In my earlier post about originality, I wrote that E.L. James, the author of “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its sequels, has managed to create a whole sub-genre of erotica called ‘billionaire romance’. E-book stores are being filled to bursting point by amateur writers seeking to replicate these popular story and themes.
I pointed out how utterly depressing it is to learn of how so many women fantasize about being subjugated by a violent male whilst being ‘looked after’ and showered with lavish gifts.We know that “Fifty Shades” sold 20 million copies, and James’ latest companion novel, “Grey”, is set to do the same.
Despite being fundamentally sexist and patronising, many readers seem to fail to notice that the genre is also incredibly damaging to the progress that society has made in providing equality for women, and in eradicating prehistoric gender expectations. This affects both women and men, and I’ve had personal experience with women who, mentally, are trapped in a 1950s mindset and are perfectly happy to flounce around in vintage dresses, baking cupcakes and cooking gourmet food for their husbands, who they want to be strong, confident and “manly”. Others are still sitting around patiently for a Mister Darcy to sweep them off their feet, a phrase that is pregnant with all that is wrong with today’s confused dating culture.
I read E.L. James’ new release, “Grey”, in the desperate and vain hope that it would rectify some of the damage that James has done, or at least vindicate the perpetual insults against her talent. I could find little online to suggest that the author has acknowledged how Ana and Christian, her protagonists, both exemplify gender expectations pertaining to strength, confidence and ability to provide (‘masculine’ traits) and whimsical, ditzy, subservient and reliant (‘female’ traits). James may not even realise what she’s doing. Reproducing these ideals is devastating to equality, because although literature is absolutely the place to discuss anything, it’s also a place to hopefully provide some realistic context for those things to protect the impressionable and the stupid. A girl may not be likely to wander out looking for an S&M enthusiast to dominate them, but how does it help equip them to deal with issues of equality that might arise in their relationships?
Raised in the north of England, where certain areas aren’t quite as progressive as the rest, I am only one generation down from a disgustingly common patriarchal mindset. In the north, until very recently, men were expected to ‘be men’ and women were expected to ‘be women’. I take great offense this attitude (you might correctly assume that it’s because I don’t conform to it).
I’m grateful that I was raised by a strong woman, who eschewed 1960s conventions and became one of the first female doctors in the country, despite significant opposition and competition. Many other people I know were not so lucky: their mums did all the cooking, cleaning and ironing, whilst the men were emotional hermits who went to work and then sat down in front of the TV with a beer for the rest of the evening. Many of these men don’t know how to iron a shirt or know where the vacuum cleaner’s kept, and astonishingly fail to recognise how appalling this is. As you might expect, this attitude comes with other pleasant personality traits, such as homophobia, racism and lack of appreciation (or even disdain) for anything non-practical – such as literature. Equally disgusting is how frequently men express their pride in being “a proper northern bloke”. Imagine how disheartened I am every time I overhear yet another wife who has given in entirely, having learned her place and even joyfully expresses how their husband is “a real lad’s lad, but he does look after me”.
You could say that this isn’t E.L. James’ fault, or even her problem. But I would like to ask whether there is an onus of responsibility on the people who achieve a high degree of success in fields such as literature. I can see the arguments for both sides.
As it happens, “Grey” is in no way an improvement on her earlier works, remaining woefully simple, poorly-written and boring. James’ attempts at getting in to the head of her male character is probably a moot point, since all of her characters are ridiculous constructs.
I dearly hoped that Random House might be generous enough to supply a decent editor to mitigate the baneful tripe that James produced, but this sadly doesn’t appear to have been the case.
As a bit of comic relief, here are a few of my favourite bits from “Grey”:
Dude. I need to get out of Seattle this weekend. This chick is all over my junk and I’ve got to get away.
She’s oil on my troubled, deep, dark waters.
And there she is: disarming once more, surprising me at every turn. My cock concurs.
Miss Steele is a carnal creature. She will be a joy to train. My cock twitches in agreement.
I rub my chin as I formulate a plan, and moments later I’m in my closet, retrieving my tie.
Her words douse the fire of my anger.
My body responds on a primal level – at war with the darkness.
She wears a coquettish smile, which addresses my dick directly.
We can laugh, but this is the light side of the matter. The dark side is that James has made no attempt to soften Christian’s personality. He is still a violent misogynist (I disagree that this is debatable), and frankly a bit of a bastard otherwise, too. I’ll quote from a post by Zoe Margolis for the New Statesman:
Let me be clear: Christian Grey is a stalker. An aggressive, jealous, controlling man. He is someone who, after meeting Anastasia Steele once, finds out where she works and shows up there unannounced; discovers her private home address and sends gifts to her; tells her to stop drinking when she is out celebrating her graduation; traces her cell-phone and turns up at the bar she is at. These are not romantic acts, they are abuse red flags.
Later, Grey breaks into Steele’s new apartment (the address of which she did not give him); he inserts himself into the group of friends she is with at her graduation show and demands she is photographed with him; he turns up at the hotel bar that she is drinking at with her mother and insists he is introduced as her boyfriend. Grey gives Steele no escape from these situations and she is forced into accepting his presence in them.
It is clear to me that Ana is still a simpering daisy who is a deplorable role model for girls everywhere. Ana does occasionally stand up for herself, and the power balance is not what it will seem to some surface-readers, but this is besides the point.
If James had been a male author writing for a male audience, this would have been dismissed as being unpalatable misogynistic filth. Why then is it being lauded as literature worth reading, with not a whiff of social responsibility from the publisher or author? Is this twisted juvenile fantasy what we get after 200 years of hard-won feminism?
This post is not an outraged call for action, or even a complaint. My only hope is that at least one or two people suddenly wake up to what they are fantasizing about and consider how this might be affecting their buried impressions of gender expectations and their future relationships. Do you really want to be the little woman, showered with gifts? What price must you pay for that – and more importantly, why can’t you get that for yourself instead of relying on Prince Charming? A man is the archetypal provider, but we should not cling to archetypes out of habit. A woman can provide for herself, if she wishes it, and many women do just that. A woman can find romance without violence, without heavy compromise.
James is quoted as saying “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.”
Really? You have to? Is she suggesting that it’s okay to put up with hateful arseholes like Christian Grey before someone better comes along? Or, to James, is Grey the prince?
Readers and writers alike should be mindful of their thoughts before contributing to the latest trends in literature. What bad message could you be propagating? Why are you driven to do it? Fantasies are not harmless.