With less than enthusiastic literary reviews on my mind, I tackled the latest phenomenon sweeping desperate housewives off their feet, the 50 Shades trilogy, a set of novels breaking sales records and causing hot flushes from New York to Nelspruit. I decided to wade through an “erotic” novel and the female psyche to try find out why.
Victoria’s* book club is assembled in a crowded West Rand restaurant for their usual monthly get-together. Excited greetings and the clinking of wine glasses kick off proceedings for the group of women who have been meeting on the first Thursday of every month for the last five years. Except this event is unlike the many social gatherings gone before, held under the guise of a book club banner. They’re actually discussing a book for once, instead of the usual gossip and catch-up session the occasion has evolved into over the years. And on the menu for tonight’s chatter platter is 50 Shades of Grey.
The women begin to divulge some personal views of the book to each other, although very few comment on the literary aspects or failings of the novel. Everyone rather focuses instead on how the book has their hearts racing, awakening or reigniting something very sensual within them. The married ones among them reveal the book has been a splash of petrol on the waning fire of wedded passion.
“Whatever you think of the quality of writing, you can’t deny this book has had a profound effect on almost every woman who reads it” says Victoria. I ask her why she thinks that is, and she takes time to choose her words carefully before answering. Or maybe she’s just having a flashback to one of the many steamy scenes in the book.
“Firstly, the book is very erotic. It grabs your imagination and unspoken desires and puts them on the pages of this book, stirring something inside of you. I think we all fantasise about Christian Grey as the ultimate man, and we all wish we could replace Anastasia Steele, his love interest, in the book.”
Asking why she considers Grey the perfect man is a question to which I already think I know the answer. He is confident and domineering, ridiculously rich and successful, and, as author E.L James points out on too many occasions, so damn good looking “Michelangelo’s David has nothing on him.”
In the novel, Grey is a 27-year-old self-made billionaire who can speak French, play Chopin on the piano, fly a helicopter and, if given more pages, would have probably solved world hunger and developed a cure for Aids if James had her outrageous way. Oh yes, he is also an S&M freak, the part of the puzzle where the eroticism really kicks in for suburban housewives who have most likely only been exposed to “vanilla” sex in their lifetimes.
But I want to know why he elicits such an intense reaction by women outside of the fantasy novel that was originally penned on the internet fan boards of the Twilight movie series. What made 30 million (presumably) women from around the world buy a book that has been described as such mediocre writing by so many critics?
To answer that, one needs a closer examination of the female psyche and society itself, comparing what women really want and what Western society tells them they should want. Here is a dominant man, in business, relationships and in his secret sexual playroom, where whips, riding crops and leg irons supplement his carnal pleasures. Do women, in an age of feminism and equal rights, secretly yearn to be dominated in their relationships?
Victoria reckons this is also part if the appeal. “We’ve spent so much effort trying to prove ourselves in the workplace and fighting for equality, yet some of us just want to be submissive in our relationships and make our men happy. She (James) made the submitting seem OK, not degrading at all.”
Or could this fascination simply be a case of women swooning over what the books have spawned, “mummy porn”, referring to its mainly over-30 and married female fan base? Men have been swimming in a sea of internet porn even before broadband connections were available, so is this finally the female equivalent? I know the answer isn’t as straightforward as that, although the stories of renewed sexual vigour by Victoria and her friends doesn’t completely rule out this angle. She relays how some of her group have approached sex with a renewed vigour, with some brow-raising encounters, all because of reading this book. My throat goes dry and I manage to refrain from asking too many details.
The funny thing is, to the male reader the book barely scratches the surface of what men consider erotic. In fact James’s description of the intimate scenes are written in pretty juvenile terms. Ejaculate is replaced with “release” and her orgasms are described as “shattering into a thousand pieces.” Puh-lease! But this article isn’t about men’s take on what has become the fastest selling paperback in history. It’s about why the hell are women going weak at the knees for what has become a literary phenomenon?
As I consume the novel, its characters and their flaws are exposed in greater detail, and I begin to understand why so many women have fallen for Christian Grey. He really is this perfect man, a unicorn of the female imagination. If asked, guys would describe the perfect man as Brad Pitt in a Springbok rugby jersey, who never gets flatulence. Heterosexual women, on the other hand, will always be attracted to men who are confident, cocky and above all, a challenge, emphasising the psychological qualities first and foremost. And Christian Grey exudes all those qualities, in hyperbolic abundance. It doesn’t hurt that he is also so damned hot. Did I mention that?
This is why so many nice guys, even good looking ones, never get the girl, in movies and real life. They simply aren’t challenging enough. And in Christian Grey women find the ultimate test. This man, so seemingly perfect on the outside, with his Greek- god looks and IMF-sized bank account, is all fragile and broken on the inside. In the first book we are never enlightened as to the trauma that shattered our hero in his early years, presumably in his time with his birth mother.
Just like Anastasia Steele, every woman that reads the novel wants to fix him. They want a man who desperately needs them by his side. And by fixing him they will know that only then can he truly be the perfect specimen, the missing piece of his emotional puzzle, the mother he never had as well as his most passionate lover.
Victoria digests my theory for a moment, and seems a little surprised at the Freudian analysis I’ve put forward. “I’ve never thought about it at such a granular level, and maybe you’re going all Anastasia Steele on this” she says, referring the character’s tendency to over-think things. But I can see my words kicking around in her head as she chews on the possibilities, trying to reconcile my verdict to her own experiences. She doesn’t comment, but rather takes off in another direction.
“There’s also many of us who see a lot of their heated and troubled relationship in what we’ve experienced ourselves. And in a way, getting someone to write a book about it helps us connect with our own issues and desires with a bit more clarity. I see a lot of their situation in relationships of my own and what my friends have experienced.”
I think back to the soft writing and euphemisms that James uses to describe the S&M scenes and I can see how easy it is for women to replace the broken parts of Christian Grey, the flaws, with those of their own partners. I nod in recognition as I realise a big part of the success of the book is due to James’s ability to draw the reader into Grey’s world by connecting with the reader’s own relationships and issues.
“It also makes you look at sex, and in particular sex in a relationship, very differently. It’s as if an entire new layer of intimacy has been uncovered that we may have missed without the help of the book. Their passion for each other is so raw and honest, and who wouldn’t want that? “
I ask Victoria about the S&M and whether the book has convinced any of them to explore some of the scenes that are described in such great detail. “The S&M scenes aren’t too hectic” she explains, “and there are things that we all found quite sexy, so I’d say some of us are keen but we wouldn’t openly admit it. I’m sure if we did, though, we’d all have a lot of hard limits, just like Anastasia in the book.”
Victoria has already finished the second of the three novels and admits to finding the writing a little irritating and ridiculous at times. There are only so many “releases” and “shatterings” a person can take, let alone the unrealistic string of accomplishments and successes of a guy under 30. But that doesn’t stop her from hurtling into this page turner, salivating at the prospect of how it all concludes in the final instalment.
Mediocre writing or not, this book reveals so much about what resonates with women – on an emotional and sexual level. If for no other reason than to chip away at this most complex enigma of the ages, men should do themselves a favour and read it too. DM
* Victoria’s name has been changed to protect the identity of the Exclusive Books salesperson who has had to sell so many saucy books to these women.
With a high-school prize for best supporting actor in a one-act play and as captain of the chess team, Charalambous qualified to join the esteemed ranks of the Daily Maverick opinionistas. He now resides in Cape Town, working in media and irritating the old guard of the South African rugby with some liberal thinking.
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas