Is “Fifty Shades of Grey” Liberating?

On the recommendation of the lovely Thursa, and against the recommendation of my friend* at Bibliofreak.net, I decided to read Fifty Shades of Grey in between my own exciting sexual exploits.

I’m surprised, but I kind of like this book. I think it’s in need of an edit, and a thesaurus, and less of a Mary Sue attitude in the first four or five chapters, and if I read the sentence ‘My breath hitches’ again I might hurt someone, but I think I like it. Anastasia Steele was, and is still from time to time, incredibly annoying; and Christian Grey is not fully formed as a character (unless that’s intentional on James’ part to retain his mystery and hopefully make me fall in love with him too), is moody, embarrassing and often says things that make me want to be sick, but – and this is where I think my surprise comes from – it’s better than Twilight.

I think this is a valid reference point, as Fifty Shades started life as a Twilight fanfic. Names changed, sparkly-fangs removed, and the plot beefed up a little, and this is a much better read in comparison. It’s short-sighted of me, I know, to expect that a writer of Twilight fanfic would know how to use a keyboard, but James’ plot is not all bad. It has the potential to be. But I was surprised to find that Steele did question what Grey asked of her (most of the time – but we all have our moments), she did have doubts and she did defy him. There was thought that went into her decisions, and while sometimes the thought was ‘take me now, I’ll worry about the consequences later’, somehow that’s more true to life than Bella Swan’s blatant disregard for the cardboard cut-out characters around her and her single-minded wrecklessness. Steele is more human in this way, and more real. She has ambitions, she has opinions on relationships that she is not willing to give up without question, and even though I knew the decision she was going to make to become Grey’s sub, I appreciated the effort put into getting her there rather than a simple “Reader, I’m doing it”.

My one big complaint (which may yet get addressed by the end – I’m not finished yet) is that I’m not sure something has to be wrong with Grey for him to want to Dominate. It is frequently suggested that his preferences must stem from some kind of sexual abuse. When he claimed “never” to have had vanilla sex before, I scoffed, until Jacobs second-guessed me and came up with a plot point which is yet to be resolved: as a 15 year old, Grey was seduced by and then sub to his adopted mother’s friend. Interesting. And formative. And I can understand that to Steele, being physically punished for bad behaviour by someone you’re falling in love with isn’t great – but it seems to me that the insistence that she is going to be the one to heal his wounds which will in turn make him forget his preference for Domination and make love to her is patently ridiculous. It suggests that everyone in the real world taking part in an s/D relationship is in some way damaged, which feels rather judgemental and probably incorrect.

But I’m aware that I can’t finish this thought yet, as I haven’t finished the book. Perhaps I’m just very liberal in my outlook, but I don’t find the sex that bad. I find the following about and demands on lifestyle weird, but that’s another issue – one that might stem from his lack of control as a child. To turn that into a ‘your sexual preferences are weird, there must be something wrong with you’ judgement doesn’t cut it with me.

Anyway.

One thing I kept reading about Fifty Shades before I started was that it was “liberating” and “mommy porn”. I have come to a conclusion on this, based solely on my tendency to read into and overthink anything and everything.

Fifty Shades can be liberating in one or two ways.

One, there’s a lot of sex in it.

Two, Steele and Grey have a written contract. The whole sub/Dom arrangement in the novel (not in life!) is quite a clever conceit for Talking To The Person You’re Having Sex With.  And that’s probably liberating for people who have spent a long time pretending to like something they didn’t because they felt it was expected of them. Or not suggesting something they wanted to do because they were scared it would be shouted down. Or shouting people down for something ‘weird’ before you’ve thought through what you really think of it. All relationships are negotiations, Steele and Grey’s just has a written contract to refer to. We are at all times making these judgements and compromises, but without the documentation to back us up.

Perhaps, then, it would be beneficial for some of us to have contracts! ‘I like…’, ‘I don’t like…’, ‘… I’m open to persuasion’. This might be easier! We are always being told, in self-help and Ask… columns, that we need to communicate our preferences and opinions more. Rather than talking to the readers of Cosmo about our sex lives, why not discuss them with the people we’re having sex with – a novel idea! And Steele and Grey do just that: they write a contract, they ask opinions – very frankly and directly – and they deal with the consequences.

This is liberating because Steele and Grey are more upfront and honest than I guess a lot of us, but the fact that their negotiation is so obvious makes it easier. Really, there’s nothing in it the rest of us don’t, or shouldn’t, do. Perhaps then, this is liberating as it’s telling people that it’s ok to ask for what you want, and it’s ok not to get it: life is a compromise and finding something that works for all parties involved is essential. Trying something and deciding not to try it again is how this works! So I actually quite like the thought that housewives across America, or wherever, are finally telling their husbands what they want and talking about things that they’ve missed out on.

ETA: Since typing all this up yesterday, I have finished the book. In the light of the great big cliffhanger I’m now left with, I feel I might need to reconsider this viewpoint.

Either, the cliffhanger was tacked on to make me buy the rest of the trilogy. If the rest of the trilogy turns out to be healing via “normal” sex, I’m not sure I’ll like it.
Or, Steele did go along with something she felt she ought to because it would let Grey do something he didn’t want her to do (i.e. touch him) and the whole thing broke down because the compromise shattered. In which case, I was right. Ha.

More thoughts when I have them. Please challenge me!

*Disclaimer: Matthew at Bibliofreak.net is of course also lovely, and beautiful. And has opinions on books.

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3 thoughts on “Is “Fifty Shades of Grey” Liberating?

  1. “but we all have our moments” – hah! I love this review, Kim. I’m currently on book three and, whilst I have dipped in and out of other books in between, the trilogy does have this amazing ability (even more so than Twilight) to irritate and engage simultaneously. It’s so interesting, as you’ve discussed, from a societal point of view that is so much bigger than the storyline itself. I’ll talk to you about it on Saturday anyway – but I want much more of this kind of thing!

  2. Pingback: I Will Never Read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ « My 2 cents

  3. Points:

    – (Very) good use of *

    – James’s

    – You know my feelings about the general hype around these books (because I shouted them down your ear) but you make your point well; I won’t be picking up a copy anytime soon, but you’ve done a good job intellectualising these sexy (almost) vampires. Fifty Shades is my new feminist bible (replacing your blog).

    – I second Thursa’s plea for more: when are you starting on the Mills & Boon canon?

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