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Duly Noted

Monday, Apr 16, 2012, 3:36 pm

Katie Roiphe, HBO’s “Girls,” and Submission

By Lindsay Beyerstein

Katie Roiphe argues that women are becoming more submissive and masochistic in bed because our gender is gaining economic and political clout in the outside world. Roiphe anticipates that feminists will be up in arms about her bold claim. Which is odd, because you'd think that an author who expected outrage would muster a lot of evidence to support her position. Roiphe skipped that step and went straight to gloating about how outraged the feminists would be.

She leads with the observation that 50 Shades of Grey, a BDSM-inflected fanfic series that retells the love story of Edward and Bella from Twilight, is selling really well these days. That's true, but a skeptical reader might ask why these books represent a departure from your standard "bodice ripper" romance novels, which have been popular since the dawn of the publishing industry, and which have always been big on female submission and male dominance. Roiphe doesn't appear to have done any research in trends in the romance genre.

On to point Roiphe's second point. We know women are getting more submissive as they become more powerful beause of...HBO's new series "Girls":

The current vogue for domination is not confined to surreptitious iPad reading: in Lena Dunham’s acclaimed new series, Girls, about 20-somethings adrift in New York City, a similar desire for sexual submission has already emerged as a theme. The heroine’s pale hipsterish ersatz boyfriend jokes, “You modern career women, I know what you like ...” and his idea, however awkwardly enacted, is that they like to be dominated. He says things like “You should never be anyone’s ... slave, except mine,” and calls down from a window: “If you come up I’m going to tie you up and keep you here for three days. I’m just in that kind of mood.” She comes back from seeing him with bruises and sheepishly tells her gay college boyfriend at a bar, “I am seeing this guy and sometimes I let him hit me on the side of my body.”

This doesn't prove that today's women have a newly insatiable appetite for being dominated. The sex in the pilot episode isn't supposed to be titilating for the audience at all. The show's director, Lena Dunham, has said in numerous interviews that she's making fun of inexperienced guys who fall back on porn patter because it's all they know.

The heroine, Hannah, isn't turned on by her "boyfriend's" artless and quasi-abusive running commentary. She wants sex, and she likes him, so she puts up with his schtick. We see a smart, sexually liberated woman who lets a boy treat her like crap, inside and outside the bedroom, because she's insecure and hungry for male approval. This is supposed to evoke sheepish self-recognition in the viewer, not lust.

The success of "Girls," does not evince a surging market for female submission. I have yet to read a single critic, male or female, who found the sex in the pilot erotic. Dunham has said she feels sorry for anyone who gets off on the sex in her show. It's supposed to be bad. Not forbidden bad--just awkward bad.

Roiphe affects the pose of the sexual sophisticate who's way too edgy to be turned on by something as tame as 50 Shades of Grey, but if she's confusing Hannah's cringe-inducing booty call with BDSM, I question her kink credentials.

Erotic power games have always been a part of sexuality for some people. The fact that some novels are selling well doesn't prove that there is any kind of sea change in female sexuality. Twilight was one of the best selling series of all time. If even a small percentage of Twilight fans are also into S&M, that's a bestseller right there.

Having failed to prove, or even support, her thesis Roiphe goes on to gloat about how upset feminists are about the brutal truth that she has uncovered. Evidently, Roiphe couldn't find a real, live feminist to give her an outraged quote. I'm not suprised. What is there to be outraged about? So, 50 Shades of Grey is a bestseller. Big deal.

The fact that Roiphe's poorly researched and shoddily argued essay made the cover of Newsweek shows one thing: There is a huge market for stories about how submission is an essential part of women's nature, no matter how badly done they are.

Roiphe is playing the role of Hannah's boyfriend in "Girls," sneering, “You modern career women, I know what you like." Hannah's boyfriend is parroting something he heard in a porno. Roiphe's doing the same thing, except she's riffing off the half-assed critique of feminism she wrote in grad school.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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