Monday, May 7, 2012

50 Shades of Women

So this is how it all went down: 

In effort to gain some inspiration for a long overdue blog posting, I was happily inspired by a girlfriend of mine who is very soon expecting her first baby. My friend suggested that I explore the debate of whether new moms should work or stay at home. Apparently, people in her workplace have been a little too forthcoming with their often contradictory advice, and naturally, she was frustrated with people offering their opinions when they actually had no business doing so. In her opinion, and I agree with her, there is no set formula for every woman, new mother or not. The choice should be made based upon what works for a woman and her family. Does work allow you to retain a part of your identity that is important to you, separate from your role as mother and/or wife, and thus by doing so, make you a happier, healthier, more balanced person? And therefore, are you a happier, healthier and more balanced mother and/or wife? Having experienced only the role as a wife thus far in my adulthood, I can already agree with that statement. Being able to hold on to something that is important to me, that makes me feel good, or something that I worked hard for, I believe can make me better at my other roles in my life—and one of the most important roles right now, my role as a wife. Why should this diminish when a baby comes into the picture? Should it, will it, and if so, why does it? I often hear from mothers, “You won’t understand until you have a baby.” I am sure this is true, but with that being said, one still cannot presume that there is a predictable formula that a working woman should follow once she has a baby, nor that her experience post-baby will be one similar to every other woman who has gone through it.

But allow me for a moment to digress onto another tangent that was again, inspired by my friend’s suggestion (incidentally, this digression will ultimately make this blog not only a topic discussion but somewhat of a book review too!). The next morning after she gave me her passionate suggestion, I saw the Newsweek magazine that came in the mail the previous day. The cover article caught my attention, “The Fantasy Life of Working Women: Why Surrender is a Feminist Dream.” Having my friend’s topic in mind, I was very curious to read it. In the article, the author Katie Roiphe describes the new trend of women in their 20s and 30s demonstrating a “current vogue for domination” in the bedroom by a man, which she states is in odd contrast in an era where women are more dominant in the workplace than ever before, more successful and college-educated. Yet Roiphe stated that a Psychology Today study revealed approximately between 30-60% of women have sadomasochistic fantasies. This is a strange irony, because as the article described, “almost 60 percent of college students…are close to surpassing men as breadwinners, with four in 10 working women now out-earning their husbands, when the majority of women under 30 are having and supporting children on their own, a moment when—in hard economic terms—women are less dependent or subjugated than before.”

Interesting, isn’t? Is it unsettling or confusing, too? Or is it a trend to shrug off and smirk about? I think that is up for discussion. In her article, Roiphe referenced the new bestseller, 50 Shades of Grey. Curious, I checked it out. And as a warning to anyone who has not read it yet, beware of the X-rated material in this book. I was thrown off guard initially, yet I still managed to read all three books in the Shades of Grey trilogy in less than one week…5 days to be exact. I know—3 books, 5 days.

Meet Christian Grey, the triple S threat: sexy, successful, and sadist. Admittedly, I got tricked into falling in love with Christian Grey despite his male-dominant-woman-submissive preferences in the bedroom, and despite how his actions startled my passionate feminist views. I think it is because Christian had this vulnerable, sad, broken side to him, and because he truly loved Anastasia. So in that love for her, he looked out for her and took care of her—as the book evolved across the three books, it was no longer just about his needs, but about how he can be better and fulfill her needs. Christian was not a selfish man, he put Ana’s needs before his own, in his own, weird, sadomasochistic way. Christian Grey essentially fulfilled a common fantasy for women of the perfect man—gorgeous, tall, undeniably wealthy, spontaneous AND amazing in bed AND to top it all off…he has a sad, broken side to him that makes him in need of life-changing love through which he can heal. Why is that sad side so appealing? Perhaps it is the contrast of a man having so much power being also so very vulnerable that makes him relatable, and lovable. And for women, that paradox of powerful and vulnerable can be ridiculously sexy. He took Anastasia’s breath away. On the surface was a strong and powerful lover, who could handle everything. But deep down, he was a frightened little boy, who needed her love.

How does this tie into my friend’s frustration about the debate over whether women should work or not after having a baby? Well, I read the Roiphe’s article with her point in my mind. My friend is a successful working woman. She makes good money, has a happy marriage, lives a happy relaxed life. That being said, the article called to mind the irony behind a society where it is still looked down upon by some if the mother chooses daycare over being a stay-at-home mom, or vice-versa…some shake their head at a woman who is an educated, career woman yet chooses to stay at home with her children. In an article on, “Opinion: ‘Mommy wars’ avoid women’s real woes,” the author Barbara J. Risman describes various contradictions to the working mom debate:

 1) It is generally agreed that men and women should have equal rights, but yet it is never expected that the man should consider staying at home with the kids. In the home “workplace” the work is not truly equally shared. Why?
2) It is a known fact that parenting is tough job that requires major emotional and psychological investments. Yet, why do employers discriminate against hiring and promoting working mothers? Aren’t they the most suitable for the tough grunt work any job may bring, since they do an even tougher job at home?
 3) The lack of work policies that allow women to breast-feed in the workplace, therefore guaranteeing penalties for doing so…the U.S. is oddly behind the international trend on this point.
4) Women married to wealthy men are “allowed” to make a choice of staying home with their children—they can afford it, so the choice is theirs and whatever they choose to do is (somewhat) acceptable because as the article states, “they are doing so for the good of their children” since, if they wanted to, they could afford to put their children in day care. Yet, women who do not have the money but still choose to stay home with their children, are coined by society as “welfare mothers,” who should get a job and then are forced to put their children in most likely less than ideal day care situations. Does Risman make a good point here? Is society really that quick to judge, and so harshly and unsympathetically?

In yet another article on, entitled “Working moms happier, healthier than stay-at-home-moms (SAHMs),” my earlier point is reiterated—women who work tend to feel better about themselves, had fewer symptoms of depression, and that feeling is reflected upon their role as a mother. They felt better, and therefore were better mothers.

I brought the two issues together in this blog for the purpose of calling to attention the difficulty in categorizing women (and mothers) into appropriate and acceptable roles. Most women having babies are probably in their late 20s and early 30s. These women may choose to work and have day care to help them balance things. These women may choose to stay at home, despite having a great job that their college-education afforded them. These women may be making more money than their husbands and therefore decide to continue working, while the husband takes a job cut and stays at home with the children. These are women who value the ability to make their own decisions, without judgment or penalization from their employers. Yet, as Katie Roiphe’s article stated, these new-age, strong-willed baby boomers still may crave a little domination in the bedroom. They may want to be able to make the choice at work, but sometimes they would like to relinquish control to a sexy man who ties them up in the bedroom. Who is to say that is wrong? Who is to say that the two are incompatible?

Personally, reading 50 Shades of Grey, I found myself at times blushing 50 shades of red. I found myself bashfully turning the pages without a glance up or around me. And while reading, I would pause occasionally and wonder, “Could I do that? Would I do that, succumb to that, for the man I loved?” The thing with the Christian-Anastasia love affair is that she concedes a great deal of control, because as she justifies it in her head, it is what makes him happy and she loves to see Christian happy, especially because of his dark past. As she says herself, “Would I do it again? I can’t even pretend to put up an argument against that. Of course I would, if he asked me—as long as he didn’t hurt me and if it’s the only way to be with him. That’s the bottom line. I want to be with him.”  She later concedes that while she wants to say that it is wrong, she can’t because it is what is right for Christian. Since she loves him and wants to be with him, it cannot be really wrong for her either—she can make the sacrifice, and gain the love of a man she has fallen for head over heels. Realistically, some of the things Christian does “out of love” for her are crazy, controlling, belittling, and in Anastasia’s own word, “stalkerish.” Realistically, one has to be as innocent as Ana to be able to fall so readily in love with a man as possessive as Christian. While reading, I sometimes found myself not really liking Christian Grey and how demeaning he was at times (although you are still supposed to love him because this is a flaw in his character that slowly changes with his love for Ana). Yet, in the back of my mind, I found myself wondering if that would be sexy in real life for most women—a man that loves you so much he wants to be a part of everything you do, a man that has that much money and power that he can make those demands? He has power, and to some women, college-educated or not, that alone is sexy.

Now here’s the (long) question: Can the allure of knowing a man loves you so much that he wants to possess you in every way, be a powerful enough enticement, that you could relinquish control over many aspects of your life, because that is what the man whom you have fallen in love with wants and needs for his happiness?

In light of the stay-at-home-mommy debate, the articles and the book just highlighted to me how many important decisions and choices women constantly have to make—nothing is black and white. Nothing is as simple as choosing just because you want to, or as Christian liked to say, “Because I can.” Every woman can work if she wants to, but is that the best decision for her and her family? Every woman can choose to have children, to make a career for herself, or she may be content being a homemaker. None of those choices are, in my opinion, wrong, but will only be so if she chooses for the wrong reasons. Can we truly and honestly make the concession that a powerful man is sexy, and still reconcile that power with our right to make the important decisions regarding career and motherhood? Are the two mutually exclusive? Obviously, there is no simple answer. But perhaps that is why we have books to read about the Christian Greys and the lucky, or not-so-lucky, Anatastisa Steeles, depending on how you look at it. It is that pleasure of fantasy that makes us pick up that book, be it sadomaschoism or fighting-till-death in an arena Katniss-style. Who do we relate to more, Ana or Katniss—lovestruck romantic, or strong-willed heroine? But we should not be faulted for our fantasies, even if they contradict the choices we make in our real lives.  Who knows, maybe Hillary Clinton likes to spanked, too.

Obviously, this blog does not even come close to covering all points on this subject, despite the supersized length of this post. Women come in 50 shades of everything, there is no simple way to describe our tendencies and our preferences. So I look forward to parts 2, 3, 4, etc. of this discussion….and I’d love to hear everything and anything my readers have to say and share about it.