Fifty Shades of Grey and Ambivalence

14 Mar

Well, what do you know? It looks like the newest word-of-mouth hit among middle-aged book club ladies is about a BDSM relationship. The book is Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, and it started out as Twilight fan fiction. I had honestly never heard of the book before this weekend, but apparently it’s all people are talking about in certain circles (not my circles, obviously). Here’s a blurb from Slate:

The women’s book club has a new romantic heroine. By day, Anastasia Steele is a college senior at a Vancouver University and a virgin who wears indifferent jeans and reads the usual novels (Tess of the d’UrbervillesPride and Prejudice). By night, she is the willing slave of Christian Grey, who trusses her up in his “red room of pain” and slaps her and makes her shiver with just the tip of his whip.

What do I think about this? I’m honestly not sure.

On the one hand: awesome. So awesome.

Women all over the world are reading an erotic novel, and that’s wonderful. As I said in my post on erotic BDSM romance, one of the best things about the rise of ebooks is that it’s allowed for entire subgenres of erotica to flourish where they couldn’t before. No longer do you have to skulk into a sketchy “adult store” in a sketchy neighborhood, or hope against hope that your bookstore or library might have a copy of The Story of O (and then hope the cashier or librarian won’t give you that “you dirty whore” look). Or just settle for mediocre romance novels or poorly written online stories. If you have a way to read them (on an ereader, a smartphone, or a computer), ebooks are cheap as hell, easy to get and easy to read discreetly. This has opened up a whole new market for “niches” like BDSM and allowed readers another avenue to explore their sexualities.

Also, as the Salon piece points out, we’re in the middle of a massive culture war over female sexuality here in the U.S. And many of my friends are despairing over what they see as a GOP war on women, but I see something more hopeful: I see women all over the place claiming their sexual autonomy, their right to be a sexual person. And so what better timing for a book like this to burst into the mainstream?

But (of course there’s a but!), there are some things that give me pause. First is the sad fact that with any mainstream popularity comes backlash. Again, from the Slate piece:

[Today show ] host Savannah Guthrie, who used to be the show’s legal correspondent, responded with a version of the mild horror the book has provoked on many a feminist blog: “Is that really where we’ve come to after 50 years, now that women have the power? … Do you think women really want to fantasize about someone causing them physical pain?”

Oy. Where to even begin? First, of course, there’s the dismay at the fact that such things would turn women on at all. But what really got under my skin about this reaction is the idea that women being turned on by this book is a result of “50 years” of feminism. As if women are so tired of having the right to vote and hold a job and not get pregnant (which means they have “all the power,” apparently) that we’ve turned to such desperate measures as a submissive sexual fantasy to cope. Or as if this is all such a terrible slap in the face of feminism.

Seriously, why does every damn thing women do have to be a celebration or repudiation of feminism? Why is every action a woman takes, or choice a woman makes, a referendum on feminism?

And then there’s the slightly stickier issue of cooptation. I haven’t read the book yet, but from what I’ve heard, the BDSM is actually fairly light. Not surprising, really, given its mainstream success.

But there’d already been some grumbling among BDSM readers and writers that the increasing popularity of BDSM romance among more “vanilla” people has contributed to the watering-down of the genre. Authors (like my fave, Annabel Joseph, who by the way, has a really great new book out) feel pressured to write “lighter” BDSM, and readers like me have a harder time finding the less-amenable-to-mainstream-tastes stuff that turns our crank. For instance, I’ve had a hard time finding good novels with doms that are a bit more on the sadistic side – because authors deal with a lot of backlash to SM.

Certainly, there are worse problems to have. And I say if it help even a small number of readers tap into kinkier fantasies that they never recognized or knew were ok, then it’s definitely a net gain. But it is a change.

So am I going to read the book? I will probably give it a shot, if only for curiosity’s sake. I’ve heard it’s not actually very good, but people generally say that about pop culture marketed towards women (see: Eat, Pray, Love, which gets sneers but which I found a hell of a lot of fun to read). If I do read it, I’ll be sure to post a review.

Have any of you read it? What did you think?

13 Responses to “Fifty Shades of Grey and Ambivalence”

  1. Lily March 14, 2012 at 9:12 PM #

    Also, as the Salon piece points out, we’re in the middle of a massive culture war over female sexuality here in the U.S. And many of my friends are despairing over what they see as a GOP war on women, but I see something more hopeful: I see women all over the place claiming their sexual autonomy, their right to be a sexual person.

    The thing is, these are happening at the same time — but not to the same people.

    In very broad terms, poor and working class women are being stripped of their reproductive rights, while middle and upper-class women have access not just to birth control and reproductive health services but also to e-books and, say, classes on tantric sex.

    In short, the same deepening divide between the haves and the have nots in our country has gone beyond money: now there are haves and have nots for sexual pleasure and autonomy.

