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Aya de Leon: Fifty Shades of Political Torture

Boundaries of Taste: Often derided as tasteless schlock, could the Fifty Shades novels actually reflect something much more serious?

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Protestors demonstrating against a tribute to the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, in 2012. Flickr image from user Carlos FG

By Aya de Leon

Erika Mitchell was born in 1963 to a Scottish father and Chilean mother. During her childhood in Britain, momentous events were taking place in her mother’s homeland. In 1970 Chileans elected Salvador Allende, Latin America’s first democratically elected Marxist president. Allende embarked on an extensive program of nationalization and sweeping social reform. Then, in 1973, General Augusto Pinochet ousted Allende in a CIA-sponsored coup and established himself as Chile’s dictator. The New York Times called it “one of the bloodiest military take-overs in Latin America’s history,” and the coup was followed by an internal crackdown against Allende’s supporters that left thousands dead and included the torture of tens of thousands more at the hands of the state.

Nearly thirty years later, Erika, writing under the pen name E.L. James, published Fifty Shades of Grey. The novel is widely understood to be a kinky domestic tale about two white people, written by a woman widely understood to be a reclusive British housewife, but there may be more to it than that. James’s mother has suggested that her “Chilean fiery spirit” was in part behind Fifty Shades, and while that “fiery” heritage is a stereotype, it’s no coincidence that the Republic of Chile was a real-life bastion of sadism during her adolescence. While some feminists have argued that Fifty Shades is a tale of domestic abuse wrapped up as a love story, it can also be understood as a romanticized allegory of Pinochet’s dictatorship.

When Erika was born there were very few Latinos in England, but by the 1970s a significant immigration boom from Latin America had begun. Britain’s 1971 Immigration Act relaxed rules that had previously only allowed work permits for residents of current or former British colonies. In the first big wave of Latin American immigrants to England after the rule change, approximately 2,500 exiles arrived, most of them from Chile. Many were professionals or students who had fled due to the ongoing political instability, including right-wingers fleeing Allende’s socialist regime. After 1973, a second wave of exiles arrived who were fleeing the Pinochet dictatorship. Many of these Chilean immigrants settled in London.

Erika was ten years old when Pinochet seized power. Given her reluctance to discuss nearly all aspects of her personal life, it is impossible to know the depths of her family’s relationship to the Chilean immigrant community in the 70s and 80s. We do know that she and her mother spoke Spanish together, and that her mother was proud to expose a young Erika to Latin culture. But how long did they live in London? Erika went to high school a little over thirty miles outside the capital. Did she seek out information about her mother’s homeland? Her father was a BBC cameraman, so we can assume that their household was tuned in to the news. Erika herself went on to be a television producer, and she has expressed a love of both TV and film. As a teen, did she see or know about the American drama Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek? This film is based on the true story of a journalist from the U.S., who disappeared in the bloody aftermath of Pinochet’s coup. The film came out when Erika was in her teens, and was nominated for four Academy Awards, won for best screenplay, and picked up two more awards at Cannes. Missing was banned in Chile under Pinochet, and although neither he nor Chile are ever mentioned by name, the film states explicitly that the screenplay is based on a true story, the names of the people were not changed, and the specifics of two prominent Chilean cities are included. Did Erika pay attention? Did she recognize her mother’s homeland? Did it lodge in her unconscious, then fade into the background of her developing sexuality?

Carolina De Robertis is the author of two critically acclaimed novels set in Latin America. The first, The Invisible Mountain, is a sweeping family saga that begins in Uruguay in 1900 and spans several South American countries through the 1990s. The second, Perla, focuses on the history of the disappeared in Argentina in the 1970s and 80s. De Robertis herself was born in England in the 1970s to Uruguayan immigrant parents, and grew up in the U.K., Europe and the U.S. She explains that, until she was ten years old, no one ever had an explicit conversation with her about the dictatorship, the violence taking place in their family’s homeland, or the reasons their family ended up migrating. However, De Robertis is now able to see how the dictatorship had always been looming, unspoken, in the background of her childhood. “I’ve come to see that that the repression in Uruguay cast a shadow in my childhood that was inescapable, and permeated all things, even in its silence. Its very absence was a kind of presence. Dictatorships are like fog: they seep in everywhere. Their effect on the subconscious transcends borders.” She continues, “I know that this is not only true for me, but for many children of immigrants from countries that experienced repression. Since publishing Perla, I’ve received many letters from readers…describing the lingering effects of the dictatorships in their homelands on their inmost selves.” De Robertis explains that these effects on exiles are not simply a by-product of these regimes, but part of the psychological strategy for control and domination that undergirds them. According to De Robertis, “the military leaders of dictatorships actually intended for the effects of their regimes to be profound and far-reaching and psychologically deep. The leader of the Argetine military junta, Jorge Rafael Videla, said, ‘The aim of the Process is the profound transformation of consciousness.’”

As the Fifty Shades phenomena continues to break records for the largest grossing book franchise, cultural critics try to understand what nerve it has touched in the zeitgeist.

As the Fifty Shades phenomena continues to break records for the largest grossing book franchise, cultural critics try to understand what nerve it has touched in the zeitgeist. Fifty Shades is billed as a mainstreaming of BDSM. However, members of the BDSM community have wholeheartedly rejected the book. They complain that kink cultural values are based in consent, not the controlling and manipulative behavior of the dominating billionaire character, Christian Grey.

