I’m still pulling myself back together after a whirl-wind road trip out to Michigan and back for the Women’s Studies celebration and a visit with family and friends. I’d hoped to have a links list for y’all today, but I don’t. So instead, I’m going to plagiarize my own blog and share two pieces of commentary on the new erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James that really irked me last week.
So I haven’t read this novel. I didn’t realize it was a thing. I only know it’s a thing because Hanna Rosin, writing at Slate, informed me the book is a big hit on the book club circuit and then Ben Quinn, at the Guardian Online, wrote about how “mommies” are falling over themselves to read it. I don’t know whether these two pieces are representative of the buzz surrounding James’ novel, but I’m troubled by the framing of women’s reading of sexually-explicit materials that’s going on here in both of these fairly mainstream publications. This is going to be a “first impressions” post, but I thought perhaps y’all could help me figure out what’s going on here that’s sending up red flags.
First of all, the facts: Fifty Shades of Grey is a sexually-explicit novel that, according to Rosin and Quinn, began life as fan fiction for the Twilight franchise. It was revised by its author and published as a novel about two original characters. The story centers around a sexual relationship with an unequal power dynamic: the young female protagonist is the submissive in a sexual relationship with a male dominant.
Rosin, predictably if irritatingly, sets up the novel’s apparently consensual BDSM themes as anti-feminist, or at least something “feminists” are troubled by. James, she argues, is “writing a textbook female fantasy long recorded by sex researchers but embarrassing to feminists … the very taboo fantasy among women of being sexually overpowered.” As if men don’t also fantasize about being “overpowered,” and as if feminists are the Hive Mind all nodding along in agreement that BDSM in the bedroom is grounds for taking away one’s membership card. I know many self-identified feminists feel this way, but please Ms. Rosin — acknowledge that we’re not a monolithic movement and that many feminists do, in fact, acknowledge and enjoy our fantasies of letting go and being dominated under specific circumstances.
Which brings me to the fact that Rosin also hasn’t done her research on BDSM although she nods to its existence. This seems like journalistic irresponsiblity, given that she was asked (or volunteered) to review a book that deals with kinky themes. For example, she describes the novel as “erotic fiction mixed with Harlequin and just a hint of legal brief (apparently bondage drama requires the exchange of elaborate documents and disclaimers).” Well … yes, in fact. If you’re going to engage in a bondage scenario, it’s responsible practice to negotiate what’s going to happen, at times in writing. Maybe that’s not your cup of tea, but it’s what makes such activities “safe, sane, and consensual.”
Mostly, I’m ticked off by the aura of surprise that permeates both pieces. Both of these pieces present the fact of women reading erotica as transgressive, unusual, as well as slightly titillating and/or troubling. Rosin suggest that “One of James’ goals seems to be to make women the world over fear their own subconscious.” Quinn quotes an anonymous reader (who refused to give her name on the grounds that it would embarrass her employer) as saying that this was the first erotic novel she’d ever discussed openly with friends.
I’m sorry but … women reading erotica is … noteworthy? I mean, okay, document the popularity of a novel that got its start as fan fiction — that’s intriguing industry news in my opinion. But both Rosin and Quinn write about this novel as if it were some weird new trend: Women! Married women! Parents even! Reading porn!! Talking with each other about reading porn!!!
I worked as a bookseller for over ten years. Let me tell you how many women — many of whom were adults, and some of whom were married even!, read and enthusiastically recommended books by Laurell K. Hamilton and Diana Gabaldon (to name just two writers whose books contain lots of explicit and often kinky sex).
In short: lots.
This is just not a newsworthy phenomenon. Women read porn. Women recommend porn to each other. I suppose it’s possible that we’re now more vocal about the fact we read, write, share erotic materials than we used to be. But I’d be very skeptical if anyone tried to claim that this was the novel that was suddenly turning women en masse into consumers of erotic material.
What do you think, Harpies? Have you run across any discussion of this novel either on- or offline? Have any of you read it? What are your thoughts about the cultural discussion surrounding the act of women reading this book?