Variously described as women’s erotica, mommy porn and the grown up Twilight, E. L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey is the fastest selling paperback in history. Universally slammed for being badly written, the trilogy has sparked fierce debate about whether the book is good or bad for women, feminist or non-feminist, representative of women’s sexuality or patriarchal dross. In the frenzied search for the meaning of its literary success, have we hit the mark, or are we in such a lather of fantasy that we’ve missed the prize? What has so obsessed us with deconstructing this book?
50 Shades of Grey began its life as a fan-fictional imagining of what would happen if the vampire and civilian romance central to the Twilight series was ever consummated. What happens when the virgin and the beast grow up and have sex? Does he bite? Who washes the sheets afterward?
E L James’s unworldly heroine Anastasia Steele and her demon-tormented Dominant tycoon boyfriend Christian Grey do indeed have sex. Again and again and again. And while we may be distracted by the badly-described ritualistic BDSM sex play, perhaps the most fantastical aspect of the book is that young Anastasia never lifts a domestic finger. And she also seems to have been relieved of the need to lift anything else. While the impassioned focus on submissive sexual practices and feminism rages with good reason, what else is this book’s success telling us about our desires? What are we really fantasising about here? Could women be so tired that even our fantasy literature reflects our desire to share the load?
Not long ago I walked into my house to find that it was clean. It smelled like home. Not like mine exactly, more like the one I’d like to live in. There was soup bubbling away on the stove, and there were clean sheets on the bed. The dog was walked and there was food in the fridge. Most unusually of all, I hadn’t had a thing to do with any of these miraculous developments.
Having been told over many years that the burden of domestic chores fell most heavily on my shoulders because I "cared about it more" or I had "higher standards" or that I could "get it done more quickly" and so on, refrains many women hear as a lulling litany of responses to their domestic complaints, I was shocked at what domestic care really feels like to receive. It’s bliss. Who knew?
When Anastasia walks into Christian Grey’s beautifully kitted out dungeon room it smells faintly of lemon, polished leather and wood. It’s clean, waxed, cared for and warm, hardware and full-size cross notwithstanding. Everything perfectly designed for function and for pleasure. This book is porn surely, but much of the descriptive passages in each novel wouldn’t be out of place in the pages of Vogue Living or Gourmet Traveler.
It’s not surprising that 50 Shades has been given the mommy porn moniker. The most overworked and over-responsible demographic of women falling for a book depicting a lover who takes care of everything? Hard to go past when your current life involves the provision of comfort and safety for everyone else at the expense of your own rest and sanity. On the surface, Christian Grey is not a new character, he’s Mills and Boon standard issue. But he’s also a slightly strange crossbreed. A kind of Sir Lancelot blended with Mr Sheen. He is a man who doesn’t need physical care but who instead provides it. What an orgasmic relief.
When women are being told once again that sex is a chore and it’s ours, when houses are bigger and harder to clean than ever, when homemade is once again best, how irresistible could a fantasy of not having anything to do be? Christian gets very busy in each book touching the somewhat reluctantly submissive Anastasia, making her come repeatedly by looking at her sideways or beating her senseless. And anytime she does turn her mind to his pleasure, he is astonishingly grateful. How skilled she is! A natural. Oh yes. And he buys her clothes, cleans and attempts to organize her life. Like having a sinister but sexually pleasurable personal assistant/stalker.
While the Grey books have started a very useful conversation about dominant and submissive sexual practices, I think if we let talk of lollipops and ladygardens carry us away we may miss a big part of how to understand what makes this such a crazily attractive piece of fantasy literature. We live in a time where married women, even those without children, are still doing the lion’s share of domestic duties, in fact significantly more than their single counterparts, as sociologist Susan Maushart documented some time ago in Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women.
In terms of women’s contemporary domestic load things can look a bit hopeless. And when we’ve lost hope, even momentarily, many of us turn to fantasy. We imagine what life would be like in a parallel universe where our problems have ceased to exist. If we want to make sense of the potential for good or evil within these tomes, if we want to understand some of their drug-like appeal, we need to look at the nature of fantasy.
Fantasy can be sinister. Fantasies are what we escape to when we can’t face the work asked of us by our situation. When we can’t face the consequences of our actions.
As soon as you enter the realm of fantasy you leave the present moment. As soon as you leave the present moment you abandon all hope of transformation. Like our momentarily virginal heroine, Anastasia Steele, mired in the Bronte era and struggling to heal her boyfriend’s troubled past, fantasies can take us back in time. Fantasies are addictive. We want to repeat them over and over again. Like the matches burnt by The Little Match Girl, each repetition takes us further and further away from the action we need to take to change our own lives. Instead of building a fire, we get distracted by the seductive and momentary flame of each single match burning, until we finally die from the cold.
Fantasies are the vibrator treatment for the modern woman’s hysteria of discontent. A distraction from the real struggles. Great to get off on but hopefully not a substitute for getting on with it.
But fantasies are not just potentially sinister distractions. They are also maps to finding the treasure of what we really want. We may be so keen to decipher the map hidden in 50 Shades of Grey because there is a destination concealed here that is crucial to unlocking what so many women desire. What do the multitudes of women buying these books really want? I think it may be more than a good spanking. Even more than the freedom to talk about or read about liking a good spanking. Maybe it’s not simply pleasure we’re after, but the chance to down tools.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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