I fully intended to write up a whole rant about what prudes we are, regarding the release and subsequent popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey novels. I wandered into Barnes & Noble the other day to buy the first of the trilogy and an economics book, but ended up with 2 economics books, 3 Fifty Shades of Grey books, Bloom, and two romance novels. Embarrassing. But honestly, whatever. Books are good. You’d rather me spend money on that than on meth, right? (That’s a horrible explanation, but I’m still trying to internally rationalize buying so many books. First I was supporting books in print, then I was helping the economy. I’ve devolved to “at least it’s not meth” and I don’t see the argument gaining any traction any time soon.)
Here’s my synopsis in a few sentences: Yes, I love it, but only because I have a penchant for romance novels and BDSM, so the two together please me in the way only badly written books read in the bathtub can. Yes, it reminds me of Twilight. I think her choice to set it in the Pacific NW was a terrible one.
Hahaha, everyone talks about how revolutionary this book is, but honestly, it’s a book that relies on thin stereotypes. The protagonist is a strong-willed and intelligent woman who is determined to get her boyfriend to turn vanilla (which means to give up his BDSM lifestyle and embrace all things missionary). Did I mention that he’s a billionaire who plays the piano and speaks French and oh, by the way, was terribly abused as a child and so he’s broken and we should pity him even though he’s a titch over-protective to the point of obsession?
He loves her, and she loves him. Coincidentally, she’s a pure virgin and he’s the wounded sadist. She wants him to give up his perfectly consensual lifestyle (which she finds abhorrent) to love her, and he does. She wants him to learn how to trust, and love, and let people touch him finally so he can move past his abuse. And magically, she manages to break through his barriers. It’s like five weeks before they’re engaged.
And turn vanilla they do. I’m pretty sure they get married and have a baby at the end of the trilogy. (And by pretty sure, I mean I know exactly what happens, because I read the last page of the last book.) Not that marriage and babies is “vanilla”, but the plot line follows a pretty standard hegemonic trajectory that I see in 99.999% of romance novels, so we’re back on a well-trod track. (Not a bad one. Before I die, I’d love to write a romance novel. I tried in early 2010 and it was poorly cobbled together and weak. Ugh, I shudder to think about it.)
Katie reminded me that I’m being hyper-critical and that so many of the people reading these books have no idea what BDSM entails. And since the characters are so quick to embrace a vanilla-BDSM blend, I guess she’s right. This is a good start for people to start understanding what goes on in your neighbors’ bedrooms at night. I also think that since it’s consensual, and contractual, it’s a good representation of the power dynamics that are involved. And the author throws out words like “flogger” and “caning” to add to the perceived authenticity. I can respect a gentle introduction to the terminology and the concepts wrapped in a fictional piece.
However, it was Dan Savage, my favorite sex columnist who put it best, so I’ve copied a portion of his column today and also a smaller portion of another answer in the same column. And I’m actually laughing out loud about the top bit:
I’m stumped, Dan. In the novel Fifty Shades of Grey, which has been the subject of much discussion due to its controversial subject matter (a young woman gets involved in a BDSM relationship), the term “canning” is used numerous times. Despite my best efforts, I cannot find a definition for this practice. Who else can I turn to but you?
-Confused And Naive, New Era Definition
It’s not canning (“a method of preserving food in which the food contents are processed and sealed in an airtight container”), it’s caning (“a form of corporal punishment consisting of a number of hits with a single cane usually made of rattan”).
I don’t know if the author of Fifty Shades of Grey dropped that extra “n” in there, CANNED, or if you did. But here’s hoping that millions of women all over the world aren’t fantasizing about having themselves canned by kinky billionaires. A person can survive—a person can even enjoy—a good thrashing. But being sealed in an airtight container? Not so much.
Full disclosure: I may be the only sex writer on earth who has yet to read Fifty Shades of Grey. While I plan to avoid readingGrey, just as I’ve avoided watching “2 Girls, 1 Cup” (and for similar reasons, i.e., I’m easily nauseated), I think it’s wonderful that this book is inspiring a whole new generation of American women to get their kink on.
Here’s the second bit, and I think it’s worth paying attention to, for a number of social reasons:
Backing way the hell up for a moment: I’ve been writing about sex and relationships, men and women, kinky sex and vanilla sex for 20 years. It is my informed opinion that men typically become aware of their kinks—they typically become hyperaware of them—when they’re teenagers. Many women, on the other hand, don’t seem to become aware of their kinks until they’re in their 30s or 40s. Maybe it has something to do with the sexual peak, which men are believed to hit in their teens and women in their 30s (and which many people believe to be bullshit), or maybe it simply takes women longer to overcome the misogynist slut-shaming that they’re subjected to as girls and to openly embrace their sexualities and sexual interests.