Edited by Appignanesi, Lisa, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach

Virago Press, 2013

by Alexia L. Bowler, Swansea University


Having surreptitiously downloaded E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2012) to my Kindle last year, my gleeful anticipation at the possibility of reading a controversial ‘dirty book’ turned to regret, followed by howling derision. Not only did the ‘novel’ scarcely delve into the gothic realms of BDSM — isn’t ‘gentle spanking’ (of him or her) par for the course these days? But it also barely acknowledged the often-injurious power dynamics inherent in heterosexual mating rituals, and was littered with infantilising euphemisms for vagina such as ‘my sex’, while simultaneously reclaiming that cringe worthy 90s phantom from popular psychology: the ‘inner goddess’. I can tell you, ‘dear reader’, not since Judy Blume’s Forever (at the age of 13) have I ever found satisfaction in a good ‘dirty book’, and this one is no different: E. L. James’s debut novel certainly ‘came into bud’ as a media-phenomenon but immediately droops on opening the cover. And this is the point: Fifty Shades of Grey arguably appeals only to the Twihard generation — that is, its target is the vaguely libidinal but ultimately virginal fantasies of adolescent females across the globe.

Having read the first instalment of Fifty Shades of Grey, my curiosity at its popularity, its ‘postfeminist’ credentials and its take on ‘what a woman wants’ was piqued and, like the editors of this volume, wondered what the response to this book would be from women whose disposable income gets spent on anything from an extra coffee at lunch to black rubber dildos. Similarly, I wondered what it told us about feminism in the 21st century. The sanitised and sexually conservative Fifty Shades of Grey unevenly treads old ground: from the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom (1905) to Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), but, as has been pointed out in other reviews, James’s novel is no Story of O (1954) and there are far more interesting contemporary stories about women’s sexual odysseys, or conflicting, often sado-masochistic, desires such as Suzanne Moore’s 1996 novel In the Cut (adapted to cinema by Jane Campion in 2003). Having never really thought so deeply about what I wanted from ‘erotica’ before, I at least knew what I didn’t want in my feminism/literature. Luckily for me, Virago published Fifty Shades of Feminism.

As Appignanesi implies, Fifty Shades of Feminism is a kind of ‘reader’. A book that showcases fifty women’s exploration of ‘what the F-word means to them today, where women have got to, what still needs to be done – socially, politically, sexually, psychologically.’ (Guardian online)It is a book claims to ‘name’ feminism: ‘owning […] that sometimes reviled “ism”, which too often slips into the lexicon as a synonym for man-hating’ (Guardian online) and it is clear the assorted essays are not meant to be an academic, scholarly pieces of research or quantitative analyses of feminist practices in the 21st century. It is personal, anecdotal and exploratory. As a rejoinder to the Fifty Shades phenomenon as literary or cultural (post)feminism, it is arguably lacking in sustained and direct responses to the ‘novel’ – although that may be something for another, perhaps more academic, volume. However, what this book certainly does is celebrate the fifty shades (and more) of contemporary women’s views on feminism, and their embrace of the term in all its diversity. It passes on a variety of women’s ‘stories’, the nightmares and the pain – but also those sustaining moments and occasions for pure joy — of being a woman and a feminist.

Thus the collection is a delight for both the feminist academic who wants a bit of ‘light(er) reading’ and the casual reader who is interested in what a selection of women think about feminism today. Whereas Fifty Shades of Grey sits ominously alongside Naomi Wolf’s recent Vagina: A New Biography (Virago, 2012), Fifty Shades of Feminism stands comfortably together with volumes such as Caitlin Moran’s amusing feminist memoir How to be a Woman (Ebury Press, 2012), Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: And the Rise of Women (Viking Press, 2012) and Kira Cochrane’s collection of articles from the Guardian archives: Women of the Revolution: Forty Years of Feminism (Guardian Books, 2010). With discrete pieces by familiar and new faces, the reader can dip in and out at whim to get a sense of the zeitgeist in feminist feeling.

