Gender Role Representation in Tipping the Velvet and Fifty Shades of Grey – My First Thesis


Enjoying sex and experimenting, especially with Bondage and Discipline/ Domination and Submission/ Sadism and Masochism also known as BDSM for short, has always been considered to be taboo. This has always been the case whether the parties involved were heterosexual or homosexual. In the Victorian era and even now in a Post-Modern era, it is still considered to be taboo to engage in such activities. Within all these domains gender roles play a part and if any individual or group does not conform to what society views as appropriate for their gender they are treated as outcasts.

The texts chosen to do the research on regarding the gender role representation topic are, Tipping the Velvet, the film and Fifty Shades of Grey, the book. A little bit of history on the chosen texts will be mentioned to give a bit background and then gender and the roles society has assigned to them will be examined and discussed. As well as how they are represented in BDSM, in the Victorian and Post-Modern eras as well as between heterosexual and homosexual partners will also be examined and discussed further. The challenging of heteronormative culture is also a big theme within this paper even though it is not a chapter of its own.

Research has been done in all the areas that will be examined and discussed, but research done on the two texts in correlation to one another is yet to be found. Homosexuality and heterosexuality, BDSM and the two eras and how gender roles are represented within these areas have not been discussed as a whole until now. Some articles, books and papers related to the chapters mentioned above will be examined and used to discuss the topic of gender and these papers and so on include: Class and Gender in Victorian England by Leonore Davidoff; Gender Trouble by Judith Butler; Undoing Gender by Judith Butler; Fifty Shades of Fucked-Up by Mandy Schwarze; Sweethearts and Wives by Emilia Heimonen and; BDSM Theory by Kylie Lipa to just name a few.


Tipping the Velvet was originally a book written by Sarah Waters and this was her debut novel published in 1998 within the neo-Victorian genre. The book was later adapted into a play and then into a three-part film in 2002 by BBC. Sarah Waters makes explicit what was virtually impossible to express in Victorian times, but also what is still struggling for socio-cultural recognition. With regard to the film adaptation, the question remains whether the representation of female same-sex erotics discredit the issue of lesbianism (Madsen, 2010).

Cyber-culture is a developing term that can be understood as the cultural production that use the internet and media tools to develop creative works of art, literature, music and so on (Ardevol, 2005). This is important to mention because Fifty Shades of Grey had its origins online in the form of fanfiction. E.L. James wrote Master of the Universe as a spin-off erotic fanfiction of the Twilight novels by Stephanie Meyer. The fanfiction got thousands of views and downloads before being noticed by big publishing houses, many made offers to buy her story which she rewrote into Fifty Shades of Grey (Bertrand, 2015).

Chapter 1: Eras

The two texts chosen for this paper are set in two completely different eras in time. Tipping the Velvet is set in the Victorian era and Fifty Shades of Grey is set in the current, Post-Modern era. The eras will be discussed individually after which gender role representation in that specific era will be discussed. Finally, the film or novel applicable to the discussed era will be used to apply to the theory that has been examined.

The Victorian Era: Background

The Victorian era was in the 19th century from 1837 – 1901 and it was a time of rapid change and development compared to the previous eras according to The History Association (2011). The industrialisation of England altered the nature of the Victorian society and it took a lengthy period of time for the people and the government to adjust to this change.

Strictly speaking, the Victorian era began in 1837 and ended in 1901 when Queen Victoria passed away, but this period in time can be considered to include some years before her reign and also some years after her passing.

The Victorian Era: Gender Role Representation

During the Victorian era men and women’s roles became more defined than before. Men had to fulfill masculine roles and women had to fulfill feminine roles. In earlier centuries it was normal for women to work alongside men in a family business. In the Victorian era women were viewed as being ‘the angel of the house’ and were left at home to oversee domestic duties and to reproduce. From the 1830’s, women started to wear the crinoline, an enormous bell-shaped skirt that made it nearly impossible to clean the house without falling over. Men and women that lived in England during this era were thought of as two different spheres and only ever came together at breakfast and dinner (Hughes, n.d.).

In Christian theology, women were subordinate to men and since femaleness or femininity were associated with the body, women must be subordinate to men. There was also a belief among Victorians that an organic hierarchy existed. Men, especially those in the middle-class, has positions of power in society. Male sexuality became a great act of self-control, one of the characteristics of middle-class gentility (Davidoff, 1979).

Only some women had the opportunity to go and get educated, but this was only for middle- and upper-class girls. These girls were coached in what were known as ‘accomplishments’. This is how Victorian women attracted a husband rather than through their domestic abilities. What the Victorians viewed as accomplishments for girls was to become educated in a way to soften their learnedness with a graceful and feminine manner. These accomplishments were taught either at boarding schools or from a resident governess. No one wanted to be called a ‘blue-stocking’, the name given to women who were intellectuals. These types of women were considered to be unfeminine and off-putting in the way that they attempted to seize men’s ‘natural’ intellectual superiority (Hughes, n.d.).

It is thought by many that the Victorians were extremely repressed especially sexually, but some specialists have by and large accepted Foucault’s assertion that contemporary obsessions with sex originated with the Victorians. It was during this period of time that homosexuality and crossdressing began to become more apparent especially with female couples. Women, sexuality and marriage began to change dramatically in the 1880’s. Eugenics shifted the meaning of marriage from a spiritual union to a reproductive one that depended on heterosexual fertility and promoted racial purity. Eugenics generally means the science of improving a population with controlled breeding to increase desirable characteristics. In this case however the Victorians tried to eliminate homosexuals and their different ways of being compared to heterosexuals. Because of this, many female couples began to identify either with an ideal of pure, sexless love, or with a bohemian modernism that rejected marriage and monogamy as patriarchal institutions (Marcus, 2006).

