Everyone is talking about Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s the story of Anastasia Steele, a timid undergraduate, and her kinky relationship with Christian Grey, a millionaire with a penchant for BDSM. With speculation over casting for the proposed movie and a new wave of erotic literature appearing in the nation’s bookstores, women everywhere are choosing the trilogy over Booker Prize winning literature. Emily Shackleton and Sarah Vickerstaff present their different ideas on what the impressive sales figures say about the women who are responsible for the overnight success of James’ first novel.
Written as fan-fiction of Stephenie Meyer’s series, comparisons between Twilight and the most recent literary phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey are unavoidable. A handsome, charming man sweeps away an innocent woman. He is also dangerous, mysterious and irresistible. The first person narrative then follows the female protagonist’s internal battle of whether to stay or leave. Sound familiar?
Like Twilight, it also raises questions about women’s roles in relationships, albeit through hard-core BDSM, and has caused uproar amongst feminist thinking. William J Bennett argues that a narrative which portrays a woman beaten, whipped and stalked obsessively “flies in the face of women’s progress…If this is progress for women, what would regression look like?”
So why do millions of women find Christian Grey so attractive? Like every bad boy, Christian has the promise of a sensitive side that gradually develops over five hundred pages. Who doesn’t like a man who always wears condoms, prioritises your pleasure, is ‘bewitched’ by you and doesn’t so much as tap you until he has your permission?
The novel appeals to the common female fantasy of having so much power over a man that they can reform them, and if feminism is about empowering women then perhaps Fifty Shades of Grey is not so far from that. There is also the large emphasis on the element of choice and although Ana’s choice to be a BDSM submissive can be abhorred, the right that she has to choose is essentially a feminist one.
So, if readers want to indulge in this fantasy of having a suave, passionate, romantic man in their life – as long as they endure his mood swings, secrecy, intense jealousy and occasional hard spanking – then I suppose they have that choice too.
Fifty Shades of Grey is hitting headlines for its depictions of the kind of sex that excites Rihanna. Mr Grey has captured the hearts and hold-ups of female readers: sales of Ms Summers PVC wares are through the roof and women of all ages are devouring the trilogy like tubs of Ben & Jerry’s. “He will make you swoon” my best friend assures me. But I’m not swooning. He’s a creepy loner whose red leather, S&M ‘playroom’ would make Angela Carter’s eyes water. Plus he has seriously bad taste in interior design.
But what is his impact as a male lead? Inside and outside the bedroom, he controls Anastasia. Before their sexual relationship begins, he asks her to sign a contract: she can’t sleep with anyone else, she can’t drink, and she has to ‘shave/wax’. OK, she refuses to sign. Good. She then sleeps with the contract-wielding freak. Bad.
I am for sexual freedom: go forth with your handcuffs. I understand who you are in bed is not necessarily who you are in life. And yes, there’s an argument that Anastasia’s sexual exploration has feminist connotations. But are women really fantasising about a man who whips out a contract before you bump uglies? It’s worrying that my fellow young women, a generation who treat feminism like it is a dirty word, are swooning over a man who expects his sexual partner to relinquish all forms of control. Is this a relationship to aspire to? Is this not what we’ve been trying to escape since women wandered out of the cave?
Wake up, ladies. Let’s not undo the work of Emmeline Pankhurst, Germaine Greer and Caitlin Moran for a couple of chapters about a guy in a suit and a thrill in a harness.