She works crazy hours. She takes care of the kids. At the end of the day, she wants to be ... spanked? Katie Roiphe on the curious case of the modern woman's retro bedroom fantasy.
If every era gets the sadist it deserves, it may not be surprising that we have ended up with Christian Grey, the hero of the runaway bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey. He is not twisted or frightening or in possession of a heart of darkness; he was abused as a child, a sadist Oprah could have dreamed up, or as E L James puts it, “Christian Grey has a sad side.” He is also extremely solicitous and apologetic for a sadist, always asking the book’s young heroine, Anastasia Steele, about every minute gradation of her feelings, and bringing her all kinds of creams and lotions to soothe her after spanking her. He is, in other words, the easiest difficult man of all time.
Ellen von Unwerth / Art + Commerce
Why does this particular, watered-down, skinny-vanilla-latte version of sadomasochism have such cachet right now? Why have masses of women brought the book to the top of the New York Times bestseller list before it even hit the stores? Most likely it’s the happy convergence of the superficial transgression with comfortable archetypes, the blushing virgin and the whips. To a certain, I guess, rather large, population, it has a semipornographic glamour, a dangerous frisson of boundary crossing, but at the same time is delivering reassuringly safe, old-fashioned romantic roles. Reading Fifty Shades of Grey is no more risqué or rebellious or disturbing than, say, shopping for a pair of black boots or an arty asymmetrical dress at Barneys.
Katie Roiphe on 'Fifty Shades of Grey' and Feminism.
As it happens, the prevailing stereotype of the Fifty Shades of Grey reader, distilled in the condescending term “mommy porn,” as an older, suburban, possibly Midwestern woman isn’t entirely accurate: according to the publisher’s data, gleaned from Facebook, Google searches, and fan sites, more than half the women reading the book are in their 20s and 30s, and far more urban and blue state than the rampant caricature of them suggests.
The current vogue for domination is not confined to surreptitious iPad reading: in Lena Dunham’s acclaimed new series, Girls, about 20-somethings adrift in New York City, a similar desire for sexual submission has already emerged as a theme. The heroine’s pale hipsterish ersatz boyfriend jokes, “You modern career women, I know what you like ...” and his idea, however awkwardly enacted, is that they like to be dominated. He says things like “You should never be anyone’s ... slave, except mine,” and calls down from a window: “If you come up I’m going to tie you up and keep you here for three days. I’m just in that kind of mood.” She comes back from seeing him with bruises and sheepishly tells her gay college boyfriend at a bar, “I am seeing this guy and sometimes I let him hit me on the side of my body.”
Her close friend and roommate, meanwhile, has a sweet, sensitive, respectful boyfriend in the new mold who asks her what she wants in bed, and she is bored out of her mind and irritated by him; she fantasizes instead about an arrogant artist she meets at the gallery where she works, who tells her that he will scare her in bed. So nice postfeminist boys are not what these ambitious, liberal-arts-educated girls are looking for either: they are also, in their exquisitely ironic, confused way, in the market for a little creative submission.
Further signals of the current cultural interest in sexual domination include the recent movie A Dangerous Method, which safely embedded spanking in a period piece exploring the history of psychoanalysis. Keira Knightley told interviewers that she was so concerned about the spanking scene during which her character was tied to a bedpost that, in order to get through it, she drank shots of vodka beforehand.
Spanking, wrist cuffs, and dirty talk that’s fit for a porno (read: NSFW), the most shocking bits from E.L. James’s bestselling erotic novel.
Several weeks ago, I received a telling email from my 29-year-old sister-in-law: “Have you heard of the book 50 Shades of Grey? Get Involved.”
At this point, E.L. James’s erotica novel was a bestselling e-book, and my brother’s wife—a new mom who spends most days taking care of her 4-month-old son—had immersed herself in some pleasure reading in between changing diapers. Though paperback copies only hit U.S. bookstores yesterday, 50 Shades of Grey is the most buzzed-about series since The Hunger Games, if not a household name (my friend recently learned about it from her 60-year-old father).
There’s a reason the Grey series is being dubbed “mommy porn,” and it’s not just because of the rough sex and BDSM relationship that has its innocent, college student protagonist Anastasia Steele bending over backward (and forward and sideways) for the older, dashing Christian Grey.