The definition of dandyism can be seen as a whole state of being in the creation and presentation of the self, and of the dandy as an outsider due to gender, sexuality and class. A good example of a dandy is Oscar Wilde, he dressed differently from other men, carried himself differently with confidence and acted in a certain way. He was also known to have been a homosexual man playing with the fluidity of his sexuality. A dandy played on their difference and eccentricity, aiming to illuminate the confines of society and put them on trial by choosing an existence simply for personal pleasure and aesthetic fulfilment (Yazan, 2011).

Originally there were no terminology to identify women in men’s-tailored clothes and accessories, inhabiting urban surroundings in the late 19th century and early 20th century, thus they were simply called female dandies. Female dandyism started to become a sort of norm in the Victorian era and was manifested in women who often worked and lived in the fields of politics, literature, visual and performing arts and so on. This was considered to be seen as part of an early feminist movement. In these women’s dealings with male attire, accessories, habits and lifestyles, these women challenged the dominant Victorian discourse by embodying characteristics such as aloofness, cynicism, provocation, and decadence with the risk of becoming subject to social exclusion due to preferences (Yazan, 2011).

The Victorian Era and Tipping the Velvet

In Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, it is considered to be a text that looks at society from a female point of view in the Victorian era and exposes the prejudiced and phallocentric nature of mainstream history. This film was believed to be an extraordinary blend of historical accuracy and empowering anachronistic re-imaginings. The characters in Tipping the Velvet are primarily female, they come from different social classes and backgrounds, and their interactions range from friendly to lustful and even violent. The distinction and multiplicity of sexual and romantic relations is important since it adds a dimension of female interactions not generally seen in mainstream fiction (Valdimarsdottir, 2014). Waters challenges both past and persisting perceptions of female (homo) sexuality. Tipping the Velvet is much celebrated for its transgressive and subversive qualities, this put Waters as an author and lesbian narrative on the map of mainstream culture (Madsen, 2010).

The protagonist in the film, Nancy or Nan, was established as a typical Victorian first-person narrator who recollected events from a certain point. In terms of the structure of the text, it appears to possess many characteristics known to be found in Victorian texts. The story is told retrospectively by a now wiser and more mature protagonist. The style of Tipping the Velvet is that of a Bildungsroman (Valdimarsdottir, 2014).

One of the earlier things Nancy recalls is the theatre where she first saw and met Kitty and Waters (1998) describes the theatre in the following way: “The Palace was a small and, I suspect, a rather shabby theatre.” But in her memories she remembers it differently, “I still see it with my oyster-girl’s eyes – I see the mirror-glass which lined the walls, the crimson plush upon the seats, the plaster cupids painted gold, which swooped above the curtain.” This can be seen as a classic look for theatres back in the Victorian era.

It is the protagonist’s coming-out story, a young girl who worked as an oyster girl for her family in a small town, but who undergoes various transformations: Nancy Astley becomes Nan King; a crossdressing singer, dancer and stage performer; a crossdressing streetwalker; the property and submissive of an influential widow; before finally finding love and joining a society of lesbian social workers and activists (Valdimarsdottir, 2014).

So right after Kitty asked Nancy to go with her to London, Nancy agreed and she was flabbergasted when she saw London for the first time and all the different types of people there, Waters (1998) wrote: “There were ladies and gentlemen, stepping from carriages. There were girls with trays of flowers and fruit, and coffee sellers, and sherbet-sellers, and soup-men. There were soldiers in scarlet jackets; there were off-duty shop-boys in bowlers and boaters and checks. There were women in shawls, and women in neck-ties; and women in short skirts, showing their ankles.”

Looking at Tipping the Velvet and its protagonist, Nancy Astley, it is clear to anyone watching the film that she is not like the average Victorian woman because of her sexuality, actions and ways of thinking, but there comes a point that she says something that proves in some way that she is indeed a Victorian woman. This ‘something’ that she said was during the third part of the film Nan goes to live with a women called Florence who tells her to go look for work and another place to live, it is at this point that Nan says that she will become ‘the angel of the house’ to be able to remain living with Florence and her brother.

The Post-Modern Era: Background

The Post-Modern era can be viewed as originating around 1939 and some say that we are currently still living in the Post-Modern era now in 2016. According to Brann (1992), Post-Modernism is not a natural kind nor material artifact. It is not even really a theory, instead it shows the signature of an intellectual’s movement. Post-Modernism is not considered to be an object of thought, but rather what a collection of people are thinking. In the Post-Modern era most people think more for themselves while others simply follow trends blindly.

Brann (1992) also stated the following: “It can be said that modernity is the propensity to modernisms; meaning the urge of elites not only to be continually displacing the late by the latest, but to induce ‘movements’, that is, tendentious drift, in followers.”

By reading and interpreting the above quote, understanding tells that what it is basically saying is that in the Post-Modern era it is all about constant change, bringing about new ways of thinking, getting people to understand and follow this new ways of thinking, constantly replacing current thoughts and things with something newer, better and more attractive.

The Post-Modern Era: Gender Role Representation

In the Post-Modern era there are numerous arguments regarding the term gender and what it means. Some argue that gender and sex are the same thing while others argue that gender is based on what society deems appropriate for the sexes (Ferguson, n.d.).

Gender is still considered to be masculine or feminine, but in the Post-Modern era, individuals are able to choose their own gender identity or sexual identity instead of being told by society who and what they should be. In the Post-Modern era individuals have become more open-minded in their thinking especially of gender, but men are still seen as being dominant over women in many aspects of life. Gender is also now not seen as a binary construct anymore but rather it is seen as a scale that individuals can find themselves on anywhere between feminine and masculine regardless of sex.

Unfortunately, since the media has become an enormous part of everyone’s lives in the Post-Modern era, this means that the media influences individuals in many different ways and one of those ways that is important for this study is regarding gender representation. The media represents gender in certain ways like through films, animations, video games and so on that plants the idea in the minds of individuals of how they ought to be instead of how they want to be or the way in which they see themselves.

