Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Fifty Shades of Being One Step Down

By Kevin Murphy,Reg.Pract. APPI.
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

For those who have read Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’, the foundational feminist text of the 20th century, the success of a recent light porn trilogy must have them scratching their heads in wonder. What happened to the women’s movement? Where is the indignation at being portrayed as inferior to men? What has become of the feminist ideal that women do not need men to define who they are?
All, it would seem, is so much history. The modern equivalent is that a woman finds happiness in bending over backwards, no pun intended, to become the thing the man wants her to be. Such is the storyline of the above mentioned trilogy which has found favour with some 65 million buyers, most of whom are reported to be women.
In the story, the good looking rich young man – damaged by a childhood of abuse and deprivation – has a liking for kinky sexual practices. The beautiful woman – younger, impressionable and not rich – arrives awestruck into his gravitational pull and so an affair ensues, coloured by her amazement that one-so-great-as-he could find her attractive. Gradually she comes to be introduced to his practices and, after a very brief spell of being against them, starts to enjoy it. As tales of sadism go, it is about as user-friendly as you can get. Readers of this will not be searching out ‘The 120 Days of Sodom’ by Frenchman Donatien Alphonse Francois, otherwise known as the Marquis de Sade.* The modern version is politically correct down to the ingratiating habit the hero has of apologising for being the way he is, even for hurting her which in terms of sadism has got to be a first.
There is always a need for good entertainment in life. The danger with this type of narrative, however, is that it reinforces a message already out in the public discourse that a woman only has value in a relationship if she can figure out what the man wants her to be and can transform herself into that. Maybe that’s the inevitable direction that things go when so much time, money and energy is invested on appearance and playing to sexual stereotyping.
Unfortunately if you criticise this kind of commercial success you are accused of spoiling the party. The possibility that this kind of product offers complicit support for the exploitation of women is completely missed. And yet it is complicit in a most cynical way. Re-arrange the configuration of the hero of the three ‘novels’ and you get an entirely different picture. Keep him rich, but now make him a bit older, with a pot belly and a comb-over, and suddenly a rather different impression is created. Now it begins to have the creepy overtones that bring it closer to reality.
Perverse sadists come in all shapes and sizes but the odds are that if our heroine in the novel came upon one with less money, less status and fewer scolded-puppy apologies, the love story wouldn’t have gone far beyond chapter one. In reality, our heroine would have had a deeply unpleasant experience. It quite possibly could have scarred her for life. It could also have made it incredibly difficult for her to ever trust another person in relationship again, which is often what actually happens.
Not so in fiction-land where she saves the hero from himself while at the same time developing a taste for kinky sex, much as she might a new dish created by his personal chef. That wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the implicit message that the man – in this case rich, famous and slightly inarticulate – is always to be pleased. Decades of feminist outpourings to the contrary would appear to have missed their mark. There is instead the aforementioned trend in various contemporary versions of femininity that sees the role of woman to be whatever it is that pleases. For some, both men and women, it is apparently the perfect solution to the tensions already inherent in adapting the role of woman to the demands of the modern world. Perfect, that is, until the ability to please fades or becomes less impactful over time. Then the woman is left to her own inner resources to support a sense of identity and prestige in a world that tends to judge, harshly at times, on the basis of surfaces and appearances.
de Beauvoir’s partner, the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, in his weighty tome ‘Being and Nothingness’, makes an interesting point in this regard. I referred to this in a slightly different way in an earlier blog but it is worth mentioning again. Sartre says the man who wants to be loved does not desire the enslavement of the beloved. He does not want to possess an automaton. The total enslavement of the beloved, as he calls it, kills the love of the lover. If the woman does become an automaton then the lover finds himself alone. Thus the lover does not desire to possess the beloved as one possesses a thing: he demands a special type of appropriation. He wants to possess her freedom as a freedom. In love, therefore, what the man desires is that he be the unique and privileged occasion of this freedom.
Of course, that’s assuming we are dealing with a man, or indeed a woman, who is able to love. Not everybody is able to love in the way they want. Love after all involves giving of oneself to another at many levels (as distinct from making oneself submissive to the other) and that can often be too big an ask for some people. Be that as it may, Sartre’s point is well made. Love, if we are to look at it in all its complexity, does not include ownership of the other as an object (our hero’s obsessively protective urges throughout the novels are regularly passed off as love), nor does it include control of the other as an automaton. But maybe that idea has had its time and maybe that time is gone. If it is, then we need to accommodate a new way of thinking about love and the nature of the relationship that emotionally binds (as opposed to physically binds) human beings together.

• The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade was written in 1785. Four wealthy men resolve to experience the ultimate sexual gratification in orgies. They seal themselves away for four months in an inaccessible castle with 46 victims, mostly young male and female teenagers. Not for the faint-hearted.