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REVIEWS|Books|Fifty Shades trilogy

Fifty Shades: good reads, but some bad BDSM stereotyping

NIFTY FIFTY: The Fifty Shades novels have broken sales records despite critics slamming their literary style

EL James
Paperback, Kindle edition, audiobook CD, etc etc      

[ƒƒƒƒ rating above is for Fifty Shades of Grey only. Sequels Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed both get ƒƒƒ.]

EL James’ Fifty Shades trilogy has now sold 15 million copies in the US and Canada alone. The first novel, Fifty Shades of Grey — a million-seller in the UK — has become the fastest selling paperback of all time and is now set to be made into a movie by Universal Pictures.

The popularity of the series, first published as e-books, comes despite hostility from many critics who slammed their literary style. Clearly the books have hit the mark with the (supposedly) vanilla female audience that has bought them in droves.

But how do the books rate if, like me, you’re someone who already knows her way around the world of kink?

When I first caught mention of Fifty Shades of Grey on MSNBC1, it took only five words to snuff out my interest in a trilogy quietly blowing back the hair of soccer moms, housewives, and coffee klatches everywhere.

Those five words were: Based on Twilight Fan Fiction.

It wasn’t long, however, before my Facebook friends’ status messages had so many mentions of the book that it seemed I was the only one in my social circle who hadn’t read it.

Buckling to peer pressure, I sought out a copy as an excuse to try out the reader on my new Android tablet, and I’m glad that I did; Fifty Shades of Grey does not disappoint.

The novels are written from the point of view of (the virginal) Anastasia Steele, who begins her descent down the rabbit hole when she steps in for an ill friend and interviews “Seattle’s most eligible bachelor and playboy billionaire” Christian Grey.

Christian quickly finds himself completely starstruck by Ms Steele, and from this point all three novels follow the push and pull of the couple as he tries to bring her further into his BDSM world, and she tries to draw him into a more traditional relationship while discovering previously unknown desires and new limits she might set for herself.

Add to this a host of new-relationship jitters, emotional baggage, the demands of a multinational company, the perils of entering into a BDSM relationship, and a revolving door of would-be villains, and you have a surprisingly good read.

So much so, in fact, that at times I found myself wishing some of the sex scenes were summaries so I could return to the story quicker!

(On a personal note, it probably didn’t help that every time they settle down to play, the designer pumps hit the floor. Seriously, you’re not going to wear the Louboutins to bed?)

At their heart, all three of the Fifty Shades novels are harlequin-esque romances, complete with hackneyed “uber-rich but troubled alpha-male Adonis (he’s even a pilot... dreamy swoons!) sweeps mousey nobody off her feet and turns his entire world upside down to prove his love” theme.

Yet they still manage to maintain a delicate highwire balance of romance, danger, relationships, emotions, and bondage. Because, let’s be honest here: we wouldn’t be bothering to read them without what the books call the “kinky fuckery” — and there is a lot of kinky fuckery.

Let’s be honest here: we wouldn’t be bothering to read them without what the books call the ‘kinky fuckery’ – and there is a lot of kinky fuckery

Sexual encounters are frequent and explicit throughout all the novels, and although many euphemisms are used in place of anatomical terms (nary a vagina or anus to be had), at least they are obvious and uniform.

Toys are described accurately in form and function, and even the submission contract Christian asks Anastasia to sign looks to be straight out of Jay Wiseman’s SM101.

When asked by my partner how intense the scenes were, my response was “Tuesday”, and I’m sure many of you will feel that way as well.

But for our vanilla friends and neighbours? Expect them to be shocked, disturbed, and probably more than a little curious or titillated, so you might want to be careful who you allow to read over your shoulder!

What really sets Fifty Shades of Grey and its sister volumes Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed apart is the emphasis on consensuality.

This puts the trilogy on a pedestal compared to so many other so-called “bondage erotica” stories that are, in reality, tarted-up rape trash (here’s looking at you, Kushiel’s Dart).

Careful attention is paid to rules, safe-words, hard and soft limits, and the emotional fallout even a previously perfect night of BDSM romance can bring.

Although Christian is at times portrayed as a sadist, there is emphasis both on the importance of control and on what can happen when a dominant lets their issues intrude on a scene.

All that said, the novels do struggle with a few negative stereotypes the BDSM community just can’t seem to shake, most likely in the interest of making the stories more relatable to the vanilla community.

The D/S relationship is often portrayed in a negative light as the focus of the novels gradually shifts towards “good/better traditional relationship with kink elements”.

Christian is a broken man, incapable of experiencing human connections, denying himself even the touch of another, who pursues BDSM relationships to purge himself of his feelings for his mother.

His ex-subs are portrayed as hapless stalkers who would rather die than live without him (despite his therapist’s assurances that the relationships were “healthy” and “consensual”).

As if that weren’t enough, the woman who inducted him into the BDSM lifestyle is portrayed as an obsessive, narcissist, paedophile [reviewer rolls eyes]. Last but certainly not least, the major villain of the series is a deviant sexual predator, the “anti-Christian” as it were.

Issues aside, the books are a well-written, easy read, and although the first and third novels stumble a little out of the gate, it’s not enough to dissuade one from pressing through to the good stuff.

More than an enjoyable weekend, what I’m really looking to get out of the Fifty Shades trilogy is conversation. A “foot in the door”, so to speak, where we can sit down with our vanilla friends and family and have a discussion about “different loving” without worrying if they are uninviting us to Christmas, calling to have our children spirited away, or having our twisted asses fired.

In life, in BDSM, and in love, conversation is key. Even if I don’t dare hope Fifty Shades of Grey just might be the first brick in the bridge to legitimacy, I can at least enjoy it for what it is: a great trashy novel.

And if you’ve already read the series, do check out the author’s website for an added bonus: the complete soundtrack to the trilogy. SixSpike

SixSpike is one half of a happily married, kink-aware couple living in the Greater Metro Detroit Area, and always working to balance work, life, love, kids, cats, and kink. Feel free to send comments, correspondence, or CFM pumps to http://www.facebook.com/6Spike

The D/S relationship is often portrayed negatively as the focus shifts towards ‘good/ better traditional relationship with kink elements’

Thursday, 5 July 2012

RATINGS:  ab-fab    good stuff    good enough    so-so    oh-no
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