According to Butler and other feminist scholars and theorists, there is an overarching notion that gender is in fact performative. Gender only exists when it is performed or acted out. Gender also only exists to the extent when it is performed with an individual’s body, through bodily acts and bodily appearance, but this theory of gender rejects the theory of gender as being expressive, gender being defined by desires, wishes, idealisations, sexuality and so on (Ferguson, n.d.).

Looking at the media and how it represents gender in a Post-Modern world, it illustrates how the statement ‘gender being performative’ can be seen as an accurate description of the term ‘gender’.

The media is probably the most persistent influence of how men and women are viewed and it is also a very powerful influence. The media suggests views of gender daily into the consciousness of the people. The images of gender communicated in the media is often unrealistic, stereotypical, and with limiting perceptions (Wood, 1994).

There are three main themes describing how the media represents gender according to Wood (1994): Firstly, women are underrepresented, which deceivingly implies that men are the cultural standard and women are unimportant or invisible. Secondly, men and women are portrayed in stereotypical ways that imitate and maintain socially approved views of gender. Thirdly, representations of relationships between men and women emphasise traditional roles and normalise violence against women.

One of the biggest criticisms regarding video games are stereotyping and over exaggeration. There are often very distinct differences between male and female characters.  Some video games use wrongful, disrespectful, and sometimes even violent representations of both genders. In many video games women are portrayed as ‘damsels in distress’ and men as either the villain or the hero which is big, strong and powerful. In some other video games where female characters actually have a strong or important role to play they are portrayed in an extremely sexual way. Generally, in video games women are either portrayed as useless, helpless, unimportant or sexually objectified (Kondrat, 2015).

The Post-Modern Era and Fifty Shades of Grey

In a Post-modern civilisation that embraces absolute independence of an individual rather than rejecting it. Our culture has altered and perverted beauty and sex. Adultery in whatever form is not frowned upon as much as before and premarital sex has become acceptable as well as experimenting with sex as seen in Fifty Shades of Grey.

James (2012) wrote from Anastasia’s view how she saw the building where Christian Grey works as follows: “My destination is the headquarters of Mr. Grey’s global enterprise. It’s a huge twenty-story office building, all curved glass and steel, an architect’s utilitarian fantasy, with GREY HOUSE written discreetly in steel over the glass front doors.” Many buildings in the Post-Modern era are considered to be ‘huge’, especially office buildings and the way it is built with steel and class is also considered to be quite fitting with this era.

Eckman (2015) mentioned that the book is viewed by some as cultural progress while others see it as evidence of cultural deterioration and decline. Also it is said that the relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele is absolutely absurd. The sort of perversion shown in the quote below is seen as an assault upon human dignity and beauty. It also signifies an abandonment and loss of shame as a culture.

According to James (2012), Christian Grey is a man who will “first dominate you but ultimately love you—providing that, like Anastasia Steele, you’re careful to sign a rigorously detailed contract detailing how much domination you’ll take.” She also wrote how Anastasia and Christian often communicated via e-mail, “I sit and read the contract again, making more notes as I go. When I’ve finished, I fire up the laptop, ready to respond. There’s an e-mail from Christian in my inbox.”

The relationship between Christian and Anastasia, Ana, does to an extent support traditional gender roles like the man being the dominant one and the woman being the submissive one, not just sexually but also in everyday life. Fifty Shades of Grey, the novel, does in fact over exaggerate the stereotypes of men and women, but tries hard to make it attractive to the modern people, mostly women who read the novels. The themes that Wood described earlier can be seen in Fifty Shades of Grey, the stereotypical representations of the genders as well as the normalisation of violence against women. Sure the violence in the novel is not necessarily seen as abuse but rather as a form of sexual pleasure. It could be misinterpreted by many who has read the novel or who have seen the recent film, which can plant the idea into the people’s minds that is it acceptable to act in such a way, not only sexually in the ‘red room’ but also publicly in everyday life.

The two texts, Tipping the Velvet and Fifty Shades of Grey has been discussed along with the eras they fit into regarding gender representation in those eras. There were definitely some clear similarities between the theory on gender in the specific eras and the two texts. Some of these similarities include the traditional roles society set out for men and women and how they had to obey it or be cast out. Because of Nan’s dandyism and other behaviours in Tipping the Velvet, it is clear to see that she is a homosexual woman and that in Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian and Ana’s relationship seems extremely traditionally heterosexual. The different sexualities of the protagonists from the two different texts will be examined and discussed in the next chapter.

Chapter 2: Sexuality

The texts chosen, feature the main characters as homosexual in Tipping the Velvet and as heterosexual in Fifty Shades of Grey. Homosexuality and heterosexuality will be discussed shortly after which gender role representation will be discussed along with it. Finally, the film or book that has the specified sexuality and theory is going to be applied to the specific characters. Homo- or heterosexuality is a form of sexual orientation either men or women can identify with. Sexual orientation is not only a personal characteristic but defines the group of people in which satisfying and fulfilling romantic relationships can be found.

Homosexuality: Background

Homosexuality in basic terms means that the person has an emotional, romantic and/or sexual attraction to members of the same sex (The American Psychological Association, n.d.). Lesbians are the term used particularly to describe homosexual women and homosexual men are often referred to as gay.

The American Psychological Association (n.d.) stated that sexual orientation is distinct from other components of sex and gender, including biological sex (the anatomical, physiological, and genetic characteristics associated with being male or female), gender identity (psychological sense of being male or female), and social gender role (the cultural norms that define feminine and masculine behaviour).

Homosexuality: Gender Role Representation

Heimonen (2009) stated that sex and gender are generally understood to have different meanings as seen in the definition above by The American Psychological Association. Sex refers to a person’s biological sex, gender, on the other hand, refers to what is culturally and socially constructed. Together these two terms form a binary relation where sex and gender symbolise nature and culture.

