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’Urbervilles, Pride 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?