16 September 2012

Fifty Shades of Feminism

I admit it. I've read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. I realize this is not groundbreaking: over 25 million copies have been sold in the US alone (holy crap!). But I blushed when I bought the first book, even though I made sure the check out person was a woman. Perhaps it was because she grinned and said "Hey...I'm reading this too..." (wink wink nudge nudge). She totally winked and nudged. Awkward.

Yesterday there was an article in our local paper on the subject, Well, more on how the subject is having an impact on the area's light bondage and sex-toy businesses. Which is great for those businesses (go economy go) and for those people who needed a nudge to explore new territories in their own lives. Sales of grey ties, for example, are waaay up.

What you've heard is true, largely. The books are all poorly written, though the third is much better than the first. They're repetitive, with simple, sometimes moronic sentence structures. It was all I could do to not write in the margins and suggest better phrasing/word choices/character development, ala grad school. It reads, to me, very much like an undergraduate creative writing essay. If it were to come across my desk from a student, I would encourage her to buy a thesaurus and use more sensory detail, and would probably think it had potential, given a lot of work. Shows what I know, right? 25 million copies later, I'm sure the author finds my criticism bitter indeed.

Apparently, they began as Twilight fan fiction, and though I've not read the series, I can see it, in some ways. Though I would wager the characters are far from recognizable in this form: for one thing (spoiler alert), there are no vampires in this book. In fact, there's not all that much unusual about this book, except for the naughtier bits. But we'll get to those in a minute.

It's a straightforward broken-man-meets-young-woman-who-helps-him-become-whole-again-while learning-who-she-is-in-the-meantime kind of book. Christian, the aforementioned broken fellow, also happens to be gorgeous, thoughtful, intense, and kind of pouty. You know, like most smutty romance leading men. In addition, he's filthy rich (making "$100,000 an hour," he says at one point). One of my theories is that his wealth alone makes these books best sellers, in this day and age: finding a partner, no matter how broken he is, who has more money than god, strikes me as a world-wide fantasy right now. Plus Christian's brokenness manifests itself in heal-able ways, and he is devoted to Anastasia from the moment he meets her.

Which is part of what I don't get. It's billed in the media as "mommy porn" and seems scandalous whenever it's discussed in public, which is why I blushed when I bought the first book. I'm telling you, people, maybe I'm jaded or sexier than most, or perhaps, as one of my friends put it, "Maybe my moral compass is just broken," but it's really not shocking. It's about a completely monogamous couple who fall head over heels in lust, and eventually love, and have sex approximately 6 times a day, on average (I stopped counting. It really does get repetitive). They encounter external troubles along the way, often related to Mr. Pouty Billionaire's wealth and past, which gives us something to read about besides the incessant sex. And they have internal troubles, with Anastasia being a virgin upon their meeting and Mr. Grey being, um, not. They're an adventurous couple, he's got serious problems that he manages through bondage/punishment of his partner (I'm sure the real-life BDSM community is so pleased with this novel's main message: of COURSE he's crazy. why else would he want to spank her?) This behavior is actually contraindicated by research into BDSM behaviors, and to be honest, I think the books could've done a much better job separating Christian's damaging life experience from his sexual preferences. Because instead it ties his kinkiness, as it were, directly to his brokenness, and I don't think that's a healthy point of view for anyone to have. Yes, some people develop fetishes or kinkiness or brokenness in their sexuality because of awful life experiences. And a lot more people might enjoy some fetishy-kinky stuff if they weren't so damn uptight about sex (another kind of awful life experience, really). In this way, Fifty Shades does a disservice.

But they are lovely, quick little reads, and for women who've never thought to ask for something different, I imagine they could be quite eye-opening. Some critics have argued that it's a sign of anti-feminism, that such a series could sell so very many copies, when the main point of the story is that Christian sweeps Anastasia off her feet and takes care of her, and she allows it to happen, as though she's a piece of furniture. But those critics haven't read the books, and so I dismiss them. Anastasia is actually very independent, and refuses to let Christian dominate her (heh heh) in the way in which he is accustomed. It's the major cause of tension between them, and the fact that she doesn't back down makes her, in my reading, a very strong feminist indeed. Some critics suggest that the very pressure feminism puts on women to seek equality is what makes Anastasia such an attractive heroine: she does not have to worry about finances, or of making decisions in the bedroom. For much of the series, she doesn't even have to buy her own clothing. Women who constantly have to take care of everything may find the idea of being completely taken care of more than just a little appealing. I disagree with these critics because, by my reading of her character, that oppressive care-giving is part of what turns her off of Christian. In several important ways, she is stronger and smarter than Christian, and it saves her life, literally and figuratively. She saves her own self.

Whew. I said all that to say this: if you're even remotely interested, go ahead and read the books. That is, if you're into stories of true love between beautiful straight people who also happen to have all kinds of very mildly kinky sex.  I mean, I read all three of them: I liked them a lot, and I found myself thinking about the characters when I wasn't reading them. But the book does not really tell a new story, nor does it tell an old story especially well. It just adds much, much, much more sex to the average romance novel. So, really, what's not to like?


Chelsey said...

I appreciate your take on the characters, the plot line, and terrible usage of vocabulary (I mean how many times can Anastasia refer to her vagina as "my sex," I lost count)! If nothing else, I do believe that these books did help women be more open and honest to their partners about what they want -- and these books helped make women feel like it was ok to have those conversations!

For the record - I bought mine for my nook because I didn't want to go to the store to purchase them and have the cashier look at me all funny and stuff....

Jenn B said...

The BDSM community seems to be most concerned with the mommy porn reader turn into active members of their local BDSM community without further research than this series. It can have dangerous consequences. It's been interesting to follow the debates about the book from all angles.