According to Marcus (2005), thirty to forty years ago, it took almost no time to get from feminism to homosexuality. Basically what this means is that women were considered less important and a minority at some point and then people noticed them and started theorising about them and so the feminist movement began, it is basically the same for homosexuality, also being a minority that has been noticed and people began theorising about them and started a movement for them. At first there was minimal information on the topic and now there is much more available. Books, papers and so on have all increased regarding bisexuality, homosexuality, lesbianism, transvestism, transsexualism, queer, and so the list continues.

Compared to ‘normal’ heterosexual individuals, gay men are often considered to be more feminine and lesbians are considered to be more masculine. But gender is not exactly what a person is or has; gender is complex in relation to sex (Butler, 2004). Butler (1990) also stated that many individuals are born ‘sexed’ in that they have a biological from, but what relationship does that have to gender? Butler was also concerned about a strict dualistic distinction between sex and gender and a similar distinction between gender-types.

Few studies have empirically examined the spectrum of sexual variations and how this spectrum influences society’s view of sexuality. The views of homosexuality have never truly been positive in anyway and homosexuals have always been considered to be ‘the other’. The current view of sexuality comprises of two categories: firstly, ‘normal’ sexual behaviour, and secondly, behaviours outside of the norm, with sexual variations that fall outside of the social sexual norm labelled as ‘deviant’. Regarding this view of sexuality, homosexuality can be seen as apparently being deviant in nature, but looking at what else is considered to be deviant sexual behaviour, homosexuality really is not so bad and can even be excluded from the list that fits into this label. Other sexual behaviours that also fit into the category being labelled as deviant, are: rape, paedophilia, bestiality, exhibitionism, and so the list goes on (Chadwick, 2011).

Dressing is traditionally gender-coded almost all over the world, crossdressing on the other hand though is considered to be a highly specific art of gender cross-coding. There are also differences between crossdressers, some cross dress and actually want to change their physical body too like transsexuals, but transvestites are not interested in doing that, they simply enjoy crossdressing. Both of these sorts of crossdressers can be either homosexual or even heterosexual (Heimonen, 2009).

With regard to female dandyism mentioned in the previous chapter, the modern lesbian identity, which was shaped from a bricolage of cultural foundations, including theatrical images, utopian fiction, literature, the thriving male homosexual culture of the time, and the ascendency of women claiming a new public sexual identity recouped it as a valuable shock to unsettle and undetermined the preconceptions of the men the impersonators imitate (Yazan, 2011).

‘Queer’ can perform as a noun, adjective or verb, but in all these different cases it is defined against ‘normal’ or normalising. Queer theory is not a singular systematic, conceptual, or mythological framework, but a collection of intellectual engagements with the associations between sex, gender and sexual desire (Spargo, 1999).

The term, queer, describes a diverse range of critical practices and priorities: readings of the portrayal of same-sex desire in literature, films, images, music; analysis of the power relations within sexuality; critiques of the sex-gender system; studies of transgender and transsexual identification, of sadomasochism and other transgressive desires (Spargo, 1999).

According to Marcus (2005), the word queer has been implemented in gender and feminist studies to refer to all categories of sexualities which is not heterosexual. Queerness discusses the complexity of sexuality and a state experienced by everyone.

Homosexuality and Tipping the Velvet

Tipping the Velvet recount a queer Bildung. This is no simple coming-out story, and the protagonist is forced to acknowledge altruism and alterity, even as she asserts herself (Jeremiah, 2008). The film already shows an interest in gender and sexuality early on in it when talking about oysters. An oyster, as described by Waters (1998) is “a real queer fish. Now a he, now a she, as quite takes its fancy. A regular maphrodite, in fact!”

The protagonist, Nancy, works for Kitty in the beginning as her dresser and assistant and when Kitty asks Nancy to join her in London, she realises that she is ‘awake – alive’. This suggests an awakening for Nancy not only because she realises her sexuality and identity, but because she admits it to Kitty – a true moment of coming-out (Yavas, 2011). Sometime after arriving in London, Kitty and Nancy had to share a bed and while Kitty was laying in Nancy’s arms she said that she loves her but like a sister, after this Nancy thought to herself: “But I didn’t want to be her sister… I wanted to be her sweetheart!” Sweetheart here meaning that she wanted to be her girlfriend or lover (Waters, 1998).

In the film, Tipping the Velvet, gender identity and queer romance plays major roles especially regarding Nancy Astley also known as Nan King later on. Nan discovers and explores her body and the polarities between masculinity and femininity. The film in general, regardless of each individual’s story, can be viewed as rejecting the compulsory heterosexuality society gives us and points out the fluid-like appeal of identity formation (Weiss, 2012).

Crossdressing was very important in shaping the protagonist of Tipping the Velvet, Nan, in her sexuality and gender identification. She explores her sexuality through crossdressing and expressing her masculinity by dressing up in men’s clothing. Masculinity has always played a crucial role within lesbianism, resulting in the term butch. Thus butchness or masculinity is linked to lesbianism as seen with Nan in Tipping the Velvet (Heimonen, 2009).  With the crossdressing and acting, Nan’s hair had to be cut and she was quite happy with it saying (Waters, 1998): “She scissored the curls away, and – toms, grow easily sentimental over their haircuts, but I remember this sensation very vividly – it was not like she was cutting hair, it was as if I had a pair of wings beneath my shoulder-blades, that the flesh had all grown over, and she was slicing free…”

After Nan meets Florence and her brother Nan starts to develop into an independent, politically involved, young woman and self-confident lesbian. Her sexuality is part of her identity, but it is not all she is (Madsen, 2010). It is during Nan’s stay at Florence that they once talk about how Florence went to a lecture and met a girl there and she continued to tell Nan about her as written by Waters (1998), “The story went on. They had become friends; Lilian had come calling … ‘You loved her!’ I said. Florence blushed, and then nodded. ‘You couldn’t have known her, and not loved her a little.’ ‘But Flo, you loved her! You loved her – like a torn!’ She blinked, and put a finger to her lip, and blushed harder than ever. ‘I thought,’ she said, ‘you might have guessed it…’ ‘Guessed it! I – I am not sure. I never thought you might have – well, I cannot say what I thought…’” It is at this point that Nan knows for sure without a doubt that Florence is just like her, a lesbian. She was not sure originally, but she did have her suspicions.