    • feministsub March 14, 2012 at 9:41 PM #

      Thanks Lily, this is a really apt point. While I agree that the policies pushed by the GOP (and allowed by the Dems) are aimed right at poor, working class (and also young) women, I think this is largely because they are an easier target for social conservatives, because of the deep classism in our society. They’re going after poor women because it’s easier to do so. But the rhetoric is aimed at all women who have sex they don’t approve of.

      • Lily March 15, 2012 at 5:47 AM #

        Oh, totally true on that front. And, I mean, what the hell is up with these right wingers?! I just look at them and shake my head in complete wonderment at how divorced from reality they’ve become.

  2. acquiexence March 18, 2012 at 12:37 AM #

    I’m honestly not into politics of any kind. Vanilla or BDSM or sexual in general, it just doesn’t interest me. But I thought I’d comment because I’ve read the book in question, along with the two sequels (it’s a trilogy).

    I had some interesting reactions to the book because it shares some parallels with my own life. You’re right, the BDSM in it is pretty light. The thing that perhaps isn’t clear from reading most people’s reviews of it (it definitely wasn’t clear to me before I bought and read it) is that Ana isn’t a submissive. Or rather, she spends the ENTIRE trilogy coming around to even mild obedience and pain. Whereas Christian’s a relatively hardcore sadist and has a natural bent toward dominance. For me the interest factor stemmed from that imbalance, that corkscrew of conflicting desires and needs.

    It’s not the typical BDSM romance set-up, where one partner or another starts off new to/uninterested in/actively horrified of BDSM, then comes around to their ‘true nature’, blah blah, happily ever after. Instead the push seems to be the other way — for Christian to set aside his sadistic, dominant nature in order to make Ana happy, because — much as she can put herself through a lot of things for his sake, for her it doesn’t come naturally at all.

    It’s a very interesting *love* story, that happens to have some semi-hot scenes, but I wouldn’t put it in the BDSM erotica category by any means. BDSM’s a plot tool to create tension and depth of character, which is fine, and James handles the whole thing well.

    But after I’d finished reading it, I ended up feeling that the overall skew, to me, was *away* from BDSM. Away from kink. Not because those things are inherently bad, but because it just didn’t work out very well for the two main characters — which, hallelujah, is what people try to push all the time. “Different strokes for different folks.” Whilst Ana does eventually end up submitting, you see that it’s 99% about love, and 1% about a kind of uncertain “well, why not?” rather than interest. For her it’s a way to communicate with Christian, not a deepset personal need.

    I would say that this isn’t “watered-down” BDSM, it’s just a different flavour — one that is very true to love, communication, and the notion of consent and connection. I did say that James uses it as a plot tool, but she doesn’t wield it carelessly. It’s not thrown in just for spice, it’s a central part of their initial agreement/relationship and it continues to be an issue right through to the end of the last book. To me it feels true to the bone, but it *just isn’t the right method* for them, because Christian and Ana need something different.

    Dunno if that clears anything up. :P *shuts up again*

    • feministsub March 18, 2012 at 3:53 PM #

      That is actually very helpful, thank you! One thing that does bug me that I’ve heard from others is that the male character’s sadism is portrayed as being a result of traumatic stuff in his past (abuse? I forget) and his moving away from BDSM is portrayed as becoming healthier and better able to love the female lead. Which, if true, definitely gets my hackles up!

      • acquiexence March 18, 2012 at 4:01 PM #

        That’s true, on reflection. I stick to my original assertion that Christian has natural tendencies towards *dominance*, but his sadism, yeah, that seems to be drawn out of trauma more than anything else.

        Which, mind you, I still don’t have a problem with. That’s realistic to me. A lot of people will have kinks that come out of a ‘pure’ place that isn’t traumatic at all, and some will have kinks that come out of really bad experiences.

        This is the thing, though — all of that, whether ‘pure’ or not, is ‘who they are’. We are changed by the things that happen to us, and we cope in different ways. Sometimes those ways are acceptable to everyone, sometimes they’re not.

        I admit that (mostly vanilla) people will likely interpret James’ use of Christian’s sadism as “he’s only like this BECAUSE he got fucked up earlier” and they may not understand that some people gravitate towards sadism naturally; but at the same time, that’s not James’ fault. Her portrayal of Christian is an accurate option for his character and history.

        If that … makes sense?

      • feministsub March 18, 2012 at 5:02 PM #

        acquiexence:

        That makes sense. It’s definitely a tough line, because on the one hand, I really hate to see the idea perpetuated that sadism or masochism or whatever are caused by trauma, because that tends to make people think that it means kinky people are damaged (and of course, that idea of “damaged” is just as problematic!). On the other hand, for me to say that kinky people shouldn’t talk about trauma that may have influenced their kinks would obviously be ridiculous – not to mention ineffective.

