My husband and I were stuck for eight long hours at a foggy former military airport just south of Oslo during Christmas 2012. The entire departure area had just a single place to purchase anything, a combined magazine store and café. After having read every paper available and consumed anything remotely eatable from their scant counter, we broke down and bought the first book of the Fifty Shades trilogy. Having read raving reviews about it, with even famous sexologist hailing it as the long-awaited novella-style female answer to soft porn, granted we were curious. And we were not alone…
The books have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 52 languages! The supercharged best seller sold faster than any other author in history, more than 70 million books in the first eight months on sale in the US! In 2012, the author was named one of the ‘100 most influential people’ according to The Times. Three years and counting, Fifty Shades can still be found in almost every Papelera in villages across the conservative, über-Catholic Andalucía. The books popularity echoes the author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter success story, though while Rowling’s legacy was bringing the joy of reading back to literally millions of children and youngsters, E.L. James’ legacy, though surely heating up some bedchambers across the nation, may be to bring thousands of women under the whip and chain of their potentially domineering partners. It is not the astronomical sales of the books that I find scary, but the values, or the lack of values that this ‘epic’ propagates. It is the scary notion that millions of people think this is a ‘new’ and exciting discovery of sex, and furthermore what ideas the books may give men who already are prone to violence?
Like movies, works of fiction is dependent upon on our ‘suspension of disbelief’, requiring the author to infuse some seemingly genuine human characters and a semblance of truth into a drama for it to seem plausible. In the case of Fifty Shades, the protagonist, dramatically named Anastasia Steele, is a 21-year-old female university graduate who happens to not only be a barely-kissed virgin (surely the only one on the North West coast of USA), but also gorgeous, long-legged, peachy skinned and bone-thin. As to be expected, she is completely unaware of these assets and her affect on men. To me, sh4 is not believable, and cannot be equaled to cognitive estrangement, where the character’s ignorance or lack of knowledge justifies the suspension of disbelief.
Things do not get any better with the antagonist, Mr. Grey. Like a modern day Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, he is handsome, haunted, dangerous and astronomically rich. Using the contemporary version of the white horse, he sweeps ‘our heroine’ away in his private helicopter, which he of course knows how to pilot being so dexterous. Seasoned in the arts of S&M by his former nanny and thus strangely unhappy unless he can tie up and whip his female conquests, he presents ‘our heroine’ with a contract stating that she must kneel outside the torture chamber waiting for her ‘dom’ to come and pull her by the hair and that she is not allowed to speak unless spoken to. From their approchement at the hardware store where our cash-strapped protagonist works, until Mr. Grey breaks her virginity with instant success and climax on all parts, the book goes from bad to worse, with monotonously predictable sexual encounters every couple of pages. Having all the fittings of a cheap Harlequin romance, the story is completely implausible, the dialogue trite and our ‘heroine’s inner dialogue (with her ‘Inner Goddess’) infantile at best. So, my question is, why has this novel become so popular? Was it one of those ‘at the right time and at right place’ type of scenarios? Are the readers of the world so hungry for some smutty female porn that anything will do, even if it subjugates them?
Virginia Slims cigarettes used the ad slogan “You have come a long way, baby”. Not that female smoking is a great achievement of women’s lib, but I certainly feel that Fifty Shades has brought the female sex a hell of a long way back, regressing us to the time of being officially known as ‘the weaker sex’. Women’s liberation spent decades and even centuries to disprove and bring down misinformed and scientifically erred stereotypes of female sexual needs and wants, such as that women are naturally submissive, that they mean ‘yes’ when they say ‘no’, that they have endless orgasms, especially when raped, and that females generally like to be treated roughly. Then come Fifty Shades, poorly written, but timely and cleverly marketed, and brings all the stereotypes back again. The books portray the female as weak, poor, innocent to the point of ignorant and naturally submissive, and the male as strong, rich, handsome, powerful, violent and domineering. What is wrong with this picture in 2015?
I did not buy nor read the sequels to the first novel, as I find it neither great literature, nor the ‘hot stuff’ it was hailed to be. I had recently read Follett’s Pillars of the Earth before I went on to Fifty Shades and for all the ad nauseam sex scenes of the latter, I found the few sexual encounters in the former far more titillating. In fact, I rather take Anaïs Nin’s short stories written 50 years ago than the thousand-page tomes of Fifty Shades. But then again, with porn, it is usually more about quantity than quality.
But what about our own barrio.But what about our little barrio. Fifty Shades has front window placement in our neighbourhood’s newspaper store. A note says: Yes, this is the trilogy the whole world is talking about.
As I walk around in my Andalucían neighbourhood, I look at the women and wonder if they all have read the book. Is bondage and submission what women’s escapist fantasy today is all about? Of course, people can do what they want behind closed doors, and I’ll swing myself on the chandelier as much as the next person. However, I find it most worrisome that the sex in Fifty Shades is now assumed to be every woman’s dream and desire. It is a dangerous proposition, certainly here in Spain where female and spousal abuse is rampant, and more dangerous still in other cultures where women have no voice and where abuse is seen as a spousal rights. Thankfully, I am not the only one to bring my thumbs down on Fifty Shades. Critics seem to collectively slam the movie and mock the book. I particularly enjoyed the movie commentary of Alynda Wheat (People): “It’s too bad the movie also imports James’s atrociously written prose and bizarre sexual politics, but then, no one buys a Fifty Shades ticket for the dialogue.”
E.L James is not the first, nor will she be the last to write ‘cheap porn’, though I believe she is the first female in history to have created a world famous ‘brand’ from pornographic books. She ‘owns’ the expression Fifty Shades, which probably is already accepted as a new expression in the Oxford Dictionary. She has made porn literature something everyone now can display at home without shame. She has also made written porn big business, being the world’s top earning author last year (95 million dollars). Add film- and merchandising royalties and she is soon richer than her fictive antagonist, Mr. Grey.
While the producer and the author is entangled in a power struggle as to how many explicit scenes they should include in the second and (heaven help us…) the third movie, the lasting effect of Fifty Shades remains to be seen. S&M popularity will come and go, but one thing is clear, Fifty Shades has certainly not done womankind, nor humankind any favours.
Great piece, Karethe!