NFBH Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

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Let’s get something straight here, I usually don’t read romance novels, even if they do win awards within their Genre, as Fifty Shades of Grey has. I find romance novels boring and repetitive. How many ways is it possible for part A to meet part B anyway? Snore.

But I wanted to read Fifty Shades of Grey because everyone is reading it. When I say everyone is reading Fifty Shades of Grey, I mean everyone. When I asked my hairdresser what she was reading she answered Fifty Shades of Grey.   When my mechanic’s receptionist gave me a ride home from the shop, there was a copy sliding around on the floor of her car. Several of my facebook friends have posted that they will read it, and fully eighty percent of the book covers I saw in the airport and on the beach during our summer vacation this year were the telltale charcoal and light grey of the Fifty Shades trilogy. The series was universally panned by critics and bloggers as really really awful, so what’s going on? Why the phenomena? Why are everyone and their grandma so captivated by a badly written bodice ripper? I wanted to read it because I wanted to know why. How can the reviewers and the readers be so polarized in their opinions?

So I did. I read it. Then I read the two nearly identical sequels that came after it. When I began the first book, I actually took it out in public with the cover showing, thinking I could while away my kids’ softball and basketball practice time with a light read. It was not a light read. Now that I know what’s between the covers (pun intended) of Fifty Shades of Grey, I’m a little embarrassed. Now all the softball and basketball mommies know what I’m guilty of reading. It’s a “bad“book. It’s a take-it-to-the-fire-pit-in-the-backyard-and-light-a-match book, so-my kids-won’t-get-a-hold-of-it-book.

The story is mostly about sex, dominant/submissive sex, with a lot of very explicit scenes. These sex scenes are linked together with choppy unintelligent dialogue. The plot, which is very similar to the plot in the Twilight series, is weak. The character development is even worse. The main character is an innocent, a very young woman who has virtually no dating experience, and who is convinced by a damaged and abusive man to join him in his “red room of pain” so that she can submit to his dangerous will in every way.

The subject matter of the book is shocking, but I have to admit the temperature in the room where I was reading Fifty Shades of Grey rose markedly as I read the “love” scenes, which is crazy because I believe that the things that happened to the character Ana in the red room of pain and in the bedroom of the character Christian Grey are abusive and wrong. My opinions, however, dissipated like mist as my body involuntarily responded to what I was reading. My intellect rejected what happened to Ana as abuse, but my body felt a hell of a tingle as I read the words before me. Geez, what is that about?

After I realized what the books were actually about, after I realized how the love scenes in the book made me feel, I hid in my room with the door locked to read the rest of the series. No one, I decided, would be allowed to see the way those ”love” scenes made me feel. Not without the benefit of marriage, anyway. One afternoon while I was reading behind my locked bedroom door, my husband knocked quietly. I got up to open it, novel in hand, and went back to my chair. He poked his head in and asked in his most non-judgmental voice “what’s going on in here? The kids are watching trash TV and eating chips. They’re making a lot of crumbs and the front door was standing wide open when I came in. You okay? I don’t want you to be mad when you come down.” I admit it: my kids were running wild while I read a trashy novel.

“I’m reading erotica” I answered. I’m pretty sure I blushed. His eyebrows went up. “It’s about this girl who falls in love with a guy who’s into S&M. The guy spanks her when he’s displeased with her behavior.” A little smile crossed his lips.

“Okay by me,” he said, and then added “Enjoy!” and winked at me. His little smile had grown into a big grin by the time he gently pulled the door closed again. I heard him chuckle as he padded down the stairs. I resumed my reading when I heard him banging around in the kitchen. I closed the back cover of the third book about thirty minutes later. I had mixed feelings. I could honestly say I hated the books, and that I really liked the books.

The critics were right, I thought, the books were badly written. But by the time I finished, I knew the answer to my original question. I understood what was going on. I understood the phenomena. I understood why everyone and her Grandma was talking about this book: the love scenes in the book were sexy, really sexy, and for that reason women were willing to put up with bad writing. This realization though, left me with another pile of questions. Why are so many women so turned on by these particular sex scenes? Why does the idea of being tied up, handcuffed, and/or being beaten by a riding crop work for us? Why does it work for everybody and their grandma? Why does it work for me? I, and women general, ought to be appalled.

A week or two later, my husband came home from work and told me that the book Fifty Shades of Grey had come up as a topic over his regular Friday lunch with coworkers, the majority of whom, on this particular day, were women. “Is that the sexy book you were reading before?” he asked me. He wanted to know because he had told the girls from the office that he thought I had read that one. “Is that the one where the guy spanks the girl?” He said he asked them. Apparently they all blushed and stammered, but then discussed at length how sexy the book was and made guesses about which muscular young actor would get the part of the main male character Christian Grey in the inevitable movie.

