"That book is amazing! Everyone should to read it," said the woman sitting next to me on the train. Through my shock at someone speaking to me on the packed 7:50am service to Bedford I realised that the words were a carbon copy of my colleague's when she lent me How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran.
As excited as I was to be reading what is perhaps the epitome of 21st Century feminism, I felt a slight twang of guilt at proudly holding up the book on the train when I knew that in the non-judgemental comfort in my own home I was actually reading Fifty Shades Of Grey, the E. L. James Twilight fan-fiction novel dubbed "mommy porn" by Americans.
How do I reconcile my eclectic reading material, you may ask. Well, first of all, my purchase of Fifty Shades was laced with a mild sense of irony as well as curiosity. The story of a young, virginal girl who falls head over heels in love with a multi-billionaire with a penchant for S&M seemed like a novel requiring my attention, though I was convinced I would hate it.
Moran writes in her book that any person who believes that men and women deserve to be treated equally is a feminist, independently of what choices they make in life. Subscribing to this theory awarded me immense pleasure: it means that I can wear my outrageously short skirts without compromising my beliefs! But does it mean that I can really champion a book sexualising the concept female suppression and male domination?
I would say that yes, a woman can believe in equal opportunities for both genders and still get her kicks from being bound and gagged by a man. Part of feminism is surely the acceptance of female sexuality, whichever fetishistic or unconventional form it may take.
However, there is an underlying issue which did trouble me greatly whilst reading the novel. Written in the first person from a female perspective, with sexual scenes described in great detail, I was hoping for a realistic depiction of the character's experiences. Instead, I was confronted with the rehashed urban myth of a woman who experiences multiple vaginal orgasms every time she has sex. I will admit that I have not conducted an objective poll on the subject, but the consensus amongst girlfriends after a few glasses of wine tends to be along the lines of: "My first time was painful, embarrassing, awkward and I felt like a freak."
Moran talks a lot about pornography, and about the way in which it has warped young boys' minds to the extent that men find the prospect of pubic hair abhorrent. Although it is true that the porn industry has changed the ideal of female beauty, we must remember that most of these images are aimed at men. As worrying as it may be, most men with eyes are aware that this is not what "real women" look like. But for women - or young girls - reading Fifty Shades, the effect could be rather more negative if they take the protagonist's sexual experience to be the norm, rather than a fantasised version of what the author perhaps would have liked.
In that sense, I do think that E. L. James has done feminism an injustice and aside from perhaps teenage Judy Blume novels, I can't think of a book aimed at women which depicts sex in an accurate (warts and all) manner. Sex And The City may have been a of an outrageously unrealistic account of a whirlwind New York lifestyle, but at least it gave women a weekly chance to sigh with relief and say: "Phew, thank God that's not just me."
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