If you have been trying to ignore Fifty Shades of Grey, or pretend it’s not happening, you can stop now. Resistance is futile. And there is no escape. Forget Red states and Blue states. Apparently the USA is grey.
The novel—trilogy, actually—written by English housewife, mother of two and first time author E. L. James, has now achieved the status of Mainstream Cultural Event. Fifty Shades of Grey tops bestseller lists and the movie rights have sold for seven figures. At restaurants, in chat rooms, at school pick up and drop off, at pilates and spin classes, people—specifically women—cannot stop talking about it. What, exactly, is all the fuss about? The books chronicle the unfolding relationship between beautiful-yet-unsure-of-herself protagonist Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, the uber-controlling, hyperbolically handsome and spectacularly rich guy who wants her—but on his terms. These terms involve bondage, domination, and many assorted accouterments and accessories of S&M, including ropes, gags, crops, flogs, suspension machines and a “Submissive Contract” outlining the ways in which Miss Steele is to comport herself around Master Grey. Predictably, Anastassia changes Grey’s way of thinking, and after a bit of open-minded experimentation—spoiler alert!—realigns his libido and ego into a semblance of heterosexual normativity.
In short, Fifty Shades of Grey conforms to the rigid structure and formulaic style of a previously denigrated and wildly popular form of literature—the romance novel. The writing is appalling, with too many examples of mortifying overreaches and awkward phrases to cite (“My subconscious runs, screaming, and hides behind the sofa”; “Oh Anastassia, you’ve bewitched me. Isn’t it obvious?”). The plot bloats, meanders and indulges itself. And, with the exception of one vignette in which Grey yanks a tampon out of our protagonist, the descriptions of sex read like deja-vu-inducing pre-masticated pabulum precisely because they are—because Fifty Shades of Grey is, in essence, a regurgitated Harlequin. Except that women who wouldn’t be caught dead reading Harlequins are snapping up Fifty Shades of Grey, then passing it along to their girlfriends, who pass it on to their girlfriends, and so on, and so on, making it an unprecedentedly, wildly popular, viral marketing sensation.
Why do people love this novel so much? What gives Fifty Shades the power to unite thirty-something, chic Manhattanites with jobs in fashion and publishing and women who stood on line at the author’s Miami book event—a crowd that included ER nurses, housewives, hedge fund managers and more than one octogenarian?
Might a lifestyle of BDSM—bondage, discipline and sadomasochism—be the great American leveler? Could it be that we can all get along, and agree, when it comes to caning? That whips and gags unite us just as gun control and belief in evolution divide us? Are we one nation under spanking? Perhaps Americans—and American women in particular—are cooler and more open-minded than we ever imagined. Maybe the female mainstream is kinky.
Or maybe not. While Fifty Shades touches on S&M and B&D, and has introduced terms like “genital clamp” and “safe word” to a surprisingly receptive mainstream, it may be that the kink is the garnish here, rather than the main course. For Fifty Shades of Grey serves up a conservative, reassuring and arguably a uniquely American view of female sexuality. Anastassia Steele is adventurous and open-minded to a point, but focused always on normativity, partnership and equity. And marriage. As women across the country embrace their inner masochist and bond over bondage, subverting the notion that we have to have sex any one way and that being on the bottom is bad, our cultural Ur-narrative—that taming a highly successful man both sexually and emotionally is the highest achievement and most gratifying goal a woman can hope for—prevails. As Fifty Shades of Grey tops the bestseller list week after week, as Christian Grey tops Anastassia Steele only to be topped and tamed by her in turn, as hundreds and thousands of copies of the book titillate women even as they reassure that even S&M doesn’t change women and men, as we are reassured that writing changes very little, the Marquis de Sade is surely rolling over in his grave.