Too Many Shades of Grey

In last week's Newsweek cover story, "Spanking Goes Mainstream," author Katie Roiphe set the blogosphere atwitter with her commentary on the cultural trend of bright young women willingly engaged in BDSM relationships: 50 Shades of Grey, Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls --even the wedding night of teen heart throbs Bella and Edward in the third Twilight movie. Roiphe pointed to the paradox that our postmodern freedoms are leading to an embrace of sexual subordination. Because Roiphe's modernist assertions of individual responsibility often clash with postmodern feminists' more nuanced understanding of how cultural and social forces shape us, her analysis was largely dismissed as just another of her potshots against contemporary feminism. But she's picking up something about female agency that I've had on my radar for a while, something women need to think about deeply: Why, when the women's movement aimed to liberate us from being sexually objectified and degraded in a male-dominant culture, are so many women objectifying and degrading themselves?

Feminists get their knickers in a twist, as they say in the UK, whenever anyone dares to question a women's right to choose whatever she wants to choose -- particularly in the bedroom. Culturally mandated chastity, modesty and marriage were the means of controlling women's reproductive lives and their sexuality between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The "Sexual Revolution" of the 1960s and the second wave of the women's movement were deeply intertwined, and for complex reasons, sexual freedom became the sine qua non of women's liberation. I show how free I am by flaunting the taboos that cloistered women's sexuality for hundreds of years. The funny thing is that this form of sexual-transgression-as-liberation has been going on now for fifty years, with each upcoming generation feeling that they have discovered something new. Choice is, of course, the expression of human agency; and it's only right that women choose their own path to sexual pleasure. But at this point, I would argue that our continued focus on sexual agency is a distraction.

Choice is a most precious capacity. It makes us human. It's not simply about preferences -- soup or salad, flats or heels, top or bottom. Human agency, expressed through our creative engagement with choice, is how we expand the measure of freedom that we have as human beings. Through it, we can define new potentials and pathways in culture. The capacity for creative agency through choice is what has enabled human beings to thrive and will be the only thing that will enable life to develop further here on Earth. Expressing sexual agency -- doing whatever the f--- we want to do -- has little to do with stretching our capacities toward anything new or significant. It should be a given, exercised in our personal lives, rather than some badge of courage. There's nothing new there.

That's the trouble with the ways that so many women are expressing their agency: It's still wrapped up in the old roles of subordination and support. Sure, we can if we want to -- but talk about shades of grey! We may be able to wrench a few hollow laughs or cheap thrills out of those old, um, positions. But what about living in color? Wouldn't you think, after all that women have fought for, we should begin a bigger conversation about how to exercise creative agency to change our lives and the world around us? Aren't there more exciting, vivid and meaningful roles for us to play than the sub to some twisted guy?

Self-objectification isn't a powerful choice to make, but the effect of trying to be seen and get attention in a mediated and pornified culture. A Ms. Magazine article by Dr. Caroline Heldman a few years back noted that psychologists were beginning to see extreme cases of self-objectification in young women in ways that impaired their motor skills. In other words, young women are so self-consciously watching themselves and managing their appearance that they don't have enough free attention to drive a car! In the film Miss Representation, Heldman explains that young women who are high self-objectifiers have little to no political agency. They are not engaged in the political process. We become Other to ourselves, constantly orienting to an Other's intrusive gaze. Of course this is the effect of media culture -- but we aren't simply pawns to it, victims to a world of images that increasingly portrays women as porn stars or unworthy. As Ashley Judd wrote recently in a powerful essay against a media attack on her appearance:

I do not want to give my power, my self-esteem, or my autonomy, to any person, place, or thing outside myself. I thus abstain from all media about myself. The only thing that matters is how I feel about myself, my personal integrity, and my relationship with my Creator. Of course, it's wonderful to be held in esteem and fond regard by family, friends, and community, but a central part of my spiritual practice is letting go of otheration.

Letting go of otheration is a choice of creative agency that holds the potential to liberate us in ways we cannot now imagine.

Likewise, the move to self-degradation is not a powerful, liberated choice, but another enactment of our subordination. Whether the gross out scenes in the otherwise funny Bridesmaids or the sexual humiliation in Girls, there is nothing really new or fabulously transgressive about women willingly degrading themselves for laughs or the vain hope for attention. Think: Gracie Allen or Lucille Ball. But this cuts deeper than the bubblehead or ambitious ditz. Girls is simultaneously heralded for being an inventive black comedy and for its honesty. So what does that mean about the lives of the young women that it fictionalizes? We've gone from grey to black -- and neither is an option worth staking one's life on. We're looking for laughs and thrills inside the subordination that women have always inhabited -- but now we women are making our beds there instead of being forced by some powerful perp.

Liberating our agency from the deep grooves cut in our consciousness from the thousands of years in which women have been attuned to the needs and desire of the dominant sex isn't easy. But it's possible -- there are beginning to be more and more examples. We're going to have to want to be different, to aspire to a different narrative than the sex and service that are beneath the glossy covers of the romance story. The feminist movement brought us to the point where we are free to make choices at all levels of our lives -- but hasn't yet destroyed the dominant narrative and dynamics of culture-as-it-has-been. But now, through that choice, a deeper liberation of our creative agency and autonomy is possible. Exercising our capacity for choice beyond who we have known ourselves to be as women is how we will be able to leave behind the "fifty shades of grey" in the landscape of objectification and subordination and take on the real task of building the foundation of a new culture.

Check out Dr. Elizabeth Debold in EnlightenNext's upcoming virtual workshop, May 19 & 20, "Sex, Power, and Leadership for Women."