I know what you're saying. "That's so last year." Well, I had been resisting reading the books, having successfully done so with the "Twilight" phenomenon. But I had so many people (including my church-lady cousin, which was...bizarre) tell me "OMG YOU SHOULD READ THIS" that I started to get curious. I also had students read them (their decision) for a paper in one of my classes, and I was wondering about the "plot." I was able to borrow copies from a friend, so I could feel good about not actually contributing money to this!
I should also disclaim that I am by no means a romance novel aficionado. I find the stories predictable and formulaic, the heroines are needy and one-dimensional, and their romantic targets just as shallow. I have read them, and never has one kept my interest for anything other than "Will my prediction about the plot be right?" The answer has always been yes.
The typical plot (since I am pretty sure no one here has read them either) is the following:
- Boy meets Girl
- Boy and Girl are from "two different words" that are inherently in conflict in some way. Maybe one of them is rich, the other poor. One's family owns a lumbermill, the other is an eco-terrorist that drives spikes into trees.
- Conflict causes problems that appear to be insurmountable
- Conflict is overcome because one or the other completely changes their outlook, beliefs, whatever is necessary to make this work, OFTEN the woman.
- Happily Ever After
The sex scenes also have their formula. There's a good deal of sexual tension through the first third of the book, and then they are completely and totally swept away by some chance event and have the best sex ever. It's never awkward or fumbling as two people get to know how things work together (i.e. not realistic), it's always the most amazing experience she has ever had, and even if she's a virgin she has mind-shattering multiple orgasms. There's usually just the one scene with minute detail, and the rest are anywhere from a 'fade to black' kind of thing, to significantly less detail (but still mind-shattering multiple orgasms).
Orientation, over, we turn now to "50 Shades." The first book, Fifty Shades of Grey, follows this formula fairly closely. Anastasia Steele, awkward, middle-class, soon-to-graduate English major meets super hot, super smooth, super wealthy Christian Grey. Grey. Steele. Get it? It's like destiny. Pretty soon he's showing up at her work, and engaging in all manner of stalking behavior that should, for most intelligent women, send her for a restraining order. Of course that would make this a short story, rather than a trilogy. I'll spare the details, but she falls hopelessly in love with him in short order, and he buys her laptops, Blackberries, iPads, and Audis. Yes, an Audi. A bit extreme. But the ONLY thing that differentiates this from other romance novels is that, oh yes, he's into BDSM. Bondage and Discipline; Dominance and submission; Sadism and Masochism. He asks her to be his new "sub," has her sign a contract and nondisclosure agreement and, upon discovering her virginity, makes short work of that (which is of course an awesome experience for her). Eventually she decides that she can't handle this, and by the end of the first book, she leaves him.
A lot of the tropes of romance novel writing are there, so none of this was unexpected. The sex scenes are all in the same amount of detail as the typical 'first time' scene in other romance novels, rather than just skimming over anything after the big first time, so that is new, as is what happens in some of those scenes (unless you read BDSM erotica, that is). In fact, were it NOT for the kink, the books would never have gotten much attention at all.
And there are two more books to go.
They get back together obviously, and have many an adventure. The second book, "Fifty Shades Darker" was probably the best one of the trilogy in that I wasn't actually sure where things were going to go. Christian begs Anastasia to come back, and she predictably does. She continues to be stubborn and resist when she doesn’t like things. She asked him to try 'vanilla' sex when he was desperate to get her back, and he agreed.
Normally, this is a problem of romance novels. "If I love him enough, he'll change" is the theme song of many a novel and many a bad relationship. So automatically I think I see where this is going. But...he doesn't change. He doesn't give up his detached BDSM tastes, but makes them secondary to the other aspects of their relationship. They still have a large amount of sex, both vanilla and kinky, described in painstaking detail, which leaves me to wonder how either of them have enough energy for their jobs when they never seem to sleep.
The second and third book focus on them negotiating their relationship in and out of the bedroom, while also dealing with his myriad psychological issues. They eventually marry within about six months of their first encounter, and in an epilogue of for the third book, they have one child with a second on the way and are of course ridiculously rich and deliriously happy.
I recall when the books came out, the pop culture pundits wanted to know: What does it all mean? Middle class women are completely and totally devouring these books, and the new term "mommy porn" was coined, never mind that romance novels were already that before this. Obviously, most of the talk centered around the kinky nature of the sex, and commentators focused on the post-feminist era of women realizing that maybe they didn't want to have it all, and they really secretly wanted men to be in control somewhere. My favorite was that all women specifically wanted to be dominated. But because we're expected to have both career and family, we sublimated those desires into fantasies about domination, which E. L. James just happened to put into writing.
I call bullshit on that. I know a few people in the BDSM community, and I know just as many female "dommes" as male "doms," so the idea that this is some sort of anti-feminist reaction is flawed. But then, there's no evidence that EL James knows anything about BDSM other than what she might have read somewhere. First, the "kinky" sex portrayed, is barely outside of the vanilla realm. It's being tied up and blindfolded, with some spanking and teasing. That's it, and only barely qualifies as kink. In the first third of the book, where they are negotiating their relationship, Grey gives her a list of hard limits (things that are non-negotiable that he refuses to do), and eliminates nearly everything from the kink realm that isn't binding and teasing his partner. He does seem to like the flogging and caning, but when Anastasia says she doesn't want that, he easily discards it. One could say that's being a sensitive dom, except there's nothing about their relationship that remotely resembles a dom/sub relationship, which is my second quibble.
In a dom/sub relationship, activities are negotiated, and James portrays that, but she leaves one very important bit out: The sub always has the power to say no, and negotiate, but this is not presented to Anastasia in anything but the vaguest of terms. He tells her she can say no, and gives her a safeword, but it isn't until two-thirds of the way through the first book, and quite a few scenarios, that he actually expresses what power she has. Even then, it isn't until the second book that she actually realizes it, and uses a safeword when things get too much. We can chalk it up to her virginal inexperience, but as he is an experienced dom, it falls on him to make sure she understands. He doesn't, and she is so desperate to be with him (and I would argue in any kind of relationship) that what they actually have is a codependent relationship, not a dom/sub relationship.
Leaving the bondage aside, there was one thing about the trilogy I did like. I mentioned that Anastasia leaves Christian because she doesn't like the arrangement they have. He is devastated and promises to change, so she comes back, as already discussed. But then, the change is subtle, and it is more about incorporating each of their tastes into their lives and finding a balance that works. This extends outside of the bedroom where her demands for independence and his need to control come into conflict, and both parties make allowances and negotiate compromises. This was the most pleasantly surprising part of the trilogy, as it violates the framework of most romance novels. Even though I still think they're a codependent mess, they continue to grow and change and work together.
Having said all that, I still can't seriously recommend the trilogy to anyone. It's poorly written, with lots of inner dialogue where Anastasia deals with what she calls her 'inner goddess' whenever Christian blinks at her, and she spends a great deal of time reacting to whatever he does, good and bad. (Another review referred to her biting her lip and blushing a lot.) The author seems to have some difficulty referring to female body parts, which is problematic if you want to write erotica. Anastasia frequently refers to being touched or kissed "Oh my god...THERE." James also relies heavily on using e-mail and text messaging as a means of telling the story, which is cute at first, and likely reflects the changing ways in which couples communicate, but is difficult to follow when reading it on the page.
I don't think it's a closeted critique of feminism, like many commentators think. If anything, Anastasia could very well be a feminist hero. She meets the man she loves (as unrealistic as that is; it IS fiction) and stands her ground as far as what her needs are. A damn sight better than most romance heroines.