The festival of schmaltz aka Valentine’s Day is here again, and so is Fifty Shades. Only this time, it’s worse than its initial outing, because it’s 50 shades dorkier (darker, I meant darker), on film. Every Valentine Day, sales of these books spike, as if having sold 6.5 million copies already wasn’t punishment enough. And this year it’s a two-pronged attack as EL James’s books are flogged yet again at every bookstore while cinemas run the new film on a loop.
But Valentine’s Day or not, in 2017 of all years, we must not succumb to the dubious delights of this sex-and-servility saga. That’s because, in part, of the views of most powerful man in the world right now on women. After all, US president Donald Trump has made no bones about mounting sexual assaults on women, having bragged about carrying it out routinely. And in case you thought it was just a thing from his reality TV past, he signed a patently anti-women executive order restricting planned parenthood soon after he took office – surrounded by a group of approving men.
The second-most powerful man in the world (or maybe the most, if those hacking reports are to be believed), Vladimir Putin, has just decriminalised domestic violence in Russia. Even as women continue to be assaulted, constrained, hectored and lectured in India. And all over the world, pretty much.
None of it is pretty, we all agree. Many of us have marched on the streets of our cities to show how much we don’t agree. So why does this monster hit about female subjugation get to “grab pussy” where other monsters have tried and failed? Well, the men go along in the hope that the steam generated on page and screen might waft into their lives, while the women swallow it whole as that perfect romance they’ve always craved.
Yeah, Fifty Shades makes me squirm too, but NOT because “my insides practically contort with potent, needy, liquid desire,” as Anastasia would say. I squirm from sheer embarrassment that books so popular could be so poorly written. (Also, that movies so hammy can rake in millions.) But most of all, that a story so hideously regressive, so misogynistic, and such a humongous con is lapped up by apparently sensible women. “The physical pain from the bite of his belt”, our not-so-leading lady laments, “is nothing, nothing compared to this devastation!” And just this once, Anastasia, I’m inclined to agree!
Frankly, who wants to be dominated anymore?
Is its lure then the babe magnet that Christian Grey is supposed to be? But what exactly about this man recommends him to (mostly) discerning women? He’s arrogant, inconsiderate, cold, condescending, with a predilection for cruelty (and I don’t just mean the BDSM).
Sure, none of this is new. Every Mills and Boon hero was cast from the same mould. But haven’t we gone beyond the beliefs espoused by the ha’penny romance? Most of us do not spend our lives dolling up and preening in the hope of snagging a man, any man (all of them obviously superior to us in brain, brawn and understanding), who will feed, clothe and impregnate us, giving our lives meaning and direction.
Yes, it is a truth universally acknowledged that we all love Mr Darcy, overwhelmingly and almost unanimously. Yet arrogant as he was at the start, he was neither stupid nor unamenable to being brought around (by intelligence, and not a swooning surrender to his demands). But Chris Grey most certainly is stupid. “She wears a coquettish smile, which addresses my d**k directly”, he says in Grey. No, Mr Grey, you’re the d**k she’s smiling at.
So, it’s gotta be his looks, right? “So young and attractive. He’s tall, with unruly dark copper-coloured hair and intense, bright gray eyes”. Fab. Then why does the actor in the movies look like a yet-to-run-to-fat Rahul Gandhi?
It’s dark all right – the dark ages
I’m told the BDSM that binds this fictional couple together (literally) is modern, sexy and even liberating. That it’s ground-breaking to have such a subject thrust into a novel for ordinary (aka sheltered, silly and unimaginative) women. That it’s sexy as hell and will have us all shucking off our chains of prudery (slipped back on occasionally for spots of BDSM, of course) to frolic in the streets.
Hey, sounds good to me. But the thing is, inept erotica – “’I want you sore, baby,’ he murmurs, and he continues his sweet, leisurely torment, backward, forward” – is NOT sexy. And Fifty Shades is, in fact, the opposite of progressive and freeing. We’re all undoubtedly more open about our sexual needs and practises than we were before, but it’s sure as spandex not Fifty Shades that’s brought that about (think Kinsey, Angier and Greer). And if all the women who have embraced Fifty Shades really just wanted to let their inner dominatrix out, there would be far fewer men manspreading on public transport today. So, nup. It ain’t the spanking that’s got us panting.
Is it possible, then, that it succeeds, massively and scarily, because it taps into an ingrained servility in some (not all) women by stoking subconscious responses drilled into us over the ages? By slathering it over with some snazzy sadism, mindblowing masochism, and bootilicious bondage, it hopes to hide its archaic workings; that age-old women-whispering that has us answering to commands from the darkest periods of history.
So yeah, it IS dark, but not because of the supposedly edgy sex (hamsters get up to as much). It’s dark because it sings the song of subservience. Well, it croaks, and yet we come to its call. It reminds us that as women our only happiness can be found in devoting, no, abasing ourselves before a man. No, not before a man but under him. It’s back to the missionary position for us, with all the poppycock that came with it!
The whips and chains of this saga are so unconvincing because they are no more than symbols of the male dominance we should surrender to. The books (and movies) make it mirror-on-the-ceiling clear that Anastasia’s adventures in the oubliette are not for her own enjoyment, but his – “’You’ve really got a taste for this, haven’t you, Miss Steele? You’re becoming insatiable,’ he murmurs. ‘I’ve only got a taste for you,’ I whisper.”
The reverse of enlightening, liberating, and norm-breaking, it’s about doing what’s expected of us in the Age of Trump. And what’s expected is to give over control of our bodies, to accept assault as our due, and to pack up our hopes and our smarts, withdrawing meekly into the shade again. Fifty Shades captures and endorses that philosophy perfectly.
So let’s not docilely follow the dictates of the market and get duped into buying a single more volume from the series. Let’s snuggle up with our partner (or pet or favourite cushion) and read a different, BETTER book. And why not go on a march to tell the world that we will not be dragged back into the dark. Ever. Again.
Shreya Sen-Handley’s first book, Memoirs of My Body, will be published in July. She can be followed here on Twitter.