BY MIA FREEDMAN
It’s a modern story.
Boy meets girl. Boy asks girl to enter into kinky sexual arrangement bound by written contract and occasionally handcuffs. Girl agrees willingly but wants emotional connection too. Boy falls unexpectedly in love with girl. Girl thrilled. Boy and girl have endless conversations about their relationship while going at it like rabbits at every given opportunity. More rabbits etc.
That pretty much sums up Fifty Shades of Grey, the fiction phenomenon that’s infiltrating suburban bedrooms across the western world. This book has millions of female knickers in a happy twist and if you haven’t yet heard about it, it could explain why the women in your life have been peering so intently at their Ereaders.
Fifty Shades is the first book in a trilogy that’s currently only available in Australia as an ebook. The print version is coming as publishers everywhere scramble to catch up with this underground explosion of…..raunch reading. Not since Eat Pray Love have women gone so nuts for a book and it’s particularly resonating with married women in their 30s and 40s, prompting some to call it ‘Mummy Porn’.
I began reading Fifty Shades this week purely so I could tell you what the fuss was about. Yes, I took one for the team. And no, it’s not well written. Still, like most women, I inhaled all three books in 48hrs.
So why should you care? Because if you’re a guy whose partner is reading this book, you’ll notice some delightful knock-on effects. Also because pop culture phenomenons always shine a collective light onto bigger issues and this book has illuminated a couple of doozies.
Firstly, women are reading about sex! All sorts of women! Married, single, divorced, partnered, mothers, caregivers! And it’s making them want to have it! Even though they’re not 20! Who knew!
The idea that women in relationships might want and enjoy sex has been unexpectedly shocking in a culture that has a pretty polarised view of female sexuality. As journalist Erika Christakis writes on Time.com: “Young women are being portrayed [in the media] as louche sluts who need government interventions to control their badly behaving bodies yet, by age 40, turn into spayed harpies with libidos in the dumpster who would happily sacrifice their sex drives for a man who does laundry.”
Unlike porn, erotic fiction (which is usually written by women) is very much a female view of sex, characterised by the relationships and details underpinning it. For example, there are regular discussions between the main characters -Anastasia and Christian – about contraception. Anastasia sees a doctor to choose the best method and has a full gynecological check up. And no, nothing happens with the doctor. It’s just….a doctor’s appointment. Like in real life. At one point, Anastasia panics that she’s pregnant. At another point, she has her period. Can you imagine any of these scenes in a porn flick?
There’s also a condom woven naturally into the action every time they have sex. Women like these details. As one reviewer noted: “You know you’re in Girl Land when the sex scenes are interspersed with pages of angsty email exchanges about where the relationship is headed (oh, and the guy is turned on by watching her eat).” The characters do talk about their feelings a lot. I may even have found myself muttering “oh shut up and get on with it” once or possibly ten times.
The second interesting issue thrown up by this book are its themes of (consensual) submission and dominance. Do women secretly want a bloke who takes control in the bedroom? And out of it? Is this the start of a backlash against feminism and SNAGs? Not so fast. “In our culture, it’s politically incorrect for women to become aroused by something that makes us appear or act submissive” says sexologist Dr Logan Levkoff. “However, we don’t control how and if we’re turned on by something. If [this book] got you hot and bothered, it got you hot and bothered. There’s no underlying psychological issue here. This is not about feminism or the demise of the women’s movement.”
I see it in equally simple terms. Fifty Shades is simply an adults (only) version of all the Disney stories we grew up on – Cinderella and Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and handsome princes sweeping beautiful damsels off their feet. Christian Grey has a helicopter instead of a white stallion but it’s the same; rich, powerful guy plucks sweet innocent girl out of obscurity and they fall madly in love. That’s why it feels so familiar. Most of us have this narrative programmed into our DNA, for better or worse.
Ultimately though, the Fifty Shades phenomenon is about more than sex and ebooks. At its heart it’s about storytelling and friendships. There was no marketing push behind it, no focus-groups or branded sex toys, no seeding in blogs or social media campaigns. It was word-of-mouth in its purest form. Women discovered something they liked and told their friends.
As Dr Levkoff writes at the Huffington Post: “Women have found something that enhances their emotional and sexual lives and want to pass that knowledge onto their friends, family members, and even the world at large.” They’ve found something fulfilling and want others in their lives to find it too. I’m thinking Mothers Day gift. You?
You can get the book here.
Have you read 50 Shades? If so, who do you think should play Anastasia and Christian in the movie?
Mia chats about the book on the Today Show here: