Jennifer Armintrout about Fifty Shade of Grey and Dangerous Messages for Women

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Interviews by Fans
Title: Jennifer Armintrout about Fifty Shade of Grey and Dangerous Messages for Women
Interviewee: Jennifer Armintrout
Date(s): August 8, 2012
Medium: online
Fandom(s): Fifty Shades of Grey
External Links: Jennifer Armintrout about Fifty Shade of Grey and Dangerous Messages for Women; archive link
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Jennifer Armintrout about Fifty Shade of Grey and Dangerous Messages for Women is an interview.

It was conducted by, and posted to, Legendary Women, Inc., an organization devoted to promoting the empowerment of women, both in the media and in their everyday lives and endeavors.

"... author Jennifer Armintrout, who blogged her opinions of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey, sat down to speak with us about the negative messages for women in the novel and her critical thoughts overall on summer's most talked about book."


We're not against romance when done well as it is a privilege of any woman to safely express her sexuality or indulge her sexual fantasies in any way she wishes. However, one of LW's big issues with the book is that Ana is presented as unbelievably innocent, having never even touched herself at age 21. Do you feel this reinforces an possibly outdated trope of untouched virgin led by experienced man? Why do you think she was presented as so inexperienced in her own desires?

It absolutely reinforces that trope, and it’s obvious that it still appeals to a large number of women. I know that virgin stories, or unexperienced, unfulfilled heroines appeal to me on an emotional level, even though intelligently I know that a woman’s sexual past doesn’t matter in the context of the romantic relationship I’m reading and enjoying. But I think it’s fairly common for a person, male or female, to long for that excitement of discovery that comes when you first start exploring your sexuality. I hate to speculate on the author’s motives or personal life, but I think maybe E.L. James was tapping into that longing, and it obviously struck a chord with readers. We also have to keep in mind that this book is not an original work, no matter how much its publishers have argued to the contrary. It’s a fanfiction work with the names changed. The main characters in 50 Shades of Grey are Bella Swan and Edward Cullen from Twilight, and in Twilight, Bella was very innocent, because she was a teenage girl. It was believable innocence. E.L. James upped Ana’s age in 50 Shades in order to write the steamier bits without breaking taboos. It’s more difficult to suspend disbelief that a twenty-one-year-old has never masturbated than it is to believe that a seventeen-year-old has never been kissed, so I feel Ana’s virginity and total inexperience was a bad choice on her part. It might have been more believable for Ana to have had a few unsatisfying partners before she met Christian. At least she would have had some sexual agency in the plot, that way.

There also seems to be a running theme of subtle bashing of fellow females. Ana constantly mentioning Kate's looks, demeaning the blonde women working for Christian with numbers as if they aren't fully realized people. There's also the fact of her female rivals being given derogatory nicknames and descriptions. Do you find that at all troubling that the heroine seems to have such little respect for her fellow women?

I’m on the fence between condemning Ana’s attitudes toward other women and praising E.L. James for staying so true to the character of Bella Swan. If you remember, in Twilight, Bella interacts only grudgingly with other females, and feels constantly threatened by the physical beauty of the female Cullens. James definitely takes it a step further, and I think that both authors were laboring under the delusion that female readers would identify more with a blatantly insecure heroine. What have we been taught to do when we’re feeling insecure? Cut down another woman, because it will somehow make us better by comparison. When we see a heroine do this in a novel, we’re supposed to say to ourselves, “I will root for her, because she’s just like me.” I think there are better ways to make our heroines likeable, or even to show the reader that they’re insecure. I’m reading a great book, Tempest Rising by Nicole Peeler, where the heroine is very insecure, not about her looks, but about her past and the way she’s treated by the insular world of the small town she’s lived in her entire life. It’s refreshing, specifically because she has solid relationships with two female characters without being threatened by their looks or their sexuality, and it’s more believable. As for Ana’s derision of blondes, the blonde thing drives me crazy. Because blondes are our cultural gold standard of beauty, we see them villainized over and over in books written for women. I thought the blonde receptionist bit in 50 Shades was a particularly hamfisted “blondes are evil!” moment.

I also noticed a subtle recurring theme of homophobia in the novel. For example, it's the one question Ana asks that offends Christian and later on in the novel he says he'll punish her for that. Do you believe this novel has shades of homophobia?

I definitely found Ana’s embarrassment over just saying, “Are you gay?” very tiresome, and I do think their reactions to that question made Ana and Christian both come off as homophobic. But then later you’ve got Christian easily admitting that he enjoys receptive anal sex, albeit with female partners. That’s something you’re not likely to see in a lot of romance novels, or strictly male/female erotic romances, so I give James a thumbs up on that one. Too many authors would be afraid of letting their heroes admit they like butt play, because god forbid we read about a romantic hero enjoying anything that could be seen as “too gay”.

Finally, this book presents BDSM as aberrant and a lifestyle only entered into by those who are abused. Christian's background includes both neglect from a crack-addicted mother and being molested starting at age fifteen. What harm do you think these assumptions do to the BDSM community as a whole when it is often just an activity on a normal spectrum of sexuality?

Obviously, it paints everyone who engages in any level of BDSM activity as emotionally or sexually broken, when in reality, it’s just something that either turns your crank or it doesn’t. Again, we can’t forget that James was writing this as a Twilight fanfiction. She removed the element of vampirism, so she had to add something to make Edward/Christian tortured and dangerous. Since vampire myths are so tied to sexuality, why not make Christian’s sexuality tortured and dangerous? And BDSM is a perfect choice, specifically because of all the misconceptions surrounding it. It is going to create a problem for anyone who is into BDSM, because they’re going to have to defend themselves even harder than before. They’re going to have to defend themselves against allegations of abuse, they’re going to have to defend themselves against allegations of perversion, as they have had to in the past. And now, they’re going to be faced with well-intentioned people wanting to delve into their sexual and emotional history to cure them of their fetish, or judgmental people snickering at them for being damaged.

I want to be clear, though, that I don’t think this is an attitude we’re seeing just with regard to BDSM and this book. I think it’s a sad part of Western culture, that we’re always trying to figure out why we like certain things sexually. James decided to portray BDSM as something someone would only be into if they’re psychologically damaged, and that’s the same thing most people think about exotic dancers, prostitutes, really any kind of sex work. “Oh, she must have been molested, that’s why she’s a hooker.” It’s like we’re so uptight about sex, we have to have some negative reason to make it a part of our lives. No one, male or female, is allowed to own our sexuality for what it is. If I were to say, “I enjoy sex because I like to have orgasms,” someone is going to inevitably tack on a more valid (to them) reason, usually, “And you have a husband and we need to keep them happy, right?” or “And you spend all day writing those books!” We’re absolutely not supposed to want or enjoy sex, while being constantly bombarded with sex at all times. No wonder everyone is so confused.