Fifty Shades of Grey, the novel many have derided as “porn for mommies,” is not what you call a world-class literary find in which the author’s words deeply resonate with one’s soul. Yet the author, E.L. James has successfully captured the attention of 10-plus-million people (including my own).
When I first heard about the book, I was curious as to whether or not E.L James was a man. To my surprise, the author is a woman living in London with her husband and two children. Wow. Who knew a normal-looking “mum” like E.L. James could write such a progressive, erotic and provocative novel that has riveted millions around the world.
Many would argue Fifty Shades of Grey has done nothing but reinforce the oppression of women’s rights. And I wouldn’t disagree with that argument. For example, there are many scenes in the book that include acts of BDSM, something I personally believe is a degrading manifestation of an individual’s desperate need for help, love and nurturance. In fact, reading scenes in which Anastasia (the female protagonist) gets placed in humiliating positions upset me greatly.
But here is a look at the flip side of the argument. When I read the following statement in Wikipedia’s summary about E.L. James, I understood how and why so many women could be drawn to the latest trendy read: “Even if the book’s popularity was a result of women’s “current anxieties about equality,” it “doesn’t mean it’s “evidence of unhappiness, or an invalidation of feminism…it might actually be a sign of progress that millions of women are so hungrily pursuing sexual fantasies independent of men.”
Yes, a former dominatrix named Melissa Febos made this statement and she may have a slightly different view than the average woman. But I’d have to agree with her. From what I’ve observed in my engagements with others, whether at dinner parties, in line at Starbuck’s or at the dog park, Fifty Shades of Grey has been the topic of many conversations—especially amongst women who admired E.L. James for unveiling several modern-day women’s fantasies which have been secretively and shamefully hidden within their inner psyches.
But how was she able to do it? My first thought would be, perhaps E.L. James thoughtfully created Anastasia to be someone with whom any woman could identify. Had Anastasia been portrayed as a dysfunctional, psychologically imbalanced human being, then maybe Fifty Shades of Grey would not have been such a cultural phenomenon. Who knows?
Most recently, a friend of mine and fellow Grey reader relayed a story that illustrates the cultural phenomenon that has been created from this one book: A 28-year-old woman who’d just finished reading visited a local sex shop to purchase a sexual device that appeared in many of the book’s scenes. She walked up to the counter and before she could utter a word, the salesman said, “Let me guess, you read the book.” Dumbfounded, she nodded ‘yes,’ and the man continued, “Everything is on backorder for six weeks. Sorry. Come back then.”
He gave her a quick smirk and shrugged his shoulders.
Frustrated but not deterred, the woman returned exactly six weeks later and bought her toys. I am curious to know if her experience with them compared to those of Anastasia’s. If yes, well then, maybe that’s why the sex toys have been selling out!
Here is my question, though: How do we women (and men) take this type of stir-inducing book and use it for the very purpose of educating, enlightening and perhaps even normalizing the typically taboo elements of human sexuality? And what of human sexuality, in general?
Is it possible?