Warning: this post contains potentially upsetting and triggering imagery, and discussions of upsetting and triggering topics. Caution is advised.
When news that E.L. James' infamous erotic novel was heading toward the big screens, I did not believe it. Quite frankly, I did not want to. I had taken one look at the book, read its reviews, read responses to those reviews, and been thoroughly disgusted. This disgust was only hammered home all the further when I cautiously took a look at a few samples from the book, to see it for myself.
I was disgusted. As, it turns out, were many others. Fifty Shades of Grey, as fast as it became a bestseller, also became infamous as the worst thing to happen, not only to erotic novels, but to erotic fiction, women in fiction, and even in feminism, almost overnight.
However, one has to look closer at the much bigger picture in order to see that, actually, Fifty Shades might just be heralding something truly wonderful.
I am not going to be dealing with the details of the sexual politics and practices taking place in this book - the BDSM community is far better qualified in those examinations than I will ever be, and while what I wish to discuss is not entirely divorced from the problems discussed here, it is not with those exactitudes that I wish to tangle today.
Female-oriented erotica is hardly a new phenomena, and nor is its general treatment. One only has to take a skulk about the lower shelves of your local Oxfam's books section to see hundreds of schmaltzy romance titles featuring bare-breasted maidens in the arms of hunky boytoys clustered among the dust bunnies, relegated to the shadows by disgruntled interns who would rather not recognise the existence of the dreck their poor employer has been saddled with.
Herein lies the metaphor for female sexuality as viewed and expressed by the public majority of readers. It's not that books about the subject don't exist, or that they are not wildly successful - it's just that they're clearly absolute rubbish, enjoyed only within the circles of sad, lonely women with no standards for plot, characters or writing quality. Nobody expects to walk into a bookstore at see something likeMaster of Desire or Tender Is The Storm sitting on public display in the New or Bestellers lists of your local Waterstones.
While Fifty Shades of Grey certainly doesn't hold up much better on any of these fronts, it does prove something very important - that female sexuality can be, and is, popular and portrayable in mainstream erotic fiction. However dubious and warped the execution, E. L. James has essentially proved that a book whose sole premise is based around the sexual encounters, desires, and experiences of a woman is not something that is excluded from the public consciousness on the grounds of any intrinsic indecency.
The importance of this proof is massive. Whether or not you agree with the graphic portrayal of sexual relationships in books or film, the politics behind it cannot be ignored.
Fun fact: a film featuring any graphic sexual content must be rated R. However, if a film's sex scenes focus more than usual on the pleasure of the woman, it is almost automatically upgraded to an NC-17 in the new MPAA ratings. Examples include The Cooler, a violent flick which had to cut a scene featuring consensual oral sex on a woman in order to drop back to an R rating, and Boys Don't Cry, which had to cut a shot of a female orgasm to miss an NC-17 rating, with no comment being passed on the rape and murder of another female* character in the film's climax.
Think about the ramifications for this for a moment - portrayal of overt female pleasure is more highly restricted than graphic violence, sexual assault, and murder.
Fifty Shades of Grey, of course, cannot be mentioned without touching on the fact that it, too, contains its fair share of abusive treatment wrongfully portrayed as the fulfilment of a romantic fantasy. It is a deeply troubling specimen of a book - the rearing head of an undercurrent in a deep, dark sea at the bottom of female-oriented erotic literature. It is regressive in its message, poor in its written execution, and in my opinion a new low in the depths of shlocky, unpleasant, ill-educated erotica.
But that does not mean that there may not be better books. Books who, thanks to the success of this lumpy, mis-shapen goliath, may find the walls broken down in its wake, and be able to come dancing through with stories and messages of their own.
Books where female pleasure is explored, and celebrated.
Books where non-conventional sexual practices like BDSM are portrayed with interest and accuracy.
Books where authors and readers alike can push through new avenues of erotic exploration and create little revolutions of their own.
Fifty Shades of Grey is not a good book, not by any stretch of the word. But what it has done, and proved, and what may rise from its legacy, are undeniably wonderful.
~ Charley R
* - the character in question is actually a female-to-male transsexual, with female genitalia. Not female identifying, but physically female-sexed - hence the issue.