Since bursting onto the scene in 2011, Fifty Shades of Grey has been polarizing audiences worldwide. Some fans claim the blockbuster book trilogy and movie empower women. Critics say they're toxic, sexist, and demeaning. Literary snobs are quick to lambaste the books as badly written "mommy porn." Like the great divide between red and blue states, you're either on Team Grey or you're not.
Of course, this divide largely comes down to the way audiences view the relationship between Christian Grey and his paramour, Anastasia Steele. Is their affair chivalrous and sexy or sadistic and downright rapey?
Turns out a new study set out to explore readers' answer to this very question. The researchers believe that a person's perspective on Fifty Shades of Grey says more about their personality than it does about the quality of the books: According to the study, the more you like the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, the more sexist you are.
To reach this conclusion, researchers from The Ohio State University recruited 747 females aged 18 to 24 to participate. The women were asked if they had read the books and how many they had read, along with a slew of questions meant to gauge how much they enjoyed the books and whether or not they saw them as romantic. Then, using questions from the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory Scale, the researchers evaluated the women for sexist beliefs.
For the uninitiated, "ambivalent sexism" is an umbrella term that refers to two types of sexism: "hostile" and "benevolent" (here's a good primer on these terms if you're interested). In order to measure which type of sexism participants exhibited, if any, they were asked to rate statements such as "Women seek to gain power by getting control over men" (an example of hostile sexism) and "Women should be cherished and protected by men" (benevolent sexism) on a scale of "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree."
So what did they find?
Roughly 40% of participants had read at least some of the books, while the other 60% had read none of the books. Those who had read the books were asked how much they liked the books on a 5-point scale. Readers of the books were also asked whether they agreed or disagreed with 23 words that could be used to describe the trilogy, which ranged from ‘‘hot,’’ ‘‘sexy,’’ and "romantic" to ‘‘abusive", "stupid," and "degrading."
After analyzing the data the researchers discovered several associations between the books and sexist attitudes. First, they found that those women who read the first book in its entirety (meaning they sat through all of Anastasia's lip bites) scored higher on the ambivalent sexism scale than those who read part of the book or none of the book.
"This indicated that those who read at least the entire first book held more sexist attitudes relative to the rest of the sample," write the authors.
Second, the researchers found that those readers who read part or all of the books and also found the books to be "hot" or "romantic" also held more sexist attitudes.
After analyzing sexist beliefs in general, the authors ran the data through a different model, one that would show whether the sexism exhibited was hostile, benevolent, or both. The researchers discovered a strong association between women who rated the books as "hot" and "romantic" and hostile sexism. In other words, women who saw the story as sexy were also more likely to harbor beliefs that women are inferior to men. Women who saw the books as abusive and degrading did not hold these beliefs (shocking!).
The results were similar for benevolent sexism. "That is, the participants who found the book romantic were more likely than others to have benevolent sexist attitudes," explain the authors. Benevolent sexism may sound positive, but it's not. Like chivalry in general, benevolent sexism perpetuates the notion that men should take care of women, in a way that's belittling to women—as if they can't take care of themselves. Fifty Shades of Grey endorses this concept in a big way, as Christian monitors what Anastasia eats, how much she works out, and who she can and cannot see.
Benevolent sexism and hostile sexism can also go hand in hand—if a person believes women are inferior to men (hostile sexism) they may also believe that men should cherish and coddle them (benevolent sexism).
Without judging the book, the authors point out that their findings are in line with previous research suggesting that sexist media can be damaging to women. "These results were consistent with findings from experimental and correlational studies which have indicated a positive association between gendered media consumption bearing similar themes to the Fifty Shades narrative and attitudes supporting violence against women."
So while it might seem kind of silly to study Fifty Shades of Grey, the results speak to a bigger problem—how the support of sexist attitudes can hurt women both emotionally and physically in the long run. As the authors write:
When examining ambivalent sexism, we found that women who held ambivalent sexism beliefs were unique in that they possessed two sides of a "sexist coin," indicated by endorsement of both subjectively negative, hostile evaluations and positive beliefs about women. Although these two dimensions of sexism seem conflicting, they both serve to reinforce subservient societal functions for women.
As other experts have noted, sexism in general has been used as a way to keep women suppressed forever and negatively impacts our advancement in society.
That said, the results should still be taken with a grain of salt. For one, it's unclear if Fifty Shades is inspiring more sexism or if women who already held sexist beliefs also happen to be more attracted to the books and more likely to enjoy them. "While our study could not explicitly determine whether reading the book caused sexist attitudes or whether women with sexist attitudes were more drawn to the Fifty Shades series, a body of research by media sociologists has shown that the messages presented in a variety of media forms can contribute to consumers’ perceptions of reality," the study's lead author, Lauren Altenburger, told me in an email. "Ultimately, we are calling for media-literacy programs that encourage consumers to dissect and think critically about popular culture mediums."
Also, Fifty Shades of Grey sold more than 100 million copies worldwide—so clearly not everyone who read it is a raging sexist. I hope.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.