“You beguile me, Christian. Completely overwhelm me. I feel like Icarus flying too close to the sun, ” purrs Ana, the protagonist of this year’s lauded, seminal classic, 50 Shades of Grey.
But wait, you might ponder, Why would you ever want to feel like Icarus flying too close to the sun? Where is the appeal in a doomed fate? Where is the wonder in being so lost that you fall into a miserable death?
What interesting is that Anastasia “Ana” Steele doesn’t just want to feel like Icarus, she luxuriates in it. She clings to this whirling feeling inside of her that is lost and desperate and so utterly useless. She waves this feeling like a battle flag. And I will be the first to say that… I’m okay with that.
There’s something interesting about the creation of a main female character that doesn’t have to follow the Katniss/Hermione Granger/Olivia Pope trope of being so strong that it’s a weakness. It is intriguing and, dare I say it, beguiling to have a female character in the new wave feminism era who is not only allowed to be weak, but relishes in it. In a greater novel, this full control over and awareness of weakness could have come to be considered somewhat of a strength. An purely emotional strength, but a strength nonetheless. But we aren’t dealing with a masterpiece here and so we’re left classic story of what could have been.
Many critics of 50 Shades take umbrage to the gratuitous use of BD/SM play in the novel. They throw every word in the book at it, calling it creepy, scary, anti-feminist… weird. They call it everything but what it really is… popular. BD/SM play isn’t something new: it isn’t a newfangled idea that just swaggered on to the erotica market. It’s an old idea that, like it or not, many consenting adults engage in in their own homes. It’s a facet of human sexuality that almost begs to be explored.
It is a tag that opens up a whole host of interesting and intriguing psychological questions about human beings. What is this need to submit that lurks inside of us? Why do some of us long to feel lost in another individual, and why do others want to find them? Where re the pretty stock images of quiet and slow lovemaking that doesn’t surprise the neighbors? Why is that popular vision of love not what people who engage in BD/SM lifestyles want? What do the conversations of consent look like between these peop-
You see, this is part of the reason why it is entirely justified to loathe 50 Shades of Grey for what it is: a trite fantasy that presents itself as some deep and complex love story, which is something it very well could have been. Not once in the book does the great lover Christian Gray, he who can make a woman orgasm with just one look, ever truly sit down with Ana to ask, “So… how do you feel about being tied up?” Which… you know… is kind of a big deal. And does the book ever question that? No, it doesn’t. It lets the players in the story play on. It is a fantasy, one that certainly doesn’t exist in a feminist world where a woman could understandably question her desire to engage in a lifestyle that some would call degrading. Where is the deep and intricate self exploration that it takes to find yourself bent over some one’s lap or being tied down and enjoying it? This is vastly and wildly interesting, but 50 Shades of Grey isn’t a psychological portrait: it’s just another trope used to get books to fly off the shelves. It isn’t a book to be studied, it’s a book to make middle aged housewives blush and giggle. And don’t we already have enough of those?
Had this book asked the psychological questions behind BDSM, delved in to the psychology of the human beings that engage in this play, made us think of Ana and Christian as actual real people, maybe, JUST MAYBE, we could have had a game changer on our hands.
But it didn’t. And it won’t. Instead, it took the X-Rated Twilight route. Gave us an implausible sexy male lead and willing and confused young ingenue and told us to have at it. It is a B-grade movie in novel form. You don’t have to think, you just have to experience.
So why is it doing so well? Because people think they need an escape. Mortgages are too high, tragedies abound, mid-life crises are reached. And so women would love to run into the arms of a Christian Gray, someone who may take that whirling feeling of loneliness and show them what to do with it. It’s just that, in real life, if Mr. Gray ever swaggered into your life you’d slap him with a restraining order and a lawsuit. But in the book, when he in truly just ink and words, he can be any one or whomever you want him to be. He can be your absent husband, your substitute for that pint of ice cream… literally anyone or anything.
What does that say about America, then? An America that lives on the silver screen and in pop fiction? It’s been said for years that we’re in a late empire U.S. of A. Maybe this is just another symptom of that.
Or maybe, like people, we just need a little fun. Even sub-par, teeth rotting, nervous laughter fun. But fun nonetheless.