As seen with the information mentioned above, Nancy or Nan, have developed herself throughout the film in various ways and in the process finding herself as a homosexual woman or lesbian, but her sexuality only being one part of the puzzle that is Nancy Astley/Nan King.

Heterosexuality: Background

Heterosexuality in basic terms means that a person has an emotional, romantic and/or sexual attraction to members of the opposite sex (The American Psychological Association, n.d.). Heterosexual people, male and female, are often simply referred to as straight people or cis-gendered. As per yet, there is no exact known reasons to why people develops a certain sexual orientation, but possible reasons may include: genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, religious and cultural influences.

Heterosexuality: Gender Role Representation

The world divides men and women into two distinct groups, men are seen as being similar to other men, women are seen as being similar to other women, but these two groups are seen as being very different from one another. In reality though the characteristics men and women have often overlap. Unfortunately, society creates a manmade gap between the two sexes/genders (Crespi, 2003).

The way people are, behave, and think is the final product of socialisation. From birth individuals are being shaped into what society wants and deems appropriate. Through socialisation it is also learned what behaviours are appropriate and inappropriate for both genders (Crespi, 2003).

Heterosexuality have been known to carry some serious stereotypes regarding gender and this expresses society’s collective knowledge and misconceptions of customs, myths, religions, traditions and so on.

Gender can be socialised by friends, family, parents, and other authority figures of children. Gender socialisation places emphases on gender differences and the different roles assigned to each gender, teaching children what it means to be male or female (Crespi, 2003). Children are raised and socialised with traditional gender roles and automatically assumed to be heterosexual.

Heterosexuality is taken as a given as the natural order of things. ‘Compulsory heterosexuality’ is apparently a thing and what it describes is the unquestioned status of the world, heterosexual marriage being the one true way to love and be together and so on (Adams, 2004).

Males are socialised to achieve things, gain status, follow the rules, be tough, be aggressive, be independent and so on. Females on the other hand are socialised to value sensitivity, maintain relationships, be gentle, be emotional, be dependent and so on. The different interactions between men and women fit into the gaps left by the other (Crespi, 2003).

Within the contemporary Western culture’s binary gender system, people are expected to want and love someone of the opposite sex. This can roughly be known as heteronormativity which will be explained in the quote below by Adams (2004):

“A whole field of social relations becomes intelligible as heterosexuality, and this privatised sexual culture bestows on its sexual practices a tacit sense of rightness and normalcy. This sense of rightness – embedded in things and not just in sex – is what we call heteronormativity.”

Heteronormativity sets up unconscious and mindless assumptions about heterosexuality as the norm and all other types of sexualities and experiences as abnormal (Habarth, 2008). Normative gender and sexuality is constantly reinforced whilst discriminating on sexual orientations that is not the heterosexual sexual orientation. Heteronormativity infiltrates every part of life and work for all individuals (Adams, 2004). On the premise of heteronormativity, there are some privileges of heterosexuality which results in social pressures to fulfil and conform to heterosexual gender roles (Habarth, 2008).

Heterosexism is another term that Adams (2004) explained, it is the dominant cultural belief that heterosexuality is the one and only ‘normal’ and ‘right’ sexual orientation for all people.

Heterosexuality and Fifty Shades of Grey

In Fifty Shades of Grey the male protagonist is Christian Grey and already introduced as being an intimidating and strong assertive businessman. Christian matches the image of ideal masculinity. The female protagonist is Anastasia Steele and from the start she in introduced as being a shy, innocent and passive individual. She matches the best described counterpart to Christian (Schwarze, n.d.).

Schwarze (n.d.) introduced the term hegemonic masculinity and defined Christian Grey as such. Hegemonic masculinity is masculinity associated with those who control dominant institutions such as business executives or political executives. James (2012) writes Anastasia’s thoughts about Christian after meeting him and interviewing him as a favour to her friend: “Okay, so he’s very attractive, confident, commanding, at ease with himself – but on the flip side, he’s arrogant, and for all his impeccable manners, he’s autocratic and cold”. Many of the characteristics Ana mentioned about Christian fits with many characteristics that stereotypically fit with masculinity.

Anastasia follows the model of emphasised femininity. The relationship the two of them form is based on an unequal gendered relationship accommodated to accepting the interests and desires of men. Unfortunately, there is not much written describing Ana in the novel, but at some point Christian does say the following about and to her (James, 2012): “You are very exquisite, honest, warm, strong, witty, beguiling, innocent; the list is endless”. Many of the characteristics that Christian mentioned about Ana fit some characteristics fitting with the stereotypical ones of femininity.

Since Anastasia is not only one of the protagonists in the novel, but also the narrator, she often mentions her inner goddess that does things or says something. Her inner goddess that is mentioned her can be seen as her alter-ego or subconscious. This element of Anastasia shows her primitive, fun and sexual side much more. James (2012) wrote some of the following regarding Ana’s ‘inner goddess’: “My inner goddess has woken and is paying attention.”; “My inner goddess nods in agreement, a satisfied grin over her face.”; “My inner goddess closes her eyes, revelling in the feel of his lips on me.”

