Sunday, July 1, 2012
The Phenomenon of 50 Shades
I was on Twitter last week engaging a fellow writer about turning 50 – the implication in our exchange being our 50s were something to look forward to – when a young woman piped in that she hoped we were right. “I’m inching closer to 30 and I’m just a little bit nervous about it,” she tweeted. “Oh please,” my friend Billy replied, and I laughed.
The exchange stuck with me. It reminded me of an old episode of Friends, where Jennifer Aniston’s character spends almost the entire show fretting about turning 30. I have to admit its sort of freak-show-ish to me. How did we get so fucked up about aging?
Not only do our attitudes about age make us miserable, they fuel a sort of impossible idealism that keeps us small – as evidenced in the wildly-popular novel, 50 Shades of Grey. Call it escapism if you want; fantasy as antidote to the stresses of fast-paced, modern day life. I still think it’s doing a number on our psyches. The more we indulge this stuff, the smaller we feel, and the less magnificent our everyday moments of intimacy become.
50 Shades is the most radical (and disturbing) example of the idealization of youth, power and beauty I have come across in some time – there is little or no semblance of the two main characters to anything in real life. Christian Grey is an omnipotent and insanely hot 27 year old with perfect abs and hair who, apparently, would rival the likes of Gilles Marini or Brad Pitt in his heyday. He is stinking rich and treated like God – he has something like 40,000 employees who serve him without question, female staff who ooze and tremble around him like teenagers, and he earns $100,000 an hour. AN HOUR. Nothing is outside of his reach. There is also no end to his sexual appetite or testosterone levels: not only is he ready to go 24/7, he’s ready to go immediately after every orgasm, as many times as required, and his infallible erection is never, ever dampened by human emotions like sadness, anxiety or despair, god forbid. Oh, and the kicker? He’s always monogamous.
But it doesn’t stop there. The female character, Anastasia Steele, is a knock-out, too – except she’s also a virgin who has never masturbated, of course. Think the lack of any urge might mean a low sex drive on her part? Don’t be silly. It just needed Christian Grey to come along and now, magically, not only is she always instantly wet and “ready” before he even touches her, she has multiple orgasms and – wait for it – she can come on command, too!
I had a lot of mixed feelings reading this book. The description of some of the sex scenes – minus repetitive statements like “I want you so much right now” and “Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?” – is actually quite well done, and the email banter between the two characters is often witty and amusing. But the rest of it was pretty much nauseating.
What really bothered me about 50 Shades, however, was how anti-male it was. It goes like this: despite Christian Grey’s troubled childhood and taste for BDSM, he is forthright, honest, articulate and fully in touch with (and open about) his weaknesses. More importantly, he is kind, endlessly appreciative, and always respectful of her wishes and boundaries. He will do anything for her.
But no – this isn’t enough, not for Anastasia Steele. He isn’t perfect enough. He’s “depraved”. He has issues. When he insists an unconventional Mrs. Robinson experience he had when he was 15 was a loving one, she believes she knows better, referring to the woman as having “robbed him of his youth” and whining incessantly about it at every opportunity. Further on in the book, she makes it her mission to intrude into his early life as often as possible, interrogating him at every opportunity in the name of “getting to know him better.” No amount of information is enough, and she often plods merrily along in spite of his expressed wish not to. She tells him again and again how fucked up he is, and he concedes, thanking her for loving him.
And that is at the heart of what turned me off about this book – the emotional cesspool underlying much of their relationship that of course never interferes with the sex; the subtle emasculation of a man who is both desperately in love and eternally unaffected; her constant adolescent tantrums and his implausible patience. In essence, something so far removed from anything real that it is impossible to relate to. What the hell is driving the sales of this book?
That is the question that drove me to read it. I also wanted to know how anyone could make a novel about BDSM socially acceptable and the answer, just as I suspected, is that it’s been sanitized, prettied up. A man with a dark side is miraculously and religiously principled and safe – there is a lengthy contract with detailed expectations and all boundaries are negotiated; his insatiable desire never interferes with obtaining her consent and ensuring her safety. The author can’t even get through a sex scene without mentioning the “crinkling of the condom wrapper”, for god’s sake.
Idealism hurts us. It separates us from values unfettered by impossible standards and leaves us lost, far away from anything we might call home. Perfectionism is a recipe for misery. The best artists that ever lived all spoke of beauty, even eroticism, in our flaws. “There is a crack in everything,” Leonard Cohen sang. “That’s how the light gets in.”
It is in this spirit I would like to see an erotic novel get written in, and become a bestseller. Even better, an erotic novel about two people over 50 – not stuck in pretense or clinging to their youth but rather, something real with sensuality and wisdom. And maybe one day, when I’m still alive, they’ll even make a movie out of it that is intelligent, tasteful and sophisticated.
As for the popularity of 50 Shades, I think Malcolm Gladwell said it best. The way to understand the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, he writes, is to think of them as epidemics. “Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.” As for why some start epidemics and others don’t, well, you’ll have to read his book.