Celebrities have done readings of it, Justin Bieber’s girlfriend has spoofed it and libraries have tried to ban it. It has also topped the New York Times bestseller list for 12 weeks and the ebook version is reportedly being downloaded once every second. I decided to find out what all the fuss was about and downloaded my own copy of Fifty Shades of Grey before a flight. Boy was I glad my travel companion was fast asleep minutes after take-off because reading the salacious book had me turning 50 shades of pink.
Derisively dubbed ‘mommy porn’, the trilogy started as a Twilight fan-fiction book written by obscure British author EL James. She has now managed to turn porn-fiction reading into a mainstream activity: Women are tweeting about Fifty Shades, joining phone-in discussions about the book’s S&M scenes, flicking through it openly in parks and reading it on their Kindles while commuting to work. This is the erotica genre’s answer to the Millennium trilogy, and if you haven’t heard of it by now you must have been tied up in a dungeon somewhere.
The book is more than a pop-culture talkie; it’s a phenomenon. And it’s turning some women hot under the collar. The question of what the popularity of this saucy sensation says about our times – what it reveals about women’s desires, sexuality, gender roles – has been mulled over to an extent that the book itself doesn’t merit. Because it’s crap.
Fifty Shades has a dull plot, cringey dialogue, one-dimensional characters and sexscapades involving ropes, whips, handcuffs and ‘explosive’ orgasms. It tells the story of how Anastasia Steele, an innocent-but-smart literature graduate, gets drawn into an S&M relationship with 27-year-old multibillionaire CEO, Christian Grey. She’s a virgin; he’s got 15 ‘submissives’ under his belt. She reads English classics, lives with a roommate and favours jeans and sneakers over dresses and high heels. He’s a piano prodigy and a wine connoisseur, has model looks, employs a butler and owns a fleet of private aircraft. He is also dedicated to ending world hunger and his aversion to being touched springs from a messed-up childhood as the son of a crack whore.
When she’s not trying to control her unruly hair or quibbling with her ‘inner goddess’, Anastasia mostly flushes (109 times), blushes (39 times) and bites her lips (40 times). All of this turns Christian on and makes him want to suspend Anastasia from the ceiling, whip her and tie her hands with the natural filament rope that he bought from the DIY shop where she works to make ends meet. All of Christian’s desires and sexual expectations are outlined in a contract that he wants Anastasia to sign before he takes her into his playroom, or as she calls it the ‘Red Room of Pain’. It stipulates that she, as ‘the Submissive’, must have regular meals, sleep well, exercise and be waxed at all times and that he, ‘the Dominant’, will spare her sex games involving gynaecological medical instruments, children or animals. Mr Grey is no sicko.
I imagine the sequels (which have taken up the second and third spots on the New York Timesbestseller list for the past 12 weeks) are no rivals to Middlemarch either. The sex scenes do make you want to slap someone but only because the characters performing them are toe-curlingly irritating.
But then complaining that Fifty Shades is a crappy book is a bit like complaining over the poor acting or unsatisfactory character development of a porn flick. People aren’t exactly reading this trilogy for the lucidity of its extended metaphors or the insightfulness of its metacommentary. Most probably are reading it out of curiosity, for mindless entertainment or to get off.
As Fifty Shades has refused to budge from the bestseller lists (it hit 10million sales this week), as Universal Pictures and Focus Films snapped up the film rights to all three books, and as hundreds of women flocked to meet EL James during her US tour, some have felt dismayed. Not only is this story about a young, virginal girl who gets seduced by a handsome, wealthy man a Victorian throwback, critics say, but the idea that modern women are aroused by the thought of sexual submission signifies a betrayal of the values that second-wave feminists fought so hard for on the barricades.
Katie Roiphe famously opined in a Newsweek cover story that Fifty Shades’ popularity suggests that women, at a time when they are more successful and less subjugated than ever before, are secretly fantasising about being dominated by men. Roiphe suggested that working women have a hard time coping with all the power and equality they’ve achieved in the boardroom which is why, in the bedroom, all they want to do is please and be slapped around. When hordes of real women (as opposed to the faceless masses that Roiphe projected her own defeatist feminist fantasies on) reacted to her article, she was the one who appeared demeaning.
The idea that Fifty Shades’ popularity proves that modern women are embracing submissiveness isn’t even borne out by the book. Anastasia never signs Christian’s contract and she constantly negotiates the limits of their relationship. She softens him. They have ‘vanilla sex’ (‘no toys, no added extras’), sleep in the same bed and meet each other’s parents – all firsts for him. Their sex games, too, are focused on her pleasure and he constantly looks out for her health and wellbeing. And in any case, fantasy and reality are very different things. Being excited by fictional accounts of raunchy sex doesn’t necessarily equal any intention or desire to replicate them in real life.
No, the freedom to read crappy novels or to fantasise about being tied to a bed post is not what feminists went to the barricades for. Why should they have? Those are personal proclivities rather than matters of political struggle. The suggestion that women who read and enjoy Fifty Shades are debasing themselves, that they can’t cope with equality and don’t realise what’s good for them, is condescending and anti-feminist.
‘Why’, Katie Roiphe wonders, ‘for women especially, would free will be a burden?’. The real problem is that when women who have the luxury to exercise free will actually make use of it, their choices are often deemed unpalatable to other women who have a limited idea of what constitutes appropriate behaviour for ladies.