We can subtitle this post “One Woman’s Rant on Popular Treatment of Alternative Sexual Identities in ‘Literature.’” Skip to the bottom for the good stuff.
As I mentioned in this post, I decided to read Fifty Shades of Grey en español. I almost exclusively stick to non-fiction books, but I figured this would be an entertaining way to polish my Spanish skills.
I spent the entire novel wondering if something was lost in the translation. I’m unwilling to pick up the English language version to double-check, but I suspect that, aside from modifying a few idioms to conform to the quirks of the respective languages, and in addition to utilizing the functionally equivalent but somehow even more irritating counterpart to the phrase than my “inner goddess” (“la diosa que llevo dentro,” which was repeated interminably throughout the story and made my culo clench with rage every time I saw it), it is fair to assume that the content was substantially equivalent.
Which leads me to ask: what the heck is the mass appeal of this book?
I’m willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoying a good story; I’ll never be That Guy who spends the duration of a movie muttering “like that would ever happen.” So the (numerous) implausible situations and conversations scattered throughout the book would not, in themselves, be a deal-breaker for me. I might roll my eyes, perhaps (oh, mierda! <<ducking from an enraged Mr. Grey’s bitchslap>>), but if the other elements of quality fiction are there, it’s a forgivable offense.
For the record, notwithstanding that the notion of “fifty” is repeated throughout the book (fifty shades, fifty thousand ways, etc.)… boom, LITERARY DEVICE!… such other elements of quality fiction are, in fact, noticeably absent.
More interesting to me is that neither of the main characters (Ana and Christian Grey) is sympathetic or appealing. My general understanding prior to actually reading the book was that Fifty Shades was basically the pornographic equivalent of the Twilight novels for older women, with the female lead sufficiently ordinary and unobjectionable that the reader could imagine herself in that character’s position. Leaving aside how puzzling I find it that Fifty Shades of Grey is described as “pornographic” (maybe it’s the lack of a visual element that renders it pretty tame to me, but the sex scenes didn’t strike me as all that graphic and certainly nothing shocking), I don’t see how any woman over the age of 25 could relate to Ana, or why any woman of any age would want to.
I don’t want to expend too much mental energy on this, but my best theory is that, before meeting Christian, Ana personifies a certain form of sexual stagnancy – she is a virgin who has heretofore been almost completely disinterested in dating or sex. Now, to be perfectly clear: there is nothing unusual or problematic about remaining a virgin or otherwise being sexually inexperienced at age 22 (or older), and/or in choosing to prioritize other aspects of one’s life than dating or hooking up. Indeed, it is far more common than acknowledged and ultimately ends up being the best choice for plenty of women and men. The contention that her character’s inexperience is meant to embody a form of repression or frustration with respect to sex and intimate relationships derives more from her mother and her roommate’s dismay at her choices, not to mention the manner in which Ana herself views and speaks of it.
More importantly, although this is purportedly a “sex book,” Ana embodies more than just sexual stagnancy: her whole life had been commonplace and in conformity with external expectations. She worked a job in retail, was a good student, drank occasionally but rarely to excess, and otherwise did what she thought she was supposed to do. There isn’t anything wrong with her life or her choices, other than that they are boring. Inasmuch as that makes her a blank canvas upon which the reader can paint herself (forgive the cliché), I suppose that makes sense.
Anyway, along comes our beloved billionaire and, without any effort or awkwardness aside from the occasional wide-eyed giggly “tee hee, this is so new to me,” suddenly Ana’s entire life—not to mention Ana herself—is wholly transformed. Exposure to adventure and wealth will always have mass appeal, but this is especially so during an economic downturn; if you’ve had to alter your ambitions or reset your goals, however temporarily, the thought of suddenly gaining access to the life of the “1 percent” (as they say) because you were in the right place at the right time, and being told that you deserve it simply for being you, is a fantasy twist of fate that is almost universally coveted.
