The popularity of EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey is undeniable. Despite its popularity, however, very few people regard James’s book as good art, much less high art, and it has not been nominated for any literary awards. Clearly, Fifty Shades of Grey is not exempt from artistic criticism; yet, whether or not it deserves criticism from feminists is a contentious issue. On the one hand, it presents its readership with an erotic ‘fantasy’, written by a woman, with a female protagonist and has been considered to have positive, liberating and even ‘empowering’ effects on its female readership (Mitchell 2015). On the other hand, it can be seen to (re-)present a very old story about gender roles and sexuality (Dines 2015, Hughes 2015), a variation of the ‘Myth of Woman’ that Simone de Beauvoir long ago exposed as integral to the historical oppression of women. According to the first view, the mass consumption of Fifty Shades of Grey represents progress for women’s liberation, while according to the latter, it signals a worrying regression. While Fifty Shades of Grey may be good art for some and bad art for others, it cannot be both good for women and bad for them.
In this chapter, I argue that the international success of Fifty Shades of Grey is likely to have harmed women as a group across different cultures and that the supposed ‘empowerment’ offered by this text has the effect of concealing its insertion in the network of structures that oppress women. My method is to conduct a feminist critique of Fifty Shades of Grey, which focuses on the literary methods it employs to reinterpret inherently degrading sexual violence as a kind of ‘empowerment’; as the satisfying the authentic sexual desires of its heroine, who becomes a ‘true’ woman through the acceptance and realization of these desires. I conclude that Fifty Shades of Grey ought to be classified alongside other forms of inegalitarian pornography, not because of its explicit content, but because it perpetuates a similar myth about women and, therefore, works in concert with inegalitarian pornography to contribute to the shape of women’s oppression today.