I couldn't get away from it. My girlfriends were talking about it; columnists were writing about it; Saturday Night Live was spoofing it. It was all I heard about.
Then I was getting my hair cut in the quiet sanctuary of the salon I go to, but there was an unusual buzz all around me -- and it was unmistakably those same four little words.
"Fifty Shades of Grey..."
What is going on?
Erotica has been alive and throbbing since the days of Ancient Greece and Rome, when someone scrawled those first steamy, toga-ripping words on a piece of papyrus. But in my lifetime, I've never seen a public reaction quiet as breathless (as in panting) as the collective sigh inspired by E.L. James's erotic S&M series. Is it possible for an entire nation to have a simultaneous orgasm? Apparently so: the "Fifty Shades" trilogy now occupies the number one, two and three spots on the New York Times Bestseller List. Even Henry Miller never scored that threesome.
So I buckled under and bought the damn books. I finished the first one yesterday, and I have to tell you: I get it -- though I went into this with my antennae way up. My long-held passion for women's issues made me very wary about anything that puts women and violence on the same page -- literally.
But Ms. James is smarter than that. Following the lead of Anne Rice and her neck-baring vampire series, she builds a love story between an unlikely, surreal couple, then proceeds to throw every conceivable obstacle in their path -- primarily a damaged, abused and abusive, secretly vulnerable, seemingly incurable sadist as her leading man. Suddenly the question becomes: Can love tame this baddest of bad boys? That, I believe, has a lot to do with why "Fifty Shades of Grey" has successfully made millions of women's knees wobbly across the country.
As for the sex parts, yes, the series shines a white-hot light on mysterious places in the human sexual psyche. But the secret sauce in this book -- and, I'm presuming, the entire series -- is that it's also about power, specifically how one woman's power proves to be the perfect checkmate for her man's power.
When Anastasia Steele first meets Christian Grey, the relationship could not be more imbalanced -- she's a recent college grad and a virgin in all interpretations of the word; and he's a gorgeous, brooding billionaire, so practiced in the dark arts of domination and bondage that he actually asks Ana to sign a contract of slavery.
But 500 pages later, the tables have turned. Refusing to sign on to a game in which her pain is his pleasure, Ana cuts Christian off with defiant indignation. In no unclear terms, she tells him that "vanilla sex" (his term for any kind of sex that doesn't end in the word "ouch") is what she wants -- and besides, she loves him. And unless he's willing to play it her way, she's gone.
Does Anastasia ultimately lose this battle of the boudoir? Does Christian storm off in search of some other dungeon-worthy babe, only to discover that Ana has imprisoned his heart? I don't know yet -- I just started Book Two last night.
Meanwhile the debate goes on. Some mock the writing as pulpy and purple, while others find the story demeaning to women, while still others don't care about any of that -- they're just using the book to put some spice back into their love life.
But in any case, we've been here before. Love it or hate it, every generation has had its "Fifty Shades of Grey" -- from "Lady Chatterley's Lover" to "Tropic of Cancer" to "The Story of O" and "Fear of Flying" -- and it's been fascinating to witness the heated conversations and online parodies this book has ignited across the country:
Take a look:
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