The 50 Shades of Grey in 50 Shades of Grey

I've put off talking about the weird phenomenon that is 50 Shades of Grey until my VUE column on the book ran. It ran this morning so now I'm going to let 'er rip. You can read my comments in VUE Weekly this week, but I wanted to expand on some of the things that I couldn't really get into in 600 words. Overall, I really loved this book. I expected to hate it. I wanted to hate. I desperately did not want to read it. But after struggling through the first few chapters which are unbelievably boring, poorly written, and silly, I got sucked in. This is not a complex book, it's a very simple story, but if you like simple stories about people and their relationships, it's a good one. It's fun. When I was in my teenage and early adult years I used to write little romance stories (which got progressively more explicit as I got older). These were stories I wrote only for myself and my own entertainment. Reading 50 Shades of Grey was very much like reading one of those stories. The plot is thing, the characters not terribly well defined, but it's very heavy on romance, internal turmoil, and sex. E. L. James isn't great at plot or characters development but she writes a hell of a sex scene. The book is hotter than hades - mostly because of the buildup, anticipation, and thrill of the unknown that is in pretty much every sex scene. It's fun to read. As I said in my VUE column, I think diversionary little wank books like this serve an important purpose and we shouldn't be ashamed to read them nor should we dismiss them as trivial. So yes, I do think the book is quite good for what it is, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But here's the part where I become Debbie Downer. If you have haven't read the book and plan to don't read the rest of this post as it will be rife with spoilers. If we want to take 50 Shades of Grey seriously, there are some problems with it. The biggest concern I have is the depiction of a man who likes to dominate and beat on women who like to be dominated and beaten on as psychologically ill. This is made quite plain in the book. Grey himself says this. According to his own words he is '50 shades of fucked up' and that's why he is a dom. The book completely conflates his inability to love with his interest in BDSM. This is a dangerous myth that has caused untold pain for people who enjoy and participate in BDSM. This is why people often hide their kinks from their employers and families and friends. Although what they are doing is actually innocent, fun, expressive, and transformative, many people still think that there is no possible way you could enjoy hurting or controlling someone or being hurt and controlled unless you were '50 shades of fucked up'. People have lost friends and even children and jobs because of this. So that to me is serious and I don't like that she perpetuates that myth here. An interest in BDSM is completely and utterly separate from any psychological issues a person might have. There are many people who have been seriously abused who participate in kinky activities, but that is solely because there are many people in this world who have been abused. I couldn't cite any particular study but I'm sure if one was to look into it, you would find that the incidence of sexual and physical abuse is no higher amongst people who are into BDSM than it is in the general population. Kinky interests and activities are just a part of a person's sexual expression. The second problem I have is much less serious and it has to do with Anastasia's lack of sexual experience. It's just not realistic. Why, oh why, did she have to be a virgin? And Anastasia's not just any old virgin. She's a virgin in the extreme. She is almost 22 years old but she has never kissed anyone, held hands, or it would seem, even had a sexual thought. And yet she's impossibly beautiful and although she's not characterized this way, her action betray that she is actually pretty social and fairly socially confident. She's never been attracted to any man before Christian. Really? It's just not believable. She and Christian kiss once and then the next encounter is full-on vaginal penetration. She is much more confident in this encounter than she should be given her complete lack of knowledge and experience. And of course, she has several mind-blowing orgasms. Really? It's just not ever gonna happen. I am fully aware that what makes this hot is that like is not like that and could never be like that but I do think it goes a little too far. I found it hard to believe. The virgin thing irks me for other reasons too. Why does she have to be a virgin? It would have been so much more interesting and believable, I think, if she has had a small amount of sexual experience beforehand. She, like most young women, could have had a few encounters or short relationships that were okay but mostly unsatisfying sexually. Then she meets this man who pushes her sexual boundaries and excites her in ways she never knew were possible. I think that is way more interesting than someone who doesn't even know what she's comparing too. And really going from never being touched to being tied down and spanked is a pretty huge jump. I think James makes her a virgin because she has bought into our society's notion that a virgin is a more sympathetic character and that she has more value because she has not been sullied by any previous sexual activity. Anastasia is no slut - lets be clear about that. She is not a slut. She has only ever done these things with Christian. I hate that we think that makes some sort of difference in how we should think about her. I also don't like the fact that she had to make Christian a bazillionaire - and a 27 year old one at that. Again, this is how we value people. We value women by their purity and men by their money and power. Anastasia is virtuous. Christian is impossibly rich. Would this book been as much fun if Christian just had a normal job? I think it would have bee, maybe even more so. But I'm sure James didn't. Would Ana have felt the same way about him if he didn't have any money and wasn't able to take her in his helicopter to his huge mansion? I'm sure James thinks she wouldn't have. And yet we are at the same time supposed to believe that Ana doesn't care about his money even though she's clearly swept off her feet by it. These are tired stereotypes and I do think they are harmful. One thing I do like is how much Ana actually questions Christian and resists his control. He does stalk her and try to control her but that is portrayed more as a character flaw in him - that he is anxious and this makes him want to be in control all the time. She pushes back against it - although he usually gets his way. This is not necessarily portrayed as romantic like it is in some books (*cough* twilight). She doesn't particularly like it. She also asks him a lot of questions and decides for herself what she will agree to and what she doesn't. In spite of what you may; have read about the book, every sex act in the first book is completely and totally consensual. She sometimes agrees to things that she does not understand at first but neither of them realize that she is not experienced enough to know what to ask. There are a lot of problems with the story. It relies heavily on very old and tired gender stereotypes. I would love to see a wildly popular book that doesn't. I want to see normal people, not impossibly pure or impossibly beautiful or impossibly rich, who subvert and challenge traditional gender roles. But would that ever become as popular as this has? I don't think so. I think 50 Shades is popular exactly because it is easy and familiar. It doesn't ask anything of us. It doesn't really challenge us. But does everything have to? Or can we sometimes just have a hot book that's fun to jerk off to? If you haven't seen this, take a look at Saturday Night Live's Amazon commercial spoof about 50 Shades of Grey. And here's a link to my column on the book this week.

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