Fifty Shades of Grey, Consumerism and BDSM: Selling Subversive Identities

By William Lefferts

Warning: This post may be more suitable for adult readers.

Fifty Shades of Grey is an economic juggernaut and the first foray into the world of BDSM for many readers and viewers—but to call Fifty Shades an accurate representation of a BDSM relationship is reductive, insulting, and, quite honestly, a subject that has been covered by more authentic critics than myself; as a fan of BDSM-themed academia and not a prolific practitioner, the scope of my criticism is inherently limited. The fated romance of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey may be the zeitgeist of our generation, but I would argue that the draw of Fifty Shades lies in its mainstream take on BDSM, rather than its epic love story or literary merit.

Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/df/Man_Cuffed_to_Bedrail.jpg

Man cuffed to a bed, Creative Commons, Wikipedia

BDSM, the acronym for Bondage & Discipline, Domination/Submission, and Sadomasochism refers to a subculture of people who engage in various forms of sexualized “play” based on the eroticization of power dynamics. Through their apparent violation of “normal” modes of sexuality, BDSM practitioners, as well as those who position themselves outside of the BDSM scene, view BDSM sexuality as transgressive and, through this transgression, revolutionary in the way that it challenges assumptions of traditional sexuality. In the construction of a cohesive identity, BDSM practitioners paint their own practices as adventurous and “kinky,” while simultaneously creating a contrast with more mainstream forms of sexuality or “vanilla” behaviors (Weiss 2011:viii).

In the decades following the sexual revolution of the 1960s, as BDSM began appearing in more mainstream settings, corporations and other capitalist institutions have recognized the marketing appeal of BDSM iconography and narratives (Sisson 2007:21). Despite persisting stigma caused by years of pathologizing, BDSM imagery and themes have invaded popular culture, more often than not as the butt of joke or something to be mocked, but present nevertheless. Through this media saturation, BDSM has come to be “something more mainstream and less risqué, more conventional and less exotic” than previously thought—still different, but ever-so-slightly more acceptable (Weiss 2006:104). Through this mainstreaming of BDSM sexuality, images of BDSM have transitioned from shocking and dangerous to representations that are simultaneously pathological and normalized. BDSM-themed commodities can now be sold as “transmogrified risk” for an audience unfazed by more mainstream shows of sexuality, always on the lookout for that transgressive edge so commonly associated with kink (Beckman 2001 quoted in Sisson 2007:21).

The majority of past academic discourse on BDSM has either emphasized the presumed individual pathology underlying sadistic and masochistic tendencies or has been centered on feminist critique/rebuttal regarding BDSM’s relationship with feminism and relationship power dynamics, rarely looking at the significance of the communities that have been formed by BDSM practitioners. In her 2011 ethnography Techniques of Pleasure, anthropologist Margot Weiss asserts that an integral part of the creation of the BDSM subculture is a shared identity linked to the way that “[BDSM] sex is seen as a skill, an accomplishment, and an array of sometimes-rigid techniques”—and, as a skill, an art form, BDSM is something you can get better at (Weiss 2011:7). Through this lens on BDSM, practitioners are a part of a quasi-ethnic group, merging personal identity with practice and community in ways that “reveal that BDSM is simultaneously an orientation or identity, a craft, a practice, and a community or social scene” (Weiss 2011:10).

Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/81/BDSM_collar_back.jpg

BDSM Collar, Creative Commons, Wikipedia

And if there is anything sacred or important to a group of people then, goddamn it, there’s a way to sell it. The commoditization of BDSM as an ethnicity of transgression does not, in fact, rely on BDSM to be an actual static sexual identity or ethnicity (kinky and vanilla are so relative, anyway); as long as it is treated as subversive by marketers and the public at large, it can be commoditized in the same way. Indeed, one can claim that BDSM is tied to capitalist cultural formations and, ultimately, works within the same social norms that reinforce mainstream negotiations of sexuality instead of allowing for freedom from racial, gendered, and sexual hierarchies (Weiss 2011:6). This idea challenges the popular belief that BDSM is inherently transgressive and revolutionary; rather it subverts norms only in our collective imaginations.

But when it comes to buying and selling, our imaginations are enough. By saturating the media with BDSM images and making them more acceptable, producers are able to deliver a passing fantasy that, while titillating and enthralling, ultimately sets up BDSM sexuality as a transgressive product to be bought or sold. By associating with BDSM in this commoditized form, consumers are able to feel this sense of risk and rule breaking as we seemingly break social codes and partake in a revolutionary sexuality…but only for a moment.

Works Cited

James, E. L. (2012). Fifty Shades of Grey. New York: Vintage Books.

Sisson, Kathy (contributor) (2007). Safe, Sane, and Consensual: Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism.

Taylor-Johnson (2015). Fifty Shades of Grey. Focus Features.

Weiss, Margot (2011). Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality. Durham: Duke University Press.

About the Author

Will Lefferts is a young man from Nebraska gone East Coast and a lover of most things geeky. A 2013 Anthropology & French graduate from Vassar College, he is fascinated by the intersection of anthropology and queer studies through different forms of media. Will has spent the last two years working in urban education in Marseille and Boston, but is moving to Paris in Fall 2015 to pursue a Master in Communications at Sciences Po. When not writing lesson plans about animal cannibalism, he’s probably getting way too worked up over a game of Settlers of Catan. He just started blogging at https://williamlefferts.wordpress.com/ but it’s, like, totally not a big deal or anything.

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