A book based on “Twilight” fan fiction and featuring male-dominated BDSM somehow earns a reputation as a feminist revelation. Time to set the record straight.
Last weekend, I did something I swore I’d never do: I read “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E. L. James. This tale of an innocent virgin, the domineering businessman she falls for, and their BDSM odyssey masquerading as an actual functional relationship has topped bestseller lists and made its way into the bedroom fantasies of countless middle-aged women. But it has also drawn its criticism for its clumsy and amateurish prose, which incidentally is best experienced in the sultry voice of Gilbert Gottfried.
Life is too short to waste on bad erotica, so why did I subject myself to this nightmare?
Because some people actually think this schlock is feminist. That’s right. Smitten ingénue Anastasia Steele letting the overbearing Christian Grey spank her for his own gratification… is being hailed as a feminist achievement.
I feel like I’m being punked.
The claim is that this book allows women to imagine new sexual possibilities without the aid of men, i.e. through their e-readers and secret vibrators they hide from their husbands. Which I guess means that every masturbatory-aid romance novel with Fabio on the cover is feminist too, no matter how many times a female character gets turned into a breathy damsel and gladly serves the desires of the man who “claims” her.
Allow me to share a few snapshots of what I witnessed in this grueling reading experience.
Shortly after they meet, Grey traces Steele’s cell phone and tracks her down in person. Any self-respecting woman would hear “stalker” blaring over the alarm system in her brain, but the meek, lust-blinded Steele insists, “Somehow, because it’s him, I don’t mind.” It seems Grey is the good kind of stalker—you know, the one you can magically turn into a prince.
In fact, Steele thinks that all of Grey’s psycho tendencies—and because he’s a romance novel hero, there are a lot of them—can be fixed. So instead of finding herself a healthy relationship with someone uncomplicated and mostly sane, Steele fixates on Grey and the slim hope that she, and only she, can change him. Or, as she puts it, “guide him into the light,” even though he’s “dragging me into the dark.”
Does that sound familiar? It’s the same thing my crazy aunt says every time she marries another former convict she met in rehab.
Predictably, Grey’s main defect is his controlling nature, and even without the BDSM examples, the evidence is damning. While out on a date, he orders Steele’s drink for her and gets annoyed when she says she wanted something else. Whenever she voices a concern about their relationship, his only response is, “You’ll get use to it.” Not compromise, not acceptance of her desires, just quiet assertion of his own will.
Oh, and did I mention that he gets her drunk before every important conversation? He claims it makes her more honest. Which is true, if “honest” is a surprise synonym for “compliant.”
The cherry on top of this disaster sundae is the sales pitch Grey gives to convince Steele to be his “Submissive.” He says that as her “Dominant,” he’ll make all her decisions for her, freeing her from “all the wearying thought processes.” Granted, it’s not like Steele has many original thoughts to lose: her vacuous expression of bland arousal, “oh my,” is repeated a total of 62 times (an average of once every six pages), and that only becomes entertaining to read if you imagine it in George Takei’s voice.
And what reward does Grey promise if Steele becomes his mindless pet? The honor of getting to sleep with him. Really? Gee, thanks! It’s like Christmas!
Here’s the really worrisome part: Steele identifies part of her subconscious as her “inner goddess,” ostensibly a reflection of her newfound boldness and the locus of woman’s strength.
But Steele’s inner goddess cheers her head off every time Grey mentions spanking and shackles. Why is the goddess motif relegated to a submissive role? If the strongest part of a woman actually longs to be a fawning sex kitten, what part of ourselves can we turn to for real strength? Is that really the best representation we’ll get?
Is this book really the best representation we’ll get?