I didn’t want to do it but everyone else was … From television to Facebook, newspapers to a gazillion blog sites, it seemed that everyone was (and still is) talking about “50 Shades of Grey,” the erotic novel by E. L. James. The three-book “Grey” series has become a literary phenomenon. In May, the books occupied all three top spots on The New York Times Bestseller List and tens of thousands of people had them on hold at libraries across the country.
The series has spurred a spike in sales of “kinky” sex accessories (including anal toys) and bondage materials. There are “Shades of Grey” passion parties being held around the country and the series has more than 168,000 fans on its Facebook page, where comments range from “best books I’ve ever read” to “OMG I read, LOVED and can’t wait to read them again.”
A screenplay is in the works and now there is talk that the author will re-write the books from the point of view of the male lead, Christian Grey.
Not all of the feedback has been rosy: The books were pulled from library shelves in Melbourne, Florida (but were soon returned due to public outcry). Critics have been harsh in their judgment of the quality of the writing and some have faulted the depiction of BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, [Dominance and Submission], Sado-masochism) as setting a bad example for healthy, consensual sex. Many are up in arms at what they see as the degradation of the lead female character, Anastasia Steele (and, thus, all women).
It has been called “chick lit” and “mommy porn.” Women worldwide are sighing – and sharing. Even my mother’s book club (all ages 65+) read and discussed the first book. So I gave in and read it. My take? Truthfully, beyond the titillation of the frequent and varied sex (resulting in about a gazillion mind-blowing orgasms), what I really think this book’s main theme is that any man, even one as screwed up as Christian Grey, can be changed – fixed, even – by the right partner.
As a woman who has grown up strongly believing that no opportunity should be out of reach, and that no woman needs to be dependent on anyone else for her “keep” and/or happiness; and as a proud staff member at Planned Parenthood, where we work to educate patients and community youth about healthy relationships and consensual sex – perhaps I should have hated this book. But while many claim to be appalled by the so-called “anti-feminist ideals” of “Shades,” I’m not.
As rigid as Christian is set up to be, Ana always gets her way. By the end of the second book, Grey has fallen in love, is overcoming some of his hang-ups, and the romance blooms, complete with a marriage proposal. Ana can resist Christian’s will and even roll her eyes with impunity. The sex is always consensual and Christian is adamant that Ana use “safe words” when she feels endangered.
And as for the sex, “Shades” shows that erotic lit has come a long way since the awful romance novels that were popular decades ago – covers featuring a bare-chested Fabio (or a Fabio look-alike) and using phrases to describe the body such as “throbbing” or “raging manhood,” “rigid shaft,” “pulsing member,” “heaving bosoms,” “dew-moistened petals,” “honeypot” and more unbearable prose. I won’t even go into the euphemisms for orgasm. (Let’s just say that love juices are often in great supply.) “No” didn’t always mean “no” in those books (although rape never seemed to prevent the female main character from falling in love with her attacker later on). And I may be dating myself, but the big erotic novel of my adolescent days was “Flowers in the Attic,” in which siblings abandoned for years in an attic by their neglectful mother and tended to by a psychotic grandmother have their sexual awakening – with each other. Eeeeewww.
So how might intelligent and socially aware women feel about this book? Probably that it’s not great literature. Maybe (depending on one’s sexual orientation, of course) that the sex is pretty hot – I mean, who wouldn’t like to come every single time? Definitely that Ana had choices and got her way in that the relationship was never the subservient, slave-based affair that Grey had initially demanded – and that she even ended up saving his wounded soul.
My generation grew up while “Second Wave Feminism” was in full force. Many women were questioning patriarchy and gender equality, broadening the struggle to include areas such as sexuality, workplace issues, and reproductive rights. From the National Organization of Women to smaller, localized organizations, women were fighting against a powerful system of male dominance. (Major achievements during my childhood included the passage of Title IX and ‘Roe v. Wade.’ Not too shabby.) So once you move closer to equality with men, what could be better than … being sexually submissive to a man (but getting what you learn you’ve been wanting the whole time)?
In the end, “Grey” is about love; sexual awakening and learning how to ask for what you want and need; and having the power to change even the most powerful and rigid man. Ana shows who is really in control as she changes Christian through the power of love; now if only I could get my partner to change out the empty toilet paper roll …