Monday, May 21, 2012

Revival Book Review: Fifty Shades Series

It has been a while since I posted here, and I've missed my little sounding board.  Most who know me are aware that little intrigues me as much as literature, pop culture, and human sexuality, so the popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey series by E. L. James seems like the perfect opportunity for a blog revival.  Spoiler alert:  This post contains spoilers from Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed.

Back in January of February when I heard about how library patrons were clamoring to get this unavailable novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, I bought it for my Kobo reader without even reading reviews or a summary.  Needless to say, I was surprised that fanfiction erotica was what mainstream America was buzzing about.  I'll be honest--knowing that probably wouldn't have stopped me from buying the book, but I worked my way through my to be read pile before I finally read Fifty Shades.

Fifty Shades of Grey reads like fan fiction--simple, cliche, saturated with sweeping yet not engaging descriptive language, and predictable.  The sexy scenes are just that--sexy.  Not mindblowing and a little too full of spontaneous orgasms for my taste (seriously, I would like to meet a woman who orgasms that quickly that soon after losing her virginity.  If she exists she should submit to some sort of scientific study!), but just enough to pique one's interest.  Sure, this whole novel could have benefited from (a lot) more editing, but so would have its inspiration, the Twilight series.  What really bothered me was how the story line and characters were so exactly cast in the image of Twilight and its ilk.  I found Bella and Edward to be annoying at best and unhealthy role models at worst, and Ana Steele and Christian Grey aren't very different.  I would have thought that building upon Meyer's childish love story would have left James no where to go but up.  I was wrong.  Nevertheless, I slogged through the whole series.  It wasn't the writing, characters, or plot line that kept me going.  It was the sex.  I don't mean that in a salacious way.  As someone trying to promote a healthy sex-positive attitude in a culture that sometimes does exactly the opposite, I wanted to see what got so many normal American women reading a novel with more than a few elements of BDSM. 

After reading all three books, I realized that it was not the sex or  "forbidden" ideas of bondage and domination that kept these other women reading.  It was the fact that this innocent, "smart" girl manages to change a "damaged" man.  She takes him from only being capable of having relationships with women as his submissives to being a gentle, loving, vulnerable, albeit controlling boyfriend and eventually husband.  I have heard women who loved the Fifty Shades series say that it's about compromise, choosing your battles, and finding a middle ground.  This is partially true, but the changed habits and personalities in the book come about so quickly it's just not a healthy or realistic model.  Whether it was on the playground or just last week, every woman as at one point thought that she could change or heal a desirable yet flawed partner with her love.  In the vast majority, if not all cases, this simply does not happen, yet many delusional women continue to live the dream and end up hurt, under appreciated, and without her needs being met.  I have been one of those delusional women, so I'm not passing judgement, but I don't think we need any more sources of pop culture encouraging us to try and change our lovers.  It's not fair to either party.

Now onto the kink element of the series.  James presents male lead Christian Grey's propensities towards beating little brown-haired girls as a way to work out his anger over the neglect he suffered from his drug-addicted mother.  While I'm sure some people come into the BDSM lifestyle for reasons like those, that is just not a true or healthy representation of the BDSM or kink community.  I believe that any sexual act between two consenting adults not closely related by blood is good and healthy.  There are some (many) things I could never ever imagine myself doing, but that doesn't mean that it's wrong for others to have those experiences.  If you and your partner truly want to experience something, and you both feel better after that experience, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.  I am pretty sure that those are the philosophies held by those in the kink community.  Presenting a BDSM lifestyle as a symptom of or result of childhood abuse or trama is a gross and unfair misrepresentation.  Still, the love-everyone, sex-positive, education-promoting part of me wants to believe that any work that gets people reading and revitalizing their sex lives is a good thing.  Perhaps the kink lifestyle will never gain widestream acceptance or understanding, at least not in our culture.  And even if it did, it would be a pretty tall order to expect that kind of revelation from a fan fic inspired tome of weak erotica for the masses.