Deep in suburbia groups of women huddle around coffee tables, their usual book club titles replaced by three “Fifty Shades of Grey” books from author E L James. Once furtive trips to the sex store are now replaced by confident browsing the racks of dildos and vibrators which glitter and buzz, clamouring for the attention of the newly empowered and orgasm hungry females. On trains around the country women smile as their Ben Wa Balls jiggle around and make the morning commute so much more pleasant than it used to be.
Or is that a load of media hype?
The “50 Shades” series is undoubtedly a watershed in publishing and society’s attitudes towards sex. More importantly it marks a change in people’s attitudes towards BDSM and other non-conventional relationships. The problem that everyone faces is that not all the messages it sends out are good ones and this mean that the legacy of the books will only be clearly visible in retrospect when the dust from the media stampede settles.
The BBC, bastion of “respectable” British broadcasting has interviewed the author and now trawls “women’s groups” for point and shoot news stories about the FSoG phenomenon take this discussion about the books (video available in the UK only). Is it me or do the women in the video seem a little stilted, or maybe most people don’t yet have the experience or vocabulary to comprehend and express feelings about sexual practices that until now have been the subject of tabloid sneers and smears? Alternatively of course the really incisive comments might have been lost in the edit, or maybe they were conscious their partner’s might be watching.
Fifty Shades of Grey may have opened the door to more sexual openness but has it really changed attitudes towards BDSM in a positive way, transforming us from the attitudes that gave the newspapers the confidence to denounce Max Moseley as some sort of deviant for his call girl assisted R & R?
I’m not going to list the failings of Fifty Shades of Grey here, a lot of people have done that and the list is long. The problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is not its content but its context, so here is where I as a confirmed Fifty Shades of Grey critic defend the books:
The writing is poor for a novel – but it never was a real novel. The story arc is thin, illogical and unconvincing. That’s fine for fan fiction but not for a fully formed, published book.
The sex is repetitive – see above. As a series of short stories for titillation and exploring BDSM themes you don’t need to be too inventive. In a novel you have to be a little more varied and eloquent.
The sex is unrealistic – It’s fiction, not a manual on sex. Though I have to concede it does make me feel uncomfortable at how easily Anastasia will orgasm. She must have constantly wet underwear.
Fifty Shades of Grey portrays BDSM in a bad light – this one I’m not going to argue, much.
Fifty Shades of Grey portrays one aspect of BDSM, one particular BDSM relationship. To criticise it for this is like saying that any other novel is deficient because it only shows one particular type of relationship. The issue with Fifty Shades of Grey is the all pervasiveness of the coverage it’s receiving at the exclusion of all other representations of BDSM.
The movie “The Secretary” is held up by some as a light-hearted but accurate portrayal of some BDSM couples’ lives. “Venus In Furs”, Sacher-Masoch’s seminal work on dominance and submission is a far more intense and incisive study of obsession and an insight in to the mind of a submissive because it has been based on personal experience. Sadly coverage of Fifty Shades of Grey seems to ignore such works because either they are not the zeit geist or maybe they have been taboo for too long to review in a new light.
There are many people who live in happy, healthy, consenting BDSM relationships who will be utterly appalled by one aspect of the book. As I said above, because it is viewed in isolation and therefore forms a template for the views of anyone whose experience of BDSM is limited to Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s the utter cruelty (often mental rather than physical), metered out by “Grey” to his totally inexperienced and at first virginal submissive Anastasia. Setting aside the unbelievable premise that she willingly submits to almost any of his desires with only momentary hesitation this lack of relationship development in the narrative before the hard BDSM begins is made worse by the apparent motivation – Grey is damaged and is expressing his problems by his dominance of Anastasia.
Broad brush? Lazy stereotype? Well Pamela Stephenson Connolly thinks so in this article in The Guardian.
“When I [presented my study] in 2006, the jury was still out as to whether BDSM and psychopathology went hand in hand. But since then, it has been firmly established – through the work of Peggy Kleinplatz, Charles Moser and others – that BDSM, played in a safe and consensual manner, is not proof of mental or physical illness, essential badness or emotional damage from trauma or abusive parenting, and that people cannot – and should not – be treated to cure it.” Pamela Stephenson Connolly, The Guardian, 8 July 2012
Don’t let me stop you reading the book (though you may start to skim it as things get a little dull), but please don’t form your views on this complex and varied aspect of human sexuality and relationships from three volumes of hastily adapted Twilight fan fiction.