*SPOILER ALERT: Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James
**Disclaimer: This piece is not intended to criticize the various kinky-but-consensual sex acts of women and men. Instead, I aim to dissect the power relations implicit in this novel -- inside and outside the bedroom -- and what it communicates about all of us curiously avid readers, however twisted or vanilla we think we are behind closed doors...
***Moreover, this article is not intended to criticize the author for creating an ambivalently entertaining book for women with potentially disempowering implications. Perhaps the author's intention is not necessarily to empower women. Maybe she is only concerned with entertaining us, or otherwise commenting on our warped mass consciousness. Art is art, and should not be condemned even if it might inspire some unhealthy belief systems. Everyone is entitled to her art and ultimately, as long as the piece inflicts no apparent physical harm, everyone else is entitled to indulge it.
Yes it has swept the nation, and maybe it's about time female porn got some attention. Not the typical male-fantasy-oriented storyline, Fifty Shades of Grey is not even visual -- but literary -- and undoubtedly, for women. And it is oh so... thought-provoking.
If you are a woman reading this, there is a good chance that you have already read Fifty Shades, have it in your possession, or plan to read it. And why not? It's like the Harry Potter of books for women. Or the Twilight for those who favor more description.
Without question, author EL James is a compelling and accomplished writer, one who has provided many bored (and perhaps not-so-bored) women with something on which to gnaw. Gotta love her for that! Ah, how nice it is to have a product exploring women's pleasure, one that doesn't undermine our confidence or power in the way that many beauty products and home cleaning supplies do.
But oh wait a sec, this book is all about a quasi-woman-abuser and how super sexy and worthwhile he is!
Nevertheless, the fabulous success of this book and related series is extremely poignant in terms of our collective female psyche and the climate and culture of women's sexual and personal power. Therefore, if we fail to analyze ourselves for this phenomenon, we are missing out on a great opportunity to better understand where we are and where we're headed as a gendered group.
Let's begin with our main heroine Ana, who is off-and-on submissive to the rich BDSM enthusiast and mega-sexy control-monger Christian Grey. Our guilty reading pleasure leads us to enjoy and question the oddity of their relationship, and how intoxicating, creepy, and disturbing the leading man is. How the author has painted him in such appealing, powerful, and graceful colors, while revealing increasing volumes of his darkness (and lightness) along the way.
We are almost as helpless as poor little virgin Ana, whose first sexual encounter and emotional foreplay is bound to muddle her psyche for a long while, even though it is considered 'vanilla' by Christian Grey's standards. Poignantly, Ana often mentally and verbally reflects on the monstrous qualities of her lover and his appetite for inflicting measured amounts of pain and control on his chosen woman. Fascinatingly, she has no problem denying the existence of the 'crazy' as it were -- which makes this heroine's subsequent acceptance of it extremely significant.
Now picture Ana, offering her virginity to an irresistible man who has no qualms with saying the following line out loud: 'I want you to willingly surrender yourself to me, in all things.' Not only does she get to be his slave in the bedroom (which notably has some appeal even to those who are not into whips, chains, and pain), she gets to be his subordinate all day everyday -- outside of the bedroom. Wait a sec, doesn't that just sound like the condition of women like, 50 to 100 years ago?
Fantastically, while our Ana questions the craziness of Christian Grey on a regular basis, humorously labeling his sex jungle gym the 'Red Room of Pain,' she eventually discovers a sliver of his concealed childhood of abuse, which we are led to believe is the reason he is so kinky and "complicated." Of course, notwithstanding the red flags, she moves further into his snare like a moth to a flame.
If we take a pause now, we can see that Ana is entirely similar to women -- even strong ones -- who find themselves in abusive relationships with men. It all follows a similar pattern: something about the man is irresistible -- perhaps the ups and downs of his good or loving moods vis à vis his scary moments give said woman a tantalizing emotional cocktail of uncertainty and fear posited against reward, love, or attention. And so the cycle continues where she may feel like things are going great, at which point he might display some bad or abusive behavior. At this juncture, she might take a pause to realize how crazy or dangerous he might be. Just when she ponders backing out of the relationship heading south, he follows his peculiar display with some juxtaposed good behavior, at which point she sighs with relief, momentarily accepting the 'pinch of crazy' which is now lost in the mix of inebriating sexy or 'good' behavior. That is of course until the next time, when he displays a larger dose of bad behavior -- which catapults her into a place of uncertainty again. But, since she has already adapted to the smidgeon of bad behavior from before, she unwittingly finds herself strangely more able to digest a larger volume of 'crazy' -- and so she moves forward again and again as he rewards her with kindness, generosity, supposed love, or really good sex.
This, ladies, is the downward spiral that virtually all abused women follow. And while Christian Grey is painted as someone who would never do anything without the consent of the victim, he still fits the would-be controlling abuser profile to a 'T.' As women (and men), we must all realize that most abusers and their often-willing victims hardly ever think of themselves this way. They instead tell themselves a different, more complicated story to re-write the context of their bad decisions. Notwithstanding, each participant follows a similar downward spiral of continuously adapting to worse and worse behavior until both are performing or allowing horrific acts that would never have taken place at the onset of a healthy relationship.
As such, Ana's hot mess is that very relationship we see unfolding in this book -- but without the reality of Christian fully invoking the monster he is or will become. Instead, we get to see this abusive dynamic in the context of Fantasyland -- which is super dangerous to us conceivably crazy women readers (no disrespect to us) because we might actually retell ourselves this unlikely story if we ever run into our own version of Christian Grey. In fact, I know many women that have, though not because of a novel.
Still, what about young impressionable women who might read this book? What about older impressionable women who might read this book? When considering a potentially abusive partner, part of our subconscious minds might reference Fifty Shades of Grey and say: 'He's so complicated probably because of his childhood but he's not a danger to me... he's not all bad... I can fix him!!'
Humorously, there is actually a guardian-esque character in the book known as Ana's subconscious -- alongside another thrill-seeking character called 'Inner Goddess' -- a juxtaposing voice in her head that appears to be up for nearly anything Christian Grey has in mind. As a reader, I actually resent 'Inner Goddess,' as I feel she does not live up to her empowering title, which should more appropriately be re-labelled: 'inner desperate hedonist.' Surely not the same creature.
Satisfyingly, at the end of the novel, 'Subconscious' wins and Ana dumps Christian in a gloriously heart-breaking scene, with Ana crying her eyes out. For us avid readers, in spite of however much we might have enjoyed ourselves with addictive zeal night after night to this story, we are curiously happy that she's out of there. We think: 'That's right girlie! Don't let him spank you like that!!!' And we are led to believe that at least this would-be victim got away.
But no, she doesn't. Like virtually all abusive relationships, the victim goes back, again and again -- because why? The predator claims to be making improvements or amendments to his dominator contract or 'Red Room of Pain.' Why else is there a second or third book? Why else do abused women keep going back?
Hope springs eternal. And what I'm concerned about, even in the midst of my own hypocritical enjoyment of this series is, will these novels present impressionable women with yet one more excuse to go back to Bluebeard and his 'Red Room of Pain'? How far indeed have we come as women in this culture if we keep back-pedaling?