        One thing, though: no psychological study has ever found a link between childhood trauma or abuse and sadistic or masochistic sexual fantasies, and there have been a bunch of studies done on this. I’m not saying it never happens, but sexuality is complex and personal and researchers who have tried to pin down “cause and effects” for all sorts of fetishes have pretty much always been unable to.

  3. Stabbity March 18, 2012 at 1:57 PM #

    Is that really where we’ve come to after 50 years, now that women have the power?

    Augh! How is being able to talk about even slightly non-mainstream sexuality not progress?

    As if women are so tired of having the right to vote and hold a job and not get pregnant (which means they have “all the power,” apparently) that we’ve turned to such desperate measures as a submissive sexual fantasy to cope.

    It’s pretty sad that having submissive sexual fantasies is seen as so awful that it could only be a desperate measure taken by people pushed to the edge of their endurance.

    • feministsub March 18, 2012 at 3:55 PM #

      >>>How is being able to talk about even slightly non-mainstream sexuality not progress?

      Well, some feminists believe that M/f D/S is the ultimate *mainstream* sexuality, so there’s that. (eye-roll)

      >>>>It’s pretty sad that having submissive sexual fantasies is seen as so awful that it could only be a desperate measure taken by people pushed to the edge of their endurance.

      Ha, right? “You poor dear, you just need a cup of tea and a hug, not a spanking!”

  4. Gina April 1, 2012 at 3:28 PM #

    I stumbled upon your blog and wanted to let you know that I have read the series as it was originally written as a fanfic. While I am not into BDSM, I thoroughly enjoyed the story and couldn’t wait for each chapter to come out. The BDSM is light as mentioned previously but I disagree with the previous reviewer. I thought Ana’s character was naturally submissive but resisted that part of her. I didn’t think there was an imbalance per say just the two of them adjusting to what each partner needs which you have in any relationship. The female character often states, “but I like your kinky fuckery”. I think initially she just had a difficult time accepting that part of her. As far as I know being a sub means you like being the sub in the bedroom/playroom. It doesn’t mean you don’t have an opinion or say in the relationship and are told what to do every minute from sunup to sundown. My understanding is that there is a whole range of relationships out there in BDSM not always including pain, spanking, whipping. The story does state that his sadism stems from traumatic childhood experiences, he also expressed that his intro to BDSM as a sub helped him greatly therapeutically in a way and not because it allowed him to beat women. I think the author’s move to paint BDSM in that negative light later on in the series was done to make it appeal to a mainstream audience. But at the same time other character’s in the story, his therapist, said that BDSM is a perfectly acceptable lifestyle choice.

    The Slate quote is misleading. They’ve obviously not read the book. Not once is a whip used. A flogger and a riding crop and paddle, yes. But like I said it’s BDSM light.
    There is alot of BDSM fanfic out there, particularly twilight fanfic. Some of it is merely well researched by people not in that lifestyle and others written by actual subs. It’s worth checking out. Some of the good ones have been pulled for publication or because of more prudish readers complaining. I personally find the dom/sub emotional relationship interesting not the punishment aspect. Because really all of us lean one way or the other in a relationship – dom or sub even if we’re not into BDSM.

    I couldn’t agree with you more about James Deen (from another post). He is intense and it has nothing to do with the size of him or how he looks. It’s how he can play his partners like a concert pianist. And he actually looks like he enjoys it and enjoys getting them off repeatedly. I recently discovered him and also have a bit of frustrated housewife/mom crush. I readily saw that he’s a natural dominant and it’s hot to watch. I think he would be perfect for the role of Christian in the 50 shades movie. That is if he can act in the non-sex scenes. I think he could be Rob Pattinson’s brother particularly when both actors are scruffy. And the author did write the character with Pattinson in mind. But please do read the books.

    • acquiexence April 30, 2012 at 3:58 AM #

      “I thought Ana’s character was naturally submissive but resisted that part of her.”

      Sorry, yes, that’s more like it. It may be more accurate to say that Ana *may* have submissive leanings, but she’s not a masochist. She’ll put up with very mild erotic pain for Christian’s sake or to connect with him, but it’s typically not something she seeks out for herself (except maybe spankings … heh).

      Ugh. It’s been a while since I read the books, I may have to re-read them to work out what I think all over again.

      @t1klish — no vampires.

  5. t1klish April 5, 2012 at 9:29 AM #

    It started out as Twilight fanfiction? Interesting. Does it still have vampires? I write my own naughty Master Vampire / human sex servant fiction, so can’t help but be curious.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Ordens makt - om Femtio nyanser och andra BDSM-skildringar | BDSM Community Sthlm - January 6, 2013

    [...] Se t.ex. Fifty Shades of Grey and Ambivalence, On 50 Shades of Grey, and other people’s porn, Fifty Shades of Grr, Fifty Shades of Grey is [...]

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