I’m late on weighing in on this, but I wanted to get past the din of everyone’s ridicule of the book, Shades of Grey; to move beyond the predictable bewilderment and hostility that accompanies monster success like this. That it’s terribly written. That the heroine is silly, dumb, ignorant, naive. That the book isn’t even “real” porn, it’s pretend porn– “mommy porn,” which, apparently, means soft stuff for silly mothers who wouldn’t know good hard serious porn if their bodices were ripped by it.
These assaults are not new. Erotic books are easy targets, but for hundreds of years the target was literary fiction– if written by women, that is. (I don’t see E.L. James has yet been accused of being “shrill” and “strident,” words historically used to belittle women with a voice, labels that deny women writers a right to power. I suspect Ms. James opted to let her heroine and herself be accused of idiocy, lousy writing and silliness over shrillness and stridency, due to the demands of Mr. Grey.)
Women are eating up copies by the hundreds-of-thousands. Why? It doesn’t matter; no one will believe their reasons anyway! Freud’s contention that women don’t know what they want lives on, leaving critics and experts to jump in to guess. We’re tired of being the boss at work; we want to be bossed in the bedroom! We need to be submissive because that’s our inherent nature! We miss the masterful man of yesteryear! We’re masochists at heart! The old “Dark Continent” idea about women’s desires prevails. As the late Carolyn Heilbrun wrote in her masterpiece, Writing a Woman’s Life, “It is hard to suppose women can mean or want what we have always been assured they could not possibly mean or want.”
Nevertheless, I say it’s about power. Not power over (who is bigger, who is more dominant, who is richer, who is male), but power to….power to have her own narrative; to tell her own story of her own pleasure. She isn’t just chosen; she chooses; she does what she wants and she writes it. Here’s a woman who chooses to have sex that thrills but scares her. She chooses excitement, not marriage, as traditional dead-end plots would have young women do. She chooses to take very good care of herself too, which in this case happens to mean allowing herself to be very well cared for. She chooses to depart with the conventional, to go with her gut on some of Christian Grey’s sexual demands, and to reject those that repel her. She negotiates her own desires carefully, and knows how to assure that they’re honored. (Whether we like her pleasure choices is beside the point, as is whether she signs that contract. It’s her story, not ours.) If power is “the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action, and the right to have one’s part matter,” and I’m quoting Heilbrun again, then the awkward little Anastasia Steele has, in choosing excitement and pleasure, wielded sensational power.
Stories about women having power and control are pitifully few. Most—in porn as in life– are about pleasing, and the price paid for failing to please. Here is a woman’s story about mutual pleasure, which in my experience is how women define power in the first place.