This summer, you can’t throw a rock without hitting some sister pouring over a clandestine copy of the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy. I get it. It’s all the rage. Christian Gray and what’s-her-name are all anybody talks about anymore. Poor Tom and Katie must feel so bad; barely anyone is even paying any attention at all to the demise of their marriage and Brad and Angie haven’t been mentioned for weeks. Even poor Bella and Edward, the tamer-but-just-as disturbing teenage version of Shades main characters, are being put on a shelf. It’s all about the Shades.
But I’m not reading it. Now, I anticipate a giant, collective, breathy gasp when I say that (or maybe that winded panting is from a whole slew of people having just read through chapter five and are just beside themselves about the latest pulsating curiosity of the protagonist's nether-regions.)
If you are the singular human left on the planet who hasn’t heard of Fifty Shades, here is, from what I’ve gathered, a basic run-down: 22-year-old virgin and college graduate Ana meets mid-twentyish billionaire Christian and is, at first, really turned on by his brooding gray eyes, unfriendly stand-offishness and complete lack of emotional availability. Later, despite her constant questioning that something isn’t right, notably her fear of being punished (and I do mean actually beaten) by Christian Gray she continues to sacrifice her good sense and judgment, her intuition, her own preferences and wants, and her will in order to achieve orgasm with a man who refuses to let her touch him and insists on “fucking hard” instead of “making love.” I know. Charming, huh? Well, we have to give him that one. I mean being tied up and flogged by a riding crop doesn’t necessarily conjure tender images of sweet love-making, does it?
Or does it? Maybe for you, it does. And if so, you go girl, I guess. But I don’t get it. I just can’t really understand that the sight of a huge “playroom” stocked with paraphernalia to facilitate rough sex wouldn’t send any self-possessed woman packing. Readers, such a room existed in fictional millionaire Martin Vanger’s basement in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and we hated him for it. Why is everyone in love with Christian Gray?
I know, I know. People keep reassuring me that it’s a love story. Fine, whatever. Ana saves Christian from the darkness of his past and, hopefully, goes on to be a soccer mom to his sexually-repressed little billionaire spawns who will no doubt be well-behaved, ’cause, "Damn! Have you seen that thing Dad beats Mom with?!" Six years from now, we will peek into the life of Ana Steele-Gray to find her musing about what gets her motor revved up, and hear something like this: “My inner goddess has been doing the running man all morning because Christian actually took out the garbage AND threw a load of whites in the dryer! But I better get to the grocery right after work, or it’s the belt for me!”
Now, the real reason I haven’t read the books is that I just cannot stomach the inner dialogue of a 22-year-old virgin and her companion, her “inner goddess.” I picture the marginally attractive Ana Steele with a teeny, tiny, tap-dancing libido deep inside her vagina just clambering to get out every time Christian’s angry, gray eyes look her way. There is enough hype online that I feel like I have the Cliffs Notes. I join the banter for this reason (other than to wallow in sarcasm): to ask the hard questions. Are we really okay with all this domination/submission business? Is this what women want, to be dominated by a controlling sex maniac? To give away their power? And finally, do people still say “Jeez” all that much anymore?
Not reading Fifty Shades has nothing to do with being prudish or frigid or morally opposed to a good steamy scene between two people, or for that matter, mind-blowing sex. As a writer and a lover, I adore a great love scene that sticks with readers, and have conjured some doosies in my own prose and marriage bed. I really, really do not wish to judge anyone who has read the book. Actually, while I was on the fence about reading it myself, I recommended it to my own mother, a decision that will effectively secure my seat at a therapist’s office for a long time. I simply wish to explore the phenomenon that throngs of women are identifying with a weaker-than-Bella Swan-Cullen female character and are practically giddy at the thought of being beaten into submission by the first adorable, brooding billionaire/sex offender that comes along.
It’s not that I didn’t want to read it. I tried. Kind of. Almost everyone I know is reading it. Every single woman I passed on the beach while on vacation was reading it. Based on the restocking needs at my local bookstore, the entire population of the tri-county area and their sneaky kids are reading it. But even if I could (and I can’t) get past a woman doing sexual things that hurt her, things that she isn’t even sure she wants to do, so that she can ensure a man’s pleasure at the expense of her own, the writing wasn’t great. It just wasn’t good writing, and that is an offense of another kind. A book that has sold over 10 million copies should be better written than Fifty Shades is.
Call me old-fashioned (not 16th century-sex-chamber-and-women-as-property-old-fashioned, just regular old-fashioned) but I like my men thoughtful, available, and capable of intimacy. I don’t sign contracts spelling out every detail of my physical care, nor do I spend time “in my head” second-guessing whether or not my actions—from food to friend choices—will anger my lover enough to beat me, the way Ana does repeatedly. That is abuse and should not be confused for a loving, mutual sex act between two adults.
I’ve known a lot of women who have suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of men who wanted to control them, objectify them, use them, own them. Some of them went along with it for a long time to please their man. Who knew all they needed was a contract and a safe-word to make their complete submission a sexy and desirable thing? (No need for thinking here! No need to have your own needs and wants! Someone wants to spank me with a leather belt and have an orgasm over it, and it makes my “inner goddess” tingle, so I must be attractive and wanted in some way!)
I have friends who have read the book and absolutely love it, and I do not cast aspersions on the conditions of their sex lives, nor do I think everyone that reads it needs sex therapy asap. Reading therapy? Maybe. A literature class? Sure. But their sex lives are their business. Further, I see no problem with spicing things up, either. I just hope they’re reminding themselves that sex is not the greatest sign of love. Sex is a wonderful, fulfilling, beautiful, important thing—but it’s the sex that is the thing, not the girl.
E.L. James, is somewhere lighting up a cigarette every time she gets off (ha!) the phone with her accountant because her story is practically outselling the Bible. (Incidentally, the Bible has some pretty illicit stories, too. Check out that Old Testament. Yowza!) But here she is, in the literary world whether we like it or not.
Now let’s just see if we can get her change the name of her genitalia. Jeez.