A Brief Word on BDSM and the “Fifty Shades” Hullabaloo

May 2012

This was not intended as a blog site.  However, after being asked a few times to comment on this trilogy, I’ve decided to post some thoughts here.

I have read only the first book, after a reporter contacted me to talk about it.  Once the book was on my radar, it suddenly seemed that everyone was talking about it – or at least talking about why everyone is talking about it.

I am not particularly surprised by the success of the books.  I am, however, absolutely astounded by the media flurry surrounding the success. The fact that in American consciousness, the kink (which is really very minor) has upstaged the blatant, trite, oppressive heteronormativity of the narrative is deeply disheartening. 

I understand that not everyone spends their days and nights thinking about the gender implications of everything.  But come on.  He’s an emotionally reserved, controlled successful man used to getting what he wants, when he wants it.  She’s an insecure, naïve virgin who finds herself uncomfortably titillated by his competence, his self-assuredness and his take-charge style.

And we’re surprised by the success of this book? Really?

Two different media reps have asked me why I think this ostensibly transgressive trilogy has been flying off the shelves.  It seems that everyone everywhere has been asking this question.  Obviously, my point of reference is a bit different, but I cannot for the life of me understand why this is not as clear as the sun in the sky.  It’s flying off the shelves for the same reason that The Titanic grossed as much as it did, the same reason we always love Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock and the same reason that the wedding industry continues to bring in billions of dollars a year.  It embodies all that we hold sacred about the narrative of romantic love – its heterosexuality, its relationship to sexual passion, its power to heal – and its manifestation in a male-dominant/female-submissive dynamic.

Yes, Christian Grey is kinky.  He is also an abuse survivor who pays meticulous attention to consent and safety.  Pathological but fundamentally noble, we forgive him.  End of story.  (In fact, though I’ve not read the last two books in the trilogy, I hear tell –spoiler alert? – that he is, of course, nearly cleansed of his dark predilections by the Magic of Love; the goodness of the virtuous virgin casts away his sin.) 

It is precisely this mainstream morality that allows women to buy the book, and to admit to liking it.  The trilogy (at least book one) highlights hegemonic sexual values, dressed up as kinky sexual liberation for Halloween.  When the holiday is over, the costume comes off and we see that Christian and Anastasia are exactly what they’re supposed to be.  Thus they live happily ever after.   

I wonder whether its success would have been quite so startling for us in another political climate.  Over the past few years, we have been engaging in a particularly fierce tug-of-war on the dual threads of sex and morality – the one side yanking on these threads in order to weave them together, the other trying just as desperately to pull them apart and keep them apart.  Perhaps this battle has left us unable to see this book as anything other than a victory for one side or the other, wanting to talk about the “implications” and “consequences” of its popularity.  If we were not, at the moment, embroiled in significant wars over same-sex marriage and reproductive rights for women, perhaps we would see this phenomenon as it is: the resounding success of very same hegemonic narrative that has underscored nearly all of our classic love stories for decades…writ slightly, justifiably, patriarchically kinky.  In this climate, it’s merely the kinky part that has everyone abuzz.  The presence of some rope and a riding crop is apparently enough to completely obscure the fact that, ideologically and politically, there is nothing new here.  This logical extension of het-norm eroticism is practically textbook.

I have not been following the plans for the film. (Films?)  Perhaps Hollywood will approach it a wee bit more radically than E.L. James did: maybe Ana will discover the depths of her own sadism…or maybe Christian will deliver an inspired soliloquy on “love” as simply what we feel when we find someone we can treat the way we like to treat people.  Or perhaps the film will go all “Dragon Tattoo” (the Swedish version) on us, with Ana, having decided that Christian’s kink is abusive and misogynistic, subjecting him to an excruciatingly painful death, leaving us all wondering where our sympathies should lie and debating whether violence can ever be righteous.

Any one of these (or a hundred other) outcomes would have left me thinking there was something remarkable about the book’s success among American women.  As is, though, there is nothing more surprising here than the heat of Petruchio’s taming of Katharina, or Ray Romano’s reference to spanking a supermodel because “sometimes they’re naughty” on Everybody Loves Raymond.  Less subversive than even Pauline Réages’ Story of O, Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead rape scene, and A.N. Roquelaure ’s Beauty trilogy by far, the Fifty Shades trilogy assures us that we can (and should) be titillated when men dominate women… but with a little true love, we can all get over that, and live happily ever after. 

That sounds pretty squarely aligned with sex and gender in contemporary America to me.