If you were planning to replace The Feminine Mystique with Fifty Shades of Grey on your teenage daughter, niece or sidekick's feminist recommended reading list, a new study suggests you pump the brakes.
The study, which was published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, surveyed 715 young women and found that those who had read E.L. James' series Fifty Shades of Grey exhibited higher levels of ambivalent, benevolent, and hostile sexism. Subjects who found the books "romantic," in particular, showed more ambivalent and benevolent sexism.
Benevolent sexism might manifest in romance-novel tropes, like believing a woman should be placed on a pedestal, protected by a strong male companion, and treated as essentially different and more delicate than a man. The juxtaposition of the sexually innocent, weak-willed and fragile Anastasia Steele with dominant Christian, who expresses his love by protecting her from the outside world while expecting total obedience and gratification from her, fits rather neatly into this paradigm.
This trope isn't new to the romance world with Fifty Shades, and bodice-ripper fans have been pushing back for years against the idea that reading novels about women falling in love and having, in many cases, submissive sexual relationships is inherently anti-feminist. Romance author Sarah MacLean argued to The Atlantic, "we have to give ourselves permission as women to have fantasies. We aren't saying that men should threaten sexual dominance or harassment or abuse. But it's okay if we, at some point, find the idea of that threat hot."
So is it Fifty Shades feminists should avoid? Are all romance novels featuring traditional gender roles in question?
Well, to begin with, it's unclear from the study, which focused entirely on 18- to 24-year-old women, whether reading Fifty Shades led to higher levels of sexist beliefs, or whether harboring those beliefs to begin with drew certain young women to read the series. At a relatively young and malleable age, readers might be more easily influenced by the media they're consuming, but it's entirely possible that women who don't find traditional gender roles romantic simply never wanted to read the books to begin with.
As many long-time romance readers know, however, reading intense romance fiction like Fifty Shades is healthiest with a critical awareness of its strong fantasy elements. In real life, a relationship like Christian and Ana's wouldn't play out at all like it does on the page, but that doesn't mean it's wrong to enjoy the escapism of the story if you want to -- just remember not to go searching for a controlling dominant with poor boundaries of your own.