From the beginning, the book has come under fire for its gender dynamics, but with the release of the film a new wave of criticism has emerged, focused on the class dynamics. In her piece “The Sly Capitalist Seduction Of ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’” Anne Helen Petersen asserts that,“Beneath the BDSM trappings of Fifty Shades lies the fantasy that wealth will set us free.” She claims that “the sexual fantasy that undergirds Fifty Shades of Grey is inextricable from the class fantasy: No one would be compelled by the fantasy of a man who gets off on restraining and whipping a woman in a trailer park, or even a suburban split-level.”

Lynn Parramore also offers a class analysis. In “Fifty shades of capitalism: Pain and bondage in the American workplace,” she argues that, “drunk on the intoxicants of wealth and power, Fifty Shades of Grey hints at a sinister cultural shift that is unfolding in its pages before our eyes. The innocent Anastasias will no longer merely have their lifeblood slowly drained by capitalist predators. They’re going to be whipped [and] humiliated…in…a hierarchical, sadomasochistic world in which everybody without money is a helpless submissive…Welcome to late-stage capitalism.”

Erika isn’t forthcoming about much of anything, least of all her Latina heritage.

Adding to the gender and class analysis, I would add that there is a racial and colonial dimension as well. Erika Leonard looks like a middle-aged, white, plus-sized housewife, with her British accent and her shy, self-deprecating style, not an uncommon look for light-skinned Latinos with one white parent. My own Latina mother had a white father, and until adulthood she carried his non-Spanish surname. She grew up in the 50s, when racism led many Latino parents in the U.S. to discourage their children from learning and speaking Spanish. As an adult in the world, like Erika, my mother is often mistaken for white. However, as children, many mixed-heritage Latinos are only seen and known inside their family context. My grandmother was brown, and had a strong Spanish accent, so my mother grew up being targeted for and impacted by racism. The cousins on her father’s side slammed the door in her face and refused to see her because she was “colored.” My mother and aunt grew up in poverty because my widowed Puerto Rican grandmother couldn’t get work doing anything but scrubbing floors, even though she had been to a university and spoke several language. Erika isn’t forthcoming about much of anything, least of all her Latina heritage. However, this year on “The Today Show,” when she and the co-hosts lifted their mimosas to drink, she automatically said salud! Although she pronounced the Spanish toast with a British accent: “SAH-lewd.”

Did Erika have relatives living in Chile during the coup? Was her mother working to get any of them out of the country? Did any come to England? Did they tell stories of what had happened? Did Erika know then that hundreds of thousands of people were tortured, murdered, made to disappear? Did she know that female political prisoners were systematically raped? If not specific and detailed news reports, did she hear adults talking behind closed doors or in hushed tones about these things, leaving a girl with a fragmented yet frightening picture of something muy mal going on in her mother’s country of birth? Where did the idea of a “Red Room of Pain” come from?

Erika didn’t begin writing until she was in her mid-40s, yet her inspiration was a story about a teenage girl. She became obsessed with the vampire romance Twilight and began writing fan fiction about the series. Although Twilight has elements of romance and horror, and there is sex in the latter part of the series, it avoids provocative sex, drugs, and serious profanity because, author Stephanie Meyer said, “I don’t think teens need to read about gratuitous sex.” Fifty Shades brings not only the central relationship from Twilight, but also the awkward, embarrassed language of a middle schooler talking about sex. Never before has an erotic novel used such G-rated language to talk about the naughty bits. I found it incredibly jarring that Erika’s heroine uses such stilted language as “my bottom” while having sex.

These are the dirty wars in Latin America retold via the trope of the virgin and the billionaire.

Like the protagonists of Fifty Shades and Twilight, Erika herself is awkward and naïve. No one could be more surprised than she is about the success of her books. According to the Telegraph, when asked what her readers are responding to, Erika said: “I have no idea. I am completely stunned by the reaction to these books.” Erika insists the books represent “my midlife crisis, writ large…all my fantasies in there, and that’s it.” But where do fantasies come from, sexual or otherwise? Alexandra Katehakis, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex addiction therapist/supervisor, says that “fantasy [is] a way to manage anxiety, depression or other bad feelings.” Many “will move into sexual fantasy about a person or thing in service of making painful feelings go away.”

Fifty Shades reads like a mash-up of political dictatorship and teen romance. These are the dirty wars in Latin America retold via the trope of the virgin and the billionaire. While Fifty Shades is certainly a romanticization of an unhealthy relationship of domination, and could be read as a metaphor for late-stage capitalism, it could just as well be read as an allegory for Erika’s Latin American heritage. Whether the billionaire represents Pinochet or his American backers, the heroine Anastasia is an embodiment of the Chilean people: idealistic, vulnerable, and treated without mercy.

Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, Ebony, Woman’s Day, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, the Feminist Wire, My Brown Baby, The Good Men Project, Adios Barbie, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, and she was recently a guest on HuffPostLive. She blogs and tweets about culture, gender, and race at @AyadeLeon and ayadeleon.wordpress.com. Kensington Books will be publishing her feminist heist novel in 2016.

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One comment for Aya de Leon: Fifty Shades of Political Torture

  1. Comment by David Biddle on June 15, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    Well, I appreciate this commentary for what it is. However, I must admit as an author I was chuckling and grimacing all the way through. I have to assume Erika Mitchell would have a similar reaction.

    For what it’s worth, whether Ms. Mitchell had an unconscious connection going in her mind about Chilean torture or not, what is the connection to violence and dominance and submission all 15 billion of her titillated readers seem to feel? That is a real question and it hasn’t been answered yet by anyone.

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