Both Christian and Anastasia/Ana, succumb to the pressures of heterosexual socialisation of gender roles which is clear to see in both the novel and the film. It can almost be said that these two characters are cliches of heterosexual gender roles. Christian is this overly successful, attractive and masculine man and on the other hand there is Ana who is a timid, clumsy, weak and submissive little woman. The gender stereotypes present in Fifty Shades of Grey is so accurate and on point that it is almost embarrassing.

The two texts, Tipping the Velvet and Fifty Shades of Grey, has been discussed along with the sexualities they fit with and represent regarding gender representation within those sexualities. Rather than having similarities as seen with the eras, the two texts instead have some obvious differences with one another. These differences include queer theory versus heteronormativity and the different ways in which society views the two sexualities. The one, homosexuality, goes against cultural norms of gender representation and socialisation while the other, heterosexuality, fits the stereotypical traditional gender roles. Tipping the Velvet’s protagonist, Nan, fits the description of a masculine homosexual woman or lesbian, Fifty Shades of Grey’s two protagonists, Christian and Ana, fits perfectly with the descriptions of heterosexual men and women. Regardless of homosexuality of heterosexuality though, both sexualities from the two texts engage in a certain type of sexual behaviour or experience known as BDSM which will be examined and discussed in the next chapter.

Chapter 3: BDSM

In the two texts, Tipping the Velvet and Fifty Shades of Grey, sex plays quite a major role, but it is not sex in the conventional way as we know it, but with regard to BDSM. Various definitions can be found for this abbreviation, but the most applicable one is: Bondage and Discipline/ Domination and Submission/ Sadism and Masochism. After some background information on BDSM and the theories behind it, gender role representation within this field will be discussed and finally, Tipping the Velvet and Fifty Shades of Grey will be applied to the theory.

BDSM: Background

As stated before, BDSM stands for Bondage and Discipline/ Domination and Submission/ Sadism and Masochism. It is a very complicated concept to define, but it is usually understood as having several components such as: the appearance of dominance and submission, role playing, a mutual consent to participate, a mutual definition (A shared understanding of activities), and a sexual or erotic setting. Some of the activities that the people involved partake in could include the following or at least some of it: scratching, biting, hair pulling, pinching, the use of handcuffs, spanking, slapping (face, breasts, and genitals), whipping, flogging, fisting, use of ball gags, rope bondage, breath play, hot candle wax, verbal humiliation, electro-torture, CBT (cock and ball torture), and much, much more. Sadomasochism, which falls under BDSM, are often acted out in a ‘scene’ or fantasy scenario. Within such a scenario one partner will be acting as the dominant and the other as a submissive. The scenes are planned and discussed beforehand as well as the setting of limits (Lipa, 2013).

As seen in the previous chapter, sexual behaviour can be considered to be normal or deviant. Even though deviant sexual behaviours are often criminal as well, it is important to consider that some does in fact involve mutual consent of the participants. The behaviours that include casual sex, homosexual sex, group sex, sadomasochism and so on are considered to be deviant sexual behaviours, but harmless to those involved (Chadwick, 2011).

There are a few misconceptions regarding BDSM and those that practice it because some of the activities they engage in which include: rape play, exhibitionism, voyeurism, fetishism, transvestism, paraphilias and so on. Some people not only consider these activities as deviant, but also as psychologically abnormal. Even though some individuals engaging in such activities in life can be considered to be ‘sick’, the individuals involved with BDSM are perfectly ‘normal’ people otherwise and besides, all BDSM related acts are done only with consent from all parties involved. Another misconception which is rather serious, is that some people confused BDSM with domestic violence and believe they are one in the same. But Ferrer (2011), explains the difference: In BDSM when a person calls out their ‘safe-word’, and say it is enough, all activities are stopped immediately. There is also no desire to injure a partner or to be malevolent. In domestic violence, there is no respect shown to the partner and requests to stop abuse is ignored. There is also no regard for the person being assaulted. BDSM and domestic violence are two extremely different behaviours and should never be confused with one another.

BDSM does not simply have to do with just sex, it can also be emotional, physical, psychological or spiritual for those involved. It can also be incorporated into everyday life in small ways such as giving a partner a ‘hickey’ or love bite which could mean that the partner who gave it was in a sense marking their territory or property to show others that the person is not available to them (Ferrer, 2011).

BDSM: Theory

The overarching theory behind why people practice BDSM, is as an escape. Lipa (2013) explains this: Submission specifically is an intense means of losing higher-level self-awareness, this is desirable because it takes the submissive away from stress and pressure they might be under and allows them to relinquish control. A dominant figure in BDSM on the other hand is usually someone who loves being in control and exercising power. There are three forms of submission that can explain the theory of escape, namely: pain, bondage, and humiliation. Pain blocks out a broader sense of self-awareness, forcing the person to focus on the here and now. Bondage takes away a person’s freedom to take lead or to exercise any control, and this person is left helpless and thus takes on a passive role. Humiliation makes it impossible to maintain one’s dignity and self-esteem and even one’s social identity, it basically temporarily removes the identity of the person being humiliated (Lipa, 2013).

People who practice dominance are often those who are not under a lot of stress or pressure and do not have leadership positions in their everyday life. Thus, the goal of dominance is to take control, the control that this person may feel they are otherwise lacking. The dominant partner in BDSM has control here over another person, the submissive (Lipa, 2013).

Like everywhere in life, also in BDSM, there are exceptions to the rule. Some people who act as submissives are also in life considered to be passive individuals who either does not like to ever take control or who have been dominated in their everyday life anyway, thus making them used to being the submissive one. With regard to dominants, not all have a lack of control in their lives, some do have stress and pressure in life or even have positions of leadership and authority, these sort of dominants basically enjoy being in charge in any or every area of their lives, including their sex lives.

