But it’s one thing to accept submission as an enduring part of a modern woman’s erotic imagination and another to ask her to enact it in her day-to-day life. The legal document Christian Grey presents to Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey is a prop in a bondage fantasy. The verbal instructions the cowboy gives Valdes once she agrees to submit to him are a guide to daily living. No back-talking; no second-guessing; no sarcastic, smart-ass remarks. She must never exit the car unless he opens the door for her. She must never walk on the street side of the sidewalk. In one especially creepy scene, Valdes has just overheard another woman leave a voicemail for the cowboy saying she wishes he were joining her in the shower. The cowboy lies about the voicemail, and Valdes knows he is lying. But then she remembers some article she read saying that women were “biologically programmed” to find cheating men more attractive. “I was hurt, sad, and turned on.” He unbuckles his belt, and she throws her arms around his neck. “Biology,” she writes with a shrug.
Now might be the time to mention that the “biology” Valdes is always quoting is of the shoddiest kind, the kind British tabloids reprint to enrage feminist blogs—studies showing that men find women more attractive when they are ovulating, or that a woman can sniff a series of men’s shirts and tell you which one has the most testosterone. Such is the fuel of Valdes’ “awakening.”
Of course, one woman’s turn-on is another woman’s 911. But I will point out that this is exactly what happens to people in cults: They begin to swallow the logic of the charismatic leader and rewrite their old lives. At a dinner with Valdes’ parents, the cowboy convinces her to keep her distance because they only manipulate her to serve their narcissistic egos. He also convinces her that her son’s diagnosis of autism is a “bunch of bullshit,” a byproduct of bad parenting and a liberal ethos and nothing a firm hand can’t fix. (I’m guessing the son will be at the center of her next memoir or might even write his own.)
But what harm can a cowboy really do to the rest of us? A cowboy is a vanishing breed. He may be a real man, with stern, manly rules, but in the grand scheme of gender relations, darling, he has no real power. He lives in a ranch camp with spotty Wi-Fi. He is hours from the nearest city. He goes days without speaking to anyone. His livelihood is disappearing with the plains; if they stay together, she’ll once again be the breadwinner in the family.
But for the modern liberated woman, that’s the way it has to be. Do we think Valdes would have been so turned on if the alpha male had worked on Wall Street? Or on Capitol Hill? If he had insisted she quit her day job and stay home to have his babies? Or stop writing, especially about him? This way, she gets her car door opened for her, has lots of good sex, and gets to keep her financial independence. And, most importantly, she gets to be the one who tells the story.
The Feminist and the Cowboy by Alisa Valdes. Gotham.