I’ve been thinking about the bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, for several weeks, now. 19 million copies of this erotic, amusing, romantic tale of a woman’s honest expression of the forbidden sexual desire to succumb to and be possessed by her man is what women seem to adore. They love the complicated relationship between Fifty Shade’s insecure heroine, Ana Steele, and its controlling hero, Christian Grey. (USA Today writer, Deirdre Donahue).
But, is there more to the complicated relationship between Fifty Shade’s Ana Steele and Christian Grey than first meets the eye? Racy, love novels are not new to cultures all around the world. For centuries, women have fantasized about being swept off their feet by handsome, brilliant, worldly, and powerful, rich men who really love them. They have longed to be rescued from their dreary lives and opened to the same pleasures, freedom, and rights of men.
But, when many women catch him, they find their fantasy lover has a chink or two in his armor. Certainly, this is the case with Christian Grey, who no doubt the author fashioned after the “corrupt young, beautiful, worldly, and rich man” of the 1945 film, The Picture of Dorian Gray. You might say Christian has fifty shades of a singular sado-masochistic chink to sexually possess, control, dominate, and debase women. And, whom does such a man go after, to fulfill his warped version of love? He seeks impressionable, unworldly, insecure and submissive 21-year old women, like E. L. James’s Ana Steele. She’s an unassuming beauty of indistinct personal agency. She doesn’t even know there’s an underside to her, until she meets up with it through Christian Grey. Almost immediately, they pair up, unable to resist being pulled into a passionately, physical relationship of control and submission. But, after Mr. Grey’s shades of debasement get more extreme, Ana finally leaves him.
Even though E. L. James’s Ana Steele enjoyed a higher social status than Oscar Wilde’s Sybil Vane (Picture of Dorian Gray), everything else about them is much the same. They are vulnerable to men who are sadistic, and thus dangerous to their emotional health.
No doubt, Fifty Shades is a huge cultural sensation. But, its social commentary about our time troubles me. Fifty Shades of Grey falls into the literary category of the sensation novel. These types of novels surfaced at the end of the Victorian era. Social changes going on at the time led to its popularity, like reforms in divorce procedures, tabloid journalism, public education, and most relevant to my post today, an ever growing social panic over women’s sexuality, especially the threat of their emancipation. Sensation novelists penned stories that made penetrating observations about an ongoing social or psychological problem of the time, and let the moral of their stories put forth a solution. The great disparity between men’s and women’s rights often took center stage, here. The stories most always involved a strong, daring woman, willing to rebel against repressive systems by exploring her sexuality. But, just as sure, it always ended with her downfall and public shame. The story of the fallen woman was the way sensation authors put forth the need for a new, cultural standard of women. Their message was that freedom of self-expression shouldn’t have to end in women’s demise.
Although no literary masterpiece, Fifty Shades of Grey is D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Nathanial Hawthorne’s Scarlett Letter of the day. Like E. L. James’s Ana Steele, Hawthorne’s Hester Prinn, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley and Flaubert’s Emma Bovary were women who desired unbridled self-expression of body, heart, and mind.
The only difference between Ana Steele and her Victorian sisters is that Ana doesn’t have to cheat, scheme, and lie to have it. She just has to consent to the relationship, to enjoy what she desires. Never mind, what it is for which you are consenting. What happens behind closed doors is your business (Donahue, USA Today).
Thus, don’t be misled by James’s novel’s grocery-store mass appeal. It is much more than a romance novel. It is a contemporary sensation novel that makes a powerful statement about the nature of personal freedom.
Deborah’s Concluding Wisdom on The Whole Matter
What’s most at issue for me here is that James uses a very immature prototype of gender relations (sado-masochism) to suggest a new standard of woman. I’ve treated many women like Ana Steele throughout the years, and they rarely leave such relationships emotionally unscathed. In fact, most of them have broken spirits and unable to trust that love indeed does exist. Additionally, the Ana Steele’s of our day are often eating-disordered, plagued with low self-esteem, and very self-defeating. This is the real story here.
There’s nothing quite as beautiful as expressing your love for another person sexually, especially when you are fully open and present to yourself and your lover. You can’t be present to the moment, when you let yourself become a thing, for the sake of your, or someone else’s pleasure.
Believe me, the meaning behind Fifty Shades of Grey’s huge success doesn’t fall short on me. Women all of age groups are reading it, and thankful to Ms. James for recharging their sex lives. I can’t ignore this meaning. Just don’t mistake her message that consent alone is your key to emancipation. Consenting to treat your self like a thing to be debased does not yield the same pleasure and freedom as consenting to be loved by a healthy, whole person.
Like the mythical figure Sisyphus, we keep trying to move a new standard of woman forward, up, and over, but stories like Fifty Shades of Grey may keep old standards rolling us backward. If you liked my post today, please say so by selecting the Like icon that immediately follows. Have a wonderful day, friends.