BDSM: Gender Role Representation

In BDSM it is thought that males take the role of the dominant and women take the role of the submissive, but in some cases it could be the opposite, men act as submissives and women as dominants. BDSM does not apply only to heterosexual people, but also to homosexuals who explore the different power roles in a sexual way. Even though this is the assumption of the dominant and submissive roles in BDSM it is possible that it could be different. Below gender roles within BDSM will be discussed in more detail and the results found are quite surprising and a little unexpected.

People engage in various forms of intimate relationships, many of which place them outside of heteronormative boundaries of gender, sexuality, relationships and so on. BDSM refers to three aspects of sexuality and orientation. These practices place practitioners outside of the heteronormative standards.  Society determines who and what is ‘normal’ or ‘deviant’ based on the preservation of strict boundaries. Heterosexual privilege also permits the discrimination of those that stray from these boundaries. BDSM practitioners obviously fall outside of these boundaries, more so if they do not fulfil ‘normal’ masculine or feminine roles (Meeker, 2011).

The BDSM community has been a target of debate in the feminist community because it involves the performance of unequal power dynamics and it includes the use of pain as pleasure. It has been viewed as maintaining the suppression of women – especially if they take on the submissive role and submits to a male dominator. Some feminists also argue that even though consent is involved in BDSM practices, the consent is not enough to challenge ‘heterosexual power dynamics’. Their argument is that women who desire to be submissive have a ‘false consciousness’ of freely choosing that role, only doing so because of internalised hatred – misogynistic or homophobic (Raab, 2013). Fortunately, there is a counter argument stating that some women in BDSM not only submit but on occasion also dominate regardless of the sex of their partner. Some women are submissive or dominant, others switch between the two roles.

According to Raab (2013), BDSM practitioners are just as likely as others to exhibit sexist attitudes or behaviours since they are still part of a sexist culture. However, the subculture of BDSM has expectations and guidelines that are very different from those of the heteronormative culture and society, so these so called sexists attitudes and behaviours cannot be taken up the same way. Not only heterosexual individuals engage in BDSM activities, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual and so on all participate in it too, and just like these sexual minorities, BDSM practitioners in general have always been expected to do whatever they do in secret or in private. It was done this way for quite some time, but there have been a change allowing these ‘outsiders’ to be more open and comfortable with who and what they are (Meeker, 2011). Even the media has started incorporating BDSM culture into it through novels and films.

BDSM can be seen as a ‘safe space’ or ‘field of experimentation’ for those who otherwise do not fit into society’s norms of what is deemed acceptable and appropriate. It is for these people who engage with and transgress social hierarchies and, norms, taboos, and personal boundaries (Bauer, 2008). Within the BDSM community it seems as if though anyone is accepted regardless of who and what they are.

BDSM practitioners as well as some feminists have described BDSM as challenging normative sexuality and gender norms, and empowering women because of the opposing often of traditional sexual dynamics and since roles are actively chosen by the participants (Raab, 2013).

Couples, whether romantic or purely sexual, who engage in BDSM related activities have stated and shown that the dominant partner makes decisions in consideration of the submissive partner, and that their activities are not determined by gender roles. The role someone plays or performs in the BDSM community or relationship does not prescribe one’s gender or sexuality and the identification of it. Many individuals engaging in BDSM activities regardless of sexuality or gender, mainly in a younger age group, experience their sexuality as being fluid; different practices and identities might be explored and accepted, rejected, returned to at a later stage, or not even acknowledged at all (Meeker, 2011).

Gender fluidity exists within BDSM because heterosexual as well as homosexual individuals participate in either traditional or non-traditional gender roles when role-playing. Because of the increased level of gender consciousness, individuals in BDSM relationships play more with gender roles, thus challenging heteronormative gender structures. Non-normative genders have been represented in the BDSM community more and more (Raab, 2013).

Many individuals participating in BDSM related activities find themselves in a space where it is safe to play with and have sex with people of their own gender, have their own gender identity, and still be respected. For those part of the BDSM community, gender is not based on biology, because some individuals may not for instance identify as a man regardless of the present sexual organs, but with BDSM this person can play the role of a man or even as a woman if desired to do so. Gender-based play often incorporates sexual preference and age as well, as is evident through the popularity of ‘fag play’ and ‘daddy/boy’. (Bauer, 2008).

Feminist culture as well as heteronormative culture all has something to say about BDSM and practitioners of BDSM, often negative, and how they play with gender in either traditional or non-traditional ways. Feminists might see this as being unproductive for women since they are fighting for men and women to be equal to one another. The heteronormative society sees BDSM and the practitioners of it as being psychologically abnormal and sexually deviant. Regardless of these two negative views of BDSM, it can also be seen in a positive light, as it allows people to choose their genders as well as who they want to be, they can even be genderless or sexless if they wanted to be. The BDSM community, unlike society in general, are very accepting and open-minded people who will include anyone instead of shunning them regardless of race, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation and so on.

BDSM and Tipping the Velvet

BDSM itself is not really a major part or theme within the film Tipping the Velvet, but some characteristics of it does come up in the relationship between Nan and Diana such as a dominant-submissive relationship or a master/mistress-slave relationship, the use of sex toys, exhibitionism/humiliation.

Nan worked as a streetwalker or prostitute for a while before being noticed by an upper-class woman called Diana Lethaby who is an influential widow, but also a lesbian. Diana asked Nan to go home with her for the evening to have sex and later to be her ‘kept woman’ or ‘boy’ (Waszczuk, 2015). After having sex with Nan for the first time, Diana asked Nan if she was happy that they met, with this Waters (1998) wrote: “She [Diana] raised a hand to my throat, and stroked me there until I reddened and swallowed; and I could not help but answer: ‘yes’.” The fact that Diana had the hand on Nan’s throat is representative of the power dynamic between them and when Nan answered ‘yes’ it was quite evocative of that ‘loss’ and ‘liberation’ mention earlier in the chapter which is fundamental to BDSM.

