In my daily life as a single girl in New York City, I see a lot, hear a lot and often ponder the pros and cons of my married friends’ lives in suburbia. Yes, they own homes, have 2.5 children and extol the happy virtues of family trips and major childhood milestones, but when it comes to sex, I often have the upper hand.
“I’m too tired/the kids are always around/he works late/” are just some of the many laments they share in between shushing their offspring and worrying aloud about vague flu bugs that are on the brink of taking over their immaculately manicured homes.
Certainly their complaints are nothing new, but when it came to my attention that a “certain” book was circulating among various car pools across the country (and in the process was causing a quite the tizzy with the PTA set), I had to admit I was intrigued. Was this some super-powered bedroom manual? A highly charged edict on sex vs. parenting? Perhaps a definitive how-to on time management and happy naked time?
Not even close.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a novel, or rather a series of novels that focus on the love affair between a submissive college student and her “masterful” CEO lover. (Yes, that’s right. While you’re finally getting around to reading The Help, your older sister in Ohio is spending some quality time learning about bondage, sex slaves and the use of hardware implements for nefarious purposes.) Certainly we’ve been down this road before. Aside from the obvious 9 1/2 Weeks overtones, any English major worth their literary weight has encountered the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, or stumbled upon Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy (in which Beauty is awoken by her prince only to be transported to a kingdom that relies on the “pleasure/pain” principle when it comes to tempering the population).
What separates this “choice” piece of fiction from other erotica is the fact that it’s rumored to have begun as fan fiction — Twilight to be exact. One doesn’t even have to follow along carefully to see the similarities (just start with the book cover). Anastasia is a mirror-image of Bella, complete with her obvious awkwardness and awe-inspiring intimidation of Christian Grey, her Edward-like counterpart. Heroine encounters hot aloof guy who comes off as arrogant – check. Hot guy saves her from an accident – check. Hot guys warns her away from him, then deftly proceeds to pursue her until he’s forced to reveal his secret – check AND check.
While the writing is painful and the dialogue questionable at best, I was astounded to see so many wives and mothers raving about it online as if it was the second coming of The Joy of Sex. “You will actually want to have sex with your husband. Like, a lot,” came a breathless proclamation on one mommy board. “Everything she thought, I would have thought. Everything she said I would have said,” another giddily shared. “All of her insecurities, her apprehensions, TOTALLY me. I get her. I bonded with her. I felt her elation when things were good, and I felt her pain when things got rough.”
Obviously there was some significant quantifier that was energizing the married mommy contingent. On the surface you have an extreme version of the Harlequin romance novels I used to sneak and read when I was 12, and on the other is the context of control, specifically the impact and pressure it brings to the over-scheduled and the emotionally/sexually starved.
Letting go of the mundane and giving yourself over to someone else so they’re making all the decisions and calling all the shots IS intoxicating in the freedom it offers — sexual or otherwise. Frisky contributor Jessica Wakeman seems to back this premise up in an article she wrote about her own real-life submissive/dominant relationship. “He could be stern and take charge when he needed to,” she notes. “He was protective. And he spanked me and dominated me in bed all the time, of course. But outside of bed, which was starting to feel like catnip in this new, weird way, I always felt ‘safe’ with him because of the way he took charge.” Compile that with the “wounded” hero in 50 Shades of Grey and a built-in nation of female hyper nurturers, and what you have is a winning formula that romanticizes the idea of submitting fully to one’s own secret desires.
Or perhaps the underlying popularity of 50 Shades is simply an unconscious cry for acknowledgement from today’s wives and mothers who are seeking something more. Marriage and motherhood bring both pain and pleasure, and in an abstract context letting go is a tantalizing prospect due to the fact that women are increasingly being asked to be everything to EVERYONE.
While it’s not for me to question whether or not a submissive/dominant relationship is a healthy endeavor for one to seek out, my biggest issue with 50 Shades (besides the fact that it could soon be coming to a theater near you) is the idea that it’s the WOMAN that seeks to submit, be taken care of and gather “instruction” on her role in pleasing her mate. From a feminist perspective this is abhorrent at best. For a modern woman this is a counter-productive fantasy that is often at the center of the great divide between Twihards and those that loathe the very pretext in which that series was written.
In reality, we’re already servants and submissives to our jobs, children and families — why not aspire to read a romantic fantasy (and someday reality) in which WE take control and WE call the shots? After all, if power is an aphrodisiac, then the ultimate turn-on should be owning your life, exploring your sexuality without guilt and creating a clear separation between the mother, wife and (most importantly) the individual we all strive to be.