It helped me to hear this story. I worried less that I was some kind of sicko for reacting to the subject matter the way I did. Still I wondered, where are the feminists, the formally battered women, the mothers concerned for their daughters? Why are we all standing around giggling when the women’s movement is being reversed? What’s next? We give back the right to vote?

“I’m confused”, my husband said to me later, after the children were asleep. “I was taught to never hit a woman, but everybody’s all gaga over this book. Do women really want to be spanked? What do women really want? What do you really want?” he said, with his hands in the air, clearly frustrated.

At the time I laughed, and said “that is a question for the ages, my friend.” He laughed too, at my response, relating to the timeless impossibility of understanding women. But the truth is, I wasn’t able to answer the question. I’m still not able to answer the question. What do women really want?

Are we as women, telling the truth about what we want? Do we even know the truth about what we want? Does our collective response to Fifty Shades of Grey mean that deep down, women want to submit, sexually or otherwise, to men?

Are we hard-wired to respond to men who make our decisions for us? Are we hard-wired to respond sexually to men who control us? Are we hard-wired to be turned on by the possibility of being punished when we displease our man? Is this response I wish I didn’t have some insane leftover from our cavewoman days? What about women who are submissive for religious reasons, like members of that sect in Texas where the women all look like Ma Ingalls, and who seem happy to share their husbands with a crowd of other women, or like the famous sister wives on cable TV, or less dramatically, like my more mainstream girlfriend who vowed in her wedding to “submit to” and to “obey” her bridegroom? Do they know something the rest of us don’t know? Do submissive women have stronger marriages? Do relationships work better if one submits to her husband (or other male partner), for whatever reason?

Would I be happier as a submissive woman?

A question for the ages, indeed. Thank you E.L. James, for asking it.

Gone With the Wind

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I first read Gone with the Wind when I was a child.  It was the summer between first and second grade.  It’s a huge book for a seven year old, I know.  I’m not sure how it came to pass that I got a hold of a 1000 page story of war and starvation, of unrequited love and true love, and of children wanted, unwanted, and lost, but I did, and I fell in love with it.  I read it over and over again throughout my childhood, so many times that when I let my old paperback copy fall open, I knew  at once which characters sat in the room where the dialogue was spoken, how that room was decorated, which character would speak next, and what he or she would say.  

The book served as a sort of travel guide to me, a guide to southern culture, and to the southern little girls with whom I played.  I needed a guidebook because I was the child of outsiders, New Englanders no less, who packed in the yad and had idears, instead of ideas.  Never did either of my parents “fix” to do anything, as in “I’m  fixin’ to go to the store.”  Nor did they “carry” people in their cars.  Instead they drove people.  They were openly thrifty, as New Englanders often are, which was considered tacky, if not downright immoral, in my social circle.  So you can see why I needed a little help to fit into what felt like, when I was only seven, a foreign country. 

The book was also a sort of How to Be a Woman to me.  Not only did it help me understand the differences between the people I lived with vs. the people I didn’t, but I think I learned who I wanted to become from the characters in the story.  I wanted to mix Ellen O’hara’s strength in the face of heartbreak with Melanie Hamilton’s ability to love and to trust despite overwhelming evidence that she shouldn’t,  add Scarlet’s drive and intelligence, and bake all that up into a me that was feminine perfection.  I wanted, and still want, to become a “great lady,” like so many of the characters in the book.

I hadn’t given the story even one teeny tiny thought for twenty years at least.  I had been criticized in my college literature classes, and later in graduate school history and sociology classes for loving the book because, they said, Margaret Mitchell was an unparalleled racist, and her story was rife with bigotry.  Never had I noticed this when I read it as a child, so enthralled I had been with the romance and the history of the novel, but I believed my learned associates.  I didn’t want to be guilty of bigotry by association, so I rejected the book and the movie too.  I stopped reading the book, but I never did get rid of it. So my hardback copy, scripted with my name inside the front cover in my adolescent handwriting, has lived quietly these many years on my bookshelves with the Brontes and the Janes, gathering dust, patiently waiting to be useful again.

But things were about to change.  I started to receive small, but unmistakable messages from the universe that it was time to reread my favorite novel of all time.

The first of these was in March when a writer friend of mine announced that he didn’t like the main character in the novel I’m writing.  “You know” he said, “I really don’t like her.”  He thought I should sweeten her up a little because readers (he said) won’t root for a character that isn’t likable.  “Can you think of a book you really liked that doesn’t have a likable protagonist?” he asked.  

I couldn’t, right then, but later I thought, “Well, duh. How about Scarlet O’Hara?” Scarlett is a self-serving, conniving, materialistic character with no sense of propriety, and yet generations of women want to emulate her for her strength.  Scarlett is loved because she is honest, real, and I want my Caroline to be that way too.  Scarlet isn’t likable, but is greatly loved.  The point is that the conversation put Scarlett back on my mind, banging around in my head like the memory of an old friend, lost in an aged argument you can’t remember the reason for.