Contrary to the Victorian belief of passive female sexuality, and in agreement with the perhaps stereotypical views of female masculinity and lesbianism as sexually active, the relationship between Diana and Nan shows aggressive sexual behaviour between two women. Nan worked for Diana as some sort of servant or slave, living as a ‘boy’ and fulfilling all Diana’s sexual needs. The relationship is thus that of a master/mistress and a slave/servant (Heimonen, 2009). With Diana’s displaying of Nan, she established herself as sole owner and authority over Nan: she chooses how to present her to her audience, provides her with costumes, decides her level of nudity and plans Man’s gender performance (Waszczuk, 2015). Waters (1998) wrote the following as Nan’s thoughts regarding her relationship and her being exhibited by Diana to her friends: “I would be behind a curtain, striking some pose; and when she was ready, Diana would pull a tasselled cord and uncover me. I might be Perseus, I might be Cupid… I carried the Cupid’s bow, but this time had one breast uncovered; Diana roughed the nipple. And the week after that – well, that week I was Hermaphroditus. I wore a crown of laurel, a layer of silver greasepaint – and nothing else save, strapped to my hips, Diana’s Monsieur Dildo. The ladies gasped to see him.”

Diana’s use of characters such as Cupid, Perseus and so on to dress Nan up as could be for different reasons or could have different meanings to Diana. The first possibility could be that she had an interest in Greek mythology because in their mythology the Greeks were far more admissive of rebellious or revolutionary sexual norms. The second possibility could be that she, like many others, had a fetish for Greek mythology and philosophy which were considered to be a part of ‘high culture’.

BDSM and Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey can be seen as an erotic novel or even as a romantic novel, but love only plays a small role in the novel, because it is mainly about the controversial sexual activities that Christian and Ana engages in which relates somewhat to BDSM activities.

Christian shows Ana his playroom at some point which is often referred to as the Red Room or Red Room of Pain. He then explains to her what he does there with women and her first thoughts are that he likes to hurt women and this was very upsetting to her. She asked him if he was a sadist to which he replied no and that he is in fact a dominant.

Christian Grey is a man who likes to be in charge of things or even dominate everything, even women, he has always wanted to be a dominant both in his work as well as when dealing with Ana. James (2012) wrote how Christian always insists: “I want you to willingly surrender yourself to me in all things.” His goal is purely for personal pleasure. This is a strange phenomenon for Ana who is no longer in control of herself because of her blinded love for Christian (Sandika & Yeni, 2013).

James (2012) wrote: “’I have rules, and I want you to comply with them. They are for your benefit and for my pleasure. If you follow these rules to my satisfaction, I will reward you. If you don’t, I shall punish you, and you will learn,’ he whispers. I glance at the rack of canes as he says this.”

In the Red Room or playroom, Christian tells Ana the following as written by James (2012): “’When you’re in here, you are completely mine,’ he breathes each word slow and measured. ‘To do with as I see fit, do you understand?’. In the playroom Christian is even more controlling and possessive than usual and tells Ana to call him ‘Sir’ and that she may not look him in the eye unless he gives her permission to do so. She also has to do anything and everything he says without question (Schwarze, n.d.).

Many people have a misconception about BDSM basically just being abuse and this is actually how it was portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey. In the novel Christian is a ‘control freak’, a stalker who tracks Ana by her cell phone, he uses BDSM as an excuse to not commit to her romantically, and so the list continues. In the end of the novel Ana breaks up with Christian after he spanked her extremely hard, this does in fact give the impression of abuse rather than pleasure, but the thing is, Ana asked him to spank her as hard as he wanted to, she wanted to see what he can do.

The two texts, Tipping the Velvet and Fifty Shades of Grey, has been discussed along with the background and theory of BDSM, gender role representation within BDSM and finally how BDSM fits into the two texts. The texts have some similarities as well as differences. The most obvious similarity is that in both there is a relationship with a dominant figure as well as a submissive one as often seen in BDSM. The differences are mainly in the different activities that the characters engage in. BDSM in Tipping the Velvet is seen as interesting and different and beneficial in a way to both partners. In Fifty Shades of Grey though this is not the case, yes, people dis enjoy the novel and the film, but the relationship between the two protagonists is a bit problematic and gives the idea of abuse being present. Regardless of that being the case, the other two books in the Fifty Shades trilogy makes up for that and shows a true love story between the two protagonists as well as personal growth for them both.


Two completely different texts were chosen and put together to use in relation to gender role representation. However different Tipping the Velvet and Fifty Shades of Grey may seem, they did in fact share some similarities or even polar opposites as seen within the three different chapters of this paper. In the first chapter the two different eras, Victorian and Post-Modern, were compared with one another, but even though most people would think a lot have changed, they really did not change much regarding their views on gender roles. In the second chapter there are less similarities and more differences, on the one hand there is homosexuality and queer theory, on the opposing side there is heterosexuality and heteronormativity. The third chapter is probably the chapter where the two texts are most alike. In both texts the protagonists engage with the practice of Bondage and Discipline/ Domination and Submission/ Sadism and Masochism also known as BDSM, but the one text almost advertises many common misconceptions that society has regarding the practice.

Although Tipping the Velvet and Fifty Shades of Grey are two different styles and have more differences than similarities, they worked well in correlation to one another regarding the topic at hand of gender role representation. For future research on these two texts and gender, more could perhaps be said regarding the writing styles of the authors, more about female cross-dressing in the Victorian era, something more positive regarding Fifty Shades of Grey since most papers out there have a negative view regarding the text, and looking at the film adaptations of the novels.

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About Channah_Reynecke

I am a college graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in psychology and English. I love both reading and writing and consider myself a book nerd. I also enjoy doing art and writing poetry. I plan on using my 'blog' as a place where I can upload assignments that has already been marked, any thesis I wrote or might still write, my poetry and perhaps on occasion some reviews or personal experiences.
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