I was determined not to buy Fifty Shades of Grey, as I’d heard it was poorly written, cringingly sexed lifestyle porn. That said, when a colleague offered to lend me her copy (which was complete with what looked like teeth marks) I was curious.
When I started reading it, I was surprised it had been slated to such an extent (that’s the price of popularity, I suppose). It was by no means as awkwardly written as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which was beloved, seemingly, by everyone but me). OK, I wasn’t a fan of the way Ana kept referring to her ‘inner goddess’ or repeating ‘holy crap’ but everyone is entitled to their own style. I have read many more poorly written books – at least E.L. James can hold a story, write a reasonable bit of dialogue and produce characters you can get your teeth into.
Yes, the book is lifestyle porn in the sense that it explores the pleasures of the playboy lifestyle, the joy of having nice things and being able to buy exotic experiences – but it’s not an endless exercise in product placement as some people would have you believe. James is no Stieg Larsson, faithfully recording the exact make and model of each of her characters’ possessions. Anyway, it’s escapism – why should Grey be forced to be a noble but poor supermarket worker?
As for the sex, there are repetitive bits and there were times when I was getting on the tube first thing in the morning and I really wasn’t in the mood to read about bondage, but I have read much cringier sex in my time. The problem is, though, that there’s too much sex in the book to call it anything other than porn, but it’s a bit too long-winded and chick-lit-esque to be proper porn – not to mention that at one point Grey pulls out Anastasia’s tampon in order to have sex with her. I cannot think of a less sexy or more horrifying inclusion in a porn book. I actually dry-retched when I got to that point. WHY?
Moving on from that though (I think we’d better), I’m ambivalent about where the book sits in the world. Is it, as some people say, a revolutionary sex manual for unfulfilled wives and girlfriends across the globe, or is it a monstrous piece of misogyny that is putting back the cause of feminism fifty years?
Well it must be at least partly the former. I admit that I was shocked to find that the book’s subject matter was still considered shocking to the public at large. I saw men on Twitter saying they would be horrified to see their partners reading the book – this shows that the book is necessary and boundary-pushing to a certain extent. Can we really still be shocked by the idea of women as consumers of porn? This seems weirdly Victorian. Madonna was years ago, people!
On the other hand, detractors (I saw a program where Rachel Johnson, editor of The Lady and sister of Boris, was practically apoplectic with disgust for Christian Grey) say that it is misogynist filth that is anything but liberating to women. Is that fair? Well, there were bits of the book that made me decidedly uncomfortable. I found myself wondering why women were worshipping a protagonist who wanted his partner to eat from a prescribed list of foods, who wanted her to obey him in and out of the bedroom and who wanted to punish her painfully for any perceived transgressions. I got that it turned him on in the bedroom but forcing a grown woman to clean her plate in a restaurant when she’s not hungry is controlling in a deeply, deeply unsexy way.
I suppose the thing that made me most uneasy was that I could imagine so many women in abusive relationships superimposing their own partner’s face over Christian Grey’s and finding new excuses not to leave. The book plugs the reader firmly into those fallacies that say: real love is jealous and possessive. It’s OK to submit to the will of an attractive man even if what he is asking of you makes you anguished. Being rich makes for a happier, more exciting life. If a man is troubled, he should be excused for his kinks. Attempting to change and help him is not foolish but heroic. God help us if we believe these things.
Every time Christian commanded Ana to eat, I found myself wanting to pick up the plate and throw it in his face with a few choice words. Couldn’t we have a protagonist who just likes bondage but isn’t weird and screwed up and controlling outside of the bedroom? I think that would be more revolutionary.
Having said that, though, I think that E.L. James does strive to show reality in the book. She documents Ana’s difficulties with the lifestyle Christian is offering, she shows her pushing back sometimes successfully against his boundaries and she doesn’t excuse all of his behaviour. She also never set out to write a moral guide for troubled relationships – she writes fiction and she should no more have to make her characters agreeable than Dostoyevsky or Dickens. If we think Fifty Shades of Grey is damaging to women, romance and relationships everywhere, perhaps we should think why this is.
Is it not offensive to women to assume they cannot critically assess a book and dismiss a cruel protagonist when they see one? Maybe some cannot, but that is a problem that has deeper roots than literature. I don’t think E.L. James can be blamed – all she does is hold the mirror up.