Women everywhere are getting really excited about a very sexy book, and its two companions. So excited that they’ve made the trilogy runaway bestsellers, and driven the project into the arms of movie producers.
I read about it in the New York Times. And then somewhere else. And then somewhere else. “Mommy bloggers love it!” one of the articles proclaimed.
And then an argument was had over whether or not it was “good for women.” Whether or not it was “feminist.”
So I read the book, of course. It had originally been intended as Twilight fan fiction. Which I didn’t know at the time of my reading.
The book, Fifty Shades of Grey is told from the perspective of a (sort of, I guess) spunky twenty-one year old college student named Anastasia Steele who falls breathlessly in love with a gorgeous, wounded, enigmatic billionaire entrepreneur named Christian Grey. Christian Grey is twenty-seven, and he can do everything. He’s a brilliant pianist, flies his own helicopter, manages a business empire while having plenty of time for relationship drama, and can successfully identify down to the serial number any model of gleaming new Audi sports car he happens to own (and they appear to all be Audis, interestingly). But the most interesting thing about him is that he is a Dominant. And he wants a Submissive.
He wants a woman who will submit to him utterly, in every way. He has written up a contract to this end, and it, along with ALL of its technical clauses, is included in the book. The contract details that his Submissive may not choose her own clothing. She has to sleep a certain number of hours every night. She has to eat a certain diet, of his choosing. She has to work out a certain amount (which sounded like a lot!).
Fifty Shades of Grey is an S&M romance novel. Our pert and sympathetic heroine isn’t sure about all this punishment stuff, and she is pretty sure something’s wrong with Christian, but he is so ridiculously hot and so compelling that she decides to get involved anyway.
People are talking about the books because so many people are reading them. Because so many women are enjoying them. Because those women are writing about how much they enjoy them. And because some other people have, inevitably, come out and said, “This is just some stupid porn! Why are we glorifying it?” And “This sounds like rape! Why is this sexy?” And “This is bad for women!”
And then some women shot back, “It’s GOOD for women!”
And you know what? I didn’t like either one of those statements.
I didn’t like the book either. I read the ending aloud to Bear. “This is boring,” he said. It really was. There are long transcripts of the characters’ email exchanges. There’s a lot of “oh my” and “I had never seen anyone so masculine.” There are a lot of details about just how very, very rich this guy is. SO RICH. A penthouse! So many cars! He bought a book, ONE BOOK, for $14,000! EEEEEeeeeee!!! So rich.
It annoyed me.
Everyone had the same kind of orgasm. She was always “flying to pieces.” Practically at the sight of his genitals. Or she was “falling apart.” Her orgasms always sounded like she was being destroyed. I couldn’t identify. Meanwhile, he was always “finding his release.” He did that a lot. And of course, looked threatening and intimidating just before.
And also, the whole thing reminded me suddenly of this bad relationship I was in with an emotionally unavailable guy who had a lot of rules that I wished could be broken. The book brought back that sense of being trapped—of not being able to call any of the shots. Of wishing so much that we could just be more normal, less complicated. I felt like I was suffocating in that relationship. And I didn’t leave for the longest time, because he was beautiful, and captivating, and because, for a while, I couldn’t see past that, to freedom.
The book reminded me of all that, because of the contracts, and because the heroine is not allowed to touch the hero. That is one of his rules. She is not permitted to roll her eyes in his presence. Because he is so broken and distant – and I no longer find brokenness sexy.
But that’s just me.
Oh, and the class stuff. Is that really the pinnacle of masculinity, still? All that money? The penthouse? Is that what we’re supposed to be dreaming of? God, I hope not.
But that’s just me.
The book is a fantasy. I understand. Fantasies can be anything that turns anyone on. Nothing wrong with that. If all of the rest of the women in the world were getting really turned on by the idea of the violent, hurt billionaire with the chiseled abs telling them exactly how much caviar they are allowed to eat before he takes them back to his leather-padded “play room,” then fine. Seriously, fine.
Just don’t tell me that it’s good for women. Don’t tell me that it’s ANYTHING for women, actually.
Instead, just let it be.
The thing is, when you tell me it’s good for women, and you give me all these reasons, like, because there’s consent in it! It’s about consent! Because it’s from the female perspective! Because it’s complicated! He was abused! And when you make a big argument about erotica, just any erotica, being empowering for all of us, I get frustrated.
Not hot and bothered frustrated. Pissed off.
Once I wrote an erotic short story. It was awesome. The hero was a nerdy, pale math major, and the heroine a very outgoing, very certain sociology major who invited him to “study” with her in an abandoned corner of the library. Yay!
Fifty Shades of Grey does not represent my desires. And I don’t think we even need to have a conversation about what it means for women to like it or not like it. Some women like some things. Other women like other things.
Why is it so shocking either way?
I didn’t want to be shocked, so I tried to understand why so many women love this series. I puzzled it out, with Bear, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, trying to be cool. Sometimes I feel like I don’t understand other women. And then when people talk about all the women who love something that I don’t even like, I wonder if I’m missing something basic.
“Am I supposed to be turned on by this?” I said. “This must have some universal appeal, so why isn’t it hot to me?” And then I answered my own questions with all of the above.
And in the end, when we were almost all the way across the bridge, I decided that it was fine for me not to like it and hundreds of thousands of other women to like it. It was fine for me not to understand, and for them to totally get it.
The only thing that remained not fine was the part where the debate was about why it of course appealed to ALL women, or why women shouldn’t read it at ALL. I was still annoyed at the mommy blogger who is telling everyone to read it now because it will save your marriage! and the conservative pundit who is convinced that no one can tell fiction from reality and that it should be banned from bookstores.
The world of readers and critics and bloggers is scandalized (S&M! Oh my!) and titillated and intrigued.
Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? everyone wants to know.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a thing.
* * *
Um, thoughts? I’m honestly not even sure what to ask. Have you read the book? Or maybe, do you enjoy romance novels?
Unroast: Today I love the way I look with really short nails. Or maybe more the way I feel.
P.S. This topic felt complicated for me. I hope I wrote about it in a reasonable, understandable way. I feel like I’m still sorting through it!