We’ve all heard the phrase ‘you are what you eat’, probably coming from the mouth of an old toothless relative who’s dietary guidance seems shaky at best. But you rarely hear someone say ‘you are what you read’ which seems a bit more fitting. Reading is kind of like the original Method acting – you slip into character and even after the book is through, it can be difficult to disentangle yourself from the text. But a group of researchers at Ohio State and Michigan State are trying to do just that, disentangling the book from the attitude and looking at the relationship between the two. According to the study, which centers on EL James’ best-selling series, Fifty Shades of Grey, there may be a connection between sexist attitudes and the BDSM read.
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The study, “Sexist Attitudes Among Emerging Adult Women Readers of Fifty Shades Fiction”, surveyed 715 female university students between the ages of 18 and 24. Researchers interviewed the women using the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, which essentially scores your level of sexism and compares it against global scores. And it doesn’t merely calibrate blatantly sexist attitudes, like a disregard for women, but also encompasses adoration, and more benign forms of objectification. For the sake of this study, the scale outlines three forms of sexism to categorize subjects: ambivalent, benevolent, and hostile sexism. According to the researchers, benevolent sexism fosters a belief that women must be protected and cared for, as where hostile sexism spurs a more harmful and direct objectification.
Equipped with the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory’s 22 measures, researchers pooled the women into two groups (those who had read the book(s) and those who had not) and asked them to complete the survey. Women who read the book were then asked to describe it in just a few words.
The study revealed that 61% of readers had stronger ambivalent, benevolent, and hostile sexual attitudes than non-readers. When asked to describe the book, trademark answers included the words ‘hot’, ‘abusive’, ‘romantic’, and ‘degrading’. Among participants, women who called the book ‘romantic’ were more likely to fall into the category of benevolent sexism, a form of discrimination that identifies women as weak and less capable than men. This latter group was deeply concerning to the researchers because the book trilogy “romanticizes dynamics that are consistent with violent romantic relationships”.
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Of course, the team acknowledges that pre-existing sexist attitudes may encourage readers to pick up the book, and that reading alone does not necessarily create sexist attitudes. The researchers still have work to do when it comes to teasing out this distinction, but beyond gender perception, the study points to an equally concerning problem in literature. Literary characters that settle neatly into out-dated gender norms can be dangerous, and the romantic narrative tradition that pins women as weak offers little room for aberration and growth.
On the other hand, quieting sexual literature is not the answer either. There is little room for non-taboo erotica, and it’s incredible that this book has brought the hushed topic of BDSM out from the fringes and into a mainstream conversation. But does the genre offer room for books free of objectified characters? There’s tons of erotica and plenty of strong female roles in literature, but there seems to be a gap in the space where they could converge. The overlap between sexy books and empowering characters is sparse territory to say the least.
Can popularized books like Fifty Shades of Grey exist in the same sphere as characters free of objectification? Are objectification and submission inherent to the genre? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!
Featured image courtesy of Huffington Post.