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Fifty Shades of Feminism

by Lisa Appignanesi; Rachel Holmes; Susie Orbach (eds.)

Edited by Canadian writer Lisa Appignanesi and British writers Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach, Fifty Shades of Feminism uses its titular allusion to unapologetically tap into a willing market of female readers with the intention of educating and – hopefully – politicizing them. Yet the anthology is far from a primer in feminist history and politics. It is an unsystematic collection: contributors are grouped simplistically by alphabetical order and separated by random inspirational quotes from stalwarts such as Audre Lorde, Simone de Beauvoir, and bell hooks. In this sense, the collection offers a hodgepodge introduction to a sort of personal feminism.

The book can’t help but function as an initiation of sorts, conscious that it needs younger women to bolster a movement that could be fighting for its life. The editors even issue a call to action in the introduction, though I’m not sure who will heed this call when many younger women today feel free to renounce feminism while also taking its spoils. There is one notable contribution by a younger writer, Alice Stride, the winner of Virago’s What Feminism Means to Me essay contest for women aged 16 to 25.

Other than Stride’s very readable “Saving the Bush,” the essays that stand out are not the ones horrified by labioplasty, pornography, the Brazilian, and other female consumer choices. Instead, the best entries focus on a broader understanding of the twinned oppressiveness and bravery of womanhood. Novelist Ahdaf Soueif writes movingly about getting to know the immigrant woman who cleaned her university office, while Karachi-based editor Muneeza Shamsie reveals why it is essential for women in her country to write their own stories.

Fifty Shades of Feminism reaches the height of unfocused didacticism when Jeanette Winterson, in a scathing piece entitled “Porn Is Not Sex,” concludes that “what porn ruins is a healthy sexual response.… And what porn destroys is love.” Never mind that Winterson’s piece is also the most provocative and intelligent of the lot – coming to such an hysterical conclusion about pornography, in a book supposedly reappropriating Fifty Shades of Grey, reeks of internal crisis.

U.K. academic Nina Power is the only essayist of the group who critiques what feminism has become. Our current brand of liberal feminism, she astutely writes, “may have misrecognized the battleground altogether.” We need to take a look at the radical feminist texts from the late 1960s and ’70s, Power advises, when class was on the table, as was family structure, sexual oppression, and capitalism, to admit that there is much more to be done. Just don’t call it work, she demands.