While there has been some criticism about the uneven tone of the collection— and there is a sense in which it occasionally vacillates awkwardly between righteous anger and euphoria — what is stimulating is the breadth and variety of discussions and voices in the compilation; from concerns about everyday sexism, think-pieces on the role of feminism(s) across the globe, views on pornography, raunch culture and relationships, to celebrations of the diversity of feminism, tributes to inspirational figures that register a continuum of feminist activism and history, as well as making a case for the Orange Prize for women, and the ongoing work that needs to be done in cases such as violence against women. As many have observed (and like to promote the idea of), feminism is often seen as embittered and run aground by in-fighting, back-biting and all sorts of ‘cabal-like’ practices. Here, however, there is a sense in which feminists of all persuasions unite in their differences to give voice to their lived experiences of feminism, suggesting that, after all, it can be personal, as well as political.

Memorable pieces come from the actress Juliet Stevenson and the novelist-actress Meera Syal, who frame their discussions of what feminism means to them in the context of their roles in popular culture. While Stevenson discusses the paucity of meaty and explorative roles for aging actresses, highlighting the notion that women’s ‘creative life expectancy is only as long as our sexual value’ and that women ‘remain fetishized for the things that don’t last’, Syal reflects on her role as Much Ado About Nothing’s Beatrice. Syal’s entry is not only a beautifully written essay but also fruitfully comments on the universality of the Beatrice-figure: the taunts about ageing and marriage, society’s fear of the woman’s ‘shrew-like’ tongue (read: intelligent and witty) and the grief-stricken cry of a woman (‘I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving’) who wishes to participate fully in culture and society. Harder-hitting pieces such as Laurie Penny’s ‘Saudade’ (a Portuguese term evincing a lingering nostalgia and love after the loss of that object or person), are a somewhat painful reminder of the real lives affected by social and cultural injustices but also a call for solidarity amongst feminists. Similarly Sayantani DasGupta’s piece on notions of ‘sisterhood’ and transnational feminism, passionately calls for solidarity and support of the work already being done in non-western countries, and attempts to counter the currency of the ‘white, western rescuer’ as the only form of feminism. Other notable entries are Jeannette Winterson’s rabble-rousing attack on the culture of internet porn and Alice Stride’s ‘Saving the Bush’ about the politics of pubic hair, while Kathy Lette’s tongue-in-cheek ‘feminist’ humour (perhaps a little crude for some; see Katie Guest in The Independent, 30th March 2013) strikes a chord while making you laugh, allowing us to take seriously the everyday sexism in a wry fashion and evidences that women can ‘tell jokes’.

There are too many interesting essays in this volume to name-check all of them but alongside my own picks are names such as Natasha Walters, Sandi Toksvig, Elaine Showalter, Camila Batmanghelidjh, Shami Chakrabarti, along with entries by the editors themselves. What is appealing about this book is its earnestness, its readable style and the mix of intellectual and emotional responses, giving truth to the concept of feminism as a living, breathing, multifaceted, various and diverse movement that is still alive and well, and that, as humans, women are not ‘walking ideolog[ies]’ and that our ‘moods and needs’ are ‘many and various’.

Alexia L. Bowler teaches English at Swansea University and is an honorary research associate with GENCAS. Her research focuses on the politics of cultural representation in twentieth and twenty-first century literature and film, with particular emphasis on feminism and popular culture, technology, the ‘real’ and the spectacle, as well as adaptation. She has published articles and reviews in New Cinemas, Science Fiction Film and Television, and thirdspace: a journal of feminist theory and culture, as well as co-edited a special edition of the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies on adaptation. Upcoming publications include her chapter ‘Towards a New Sexual Conservatism in Postfeminist Romantic Comedy’ in Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which is edited by Joel Gwynne and Nadine Muller.