At almost the same time that the Republican candidates for President started competing to see who could be most demeaning to women, a novel appeared about a young woman who gives up her sexual autonomy to a bondage/S&M relationship.
Their fates could not be more different.
Ninety-eight percent of American women use contraception. They are not likely to think men are joking when they suggest the best way a woman can prevent pregnancy is to hold aspirin between her knees. And many of them cannot be thrilled by laws that would require vaginal examination before they can abort an unwanted pregnancy.
And yet many of those women have bought and devoured Fifty Shades of Grey, the E L James novel about a virginal 21-year-old college senior and the 27-year-old billionaire who tells her what to eat, what to wear, what kind of contraception to use and, of course, what kind of rough sex comes next. It's #1 on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble bestseller lists. It's been debated on the Today" Show. The New York Times article about it appeared on the front page. Vintage has just acquired the author's three books -- yes, Fifty Shades of Grey is just the first volume of a trilogy -- from the small publisher that's struggling to pump out enough copies for a fast growing audience. On the message boards its fans are already casting the inevitable movie: (Early favorites: Natalie Portman and Wentworth Miller. "I'd let him spank me... oh ... did I type that out loud?")
What's going on here?
1) It's "mommy porn," racy enough for suburban readers but not hardcore S&M like The Story of O: "Women feel like it's O.K. to read it... It's taboo for women to admit that they watch pornography, but for some reason it's O.K. to admit that they're reading this book."
2) It strengthens marriage: "Because of this book my husband and I have had some good times."
3) It's Easy Reading: "The first book I've read in 9 years," a woman proudly announced on Today.
4) It reminds women of Twilight, a book many of them have read. Says romance author and blogger Sarah Wendell: "The themes of Twilight are very much repeated: innocent heroine, dark, emotionally unavailable hero with a secret, isolation of the heroine from the rest of the world while with the hero, and the hero's overwhelming ability to care for and provide for the heroine with limitless wealth. It's a wealth fantasy as well as an erotic fantasy."
5) It really does speak to women. "The most common female fantasy is a submission fantasy," says sexologist Laura Berman, who has advised her readers, "As far as sexual fantasies go, getting spanked is among the tamest and most common desires out there."
6) From the woman who prodded me to write about this book: "It gives women who never would read traditional porn a way to explore a different side of themselves. It's not a classic like 0 or some of the Victorian writings on the same subject; it's what women are talking about on Facebook. That has to be healthy."
Good point. Our country is screwed up a gazillion ways; many of them track back to sex, and if certain people have their way, we'll see much more sexual dysfunction. It's too simple to say, "The problem is men." And while it may also be be too simple to say, "The solution is women," I'm on the side of supporting every project that helps women to free themselves.
If you need/want to read Fifty Shades of Grey, by all means, get to it. Still.. you need to be warned.
As a reading experience, Fifty Shades or Grey is a sad joke, puny of plot, padded with conversations that are repeated five or six times and email exchanges that are neither romantic nor witty. And as for the sex... let's be honest: that's the reason you've read this far, right? If so, you really don't want the 380-page paperback that Amazon sells for $17.99. You want the $9.99 Kindle edition because you don't want anyone to see what you're reading, and, more to the point, you want to skip the plot and make those screens fly by until you reach the "good parts."]
Like E L James, I'm going to make you wait for the sex.
First let's meet the characters.
Anastasia Steele is a senior at Washington State University who has majored in "British" literature. Although she's graduating in two weeks, she hasn't applied for a single job -- she's focused only on her final exams. But that's not the most amazing fact about her. Try this: She's not only a virgin, she's never even masturbated.
Her roommate -- a vivacious hottie, as the fiction manuals dictate -- is supposed to interview mega-rich Christian Grey for the graduation issue of some campus publication, but she's sick, so she sends Anastasia to ask him a page of neatly typed questions.
Do I need to say that Christian Grey is like a god? That he has the sex appeal of Bradley Cooper, the chiseled diction of Pierce Brosnan and the prostate of Ashton Kutcher? That his office is spectacular? No, I don't. But I bet you didn't see this coming: Ana, intimidated, stumbles and falls flat on her face as she enters the great man's sanctum. (I think that's supposed to be a metaphor.)
After the interview, Ana's goony: "No man has ever affected me the way Christian Grey has, and I cannot fathom why." Even more remarkable is that Grey finds mousy, badly dressed, socially inept Ana absolutely fascinating. He promptly turns up at the hardware store where she works after classes and has her help him find some items he and his team of flunkies apparently could not have procured anywhere else in the state of Washington: masking tape and rope.
Grey warns Ana to "steer clear of me," but that's boilerplate. By Chapter 7, they're beyond flirting, and he's revealing a little about himself -- that is, he shows Ana his bondage room. You might flee. This virgin who has never masturbated sticks around: "I fall apart in his hands, my body convulsing and shattering into a thousand pieces. He kisses me, deeply, his tongue in my mouth absorbing my cries."
As Ana likes to say, whenever she's wowed, "Holy crap."
But we're getting to the Good Stuff now.
Like this: "His erection springs free. Holy cow..."
Like this: "I scream. It feels so good to scream."
And then, of course, like this: "He has needs that I cannot fulfill. I realize that now." (Five minutes later, Grey has Ana on her stomach and they're doing it again. )
It takes untill Chapter 14 for Ana to be naked, shackled, spread-eagled on the bed as Grey commands her to suck on the tip of a plaited leather riding crop. Rapture follows fast: "He flicks the crop and it hits my sweet spot with a sharp slap. I come gloriously, shouting my release."
Oops. Sorry. That was a dream. Then she tells him about it, and...
As porn tricked up to resemble a novel, there's no hope for this book -- it's "S&M for Dummies." Here's the level of late-night philosophizing Christian Grey serves up to his brainless British lit major: "There's a fine line between pleasure and pain. They are two sides of the same coin, one not existing without the other."
Yes, he's rich. Staggeringly handsome. He could have, as they say, any woman. And indeed, right now, a great many women are fantasizing about Christian Grey. Cool for him. But the guy in me -- the snob in me -- has to say it: as a fantasy lover, Christian Grey is really corny.
The music lover in me is thrilled to report that Christian Grey has great taste in music. This is hard to imagine in a novel that may be only marginally better written than Snooki's book, but he actually listens to "Spem In Alium," by Thomas Tallis. [To read more about the genius of Tallis, click here.]
Let's take what we can from Fifty Shades of Grey and listen to Tallis as we bid farewell to this only-kinda-dirty book. Higher Thoughts, and all that.
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]
Follow Jesse Kornbluth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HeadButler