There’s more.  In April my Dad recommended to me a book of essays called My Writing Life by Pat Conroy (the author of the The Great Santini and the Lords of Discipline) about books and events that have influenced his writing.  My Dad is a pretty good matchmaker between me and books, so I requested it from the library. I got to pick it up from my very own slot on the hold shelf in May.  Guess what I found in the table of contents when I cracked open the brand-new, cellophane-covered book?  A big fat chapter about Gone with the Wind!  (Apparently Conroy’s mother felt the same way about the book that I do, and his life and writing were greatly influenced as a result.) The message to me, though, was, maybe it’s time to reread.    

The messages followed me on our three week family vacation to Germany.  On one hopelessly rainy day, we decided to visit a German Shopping mall.  I was surprised to see that the book store there was dominated by a gigantic display of Gone with the Wind.  They had Gone with the Wind in hardback, Gone with the Wind in paperback, Gone with the Wind in English and German.  Huh?  Why in the year 2013 is a German book store pushing an American civil war Story, a racist American Civil War Story?  Later, when we were in the town of Fussen, the backyard neighbor to our bed and breakfast flew a rebel flag, not the retired Georgia flag or the Mississippi state flag that both feature the Stars and Bars, but the actual confederate flag.  What?  Why?  I couldn’t help but think it might be related to race. Some redneck found his way across the Atlantic to Germany, I thought.   I flew home still wondering.  Why does Germany care about Scarlett O’Hara?  Or is it that her presence there was an act of God for my benefit alone?

The messages got louder after I got home.  One day I turned on the TV and there was Carol Burnett with a drapery rod across her shoulders playing a silly Scarlett to Harvey Korman’s ridiculous Rhett.  Another day I turned on the TV and saw Kelly Clarkson in an episode of Who Do You Think You Are exclaiming in shock that her ancestor was a Yankee (gasp!) and then watched her spend the rest of the episode explaining why she was proud of him anyway.  A third day I turned on the TV and saw Vivienne Leigh resplendent in her own emerald drapery-made gown simpering at the always handsome Clark Gable, playing the exact scene Carol Burnett had spoofed the week before. This was getting to be too much. 

I turned off the TV and went to bed, but I lay awake for a while thinking about the way the red linen spine of my book peeked out from its more illustrious neighbors as if to say “you know you want to.” But I didn’t want to, not really.  My book list is a mile long and I didn’t want to fill my mind with all that racial negativity.  Besides,   I already felt worn out on the issue of race from the evening news.  I had been following the George Zimmerman trial for the racial profiling murder of Trayvon Martin, and Paula Deen had to go and call someone a nigger.  (Come on, Paula!  You must have known better).    

The day came, midsummer, when I could ignore the signs no longer.  The weather was hot and dry, and the kids wanted to go to the pool, but I hemmed and hawed and whined that my Nook wasn’t charged, so I would have nothing to read, and therefore did not want to go to the pool.  With no awareness whatsoever of the energy that had been passing between me and my beckoning volume , Angel #1 walked over to the bookshelves, surveyed what was available, and plucked Gone with the Wind from its place, and held it out to me.  She rolled her eyes and said “read this one. It doesn’t need charging.” It seemed that God himself wanted me to reread the book and now he had resorted to speaking through my children.

I threw my hands up in surrender and said to the ceiling,”Okay, Okay!  I get it!  I’ll read the damn book if you want me to!”  I ignored the she’s-really-lost-it-now looks I got from the Angels, and took the book, and the Angels, to the pool.   

It’s a good thing my children are strong swimmers because they could easily have drowned that day; for all that I was paying attention to them.  I was immediately immersed in an earlier time, a different geography, and an earlier way of thinking.  Just like when I was seven, I was immediately lost in visions of hoop skirts at barbeques, in relearning Scarlett’s rules for the effective management of men, and in smelling the smells of battlefield hospitals.  I was immediately mesmerized.

My colleagues in school were right.  It’s true that the story is remarkably offensive in regard to race.  In the first chapter there is a reference to “darkies, hanging from the rafters, popeyed.”   I lost count of the passages in which Mitchell compares her black characters to monkeys and apes, but I can tell you that there are a whole lot of them.  There is a scene near the end of the book where Ashley Wilkes repeats to Scarlett the great white lie that slavery was okay because slaves were well taken care of by their families.  (Uh, I don’t suppose anyone checked with the enslaved to find out their opinion on that matter?)  The bigotry was so complete and horrendous; I’ve begun to agree with the theory that Margaret’s Mitchell’s “accidental” death while crossing Peachtree Street may not have been an accident after all. 

