouldn't it be better to have to have enough self compassion to forgive yourself for not being everything you can be and enough discipline to become the woman you are capable of being?

On the other hand, it would be a lot easier to just read the book and go to the movie.

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