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Dani Klein Modisett Headshot

Fifty Shades of Fear

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When I found out my second child was also going to be a boy I have to admit, I danced a little jig -- and I'm not even a wee bit Irish. Not that I don't love girls and women, and in fact, I can think of little else more fun than giving birth to, say, a little Janeanne Garafalo. But even if I did hit the jackpot and get a funny, whip-smart, adorable girl, I knew it would still be a bitch to raise her, what with my history of disordered eating I'd no doubt pass on, my fear of strangers taking advantage of her and of course, the wiping. That "back to front," challenge as the parent of a tiny girl that you can never really be too diligent about. Little girl parts simply need more attention to detail than little boy parts. And I'm only talking about babies and toddlers here, I didn't even deeply consider how complicated it would get when those parts grow and start having needs of their own. So thank god for the many recent female-rich servings of popular culture to give me a reason to really pop some champagne corks.

Holy Toledo!

Remember the shock of Madonna and her outside bra? Remember the romantic era of Chelsea Handler's first interviews with her brash, obscenity laced, take no prisoners style? What about even a mere six months ago, when we thought Whitney Cummings and her tireless references to bodily functions were excessive (although, let's admit it, they were infinitely more tolerable coming out of the mouth of a skinny woman). After all, everyone loved Roseanne and her groundbreaking truth about domestic life, but I don't remember many scenes where she tweezed her face and smelled her armpits. But I digress, because the point I am making here is that up until very recently, there were still limits on the exploration, exposure and shaping of female sexuality. After watching Lena Dunham's Girls and getting halfway through the disturbing literary phenomenon that is "50 Shades of Grey" by E.L. James, it appears there are no longer any limits to the public expression of female desire. I can't help but feel the pressure to keep up if you're a girl -- and the pressure to keep a lid on it if you're a mother. Terrifying.

I watch Dunham's Girls on Sunday nights while folding small pants the way other people stare at accidents on the 405 freeway. I seem unable not to ogle the screen and wonder what these characters will do next to hurt themselves and others. An image from episode three of Lena's character Hannah sitting on her bed with her legs spread open, lit only by the blue light of her laptop as she researches STD's while staring at her own vagina is one I won't forget anytime soon. And even more than all the naked on-screen screwing these girls engage in, the jerking off of Hannah's "boyfriend" in episode five as she watched was some of the most upsetting few minutes of television I've seen in a long time. I lived in NYC when I was in my 20's being an "artist," and it certainly wasn't an innocent time, but it wasn't that garishly sexual. Despite what could be intensely alienating vulgarity, it is a tribute to Dunham that she captures the crazy free-fall of trying to grow up as sensitively as she does, especially given how tiny a segment of the female population she is reflecting. I've never been a prude, but now, 20 years later and a mother, watching the blatant, aggressive sexuality of these girls, their confidence to manipulate men, near violent manipulation by men and most disturbingly, their sheer vulnerability despite all they think they know, is very unnerving.

Interestingly, around the time Girls started airing on HBO, my beloved book group of self-proclaimed intellectuals and/or TV writers, chose to read "Fifty Shades of Grey." You know, as an anthropological study of how James so deftly tapped into the zeitgeist of women's sexual fantasies. Given the High School level of prose I discovered in this NY Times bestseller, E. L. herself would likely not be the person to ask to use "zeitgeist" in a sentence. The challenge would probably turn her mouth in to a "thin, hard line," like so many of the characters in her trilogy. As soon as Christian (30-year-old rich freak) delivers to Ana (21, virgin) an actual contract for her to sign wherein she accepts him as her "master" and outlining the specific terms of her submissiveness -- including instructions for gym attendance, eating, dressing, sleep and so on and a stipulation that a "Failure to comply with any of the above will result in immediate punishment... determined by the Dominant" -- I was done with this book.

Call me nutty, but that is just not sexy to me. It's probably worth noting, however, that my envy of James' total lack of regard for putting forth any effort at all to write well, coupled with her canny understanding of how much women want to be tied up, while amassing truckloads of money for herself, might have influenced my response to the material. But I've got a pretty sweet life, so I do believe my minor jealousy is nothing compared to my fear of how popular these books and their submission manifesto are and my utter disappointment in the plummeting of literary standards.

So yes, I am breathing an even deeper sigh of relief that I have boys of late, but my jig has lost its spring. Because even though I don't have a daughter, I've become hyper-aware that you do. And if you're not raising her in a religious sect that demands chastity and no TV, radio, magazines or looking at billboards, you're in trouble. I am pretty sure you want your daughter to have a healthy relationship with her body and her sexuality, and you also want her to know how to protect herself from men who will objectify her and see her as prey. I would imagine that you want her to figure out quickly who she is and what she wants to avoid some of the hurt of bad decisions, to speed through those dangerous years between childhood and adulthood, and to skip over the devastation of thinking she wants something desperately only to wind up in a threatening situation she can't get out of either physically or emotionally.

When I turn the TV on these days, I often find myself wondering what I would do as the mother of a daughter standing under the sexual avalanche of our current culture. Hopefully, I am teaching my sons to feel differently about women than Christian Grey. I love them and show up for them so that when they grow up they won't feel they have to tie a woman up to feel safe that she won't leave them, so that they won't have to make a woman submissive in order to be sexually satisfied. Obviously, I don't bring this up over dinner. Not yet. And although I have never defined myself as a feminist, I want my boys' future to be in partnership with women, not as their "Dominant."

Unless the sex is really hot, then, you know, whatever.

But the girl lessons? How do you teach young American females to love themselves enough not to confuse yearning for some unattainable, controlling, inconsistent man/boy with a shaggy mane of hair he's constantly running his hands through, who makes you bite your lip and the "deepest, darkest part" of you "clench in the most delicious fashion" every time you see him, with real, meaningful, and yes, sometimes boring, love?

How do we have a prayer of teaching our daughters this when apparently millions of us grown girls don't really believe it ourselves?