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  • Beyond the BedroomMotherhood in E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy
  • Sara Upstone (bio)

Better than a mother, then, is the working out of the idea of a mother, of the maternal ideal. Better to transform the real “natural” mother into an ideal of the maternal function which no one can ever take away from you.

—Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill, 81.

In the media storm surrounding E. L. James’s bestselling Fifty Shades trilogy a substantial number of feminist scholars and commentators have vociferously attacked the books in reviews, newspaper articles, and blogs and on social media. Such criticisms represent Fifty Shades as a dangerous extension of the conservative ideologies of romance literature but with a more horrifying distinction in their encouragement of sexual violence.1 In this regard, Fifty Shades has been viewed in the same vein as other works of erotic fiction, which for some feminist commentators are depicted as potentially liberating in the representation of “active female sexuality,” yet at the same time repressive in the perpetuation of romance ideologies and normative gender roles.2

Is it possible, then, to recuperate James’s texts for a feminist agenda? Certainly, a counter argument has been posed, which emphasizes the trilogy’s liberation of female sexuality and which aligns it with alternative feminist readings of erotic fiction as creating a space for the exploration of female fantasy and desire.3 In this respect, one can approach the books from the perspective that:

Nothing in itself, standing by itself, is sexist or non-sexist or anti-sexist, for or against women. Everything said of the name of woman, or in the name of woman, or like a woman, belongs to a context, has a local purpose, [End Page 138] serves a certain strategy, and can be turned around, turned against itself, can be made to work for or against women.4

In these terms, what will define the books’ impact is very much a matter of reception and reader response; it is equally possible that the sexual relationships James offers her readers can simultaneously reinforce sexual violence and promote women’s sexual freedom and liberation.

While the sexual activity in the Fifty Shades books constitutes a site of ambivalence, however, what happens outside the bedroom is more significant when considering the books’ feminist credentials. In this essay I want to argue that it is not the representation of bdsm practices in the Fifty Shades trilogy that makes the books so difficult in feminist terms. Instead, I want to suggest how it is ultimately in the broader matrix of representations of women’s roles that Fifty Shades becomes problematic from a feminist perspective. In particular, I want to suggest, it is the novels’ positioning of women in terms of one contested and dominant social role—motherhood—that ultimately transforms a text that is potentially open and ambivalent in terms of female identities into one that is essentially narrow and conservative. Interrogating these representations via contemporary feminist discourse on motherhood, most specifically within the US context of the books’ setting, it is evident that it is not within the bedroom, but beyond it, that the most problematic aspects of the trilogy are to be found. This is not to strip away any feminist potential in the texts; indeed, through a deconstructive reading, one can in theory recuperate even this aspect of the texts. On balance, however, such recuperation can exist only at the level of a poststructuralist reading practice, which is itself far from innocent when it comes to questions of motherhood, and which alone cannot compensate for the ideological purchase of the novels’ more explicit representations.

Motherhood plays a pivotal role in the Fifty Shades trilogy; indeed, the final book is dedicated to E. L. James’s own mother. Christian’s life is dominated by mother figures: the love of his adoptive mother Grace is juxtaposed with the absent presence of his birth mother, the “crack-whore,” who died when Christian was four.5 Books two and three (Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed) open with prologue scenes that are centered around this experience. In contrast, Christian’s adoptive mother...


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pp. 138-164
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