So -- zeitgeist being the social tattle-tale that it is, I admit that I recently succumbed to the book phenomenon of, yes... Fifty Shades of Grey. I'm fascinated by the collective We and what We want to read. I once wrote an essay that I never dreamed would get published and the darn thing went viral and landed me a book deal. I've wondered over and over just why that was. Because if I could bottle the reason, I might be able to pay for my kids' college educations. Not that I'm holding my breath.
On the off chance that you haven't heard of the Fifty Shades trilogy, they would be considered, for lack of a better term... well, smut. Or as it says on the back of the books, "Erotic Romance/Mature Audience." Not that there's anything ultimately wrong with smut. I just am captivated by the fact that so many many people are so unabashedly hungry for these books. I wouldn't be surprised if one or all of them were on Michelle Obama's nightstand. I have not been captivated enough however to succumb to their charms... until recently.
I don't usually read smut. The closest I've gotten is Anais Nin in college and maybe a Danielle Steele or two way back when. In fact, I'm never reading what Everybody Else is reading and maybe that's on purpose. I didn't even read the Harry Potter series, never mind anything with a vampire in it. I read stuff that has my teenager roll her eyes: Poetry and s***. Not that this makes me better or worse or anything other than just busy and a sucker for poetry and s***.
HOWEVER, a friend recently sent me the Fifty Shades trilogy as a challenge, more or less --a dare to be part of the living breathing collective We. And given this captivation, I decided to take her up on it. I've spent the last month reading these books with disgust and fascination, watching my literary IQ plummet. Why are these books catapulting like little innocent darlin's into our mainstream? Why was the flight attendant on my last plane perfectly content to be reading Book One from her command in the jump seat, full frontal -- nary a book cover? Remember Fear of Flying? I read that book with brown paper carefully cut and taped around its cover. Have we no shame these days? I guess that's the point, right? To not have shame. But seriously... this book is everywhere. I mean, come on! Number one, two and three on the New York Times bestseller list? Why? WHY? As a book author and as a woman, I had to investigate.
At first I was tempted to scour every last article about it on the Internet, but instead, I thought I'd go straight to the source. From the women's locker room to the baseball stands, from grocery lines to airport gates... I've asked woman after woman what she thinks about this book's explosion into mainstream America. And most of them had the same thing to say.
I'll try to streamline it here: People want to know that they're not alone. I think that's why we read books. In the case of Fifty Shades, I really don't think people are going crazy for it because of the sex. And there's a lot of it. (I actually ended up skimming the sex scenes because they were so ubiquitous.) It seems that one of the primary places women in our culture feel alone is in their feminism. This threw me for a loop! Who knew? I hadn't really thought about this before. According to my research, somewhere along the way, once we got the vote and equality in the work place (though some would say we still have a long way to go in this arena), sexual liberation and physical rights to our bodies etc., we got stuck. Stuck in anger.
Anger is good. It moves mountains. But being angry at the fact that now we can and do "do it all" in so many cases feels like a double standard. And we don't like that at all. Take chivalry for instance -- we're supposed to be offended by it. But are many, if not most of us privately wanting chivalry and not feeling like we should admit it? Hmmm? Guilty as charged. How's that working for us? Is it? Do we really hate having the door opened for us, à la Fifty Shades' male character, mega-millionaire Christian Grey? Do we really despise being seated at a table? Doted on? Protected? I don't know about you, but I love those things. I feel thought of, respected and dare I admit: taken care of. That's the dirty secret and perhaps part of our anger and I think the baseline reason for the mania around Fifty Shades. When it really comes down to it... what woman doesn't want to be taken care of? I can't speak for men, so I won't try, and besides, I doubt many of them are reading these books.
I think that E L James had a pretty major trick up her sleeve in conceiving these books. Maybe more so than she thinks, though I haven't seen her interviewed. She takes us so far out of our normal realm (that is, if you aren't into BDSM -- Bondage, Dominance, Sadism Masochism) that we can see with new post-feminist eyes that, heck -- what's wrong with our partners providing us a personal trainer to stay fit, a personal chef who cooks us healthy food and makes sure we eat it, beautiful couture clothes, a house we love and a great job? Seriously? Bring it.
