Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Fifty Shades Of False

With the Fifty Shades trilogy fogging up the screens of millions of e-readers, women's sexual fantasies have hit the mainstream, so much so that the publisher is planning a big new publicity campaign based around the slogan "Reading for pleasure has a whole new meaning." Women prefer the emotional build up and relationship aspects of novels instead of the more direct depersonalization of pornography, but the explicit and fantastic nature of the sexual content in these books have earned them the moniker of "mommy porn". Just as the images men view in porn burn into their mind, the scenes women read in romance novels -- the titillating emotional interchanges, the sensual phrases, the fantastic sex -- lodge in their memory and imagination.

"Porn" is an ugly word to be juxtaposed with "mommy", but in a sense it isn't surprising that married women are driving the sales of the burgeoning "romantica" genre. Younger women, hopped up on hormones and living in a near-permanent condition of quasi-arousal (men: you do not have the monopoly on this), live in an aspirational state in which it's perfectly conceivable that the perfect man and perfect relationship and perfect happily-ever-after is right around the corner. The transgressional naughtiness of stuff like the Fifty Shades books is designed for the woman who has settled into her walk in life, who is basically satisfied with her marriage and her spouse, but who wonders where the thrill has gone and how to reanimate a sexual drive that seems balky and unpredictable. 

The sexual fantasies fueled by romance novels seem like a ideal fix to this problem. It’s so easy for the reader. One can respond quickly and effortlessly to the ideal man on the page. There’s none of the inconveniences of reality -- the awkwardness of being out of sync with her spouse; the absurdity, especially for a woman, of having a body that’s not fully under her command, this “Sister Ass” which sometimes bucks and halts grows tired. These fantasies allow the reader to step beyond her established life and relationship and experience the thrill of the chase again. They're a quick hit of cheap arousal for the woman who, by the time bedtime rolls around, is tired, worn down by the concerns of the day, and finds that even though the spirit may be willing, the flesh is weak, sluggish, or capricious. And her husband never has to know that what pushes her through is not just him, but him in conjunction with memories of billionaire sadist Christian Grey (or Mr. Darcy or the tough-yet-tender cowboy or what have you). If both spouses are happy at the end, what harm could these fantasies possibly do, right?

Well, plenty, actually. Romance novels -- novels for which the raison d'etre is sexual fulfillment, whether they're the hard-core Fifty Shades stuff or "Christian" romance or historical-tragical-pastoral -- create an image of effortless sexual complementarity that can supplant the very real work it takes for a woman to meet her husband where he's at, each time. And they undercut that work because fantasies can become addictive. They work their way into a woman's mind and rob her of the ability to respond honestly to her husband, just as any physical skill not practiced becomes rusty over time. It takes so much less emotional and physical commitment to become mentally aroused by retreating to happy stories (especially if there has been a fight or some breach in the relationship that has damaged communication) that eventually a spouse can become no more than tool for achieving satisfaction, or a "bin for one's urges" (as a commenter recently put it). Fantasy breeds lust, not love.

A woman who develops a reliance on sexual fantasy is cultivating a taste for something other than reality. Fantasy, so infinitely malleable, creates puppets for the purpose of objectifying them, or conveniently allows for the emotional manipulation of real people in a way that stubborn real life seems to resist. It also dismisses the real ugliness of subversive sexual situations -- women who find themselves excited by the fictional S&M antics of Fifty Shades would feel horrified, humiliated, and dehumanized if their husbands were to subject them to the same emotional and sexual abuse. True brutality isn't glamorous or arousing -- it's sickening and damaging.

And fantasy is damaging as well, especially when it trespasses on the dignity and integrity of another person. A young friend who recently described her temptations to fantasize about a man of her acquaintance wrote, "The real possibility that I could end up married to this guy made it seem 20 times more a violation to interact with a shadow version of him in my head that I could control and speak for and manipulate for my gratification -- reducing him to a mental blow-up doll was sickening enough to accomplish what love for God and hatred for sin hadn't." Fantasies, rather than bringing her closer to her loved one, were in reality erecting barriers to true interaction with him. That he wasn't aware of her thoughts didn't mean that her relationship with him wasn't being subtly influenced by her mental images.

