50 shades of Grey – A review and a few considerations

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Tomorrow Italian bookstores will begin stocking 50 shades of Grey, the first BDSM-tinted volume of a trilogy currently holding the top positions of most bestsellers list in the English-speaking countries, which also seems destined to become the next transmedia darling after the Harry Potter, Twilight and Millenniumsagas. Universal is already at work on the first movie in a series, Newsweek started a fierce intellectual debate by publishing a “shocking” cover story, and television is getting ready to ride the kinky wave with a couple of series inspired by other books addressing similar themes. So much excitement forced me to look into this phenomenon, so I set out to discover the reasons for this success by obtaining an English edition of the novel… although many negative reviews I had read and the frequent label of “mommy porn” didn’t really encourage me. Let me state right now that the reading proved more interesting than I thought – even if for unforeseen reasons. However, before going into details it is probably better to summarize the plot.

The story is quickly told. She is a maladroit virgin on the eve of her graduation and immediate entry into working life (well, this is fiction after all), unexpectedly sent to interview Him, the icy and handsome CEO of a corporation which among other things is financing her university. They are lovestruck, but the man tries to keep a distance because he is afraid to corrupt her innocence with his mysterious perversions. Yet their passion is uncontrollable, so he reveals his sadistic dominant nature and offers her to sign a contract by which she’ll agree to become his slave. While she ponders this, the girl learns that the quirky billionaire is a victim of a traumatic childhood – and decides to cure him of his deviant ways by giving him the true love nobody ever gave him. Everything seems to go for the best, but all of a sudden he has to tackle a business crisis, and she discovers she can’t really handle his harsher punishments, so she dumps him. Until the next book.

To help you better envision the scene, please imagine the two with the faces of the stars of Twilight. Not as a whim, but because the novel was actually written originally as a fanfiction about Edward and Bella. Like those you can find on the Web, in which Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter are happily engaged, or Sailor Moon and Captain Kirk have a daughter who just happens to be stupendously magic and looks exceedingly like the writer herself – and don’t pretend not to know what I’m talking about. Of course plagiarizing those characters would have been unthinkable, so a few changes were made. The names, just for starters. Or the fact that here there are no vampires… even though the setting is still of the wildest fantasy kind. Want some examples?

You need only to look at the protagonist, who despite being twenty-one already apparently never kissed a boy, and only ever fell in love with the stuffy heroes of the nineteenth-century novels she is so fond of. And it gets even better with the titular Mr. Grey, for this is what the first part of the trilogy says about him:

– He is a frighteningly rich tycoon
– He has literally jaw-dropping looks, and he is always perfectly dressed
– He plays the piano with the skill of a professional performer
– He is a big expert on food and wine, and a pretty good cook
– He can pilot helicopters, gliders and sport cars like a pro
– He can appear out of thin air whenever the girl (she’s called Anastasia, by the way) is in danger
– He is an excellent public speaker
– He is bilingual with French
– He has perfect memory for the minutest details
– He commands surveillance technologies like a secret agent
– He knows everything about classical music, opera and literature
– He is a major art collector
– He has free access to Apple products before they are officially launched
– Obviously, he is a sex god
– He is a rowing champion
– He can dance wonderfully
– He has a great taste for architecture and decor, especially of his scenic penthouse
– He is solving the problem of world hunger

…and he is just 27 years old.
When you’re finished with rolling around with laughter, however, please consider that he also hides a horrifying dark side. Unfortunately, his sadism leads him to abuse the poor protagonist in the most cruel ways. According to his diabolical contract, she will have to submit to such degrading acts as being cared for during the week by a personal trainer and a chef looking after her fitness, while in the weekends she is to take residence in a luxurious private apartment in Mr. Grey’s tower; to wear high fashion dresses when accompanying him to elite parties and vacations around the world; to blindly accept his every present (which in the first three weeks only amount to: a priceless set of books, a sports car, a laptop computer, a Blackberry, two first-class flight ticket upgrade, a roomful of clothing and several gourmet dinners), and – gasp! – to have sex with him “but clearly only the acts she likes”. Also, in this maelstrom of ruthlessness punishments are lurking. If she won’t behave according to his wishes, there is even the possibility that she might get spanked. Terrible stuff indeed, and in fact the very first time it happens Master Grey is so disturbed by his own severity that he runs off seeking for a booboo cream for her poor baby bottom, scared of having possibly traumatized her. This sort of granitic self-confidence will come up again and again in their relationship. Let me give you a couple of examples:

– (Him) I never sleep with my women
– (Her) Oh … too bad, because I feel sort of a bit alone
– Here I am! Let me spend the night clinging to you like a koala bear!

Or:

– (Him) These are my terms, take it or leave it
– (Her) You know… I really don’t quite fancy this stuff
– Ok, so let’s amend the contract as much as you want!

One could suspect Christian’s idea of domination to be somewhat peculiar. In fact, more doubts arise as the couple eventually try out their future roles, and his first order is… “Do with me as you please, baby!”. Uhm.

Excluding these quirks that have unleashed the wrath of both literary critics and BDSM enthusiasts alike, 50 shades of Grey is quite readable. As most Harlequin romance novels are, I suppose – but that’s not really the point. My impression is that there must be other reasons for the extraordinary success of this book, and I found three.

A recession-style Prince Charming – Every decade has the romantic heroes it deserves. Starting with the abstract Prince Charming from a mythical past, the Twenties had Valentino’s Mysterious Sheik, the Fifties were all about the Rebel and so on, yet all of them embodied the same female audiences’ ideal of a slightly dangerous man sent to free the heroine from her daily miseries and lead her to a new life and sexuality. In our era of recession and uncertainty, who could fit this role better than a perverse billionaire from that 1% that so haunts we, the people?