But what drives the reader and the plot, in my opinion and in the running poll I have recently taken, is the dark side of the story which has to do with the "punishment" facet of Grey's sexual tastes. The question of pleasure and pain somehow having something to do with each other is new for most people. I frankly just don't get that piece and I don't really want to do THAT research. So I'll leave it to the therapists out there. But what I saw in this trilogy was a strong, smart (even though her vocabulary was appalling -- there should be a drinking game called "Oh my") woman who refuses to stray from her values, even and especially with the pressure of a wildly attractive, successful, powerful man who wants to be her Dominant. As the book progresses, and a surprise love for each other blooms, she (Anastasia) becomes curious about the dark side of Christian's past and his sexuality. And while he agrees to refrain from his usual sexual practices, Ana agrees to let him hit her out of curiosity, but more to see the extent of this man's darkness.
In the middle of the act, when it becomes too much for her, she fails to keep up her end of the bargain and tell him to stop. Horrified and understandably so, she leaves and he comes undone because that's the deal -- there are Safe words in BDSM for a reason. He sees it as a breach of trust. And this is what is fascinating to me in such a twisted way: Christian sees the punishment component of what he does in his sexual "playroom" as a way to push limits to, in the end, find... yep, trust???
I can't imagine letting or even wanting someone to cause me physical pain. And I certainly can't imagine that it would somehow bring me to a place of trust. But then again, I have no research in this department. It's a game that I won't be playing. It does, however, have me (and millions of readers) wondering about our limits in general, and especially trust in intimacy. As I was telling my teenage daughter, any sexual act requires a lot of trust and vulnerability. And it can be scary to be so trusting, because we know damn well that we very easily could get burned. E L James has us looking at trust in a whole new light. With half the marriages out there failing, you can bet that the lack of or loss of trust weighs in somewhere at the top of the list of reasons why this is so. And what's interesting about this section of the trilogy is that Ana did not trust herself to know her limits. A tough pill to swallow, when you consider yourself a smart, strong, feminist -- which is how her character is packaged. We're mad at her just like we'd be mad at ourselves. As much as we want to hate Christian for hurting her, it's ultimately something she signed up for and a game she didn't play well. Confounding, isn't it? A double bind. And so we read on...
Given all this, it's no small surprise that I spent the first book with my arms crossed, "rolling my eyes," but as I moved into the second one, I began to see that the protagonist, though she doesn't ultimately succumb to being a Submissive, was really the one in charge all along. And what drives her is her deep love and curiosity about this man and his dark past. She enters into a war with herself. And what she comes to find is that the more she is "herself" with Christian, the more he sheds his anger and brokenness and can step into authentic love. It would look from the outside that he is rescuing her, but really it's the other way around.
Do I believe in their love? Yes. I do. I won't give the ending away, but I can say that the mother in me wanted it to end in marital family bliss. The feminist in me (and maybe the angry feminist in me) wanted it to end similar to my favorite scene in the book where Grey drops to his knees in submission in a crazed moment -- the love of his life leaving him, so used to control, so knowing that his usual behavior is not going to work with Ana, wanting her beyond any feeling he's ever known and having no ability to buy his way into getting her... seeing no other choice but to relinquish all control and drop to his knees. Oh my... that was one powerful scene. In other words, part of me wanted the third book to end with Ana as the Dominant, holding a riding crop in her hand.
One more note: For all its "f***ery" it wasn't really that gory. I was expecting gerbils and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo craziness. It was way more "vanilla" than you'd expect, given the way the author sets us up. And that, too, drives the reader to endure its scary-bad writing. Yes, scary-bad. We're just plain curious about the whole "playroom" and this darker side of sex. Yes, even you, Peoria. Even you. You told me so in the grocery line.
In the end, it really was a love story. And it really didn't promise to be one. I liked that about it. And something tells me that... this is not the end. Will I read Book Four? Will I see the movie? Heck. I just might. I believe that when a person is that dark and that damaged, it can and usually does come back to haunt them.
Now it's back to poetry and s***. It might take Keats to undo the done damage to my literary IQ.