Did Fifty Shades of Grey Make Its Readers More Sexist?

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Dakota Johnson in the <em>Fifty Shades of Grey</em> movie.
Dakota Johnson in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie.Photo: Universal Pictures

We still haven’t quite wrapped our heads around the collective fever dream that was Fifty Shades of Grey mania, during which over 100 million people worldwide voluntarily consumed a piece of repackaged Twilight fan fiction whose most notable sex scene involves a wealthy sociopath ripping a tampon out of a college student’s vagina. While some defended the books as empowering “mommy porn,” critics mostly agreed that the series was a retrograde mess that normalized physical and emotional abuse by labeling it BDSM. And now the social-science researchers have weighed in!

A new study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that Fifty Shades of Grey readers between 18 and 24 possessed higher levels of “ambivalent, benevolent, and hostile sexism” than non-readers, and that readers who described the book using positive terms like “hot” or “romantic” were more likely to have sexist attitudes than those who read the books but disliked them.

For the study, 747 women in the Midwestern U.S. were surveyed using a metric called the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory Scale, which includes 22 statements that participants were asked to rate their level of agreement with. Some of these statements contain hostile sexism (overtly negative attitudes to women), like “Women seek to gain power by getting control over men,” while others describe benevolent sexism (“positive” views of women that still reinforce restrictive gender norms), like “Women should be cherished and protected by men.” The study found that women who read the first book generally scored higher on the ambivalent sexism scale. “This indicated that those who read at least the entire first book held more sexist attitudes relative to the rest of the sample,” the authors write.

Participants were also asked to select from a number of words describing the book, including  ‘‘hot,’’ “romantic,” ‘’abusive,” “stupid,” and “degrading.” The study found that women who described the book as “hot” and “romantic” were more likely to hold “hostile” sexist attitudes, while women who described it simply as “romantic” were more likely to hold “benevolent” sexist attitudes that subtly normalize female subservience. As the study’s authors write, Fifty Shades conforms pretty neatly with the tenets of benevolent sexism, in that “Anastasia’s complete fulfillment is not achieved without a heterosexual, monogamous romantic relationship” and “Anastasia feels pressured to satisfy Christian because she will otherwise ‘end up alone with lots of cats and [her] classic novels to keep [her] company.’” 

“The juxtaposed relation between Christian and Anastasia takes the form of a violent hierarchy, making Anastasia appear inferior to Christian — she is depicted as weaker, less assertive, more emotional, and less intelligent,” the authors write.

Of course, the question remains whether Fifty Shades actually causes readers to become more sexist, or whether readers with preexisting sexist beliefs are simply more likely to read the books in the first place (probably a bit of both). But as the researchers pointed out, it is well-established that sexist representations of women in pop culture affect how we think about gender in our daily lives, and that “despite their fictitious nature, portrayals presented in fictional narratives can contribute to a sociocultural context that normalizes the depiction of women and men as unequal.” 

All the more incentive for me to finish my own feminist spinoff in which Anastasia dumps Christian and lives happily alone in the mountains caring for her cats and catching up on all the great classic novels. It’s called Fifty Breeds of Grey Cats, and it’s going to be huge.