Sweet Sixteen – the Madonnas, Feminism, and Fifty Shades of Grey

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‘I never really looked at them before: all figurative, all religious – Madonna with child, all 16 of them. How odd.’ [Fifty Shades Darker, Chapter 8]

Odd doesn’t even start to describe it. We will start with the number: 16. It seems rather random. Random could mean just that; that it was pulled from a stake of numbers like in the lottery. More often than not however random but specific facts are carefully chosen. The question is why?

So, 16? When we think of mystical numbers we think of 7 or 40 or 666, not 16. Yet, if we are in the realm of the unexplained already, let’s try numerology. St. Augustine of Hippo said a long time ago, a very long time ago: Numbers are the universal language offered by the deity to humans as confirmation of the truth. And in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe we can read that the answer to life the universe and everything is 42. In plain, dry words numerology is any belief in divine, mystical or any other special relationship between a number and some coinciding events. It means that believers believe that numbers have some meaning attached to them. For 16 you can find:

‘The key words of the karmic sixteen are: restlessness and problems related to personal relationships. The ultimate goal of the karmic number sixteen is to provide the possibility to reawakening the soul, so that it can rediscover its evolutionary path. It therefore involves unexpected and drastic changes. […] Sixteen represents the opportunity to overcome impediments in relation to the past life; perhaps being born in an unusual and not very fortunate environment or, perhaps, simply conflictive family conditioning. The person characterized by the number 16 will almost certainly have to face conflicts in personal relationships or connected with marriage in adult life, i.e. betrayal, deceit or debasement.’

Impediments in relation to the past: check.

Born in an unusual and not very fortunate environment: check.

Conflicts in personal relationships in adult life: check, check and check.

In fact make that 16 checks since Christian had 15 previous submissives. Ana was meant to be his sweet 16. And then she left. The doors of the lift shut. She is gone. Christian sits on the floor and can’t figure out what has happened, what went wrong. He looks up and there they are, his 16 Madonnas.

‘I gaze up at the paintings, my Madonnas. They bring a mirthless smile to my lips, the idealization of motherhood. All of them gazing at their infants or staring inauspiciously down at me.’ [MotU, Edward PV Outtake I]

The Madonnas are another of these randomly seeming, but very specific facts given to us in the books. They are the only figurative paintings in Christian’s apartment, and they greet you as soon as you enter his castle in the clouds. As he says himself we generally think of them as an idealization of motherhood. As such they can be easily dismissed as symbol of the oedipal conflict we all have to go through in our psychological development in our teenage years. We learn from Dr. Flynn’s later statements that Christian surpassed this part of his development and now needs to play catch up. He still needs to separate sexual desire and love when it comes to his birth mother and thus has problems to keep her out of his intimate relationships leading to chaos in his feeling. And as we all know, Christian doesn’t do chaos.

That’s all nice and good. But what about the ‘inauspicious stare’? What do we really SEE when we look at an image of a Madonna, this not just image of an ideal mother, but really ideal of a woman?

We see a mostly seated, sometimes kneeling figure. The figure is covered, usually to an extent that the typical outlines of a (female) body are totally blurred and merge with the background. Last, but not least the person whether she wears a crown, a halo or some version of a headscarf is never looking directly at the viewer, but has demurely lowered her eyes.

Not just numbers have a meaning, or random facts in books. Paintings have a language of their own which you can decipher if you want.

A seated or kneeling figure is an inactive one, and one that made herself/was made smaller/lowered herself. She might wear a crown, but don’t let that deceive your perception. A seated king would always be drawn on a pedestal with the signets of his power tightly grabbed in his hands. This queen is chained to her chair, waiting to be told what to do just as she was expected to do as told when the holy spirit impregnated her with the baby she holds in her hands.