I find, though, after consideration, that I sort of forgive Margaret Mitchell her bigotry.  The copyright of the book is 1936, so it had to have been written even earlier than that, say 1933 or so, and the world was very different back then.  Like us all, she must have been a product of her time, and in her time the civil rights movement was still twenty-something years away, lynchings were common, and there were still living, still bitter, survivors of the civil war and the reconstruction era to influence her.  Segregation was in full force, so she most likely had very little exposure to the black civil war experience.  How could she have been anything but bigoted? 

Besides, I think Mitchell left at least one piece of evidence that she was not an unsalvageable racist: She wrote the character Rhett Butler.  I think we women writers create male characters that in our minds are ideal, that are our own idea of heroes.   I create tall, silent, pick-up truck-driving, fence-riding cowboys.  Diana Galbaldon likes muscled kilted outlaws who whisper love words in Gaelic, and Jane Austin fell in love with the heroic Mr. Darcy for his protection of her through his social graces. Margaret Mitchell’s hero is the swarthy blockade-running and modern-thinking Rhett, who strives throughout the novel to earn the respect of Mammy, Scarlett’s slave caretaker.  That element of the story alone is revolutionary!  Why would a rich white man care what an old, female slave thought?  Because he believed her to be human, with human feelings and needs, that’s why!  Isn’t it impossible for a complete racist to create a character so enlightened as Rhett?  Somewhere in her subconscious mind, through the fog of her time and culture, Mitchell must have had the beginnings of a sense of justice.     

Mitchell also makes points with me on the issue of feminism.  The Scarlett she created was a successful business woman, a woman with whom we, of our time, can relate.  She, like us, had to take care of her house, her family, her friendships, and keep her small business going, which was obviously more than one full time job.  She, like us, had to stave off foreclosure, pay the taxes, educate her children, and  attempt to keep her marriages happy, all the while being made to feel guilty about having a career.  Sound familiar? Mitchell created in Scarlett an independent woman, someone who took care of herself and did not apologize for it, and isn’t that what feminism is all about?  

What’s more, generations ahead of her time, Mitchell made Rhett Butler a hands-on father, which makes just about any man a hero.  She made him his daughter’s primary caretaker. This is unbelievably forward-thinking, especially in consideration that only in the current generation has father-participation in child care been widely utilized.   Rhett Butler was brought to life four generations ago.  Way to get the ball rolling, Peggy!

I’m so glad I gave in and reread Gone with the Wind.  I’m glad I’ve grown enough to be shocked and disgusted, since my last reading, at Mitchell’s treatment of blacks.  Just like at my first reading, the writing is beautiful and poetic, and I, of course, reveled in the story’s rich details.  I especially noticed this time the lessons of history, like the very current lesson of how terror organizations grow from government enforced poverty, and of how far we have come in the civil rights movement since slavery ended and how far we’ve yet to go.  

There are personal lessons too, about the true nature and men and women and love, and how to recognize the people who love you based on what they do, rather than what they say. (That Ashley Wilkes was a cad and a liar, I tell you!)  In this reading too, I added Mammy to the list of great ladies I want to be like, because she taught me a lesson in motherhood.  She gave everything she had to Scarlett.  She could have gone free, but she didn’t; she stuck around and took care of Scarlett.  Scarlett repaid Mammy’s devotion with a smart mouth and by ignoring her advice at every turn. That definitely sounds familiar. Even so, mammy raised Scarlett to be undefeatable.  I find consolation in that.

The long and the short of it is this: the last time I read the story I was a girl, like Scarlett on page one. Back then, the story was about a selfish, spoiled child who threw herself repeatedly at a man who was wrong for her, and manipulated people to get her own way.  I didn’t really like Scarlett back then.  I was embarrassed for her. 

Now I’m a woman, like Scarlett on page 1037, and the story is about so much more.  Now, I understand the demands in Scarlet’s life because there are similar demands in mine.  I understand that sometimes you can’t help who you love, especially when you are very young.  I understand the necessity of personal sacrifice to protect those you love.  I understand mistakes.  I understand loss.  I understand regret.  Mostly, I understand that a woman doesn’t have to be likeable to deserve love. 

I think if I knew Scarlett O’Hara today, maybe from the PTA or from the neighborhood, I’d admire her. I’d ask her to lunch and I’d pick up the tab, because I know that she’s afraid of being hungry and broke.  I’d tell her about who I loved that I shouldn’t have, and she would say “I never understood what you saw in that guy!” And I’d tell her Ashley Wilkes wasn’t worthy of her, and we’d laugh and have a brandy, and we wouldn’t bother to gargle cologne afterword.   And I would tell her that Rhett would be back, because he always came back, and she would sigh and say she hoped so, and have another brandy.

Welcome home old friend.  I really missed you.