Another Take on the Fifty Shades of Grey 'Phenomenon'

E. L. James’s novel Fifty Shades of Grey is pissing Miriam Prosser off, while Matthew Bobbu wants to clarify some of the assumptions it makes about the BDSM community. Here they discuss what’s bothering them

Feature by Miriam Prosser and Matthew Bobbu | 08 Oct 2012
  • 50 shades of pissed off

Junk Food Of The Mind: Fifty Shades of Mind-Numbing Grey - Miriam Prosser

Thanks, Twilight, for giving us a relationship model in which creepy behaviour (such as watching you sleep, or tracing your phone) is held up as the romantic ideal for men, while total passivity is the ideal for women. EL James' erotic fiction novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, honours this gruesome tradition, but it's not fair to blame the author. She was just writing fan fiction, she didn't know it would take over the world.

What has driven me to gnawing my own toenails in frustration, hunched snarling behind my laptop is the reaction to Fifty Shades. I hate all the hand wringing about what the 'Fifty Shades phenomenon' tells us about women and feminism. It tells us nothing! It's got that patriarchal, Sadeian vibe of “powerful-older-guy-teaches-virgin-to-plumb-erotic-depths” - but that's nothing we haven't seen before. From its popularity we can deduce that women like sex, but unless you've had your head inside a bag since the 70s, you already know that. Women like sex, men like sex, some people like sex in which one partner gets dominated. There is no wider social conclusion to be drawn! Unless politics really get you off (and who doesn't get turned on by the intricacies of gender debate?) it has no place in the bedroom.

Look, this book is packed with stuff any sensible person would find objectionable. A heroine who said: “Dude, you're a millionaire, you get the cheque,” would have been preferable to one that says she's uncomfortable but fails to make a stand, or jokes with her stalker about his controlling behaviour. Yet the Fifty Shades trilogy has sold over 5.3 million copies in the UK, making it officially the best-selling British book of all time.

The writing isn't great – lots of blithering about the heroine's “subconscious” and “inner Goddess” (what exactly does that mean?). In spite of all the raunchy hype the sex is pretty tame. A tip for would-be readers: If you want kinky porn, and you don't care how it's written, it's kinkier on the internet and you don't have to sheepishly fork out a tenner at Waterstones. But since Fifty Shades was released demand for jiggle balls in Anne Summers has risen 200%, according to the Guardian, and they haven't been able to restock because the whole of Britain has gone nuts for erotica. A staff member tells me that when people buy sex toys they define themselves in relation to the phenomenon as in; “I'm not doing this because of Fifty Shades!” or “I read about this in Fifty Shades …”

Why is this runaway train of a trilogy so popular? I suspect the truth is less shocking and revelatory than 4oD's crowd of sexologists and journalists would have us believe. In fact it's simple: Laziness. The great crime of Fifty Shades of Grey is the laziness involved. It’s the fault of the author's laziness; for careless writing, for not producing three dimensional characters with real feelings, for not showing us something new about ourselves or the world. It is our fault for not demanding or wanting more from literature. What sucks about the Fifty Shades phenomenon is not that it's out-dated and patronising, but that the book that's made the biggest impact on the country this decade is shallow, badly written and soulless, describing almost nothing about true human relationships.

It's so successful because it panders to the desire to have a millionaire (or prince charming, or fairy godmother) come and sweep us off our feet. We want this so that we don't have to work, think, or struggle for independence and self-actualisation. If women are more guilty of this fantasy than men, it's because hundreds of years of gender stereotyping and the patriarchy have made it more available to them. A young virginal woman relying on a rich older guy is not so taboo as a wealthy older women taking a younger male lover who is sexually and financially less powerful.

We first world humans live busy, overcrowded, sometimes unsatisfying lives, and it makes us feel good to switch our brains off and sink down to our lowest common denominators. Why do you think people watch reality TV? Anastasia Steele's experience in Fifty Shades is like Sleeping Beauty with (light) bondage in terms of Disney style pandering. It makes “women” feel like “women” and “men” feel like “men.” It's a guilty fantasy instilled by the idea that we “girls” are precious princesses who shouldn't have to worry our pretty little heads. Yeah, that's a bit insulting, but since we all know it's not true, there's no need to get worked up about it. Fifty Shades caters only to a narrow selection of heteronormative appetites. Look elsewhere if you want richer flavours. 

If we feed ourselves on junk food like Fifty Shades, we will end up starving to death while we become too obese to move. There's no need - we have a veritable buffet of food for thought available to us free on the internet and in public libraries. We deserve to switch off sometimes, but it does us good to switch on occasionally too. Keep Fifty Shades if you need it, but for your own sake, vary your diet.

Dispelling Some Kinky Myths - Matthew Bobbu

I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I have heard more about it than any other book released in years. A big part of why I have had so much exposure to it is because I am a kinky devil, a sadist and a dominant. But that is the point at which the similarities between me and the titular Mr Grey stop.

You see, while the kinky community was initially pleased at the exposure that BDSM was getting as a result of the popularity of the series; the actual presentation of kinky relationships and characters in the book is not one that most of us are comfortable with.

I don’t know a single kinky person who has signed a legally binding contract, either for non-disclosure or to cement their S/M (Sadist / masochist) or D/S (Dominant / submissive) relationship. Or even their M/S (Master / slave) relationship. Yes, BDSM is a culture rife with acronyms.

Certainly there are people who have agreements between their partners about what they will and won’t do together – some may even have them on paper. But they are negotiated between partners, not foisted upon a submissive on the say so of the dominant. They are certainly not legally binding, if only for the simple fact that a large chunk of what kinksters do is in a murky legal grey area anyway (according to Scots Law one can consent to participating in sado-masochistic activity but only if the attack is “unlikely to result in serious bodily harm”).

I’ve also yet to meet someone who insists on having a solely sexual, non-emotional relationship with someone they want to play with. There are plenty of people who have purely play-based relationships, with no sex involved – as difficult as that is for some people to understand. There are as many kinds of kinky relationships as there as are relationships in general. They are just another kind of relationship.

Despite Fifty Shades revealing that kinky sex is probably far more widely practiced than the media would have us believe, the representations of kinky people that it holds up to the light are simply not very flattering. Nor are they representative of those of us who identify as kinky, simply because there really isn’t any kind of representation that can cover all the different kinds of people in the community.

I anticipate a time when kink is established as something that can be for anyone, not something practised by psychotic, creepy, dangerous characters like Mr Grey. Until then, we’ll just have to keep pointing out: “Hey, we’re not all like that!”

Fifty Shades of Grey: Out now. Published by Random House. Cover price £7.99