Publisher: Virago, 2013
Editors: Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes, Susie Orbach
Home for the summer and I needed something to read – the lilac cover on the shelf caught my eye, the gold words confused me.
Fifty Shades of Feminism. What a title. Two vehemently hated yet passionately supported topics combined. My expectations ran wild.
As explained in the introduction, the book is a collection of fifty pieces from fifty female contributors – poets, authors, journalists, documentarists, scientists, mothers – and each written from a deeply personal perspective. The majority of pieces are essays (none longer than 4 pages) occasionally broken by a free verse poem, a comic, or an essentially blank page dedicated to one quote, each of these a necessary nod back to the greats.
When the editors dreamt up the concept of the book they gave their chosen contributors only a week to produce something. One of my favourite pieces is a double page diary spread by Laura Dockrill where she explores what “feeling like a woman” means to her, if it means anything. Knowing that all the pieces were written so spontaneously shows us that gender-based prejudice is still a huge issue as the experiences represented were ready to be called upon at such short notice.
Almost every essay contains a recommendation for other materials – books, blogs, art, competitions – which is great for readers eager to expand their understanding of feminism. At the end of the book is a list of contributor biographies and I noted down lots of names that I wanted to check out later.
Now, I won’t ignore it any longer. The notoriety of the Fifty Shades franchise.
I don’t know how the editors got around the copyright but the result is satisfyingly provocative. Still, as I was reading, I knew I lacked an enthusiasm for the novels that some of the women behind the stories all seemed to share. Those that mentioned the franchise in their pieces had only its praise to sing.
It was Fifty Shades' reputation that stopped me from recommending this book immediately. There have been two flavours of backlash against E.L. James’ BDSM sensation, the first of which being disgust at the fans who openly advertised their sexual agency by reading it on the bus. So I understand why they went with that title. I understand that, as a collection of feminist essays, the stories represented a reclamation of something each author had been ridiculed for celebrating, or supporting, or being, and their collective title of course needed to reflect that.
But for me, said title was just a reminder of the second wave of backlash, the wave that focused on a sinister side of Christian and Anastasia’s relationship. It was a conscious effort for me to consider the words of the women objectively when the cover enclosing them referenced a franchise that celebrated the sex life of what some strongly believed to be a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. There was just something a bit jarring about that for me, a bit too dark, and not in a raunchy way.
Overall, the good intentions of the book shine through. But while its sentiment is pure and the women who came together to make it did an impressive job at showcasing the plurality of feminism, I have to doubt the fundamental possibility of being able to create something that could include all the voices needed to make feminism globally inclusive. There are as many voices as there are people, and someone, somewhere, will always feel left out.
The kind of change expected from feminism cannot be done in batches. It cannot be done with a book of essays, or a Channel 4 special, or a speech at the UN conference. Though these exposed acts of advocacy keep the word on everyone’s lips, it is obvious that change must be done at a personal level, in minute but major ways, to make any sustainable difference to our lives at all.
Over the summer, in a bizarre but delightful coincidence, a course-mate of mine, Sweetie Okornore Asantewaa, advertised her plans to embark on a strikingly similar project to Fifty Shades of Feminism. The support she received, even just for her initial pitch, was terrifically exciting and I knew this was something I wanted to be involved in.
Fifty Shades of Feminism was published two years ago and the essays already feel dated. With societal attitudes changing at such a fast rate these days any analysis or criticism of our collective behaviours must be able to keep up or else fall into irrelevancy. I have an inkling that nothing I will read, or watch, or listen to, on the topic of feminism will include me completely. And nothing is as relevant as right now.
Sweetie's project is provisionally titled 'Little Feminists' because that is what most of us are. We are students, we are young, we are passionate, and our ideas are growing. In the words of Toni Morrison, “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” And write it we will.
Check out Sweetie’s project pitch…