April 16, 2012
Fifty Shades of Oh So Good
The best part of Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek cover story about the popularity of the book Fifty Shades of Grey and what it reveals about female sexual desire, which is otherwise full of bright insights and ideas, comes in the very last paragraph.
Pondering why so many millions of sophisticated working women are literally flush with desire to read a novel about a college girl who submits to the S&M fantasies of a twenty-something billionaire named Christian Grey (because she loves him, of course), Roiphe states the obvious in a clever, witty way:
Oh how right Roiphe is. The prose in this book is positively pitiable. Last month, in her column on the novel, “She’s Fit To Be Tied,” Maureen Dowd wrote that author E.L. James “writes like a Brontë devoid of talent.” James is no cunning linguist but the book suffers even more from poor editing; at least half of protagonist Anastasia Steele’s puerile inner-monologue could have been cut. As Dowd points out: “Anastasia’s typical response to sex or anything else is ‘Holy cow!’ In fact, she utters that phrase 84 irritating times in the trilogy.”
No matter. The book flew out of stores. Days after the film rights sold to Universal for a stunning $5 million (this after James rejected an $11 million offer from Israeli producer Arnon Milchan), the book was out of stock. I bought one available copy at L.A.’s Book Soup for almost $30 days before it was being re-released through Random House at less than half that price. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
And apparently, in an economy in which women are ascendant and now, according to Roiphe, “close to surpassing men as breadwinners”, all they want for Christmas is a little whip and chain.
Roiphe may be exactly right, but this particular phenomenon does not only apply to women. I suspect highly successful men, who shoulder tremendous external responsibilities and burdens, also crave, what Susan Sontag called, “the voluptuous yearning toward the extinction of one’s consciousness.”
When one bears so much responsibility, one sometimes craves its total opposite.
The popularity of the book has also ignited debate as to whether this softcore subjugation of a young woman is anti-feminist. Again, Roiphe deftly points out that the political and the personal do not always go hand in hand. “The barricades,” she writes, “have always been oddly irrelevant to intimate life.”
“As the brilliant feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir answered when someone asked her if her subjugation to Jean-Paul Sartre in her personal life was at odds with her feminist theories: ‘Well, I just don’t give a damn ... I’m sorry to disappoint all the feminists, but you can say it’s too bad so many of them live only in theory instead of in real life.’
In real life we have complex emotional and psycho-biological needs that have nothing to do with what’s correct, appropriate, or even British-be-damned civilized. My current brain idol, Leon Wieseltier (yes, I’m a little late to the party, but the point is I’ve arrived) once that the human primal need for sex has a politics of its own. The bedroom is the only safe place for core animalism, the only place, short of the battlefield where human beings can exercise in freedom what is most basic about them.
As he put it in Maureen Dowd’s book, “Are Men Necessary?”:
Maybe what’s compelling to women about Fifty Shades is not simply that it’s a break from having to showcase their strength, but that it’s an opportunity to see that of which a man is made. Women are courageous in love; maybe when it comes to the courage of the body, it’s a man’s turn. Will he give you everything he has to give? Would he die—a little death—for you?