This phenomenon with Fifty Shakes of Grey baffles me. Critics claim the writing is insipid likened more to the musings of a teenage schoolgirl than an author whose pen has garnered international fame. Yet the books’ success is undeniable and has sent publishers of the genre historically reserved for middle-aged single women with too many cats scrambling to repackage former ‘romance’ classics for a new batch of readers, and ignited hopeful EL James’s into furiously pounding the keyboard – no pun intended.
Why I give an iota about the novels I can’t say for sure, maybe it’s their meteoric success or why this storyline is so intriguing when it seems to epitomize what women throughout history have fought so hard to overcome. What I can state emphatically is that I haven’t read the books – entirely. How the first two installments landed in my possession at all shall remain secret for fear of recrimination but is definitive proof a higher power, and while most men would have left them on the dining room table I was intent on deciphering what makes them irresistible to so many.
Desiring to figure out what it is about this particular flame that lures so many moths, one afternoon I scanned the pages in search of its magic ingredients. I immediately discounted the gratuitous sex out of sheer absurdity (i.e. a twenty something virgin – never kissed – gets world rocked first time), and massive boredom forced me to pass over the tedious email interludes between main characters that seemed little more than filler. But buried in the final pages of book one I finally happened upon the treasure I sought. After the heroine had been submissively ass-kicked into humiliation by her billionaire masochistic boyfriend she indignantly dumps the psychopath on the spot and leaves his mansion under a cloud of disgust,
“I climb into the back of the car…Embarrassment and shame wash over me. I’m a complete failure. I had hoped to drag my Fifty Shades into the light, but it proved a task beyond my meager abilities.”
And there it was. I had followed the rose line and found the Holy Grail. Now I understood that while the sex, bondage, and carnality might have grabbed the attention of these women, what kept them turning the page was something more profound – hope. A few weeks later this notion was confirmed when I asked a woman who had read all three books why she thought Fifty Shades of Grey was such a success,
“They give women everywhere a glimmer hope that they too can fix their man. If Anastasia can change someone as f*ed up as Christian Grey there’s hope for all of us.”
Let’s be real, isn’t that what fantasy is all about anyway, the romanticized fulfillment of an unmet reality?
When it comes to romantic relationships between a man and woman there’s an understood dynamic that gets rarely talked about and it’s this. The woman ought to be accepted for who she is including her bitchiness, mood swings, and insecurities – because it’s part of the package. And a man’s failure to do so gets him tagged controlling, demanding, even misogynistic. While he, on the other hand, is viewed as a raw lump of clay waiting to be shaped into something of beauty, form, and function. And should he fight against these ‘improvements’ he’s stubborn, insensitive, and well, a man
Most men, if pressed, would admit to experiencing this first hand – the pressure to become something that seems more palatable and easy to digest. While the majority of women, if answering honestly, would confess to pushing for it, and even feeling altruistic in her tolerance of his repeated disappointments and her continued attempts at fine turning Mr. Maybe into Mr. Right, all the while claiming it’s in the name of love. Which brings me back to Fifty Shades of Grey.
Christian Grey is uncommonly handsome, unimaginably rich (he bought a company just because his girlfriend worked there and he thought her boss was a pervert), loves her with the intensity of Charles Manson, and pursues her with the ferocity of a serial rapist; all of which more than makes up for his clinical insanity, controlling nature, premeditated abusiveness, and the incapability of expressing love unless he’s sexually humiliating her or treating her as a blow up doll and punching bag. All of which compels Anastasia to take pity on him and, as she puts it, ‘drag him into the light’.
By the grace of God my Queen has no desire to read the novels, quite frankly I’d be troubled and self-conscious if she did. Because I have to believe there is a hard truth in my friend’s rationale for the books’ popularity. Let’s be real, isn’t that what fantasy is all about anyway, the romanticized fulfillment of an unmet reality? Doesn’t Anastasia’s persistence at straightening out the unraveling of someone as demented as Christian give hope and validation to women everywhere hoping to change their own Fifty Shades? And doesn’t her eventual achievement in turning him around, even if that might mean whelp marks and anal beads, fuel those aspirations?
Like the man who views pornography then wishes his partner looked and acted more like the actresses he sees on the screen, isn’t it possible Fifty Shades generates the same dissatisfaction in reverse? “Why can’t my man be more erotic, more wealthy, and more passionate?”
And to be clear, hiding behind some defense that it’s ‘just entertainment’ doesn’t change the fact that Fifty Shades does raise these sorts of questions in the women who read it. And any amusement or potential sexual thrills gained from reading about Anastasia’s avant-garde erotic exploits hardly makes up for the damage that comes from hoping, “I wish he was more like Christian Grey!”