In marriage, since spouses are supposed to become one flesh through a total gift of self, subjecting the other to fantasy, or using the other to fulfill fantasies, becomes even more of a violation. In these heady days in which every lay Catholic is a sudden expert in Theology of the Body and sexual fulfillment in marriage is a hot topic, women may feel betrayed in the moments when their bodies, whether through age, weariness, or sheer biological perversity, refuse to cooperate with the most loving of inducements. Possibly a rocky marriage or an insensitive spouse may mean that satisfaction becomes more and more elusive. The antidote to these difficulties lies not in a woman filling her mind with an arsenal of one-dimensional fantasies, but in pouring out her mind and heart to spouse. Communication -- honest, intimate conversation in private; day-to-day openness and affection; the shared communication with God and spouse that is mutual prayer -- is the antidote to a trap of fantasy. Some desires that seem so erotic tucked in the deep recesses of the imagination are shown up as tawdry and unappealing when spoken and submitted to the clear light of reality. Others may be brought to a more satisfying and tender conclusion when shared with the one who can make them come true.

Necessary disclaimer: I have not and will not read the Fifty Shades books, nor am I a consumer of romance novels because not only do I want to fill my head with such images, but ugh, poor writing.


BettyDuffy said...

Well done, Mrs. D!

Kristin said...

I really love how you outline the problems with "Fifty Shades of Gray" and erotic novels in general, but are you really saying that Christian romance and Pride and Prejudice are just as bad? Are all romance novels occasions of sexual sin?

Brandon said...

"I think we need the familiar word [imagination] to designate something (good by defintion) to which the contrast with fantasy (bad by definition) gives substance. The human mind is naturally and largely given to fantasy. Neurotic or vengeful fantasies, erotic fantasies, delusions of grandeur, dreams of power, can imprison the mind, impeding new understanding, new interests and affections, possibilities of fruitful and virtuous action. If we consider the narrow dreariness of this fantasy life to which we are so addicted the term 'unimaginative' seems appropriate." (Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, p. 322)

MrsDarwin said...

That's a good quote from Murdoch making a very appropriate distinction.

Jane Austen is too rich and varied an author, too honest and unsparing in her assessment of the consequences of sexual behaviors (the pain, worry, and social disgrace of Lydia's disappearance, the domestic discordance of the Bennetts' marriage) to too reserved in her narration to be accused of writing wish-fulfillment romance. Her characters are so rounded and fully developed that any woman who pulls Darcy into her sexual fantasies is really manipulating her own "mental blow-up doll" who may share Darcy's name and historic dress (or undress...).

I think that "Christian" romance does become a problem if the main purpose of the novels is to create and then fulfill sexual tension in its readers, whether or not the content is explicit. However, such books are far easier to read as basic relationship stories that happen to have happy endings (and less likely to be a temptation to sexual sin) than romances with more explicit content. I've read several assessments of Fifty Shades that hold that the books are almost impossible to engage with at a story or character level because the nature of the content is so overtly, spectacularly, incontrovertibly designed to titillate that it overwhelms any other merit the books may have.

Brandon said...

Another Murdoch quote that's even more appropriate (I mention these because your argument in the post is very Murdochian; Iris Murdoch makes this point all the time):

"Great art is connected with courage and truthfulness. There is a conception of truth, a lack of illusion, an ability to overcome selfish obsessions, which goes with good art, and the artist has got to have that particular sort of moral stamina. Good art, whatever its style, has qualities of hardness, firmness, realism, clarity, detachment, justice, truth. It is the work of a free, unfettered, uncorrupted imagination. Whereas bad art is the soft, messy self-indulgent work of an enslaved fantasy. Pornography is at one end of that scale, great art at the other end."