‘As I strap her into the seat her breath hitches. The sound goes straight to my groin. I cinch the straps extra tight, trying to ignore my body’s reaction to her.
“This should keep you in your place,” I mutter. “I must say I do like this harness on you. Don’t touch anything.” […] She scowls at me and I know it’s because she can’t move.’ [MotU EPOV Outtake I]

If you cover something you are trying to hide it. Yes, Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin in 1995 because they wanted to create a new curiosity for what is behind the wrapping based on the idea that you don’t really see anymore what is constantly in front of you. (That’s a thought to chew on for our social media age where we are bombarded with the same images of the same people 24/7.) But covering the female figure has nothing to do with recreating curiosity. On the contrary, blurring the outlines of the female figure, merging them with the background is meant to make the figure as a person forgettable and make her not arouse any interest.

‘”That dress is very short,” he adds.
“You like it?” I give him a quick twirl. It’s one of Caroline Acton’s purchases. A soft turquoise sundress, probably more suitable for the beach, but it’s such a lovely day on so many levels. He frowns and my face falls.
“You look fantastic in it, Ana. I just don’t want anyone else to see you like that.”’

The demurely lowered eyes go right along with a seated position and a covered silhouette. They too are a restraining measure as they don’t allow you to take in your environment. You can’t observe what interests you in open curiosity, but you are left in a weak, defenseless position unaware of what is to come. You are kept a virgin – innocent, but also inexperienced, naïve, ignorant, unaware, and helpless.

‘”You look very relaxed in these photographs, Anastasia. I don’t see you like that very often.” […] “I want you that relaxed with me,” he whispers. All trace of humor has gone.
Deep inside me that joy stirs again. But how can this be? We have issues.
“You have to stop intimidating me if you want that,” I snap.
“You have to learn to communicate and tell me how you feel,” he snaps back, eyes blazing.
I take a deep breath. “Christian, you wanted me as a submissive. That’s where the problem lies. It’s in the definition of a submissive – you emailed it once to me.” I pause, trying to recall the wording. “I think the synonyms were, and I quote, ‘compliant, pliant, amenable, passive, tractable, resigned, patient, docile, tame, subdued.’ I wasn’t supposed to look at you. Not talk to you unless you gave me permission to do so. What do you expect?” I hiss at him.
His frown deepens as I continue.
“It’s very confusing being with you. You don’t want me to defy you, but then you like my ‘smart mouth.’ You want obedience, except when you don’t, so you can punish me. I just don’t know which way is up when I am with you.”’ [Fifty Shades Darker, Chapter 2]

Yes, a Madonna, the painting of a perfect, desirable woman, is the picture of a submissive. Continuing this thought, it is what had been expected of a woman for centuries, and is still expected by many though they might disguise it as ‘behavior belonging to the social contract we who live in a society of plenty have entered in’ or as ‘behavior demanded by religion’ etc. It is that picture down to the part where the image is an oxymoron – a virgin mother – and really unachievable. In that light a woman will always be a sinner and therefore punishable for just being that, a woman.

Have I mentioned already that all Madonnas are brunettes? Yes, like Christian’s mother who was a crack whore with a pimp using her, beating and abusing her into submission. Like the women Christian likes to beat. Like Ana, who was meant to become Christian’s 16th Madonna. Christian – who’s name means ‘follower of Christ’, the baby son in and from the lap of all those Madonnas.

But Ana said no and walked out on him. She wasn’t ready to sit or kneel, to lower her eyes or herself.

‘”I don’t want a set of rules.”
“None at all?” Shit – she might touch me. Fuck. How can I legislate against that? And suppose she does something stupid that puts herself at risk?’ [MotU EPOV Outtake I]

This reflects a lot of the male fear in regard to a shift in a female’s position in society: What if they hurt me? How can I still prove my masculinity if I can’t be their hero? But back to the moment in that Ana left and refused to become the 16th Madonna, one of those now looking down at Christian inauspiciously. What other female models are there he can draw from to paint another picture of a desirable woman?