Originally conceived as Twilight fan fiction, James’s 50 Shades of Grey “reimagined the Bella and Edward love affair set in contemporary Seattle, Washington with Bella as the young college graduate virgin and Edward as the masterful billionaire with secret sexual predilections.” So while the steamy scenes have no doubt sent many hands wandering beneath the sheets during bedtime reading, much of Grey’s appeal is its Cinderella story—the rich-man-sweeps-innocent-beauty-off-her-feet female fantasy. And as in so many romance novels, beneath the hero’s domineering veneer there’s a vulnerability that only the heroine can penetrate, though not without some emotional maneuvering. Jane Eyre has to confront the madwoman in Mr. Rochester’s attic; Bella has to come to terms with Edward’s immortality and bloodlust; Anastasia has to endure Christian Grey’s "Red Room of Pain."
But some ladies may think the romance in 50 Shades of Grey detracts from the sexual fantasy. While some parts are reminiscent of 9½ Weeks and Last Tango in Paris, others are straight out of Pretty Woman, and the image of Mickey Rourke blindfolding Kim Basinger just doesn’t evoke the same mood as Richard Gere seducing Julia Roberts at a piano. E.L. James knows her S&M so well that Grey could read like a less sinister Story of O, if it weren’t punctuated by the narrator’s dithering inner monologue (every time Anastasia gets aroused, it seems, she announces it with a “Holy Crap!” or “Holy Shit!” or “Holy Moses!”)
If you couldn’t tolerate Bella’s moralizing conscience in Twilight, chances are you’ll feel similarly about Anastasia’s. That said, where Stephanie Meyer’s prose is G-rated, James’s is unabashedly explicit. Here, the most racy and alternately corny scenes from the first installment of her softcore porn series.
Anastasia and Christian’s hot elevator makeout session
“Before I know it, he’s got both of my hands in his viselike grip above my head, and he’s pinning me to the wall using his lips … His other hand grabs my hair and yanks down, bringing my face up, and his lips are on mine … My tongue tentatively strokes his and joins his in a slow, erotic dance … His erection is against my belly.” (Page 78)
‘50 Shades of Grey’ may not revolutionize porn, romance, chick-lit, or literature. But this one-click wonder is the future of how we’ll read.
Just days ago, an agent, editor, book critic, and literary blogger sat around a table at a private downtown club, discussing the book no one had heard of. “And I told my cousin, there is no bestselling book I don’t know,” said the agent, laughing, who is celebrated for getting her stable of literary authors big advances with all the best imprints. “But I was wrong.”
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Every so often a manuscript, like an impudent toddler, rises on unsteady feet and toddles onto the bestseller list without so much as a by-your-leave to that ignorant publishing foursome. Such a work is E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey, which, out of a teeny e-publishing community in Australia, managed the neat trick of vaulting to the top of The New York Times e-book and print bestseller lists, garnering a seven-figure deal from Vintage, and leaving readers clamoring for the as-yet-unpublished rest of the trilogy, all without ever being in print in the United States at all.
From Twilight to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to The Lost Carolina Finger Club (I made that last one up), we’ve come to expect our bestsellers to rise from obscure circumstances. Only The New Yorker’s nonfiction scribes are allowed to churn out blockbusters from a known address. But readers who found the popularity of those Swedish sext-hack-repeat sagas somewhat mystifying may have an even harder time with Shades of Grey.
Spoiler alert. It’s roughly the story of a soon-to-be college graduate, Anastasia Steele, set upon by a BDSM-loving corporate magnate, Christian Gray. Beyond that, it does not trouble itself with novelty. Things happen in “nanoseconds,” eyes watch like “hawks,” people are “putty” in each other’s hands. Anastasia trips—not once, not twice, but thrice—literally into Christian’s arms. She narrates their chemistry in rafts of breathless interior monologue, while, at intervals, Christian stares at her with “obsidian” eyes and provides terse explanations for buying her lingerie: “Your jeans were spattered with vomit.”
The lover of the junkiest romance, the most hastily written porn, the most pieced-together chick-lit—even those free pamphlets at the gynecologist—might be allowed a touch of disappointment at the level of the proceedings. (If you forget that Anastasia is impervious to amour, remember, her name is “Steele.”)
Those nods to Tess of the D’Ubervilles, scattered like errant dandruff, will fool no one. That line about ordering everything on the menu for her at the hotel—that’s from Pretty Woman! And wait—this lady looks suspiciously like Twilight's Bella, but grown-up. Her memo-loving, last-minute-rescuing, nipple-clip-wielding lover is his own kind of cold-blooded vampire. Let’s not even get to the matter of the plot, for which the reader keeps poking around, like the elusive last hunk of white meat in a bowl of chicken soup. Popular trash isn’t new, but bad literature that’s all bad with no story to truck it along is.
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