Risk-free extreme eroticism – Twilight had just proved that even the strongest archetype can be made more marketable if you round off its edges. In that series vampires didn’t burn in the sunlight but glittered in a cute and trendy way, and they only drank animal blood instead of devouring people; Here BDSM has been softened to such extents of blandness that it has lost any sense of threat, becoming acceptable even to the most candid soul.

The ideal ebook – 50 shades of Grey, which in fact had its early success in digital format, was released right in the moment in which books are shifting from paper to electronic editions. Many people who would have felt embarrassed by buying such a novel and keeping it in view on their bookshelves allowed themselves the transgression of owning it “invisibly” on their new ebook readers – and given the lack of many competing titles their choice was easy. After the saga became an underground hit, emerging in printed format became a natural development.

Whether my analysis is right or wrong, however, it doesn’t really matter. Reality is defined by numbers, and if the astounding amount of copies sold in the rest of the world means anything, you can bet that this trilogy will become a success in smaller markets like Italy too. Which brings us to another key consideration: what is the “mommy porn” aftermath going to be for the world of extreme eroticism?

Judging by what happened with other recent bestsellers, the first fallout should be found in the media. Bookstores, cinemas and television stations worldwide have seen plenty of conspiracy thrillers after the Da Vinci code, Harry Potter was followed by whole armies of adolescent wizards and witches, and post-Twilight vampire stories are uncountable. This time not having a teenage audience will probably slow down the phenomenon a bit, but in the coming months we will be reached by the invasion of kinky romances that has been going on abroad for some time already. At that point, it is not too far-fetched to think that the cumulative cultural impact of all this fiction will have an effect similar to what The story of O had on the society of the Sixties. In that case a large part of the collective erotic imagination just conformed to the descriptions found in the novel, with many people attempting to recreate in the real world the improbable institutions invented by Réage. Of course none of them succeeded (just think of the time, cost and management complexity that a real “slavegirls academy” would require), yet those attempts have been going on for sixty years now to the disappointment of those who, clouded by their arousal, are still failing to grasp the difference between fantasy and reality.

Excluding its delusions of outrageous wealth, most scenes in 50 shades of Grey are much more plausible than that. When Christian Grey stops babbling nonsense and takes action, the protagonists’ games look a lot like those experienced by many real BDSM couples, both in their good and their bad aspects. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that people modeling their approach to kink on E.L. James’ pages are going to have an easier time.

The defining trait of Mr. Grey is probably his supernatural ability to always say and do the right thing for his Anastasia, even when he seems to be making a mistake. His every action perfectly services the practical, emotional and sexual needs of the girl, who is enjoying the ride without making one single decision for about 500 pages. Real people, as you know, aren’t like that at all. Domination relationships tend to trigger stronger-than-normal emotions and feelings that if unsupported by deep communication skills can easily bring out the worst of both partners. Also, real BDSM games – especially if improvised – can be quite more challenging and painful than they appear in the book, and not everyone actually behaves as ethically as our literary heroes. In other words, I would not be surprised if some slightly naïve readers were going to experience unpleasant surprises when trusting this novel too much.

The gap between fantasy and reality is already very obvious to anyone frequenting the many online BDSM communities, or at least the Italian ones. Most of their users carefully avoid to try to achieve their cyber fantasies in the real world, usually out of fear of having to actually put themselves on the line in a field which, like all extreme sports, is inherently unforgiving with those who don’t take it seriously. My fear is that 50 shades of Grey will end up legitimating the aspirations for that casual, inconsequential Mc-eroticism dreamt of by many frustrated persons who are already threatening to destroy one of the few grand emotions left for us to experience.

Another downside is how the Fifty shades trilogy will surely contribute to spread two concepts which had been almost erased by two decades of activism and divulgation. Right as the DSM (the diagnostic manual used by psychologists and psychiatrists worldwide) stops considering egosyntonic paraphilias as pathological and people like me are holding lectures informing professionals about the reality of extreme eroticism… a simple romance novel raises again the completely wrong equivalence between BDSM and mental illness. Obviously this was just a harmless literary device to drive Anastasia to “cure” her beloved, yet when it gets repeated by millions of copies it becomes a horrific adversary for all those persons who’ll go back to feel embarrassed about declaring their preferences to their partners, fearing to be judged as psychopaths.

Finally, I found somewhat sad that, according to Mrs. James, the sole expression of erotic power is one’s bank balance. Not his relationship skills, nor self-knowledge, experience or anything else. As Mr. Grey often repeats, he is a dominant because he can afford it – commoners be damned. If you are familiar with Italy’s recent political events and its icky cadre of decrepit characters surrounded by whole harems of young “adoring” girls, you will understand how to me this really sounds like the final tombstone on the grave of decency.

Every coin has two sides, however, and thankfully the Fifty shades phenomenon can boast a very brilliant one. All musings aside, the attention excited by these three books will surely urge many people to learn about the world of alternative sexualities. Some of them will simply find nothing to it, but others will be patient enough to discover the many facets of a whole culture founded on a genuinely noble tenet (the famous ‘SSC’: safe, sane and consensual) and a truly life-changing philosophy.

No, I’m not talking about playing around with whips and chains, or dressing weirdly. I mean the simple principle of not taking anything for granted but analyze it without prejudices, valuing direct experience and taking away with you those aspects you’ll find yourself more in tune with. If he will manage to teach this, Christian Grey and I will become very good friends indeed.

Note: if you are wondering about how the story ends, you can also read my review of 50 shades darker and 50 shades freed.

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