MrsDarwin said...

Brandon, this article is fascinating on many levels. I particularly like this quote about composing a novel:

" should sit quietly and let the thing invent itself. One piece of imagination leads to another. You think about a certain situation and then some quite extraordinary aspect of it suddenly appears. The deep things that the work is about declare themselves and connect. Somehow things fly together and generate other things, and characters invent other characters, as if they were all doing it themselves. One should be patient and extend this period as far as possible. Of course, actually writing it involves a different kind of imagination and work."

This level of sub-creation is what sets imagination above fantasy. If art is reality distilled, fantasy is reality warped and molded to model only one aspect of reality, usually sexual. I've always thought that a good definition of pornography is something which reduces a person down to one overwhelming trait, whether lustful, brutal, defenseless, childish, etc., and then sexualizes it. It's a style of work that allows for no real nuance, change, or personality, because for an author to allow for the possibility that a character may be able to rise above the merely sexual is to crack the veneer of single-minded desire which allows fantasy to slip along without getting hung on on reality.

DMinor said...

Thanks for a very well-written and engaging post, and subsequent comments. I am sharing this.

MrsDarwin said...

DMinor! Good to hear from you again.

Anonymous said...

Mrs. D,

As someone who struggled for years with porn (both visual and text-interative) I completely understand where you're coming from.

It seems that the S&M overtones of the 50 Shades book is the obvious progression for women who have become numbed by "conventional" romance novels.

Visual porn worked the same for me. I needed more "unusual" scenes for the same effect. It got to the point that I was experiencing erectile dysfunction with my wife, having to fantasize stranger and stranger scenarios.

My salvation was "Theology of the Body" and the Blessed Mother. As I began to consider and really understand intercourse as the physical "communion" of our spiritual relationship in covanental marriage, I began to appreciate my wife, and want to be closer to her. No longer was I "hag ridden" by mental images I could not wash out of my brain, and physically, I never had another problem responding to my wife.

I still have occasional flashbacks, but a quick Hail Mary and a rebuke to Satan takes care of it.

Now to start working on the other sins of the flesh... Gluttony and Sloth. :)

Anonymous said...

Excellent observations. I share the one cavil that Jane Austen is not romantic fantasy. Marianne in "Sense and Sensibility" pays dearly for her romantic infatuation with Willoughby. But Miss Austen aside, I am grateful for your comments. You express very well precisely what the problem is with trashy novels, movies, etc.

Brandon said...

Her characters are so rounded and fully developed that any woman who pulls Darcy into her sexual fantasies is really manipulating her own "mental blow-up doll" who may share Darcy's name and historic dress (or undress...).

But apparently it doesn't stop them from trying:

mrsdarwin said...

Anon, no more do I think that Jane Austen writes romantic fantasy. She's not to be blamed for writing a memorable character. But I do think it's a problem when a woman spends her sexual energy fantasizing about a man other than her husband, whether it's Mr. Darcy, Hercules, Adam Smith, George Washington, or the guy across the street.

mrsdarwin said...

Brandon, I'd seen that at Slate the other day, but I was too classy to link to it. :)

But seriously: Jane Eyre is a long book, and not written in the world's most accessible style. Mr. Rochester doesn't come into play for a good quarter of the story, at least. Anyone unfamiliar with the story who's just showing up for the sex is going to have a good long slog getting to the payoff (unless they're doing some nasty stuff with John Reed at the beginning). Anyone who knows the story of Jane Eyre is just going to skip forward to read the new scenes. I don't see this as being a long-term viable option for the industry. And stylistically the content is going to be completely anachronistic, unless they're drawing from historical sources like Fanny Hill and Justine -- unlikely, judging from the soppy excerpts.

But you know, t's the same thing with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and all the trendy mash-up genre. No one reads it for the P&P. I worked my way through Mansfield Park and Mummies and found myself constantly frustrated because I wanted to read Mansfield, and the damn zombies kept getting in the way of the narrative.