50 Shades of Grey is to literature what cotton candy is to food–of little substance, but fun for a moment and too much of it will make you throw up on the Tilt-A-Whirl.
After reading the E. L. James’ juggernaut that has caused such sturm und drang in the publishing world and among the media commentariat, I am frankly shocked that what amounts to essentially beach reading, seasoned with some spanking, merits so much attention.
If you’ve missed the clamor, 50 Shades is the first book of a trilogy that began as thinly-veiled, digital, Twilight fan fiction and became a New York Times bestseller. It follows virginal, new college graduate Anastasia Steele as she becomes drawn into a relationship with troubled but handsome, young magnate, Christian Grey, whose mysterious background has left him unable to be touched or form intimate relationships, but has endowed him with a taste for bondage and dominance. Over the course of the story, the pair deflower each other. Grey more literally, as he introduces his young girlfriend to sex and the life of a submissive. And Steele, as she takes her powerful mate to a level of intimacy he once thought impossible.
Right. From what I remember of those Harlequin romances I used to read in the seventh grade, 50 Shades is essentially one of those with more explicit sex. It’s not particularly well written. James will never be mistaken for Toni Morrison…or even Zane. It’s full of worn tropes: Beautiful young woman thaws the heart of cold, powerful, older man, natch. I’ll give it this, though, for a book filled with pretty traditional displays of male dominance and female submission, it illustrates what consent looks like very well. (Hell, the book actually includes Grey and Steele’s multi-page consent CONTRACT.) From an inclusion perspective, which is important to me, the book mostly erases the existence of people of color and the GLBT community. And, for people who are into BDSM, it must rankle that this book associates that sexual preference with trauma. But y’know cotton candy isn’t particularly nourishing.
50 Shades is a trifle. I know it is a strange book review that remains ambivalent, but I feel about this book like I feel about the movie Dark Shadows, which I saw a few weeks ago. It was enjoyable enough. I’m not recommending it. I’m not NOT recommending it.
If should come as no surprise that unsubstantive entertainment can also be popular. Cotton candy movies are one of the joys of the summer. So, why is it news–and to some people, problematic news–that 50 Shades is topping the bestsellers list?
Some say it’s the book’s dubious origins and that it’s not very good. I call bullshit. I’ve read many a popular book that I thought was weakly-plotted, shabbily-edited, poorly-written gash. I think the furor is about women and sex. The clue is in the derisive label that follows the book around–”mommy porn.” There is something America finds squicky about a broad cross-section of women, including suburban mothers and women of a certain age, digging on highly-sexualized content. What’s with the special term “mommy porn,” anyway? Are we to believe that mommies’ approval somehow diminishes porn? Is “mommy porn” less legitimate than “regular porn?” Daddies have been known to watch skin flicks and read Playboy, does their porn get a special designation?
There is so much policing and interrogating of women’s response to this book. Elizabeth Titus, who admits she has not read the book, wrote at the Ms. Magazine blog:
When I had three friends to dinner at my home in Connecticut, I asked if they’d heard of this book. One, a publishing industry veteran, rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, yeah, that’s all over the media world. Mommy porn. What are women thinking, when they could lose the right to abortion and birth control?” Another, a personal trainer, told how one of her clients, a stay-at-home mother, said the book changed her life. She was well into the book and enjoying it. The third, a psychologist, was as clueless as me.
Why would “older” women respond to this preposterous-sounding book?
In Newsweek , writer Katie Roiphe reckons that 50 Shades’ popularity reveals modern woman’s secret desire to be dominated.
Because, you know, women can’t simply have the agency and awareness to say, “I want to read an uncomplicated, stupid book right now” or “I like sex and get turned on by reading about it” or “Y’know, I find a little consensual dominance hot”– particularly not those poor, misguided souls in the Midwest and suburbs, or the olds. (Yeah, there is East Coast, urban and ageist condescension heaped with the sexism in some critiques of the book, too.) Women readers are not smart enough to recognize the places where 50 Shades is problematic, while liking it anyway for what it is. They must be dumb enough to mistake 50 Shades of Grey for smart, meaningful fare, like rubes who don’t know the difference between cotton candy at the state fair and baked Alaska at Le Cirque.
I enjoyed 50 Shades of Grey enough to pick up the next book in the series, but I never dreamed I’d spend 1,000 words defending it. Perhaps I’m really defending myself and other women who read the book and didn’t hate it, or actually loved it, or whatever. Because a lot of the eye-rolling at this book feels like the usual attack on women and the things women like and the usual underestimation of our ability to know our own minds.
For the record, along with 50 Shades, I’m also reading The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement . And I understand which of these books has more intellectual value.