The Innocence of Youth

Book
Fifty Shades of Grey
E. L. James
2012

You need a break from War and Peace. You’re stranded on your holiday with a bunch of over-attentive relatives. You’re stuck at the airport with nothing to read – you face the bleak prospect of the airport bookstore selling the vapid biographies of no one you care about. Fifty Shades of Grey is just waiting to jump out and grab you by the short and curlies, as it seems to have done with so many other women with a sense of curiosity and half a libido. You’ve read a little about it already – new wave female-friendly erotica; tick. A plotline; tick. You take the plunge.

Anastasia Steele is about to graduate from uni. She’s bookish, with a straight HD average, but luckily has been blessed with social skills. Unfortunately, she’s annoying – think Bella Swan annoying. Side note: Fifty Shades of Grey is based on hard-core Twilight fan-fiction. Her chosen way of speaking is “murmuring” and she has a propensity to fall over at awkward moments. Enter Christian Grey – a successful, attractive multi-gazillionaire owner of an economic empire. Add some taboo sexual fetishes (read: whips, cuffs – not the pink fluffy kind – and spreader bars) and you have Steele’s quirky choice of love interest.

The novel is an exploration of an extreme sexual fetish, with plenty of steamy intimate scenes for those wondering if the label “mum porn” really applies. It’s a fun read, but the popularity of the book is, in some respects, worrying. Christian’s taboo sexual fetish is centred around themes of Dominance and Submission, Christian being Dominant. Submissives essentially renounce their right to any form of willpower and completely give themselves up to whatever takes Christian’s fantasy. Submissives wear what he wants them to wear and behave as he orders them to behave; they call him “Sir”.

The book’s popularity is essentially exposing a broad target market to a situation where the man’s sexual pleasure is utterly based on a woman’s submission. Is this really ok? It’s encouraging that the market for more adult reads targeted at women is expanding, but for me, I found it abhorrent that Steele would even consider absolutely forfeiting her willpower to this man, all because she loved him. I would have liked to see a female character with more gumption and a little less easy acceptance of what her beau proposed. Steele falls too easily for Grey, making her question her limits all for the love of one man.

So why then, is the book so popular despite its weak writing style, taboo sexual fetishes and a female lead who remains in thrall to a clearly troubled man who admits he’d like to hurt her for sexual pleasure?

It’s the thrill of the ride. You’re reading something “naughty” and illicit and you know others are doing it too. It’s a secret club – someone might giggle on the plane in front of you and you discover later as you pass that they’re reading Fifty Shades on their Kindle. It’s also the primordial thrill and uncertainty of the unknown, of things unexplored and taboo. Christian Grey is the epitome of this idea – a tall, dark stranger, forbidden and potentially dangerous, beckoning you to leap off the edge into the unknown. Whether you jump is up to you.