Fifty Shades of Oh So Good

The best part of Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek cover story about the popularity of the book Fifty Shades of Grey and what it reveals about female sexual desire, which is otherwise full of bright insights and ideas, comes in the very last paragraph.

Pondering why so many millions of sophisticated working women are literally flush with desire to read a novel about a college girl who submits to the S&M fantasies of a twenty-something billionaire named Christian Grey (because she loves him, of course), Roiphe states the obvious in a clever, witty way:

“…if I were a member of the Christian right, sitting on my front porch decrying the decadent morals of working American women, what would be most alarming about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomena, what gives it its true edge of desperation, and end-of-the-world ambience, is that millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level. If you are willing to slog through sentences like “In spite of my poignant sadness, I laugh,” or “My world is crumbling around me into a sterile pile of ashes, all my hopes and dreams cruelly dashed,” you must really, really, want to get to the submissive sex scene.”

Oh how right Roiphe is. The prose in this book is positively pitiable. Last month, in her column on the novel, “She’s Fit To Be Tied,” Maureen Dowd wrote that author E.L. James “writes like a Brontë devoid of talent.” James is no cunning linguist but the book suffers even more from poor editing; at least half of protagonist Anastasia Steele’s puerile inner-monologue could have been cut. As Dowd points out: “Anastasia’s typical response to sex or anything else is ‘Holy cow!’ In fact, she utters that phrase 84 irritating times in the trilogy.”

No matter. The book flew out of stores. Days after the film rights sold to Universal for a stunning $5 million (this after James rejected an $11 million offer from Israeli producer Arnon Milchan), the book was out of stock. I bought one available copy at L.A.’s Book Soup for almost $30 days before it was being re-released through Random House at less than half that price. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

And apparently, in an economy in which women are ascendant and now, according to Roiphe, “close to surpassing men as breadwinners”, all they want for Christmas is a little whip and chain.

“It is intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming myriad and disparate fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace… with four in 10 working women now outearning their husbands, when the majority of women under 30 are having and supporting children on their own, a moment when—in hard economic terms—women are less dependent or subjugated than before.

But why, for women especially, would free will be a burden? … It may be that power is not always that comfortable… it may be that equality is something we want only sometimes… it may be that power and all of its imperatives can be boring… It may be that, for some, the more theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender offer a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality.”

Roiphe may be exactly right, but this particular phenomenon does not only apply to women. I suspect highly successful men, who shoulder tremendous external responsibilities and burdens, also crave, what Susan Sontag called, “the voluptuous yearning toward the extinction of one’s consciousness.”

When one bears so much responsibility, one sometimes craves its total opposite.

The popularity of the book has also ignited debate as to whether this softcore subjugation of a young woman is anti-feminist. Again, Roiphe deftly points out that the political and the personal do not always go hand in hand. “The barricades,” she writes, “have always been oddly irrelevant to intimate life.”

“As the brilliant feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir answered when someone asked her if her subjugation to Jean-Paul Sartre in her personal life was at odds with her feminist theories: ‘Well, I just don’t give a damn … I’m sorry to disappoint all the feminists, but you can say it’s too bad so many of them live only in theory instead of in real life.’

In real life we have complex emotional and psycho-biological needs that have nothing to do with what’s correct, appropriate, or even British-be-damned civilized. My current brain idol, Leon Wieseltier (yes, I’m a little late to the party, but the point is I’ve arrived) once that the human primal need for sex has a politics of its own. The bedroom is the only safe place for core animalism, the only place, short of the battlefield where human beings can exercise in freedom what is most basic about them.

As he put it in Maureen Dowd’s book, “Are Men Necessary?”:

Sex is a spiritual obligation. It makes up for the poverty of bourgeouis experience. We’re too late for the Spanish Civil War. We missed the landing at Omaha Beach. But still we need to know what we’re capable of. So it is in the realm of private life that we have to risk ourselves, to disclose ourselves, to vindicate ourselves; and the more private, the more illuminating. Our theater of self discovery is smaller. And in this lucky but shrunken theater, the bedroom looms very large. It is the front line, the foxhole.

The bedroom is where people who live otherwise safe lives can learn how cowardly or courageous they are, what their deepest and most dangerous desires are, whether they can follow the unreason within them to what it, too, can teach.

Maybe what’s compelling to women about Fifty Shades is not simply that it’s a break from having to showcase their strength, but that it’s an opportunity to see that of which a man is made. Women are courageous in love; maybe when it comes to the courage of the body, it’s a man’s turn. Will he give you everything he has to give? Would he die—a little death—for you?