Thursday, June 07, 2012

Fifty Shades of Why?

"Have you read it?"

I've been asked that a number of times recently, and no one has to say what "it" is.  The number one bestseller on both Amazon and The New York Times bestseller list, amazingly enough, is not Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work.  The number 1-4 bestsellers are the trilogy starting with the novel Fifty Shades of Gray, by E.L. James.   #1 Fifty Shades of Gray, #2 Fifty Shades of Darker, #3 Fifty Shades Freed, #4 the set of all three as a trilogy.

So I'm sitting at the pool, without sunscreen and my neighbor tells me that she just finished "this awful trilogy."  Why did she read an entire trilogy if she didn't like it?  Her friend, she says, read all three Fifty Shades books 3 times each--- she knows this because her friend's husband announced that fact on her Facebook page.

So I read the first book, Fifty Shades of Grey, when it first starting getting press in the New York Times as the erotic novel that it was okay to read, one people were discussing with their book clubs.  I expected the novel to be something resembling literature with erotica thrown in.  Oh my, I was wrong.  The writing was awful and stilted with dialogue that didn't flow, and...well, just not "literature."  The erotica was graphic sadomasochism.  There was a little 'vanilla sex' and our fifty shades of F*'d up character, Christian Grey, was kind enough to define "vanilla" as meaning there are no props involved.  

I spent over a decade consulting to a sexual behaviors unit.  Nothing shocks me anymore.  Is that true? Oh maybe, but nothing in this book was terribly shocking, except that it's the number one best seller.  It seemed similar to 9 1/2 Weeks, which also had the plot of a woman who was attracted to a man who enjoyed sadistic sex, bondage, and humiliation.   Interesting that the man in that novel was named John Gray (thank you wikipedia).  But 9 1/2 Weeks did not get the hype or best-selling status that Fifty Shades of Grey is getting. The movie did not do terribly well, even with Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, though apparently it's done better as a home video.

I'm left with the question of Why?  It's not the writing.  It's not the plot-- there is some pull to know what happened to Christian that he's developed this fetish-- it's not just simple S&M, he has a special secret room called The Red Room of Pain with every form of implement and he makes a big deal of having his women sign a legal contract.  And he won't be touched.  He's fabulously wealthy in a way that pulls on everyone's fantasies--who doesn't want to be helicoptered and chauffeured on their first date?-- young, sexy, charismatic, intriguing, mysterious, brilliant, disturbed, and impenetrable.  Still, not enough for the #1 bestseller along with 2 sequels and so much hype.  

The novel is pulled along by the sex, the build up to the sex, and the vivid descriptions of the sex.  James focuses on the kinky--the bondage, the humiliation, the actual infliction of pain, but she includes all flavors here, including some vanilla, it's not all fetishistic.  I think she covers most tastes, and she does it with a perplexing protagonist-- a freshly minted college grad who happens to be a down-to-earth virgin who is conflicted about accepting her billionaire boyfriend's many (and often intimate) gifts-- it feels like prostitution to her.  It's easy to understand young Anastasia's attraction to Christian, but for someone who's never been interested in sex before, she's an awfully ready, willing, and libidinally-driven character who relishes good sex and tolerates, but doesn't quite crave, Christian's more sadistic desires. 

The sex is the draw, and I'm left to wonder why.  The book, I believe, is selling mostly to women.  It's been called "Mommy Porn" and Saturday Night Live had it's own satirical segment on the book for Mother's Day.  Aside to my co-bloggers: please forgive me for posting the SNL skit video and I hope you'll still blog with me...oy.  Why is it Mommy Porn? There are no mommies in the book, the characters are twenty-somethings.   I'm left to wonder if sado-masochistic sexual fantasies (and I'll stress the word "fantasy") aren't much more common then we assume.  There's something liberating, too, about the fact that Anastasia is not craving her role as masochist; she tolerates it for love, though clearly she enjoys being pushed to this place-- she never refuses, she never uses the 'safeword' that Christian has said will get him to stop.  It's as though she (and the reader) are allowed to enjoy the kinky sex because she isn't looking for it, she's just the victim of love and going along is required to remain in the relationship, even though it seems that Christian is drawn to her by more then his desire for a sex slave.  Perhaps part of the draw is a push away from a world where gender equality is the politically correct, where women now often surpass men as the breadwinners, as the more motivated and driven members of college classes and work places.  

Okay, so you tell me, why is Fifty Shades of Grey selling better than Shrink Rap?