That, however, strikes me as relatively harmless fun, analogous to buying a lottery ticket whenever the jackpot gets above $150 million. Far more perplexing are the implicit ideas relating to sexuality, especially given the target audience of this book is not college-aged virgins, but rather women in their late twenties and beyond. If that is indeed the case, and if the reader is in fact supposed to relate to Ana, it arguably follows that the lesson imparted to the reader is that sexual dissatisfaction, “frigidity,” the absence of passion, whatever, could be resolved simply by meeting one’s very own Mr. Grey? Even if he’s a borderline abusive dipshit? You’ll be a spontaneously orgasming seductress commencing immediately and continuing forever thereafter! And don’t worry about him being emotionally manipulative and controlling, by the way: you can change him, just by being awesome enough. Even if your “awesome” self is insecure, jealous, annoyingly naïve… need I go on?
I guess I’m just bummed because I thought this book would be sex-positive and kink-positive, and instead it was just the opposite. And now, I’m writing out this long rant, somewhat edited for clarity, and certainly edited for length, in order to justify to myself the amount of time I spent reading this nonsense.
So that’s just about enough from me. I can only imagine the number of reviews and critiques of this book from the feminist perspective, the BDSM community, religious fundamentalists (if they dared to read it, given the surrounding hype), on and on – my perspective isn’t adding anything new. Besides, these are superficial, first read-through, first impression, scattered thoughts. But that’s kind of the point. The vast majority of folks who read this book are not going to undertake some profound literary analysis of its broader significance, nor should they be so inclined. It wasn’t structured for the purpose of withstanding that type of critical scrutiny. And as I noted before, I’m not preoccupied by those elements of the novel that struck me as trite or unpolished; I never expected it to be a Great Work of Literature.
Okay, remember that time I said I was almost done ranting? False.
Without politicizing it too much, I think being “kink-positive,” or at least open-minded and nonjudgmental, is important, even if one has no personal interest in and/or elects never to participate in BDSM or for that matter anything that is not “vanilla.” This notion is an offshoot of my rather fervent political and social stance in favor of LGBT [… QITSLFAP, the proliferation of labels and identities continues, for better or worse] acceptance and rights, not to mention safe-sex education and access, equality and respect in heterosexual relationships, etc. Basically, treat consenting adults as equals, which generally ought to mean staying the heck out of their bedroom (or shower, or kitchen table, or “el cuarto de juegos”).
This book runs the risk of reinforcing the idea that anyone who participates in a BDSM lifestyle must be doing so as the result of some psychological trauma or disturbance – Grey alludes to a troubled early childhood throughout the book. On the other hand, being manipulative, controlling, volatile, and excessively jealous (as Grey often was) can stem from some deeply seated psychological issues, perhaps stemming from a crappy childhood, but not necessarily. Consensual participation in BDSM should not be conflated with remaining in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship; and a crappy past does not excuse or justify crappy behavior in the present, in either context.
To its credit, the book did try to emphasize unambiguous and detailed consent and open, honest communication, at least with respect to the sexual aspects of the sub/dom relationship. (Ana’s constant fear of accidentally enraging Grey, and the resultant timidity in her behavior and words, in the other aspects of their relationship is an entirely separate matter. And why the hell was he so obsessed with what she ate?) If the net effect ultimately is to destigmatize BDSM play and expose more women to experiences they may find pleasurable and exciting or about which they had been curious but heretofore too ashamed to explore, then I can salute that. After all, in its Fifty Shades inspired article Comso magazine recommends that you “Lie across an ottoman, and tell him, ‘Professor Wankerton, I’ve been bad, and I need a spanking.’”
The Good Stuff:
Since I ended with a reference to Cosmo’s article, I’d be remiss if I didn’t redirect you to this post over at The Pervocracy for a hilarious and informative discussion of the magazine’s tips. The Pervocracy is an exceptional blog – every visit, I end up spending triple the amount of time there than I originally intended, clicking through and reading the consistently intelligent, insightful past posts.
If you are interested in writing your own novel, check out the Fifty Shades Generator. And… now I’m laughing so hard I’m crying in Starbucks. Way to make me look like an asshole, internet.
“My wunder down under was trembling like Muhammad Ali on a tumble dryer. Inserting a barbie doll into my enchilada of love got me ejecting clunge gunge faster than a greased weasel shit. The mixture of sewer trout and Da Vinci load in my rusty bullet hole created the delicious sphincter sauce that he was so fond of.”
Finally, Katrina Lumsden’s GIF-tastic review says everything I did in a more entertaining way. Click that and the Fifty Shades Generator, and you’ll get the gist of my post.