Fifty Shades: A Grey Area

It is the story that began life as a Twilight fan fiction.  Now it finds itself as the best-selling book in Great Britain since records began.  And the question on everyone’s lips is: how?

E L James’ novels centre around a man and woman who meet and fall in love.  Sound like any other romance novel?  Well, Fifty Shades has a twist.  There’s sex.  A lot of sex.  First to the theme of BDSM, and then just plain ol’ ‘vanilla’, with some whips and questionable toys thrown in.

It has been nicknamed ‘mummy porn.’  Unlike smutty magazines teenage boys stereotypically disguise between the pages of their textbooks, people whip out their copies of Fifty Shades in cafés and on public transport.  I say ‘people’ because it is not only women who own already dog-eared copies tucked under their arms.  A well designed cover which looks like it belongs to a crime fiction novel, means Fifty Shades has become the naughty little secret you can hide in plain sight.

That would have worked, if it had not managed to sell over 40 million copies worldwide.

So what is it about this series?  What makes readers ignore the terrible dialogue, the irritating way they constantly refer to one another as ‘Miss Steele’ and ‘Mister Grey’, the references to something Ana calls her ‘inner goddess’, who regularly pouts and stamps her fee, or the endless sex scenes with what feels like a half-hearted attempt at plot popping up every so often?

I can’t even answer this question for myself.  I read all three, and, as with Twilight, seriously wondered if there was some addictive drug infused in the paper that makes it impossible to put down.

It was not all terrible, of course.  Sure, as a person, Christian is a frightening stalker, and Ana needs to grow a pair, but E L James is able to capture some emotion, besides the many sexual encounters between the main characters.  Christian, it turns out, had a troubled childhood, and, while all research claims otherwise, it is hinted that this is potentially the source of his kinky bedroom antics.

Should we be worried that people all over the world are lusting over a controlling, emotionally damaged man?  Or is it merely escapism from day-to-day reality?  It seems fair to say that Christian’s appeal is in the overall package: he’s rich, gorgeous, mysterious and willing to change for someone he loves.  Deduct any of these points and he would not be nearly as attractive.  Ana is attractive for an entirely different reason.  She is a beautiful, 21-year-old virgin with no gag reflex, who doesn’t seem anything more than a little perturbed by Christian’s idea of fun in the bedroom.

It is frightening that this is what our society deems attractive.  Yet just because readers drool over these stories does not necessarily mean women will begin targeting controlling men with a penchant for tying them up.  E L James admits that these books are her own sexual fantasy, and that’s exactly what they are.  Fantasy.

While I was mildly devastated about not receiving my Hogwarts letter at eleven years old, I knew, even as a child, that there is a difference between reality and fantasy.  Fifty Shades is, while much less innocent, fantasy nonetheless.

So perhaps we are trying to analyse something that does not require analysis.  Vampire and werewolf themed novels have been offering what Fifty Shades does for a lot longer.  Anyone who has read books by Charlaine Harris or Laurell K. Hamilton will have found even kinkier sex scenes and relationships bordering on frighteningly abusive, which make you question the sanity of the characters involved.

As with Twilight, other authors have jumped on the Fifty Shades bandwagon.  However, these books are forgettable, and likely to fade away quickly.  One of these books is Bared to You by Sylvia Day, which tells the story of Eva and Gideon and their intense, sexually charged relationship.  Every recommendation on the back cover links the novel to Fifty Shades, making it difficult to think of it as a separate entity or as anything other than derivative.

Fifty Shades promises what it delivers: a bit of a cheeky read, but not something to be taken seriously.  Oh, but if your boyfriend – or girlfriend, there’s no judgement here – is a little insecure, I’d keep it the naughty little secret it was meant to be.

By Kerry-Ann Kerr

(Originally published in Freshers’ Edition, September 2012)} else {