I am getting in early before the tsunami of criticism that will undoubtedly be unleashed by the upcoming release of the movie adaptation of Fifty Shades Of Grey. Because it’s not deserved.
The release of the trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey triggered many sneering comments on social media; a good proportion of them from people who had not read the book ( that highest form of literary criticism).
Yet the book and its sequels are popular. In fact they have sold over 100 million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 50 languages.
Does this mean that the purchasers of those 100 million copies – mainly women – are apparently idiots?
Or: is the standard applied to wish-fulfilling entertainment for women different from the standard applied to entertainment for men?
My question is a serious one.
On a per-screen basis, most of the cinema in the western world is now occupied by superhero and action franchises that deliver to young men the wish fulfilling fantasy of physical and moral omnipotence (with the stress on the potent).
These films for men (and the comics and graphic novels on which they are based) do not seem to trigger the derision and ire that a wish fulfilling fantasy for women such as Fifty Shades Of Grey and, before it, Twilight, have unleashed.
What is it about E.L. James’ slap-and-tickle series that is making everyone so touchy?
The books tell the story of ingénue and virgin, Ana, who inspires the lust, and eventually the love, of handsome sex-god billionaire Christian Grey. He teaches her about sexual passion, she opens up for him the lasting delight of connection and intimacy, and [spoiler alert!] they live happily ever after in their two dream houses and two dream apartments.
It’s a familiarly enjoyable story, and Ana as protagonist has the militant sparkle and sass of the female heroines beloved in the works of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. E.L. James’ books do not aspire to literary greatness, but, like Twilight before them, are extremely effective in evoking the visceral sensations of a crush.
What sets James’ books apart is that instead of merely bruising Ana’s lips in a violent embrace, Christian spanks, whips, licks, and teases her to a series of multiple orgasms, described in vivid detail on about every fifth page. (And if you don’t know what a flogger and a butt plug are before you open the first chapter, you soon will).
Is it this focus on sexuality, in particular enjoyable female sexuality (Christian is the perfect gentleman, nearly always insisting that Ana come first, and she, once she gets the hang of it, is an enthusiastic participant, giving as good as she gets) that has irritated the Twitterati? The heat of the contempt in the comments suggests a greater irritant than mere literary style. Deep down, are we really still uncomfortable with the idea of women deriving lusty pleasure from sex?