There is Elana, the dominant. She made the transformation from trophy wife – the Madonna of another man – to a successful business woman. In a market that stagnates at best she was able to found and grow a business that sells luxury – not an easy feat to accomplish for anyone. It is business in an area that shapes the image in all our heads of what a modern, at least outwardly successful woman has to look like. She says of herself:

‘”I was the best thing that ever happened to you,” she hisses arrogantly at him. “Look at you now. One of the richest, most successful entrepreneurs in the United States – controlled, driven – you need nothing. You are master of your own universe.” […] “You loved it, Christian, don’t try and kid yourself. You were on the road to self-destruction, and I saved you from that, saved you from life behind bars. Believe me, baby, that’s where you would have ended up. I taught you everything you know, everything you need.”
Christian blanches, staring at her in horror. When he speaks, his voice is low and incredulous.
“You taught me how to fuck, Elena. But it’s empty, like you. No wonder Linc left.” […] “You never once held me,” Christian whispers. “You never once said you loved me.”
She narrows her eyes. “Love is for fools, Christian.”’ [Fifty Shades Darker, Chapter 22]

Elena for me represents in many ways old school, fundamental feminism of the kind that thinks itself superior because of the second X chromosome. She wants to be the better man up to the point where she uses and abuses men and denies the existence and power of feelings. She divides the world in worthy opponents and pawns in her game. And any woman not willing to see the world like her will never be worthy because there is no other way than hers.

‘”You can’t go. Ana, I love you!”
“I love you, too, Christian, it’s just –“
“No … no!” he says in desperation and puts both hands on his head.
“Christian …”
“No,” he breathes, his eyes wide with panic, and suddenly he drops t his knees in front of me, head bowed, his hands spread out on his thighs. He takes a deep breath and doesn’t move.
What? “Christian! What are you doing?”’ [Fifty Shades Darker, Chapter 13]

Yes, sticking to what he knows Christian offers Ana this way. But for Ana this is just wrong and disturbing. She said she wants no rules, no roles to fill, no presaged paths to walk. And she meant it for both of them. She doesn’t want Elena or her ways, no standard feminism which tries to tell her how a woman has to be either. No man or woman is to tell her how she has to behave or who she has to be.

‘”Don’t you dare to tell me what I’m getting myself into!” I shout at her. “When will you learn? It’s none of your goddamned business!” [Fifty Shades Darker, Chapter 22]

But it is finally not Ana who throws Elena out.

‘”Get out of my house.” Grace’s implacable, furious voice startles us.’ [Fifty Shades Darker, Chapter 22]

Grace “Call me by my right name – Mom” is for Christian the angle that rescued him. He is eternally thankful, so thankful that he calls his catamaran after her. And that throws Ana off for a moment because on the outside his relationship with her is reserved and more on the coolish side. But the reason for that too is confusion. The term ‘mother’ is attached to the Madonna for him, his birth mother. The image of female force is taken by Elena. He cannot connect successful and yet warm Grace with either. She doesn’t fit. She is a category of her own. But since he sees her as a rescuing angle she is also something otherworldly, in her love maybe even slightly dangerous. And as Grace shows in this situation she can be an awesome, forbidden creature.

Just like his Ana, who accepts no conventions; who is only a Madonna when she chooses to; who is the dominant when she must; who doesn’t know what is the right path, but ploughs forwards on her path; who is proud and more secure of who she is not least because of him and his support and can freely admit it.

That is Fifty Shades for me – a story about a young woman’s way in today’s world to finding her definition of what it means to be a woman, of what feminism is today. There is sex, yes. Being female is first and foremost a gender and implies needs that ask to be sated. There was silence about that for too long. No need or desire is wrong. Christian, when Ana and he enter this new chapter in their relationship, stresses again and again how important it is for Ana to articulate her wishes, discuss sex and become comfortable with it. She stresses in return how he needs to open up about his thoughts and feelings and accept her love. They try a way of partnership and communication. It is more, more than there has been.

Is it mommy porn? Yes, because the idea of being cherished while free, of being who and how we want to be, of being not superior or inferior but truly equal while staying unique in all ways with a man who knows to value that is very arousing despite all the work it is.

Look at me. – I am.

2 thoughts on “Sweet Sixteen – the Madonnas, Feminism, and Fifty Shades of Grey

  1. Pingback: Episode #59 – | Fifty Shades Fan Podcast

  2. Pingback: Episode #59 – 16 Madonna’s in Fifty Shades of Grey | Fifty Shades Fan Podcast

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