50 Shades of Yuck

Okay, so everyone I know has read this “book” called 50 Shades of Grey. People are talking about it online—my neighbors are into it, the moms at the school, lots of coaches I know. So, being the kind of gal who’s always afraid of being left out of the cool girls’ doings, I bought myself a copy and read the thing.

I have to say—well, I have to say many things, the main one being: Huh? 

I just don’t get it. I’m stupefied. But not in a good way.

I truly think this is the worst book I’ve ever read. Oh, not the erotica part, I love reading erotica, that never bothers me. It’s the crappy writing, the inexcusably bad grammar, the endless repetition of the word “clamber,” the impossibly stupid characters that bothered me. This book made Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls look like a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

But even the dreadful writing didn’t bother me as much as the innocent, virgin girl enjoying being controlled and abused by the remote handsome sociopath dressed in billionaire’s clothing. 

And even that didn’t bother me as much as the fact that some of the smartest and most successful, powerful women I know LOVE this book.

Like I said: I just don’t get it.

But it got me to thinking. I mean, I’ve talked about this book now with a lot of people, and I am absolutely in the minority with my opinion. People know it’s poorly written, but they just don’t care. They loved the characters. They get aroused by the sex scenes. They don’t care that he’s dominant and she’s submissive, that’s what makes it hot.

Wow! This is where my degree in Feminist Theory raises its admittedly un-dyed head. Why is being submissive a turn-on, especially to such strong women? Because I notice that the most successful women I know are the ones who like this book the most. I talked to a friend (who loves the book) about this—she’s one of the most successful women I know—great at her job, well-paid, very much a go-getter. And she said that she has so much she feels she needs to control: her job, her home, the kids’ activities and well-being, her weight, her finances, everything, really—and that she’s just sick of it, she would love someone to take over, to be strong and tell her exactly what to do.  She’s just plain tired. And I can see that, though I could talk a long time about the illusory nature of control… In any case. what I heard her saying was that she’s tired of making decisions. That she’d love someone to decide where to go on a date, what she should wear, what she should eat; and to be the forceful one in sex. (Though she admits she wouldn’t like to give up making decisions about her job and lots of other things.)

So okay, forceful, crazy sex and being so desired that someone wants to do me right here and now up against the bathroom wall at Ruth’s Chris does sound fun. Sex like that conjures youth and the best kind of insanity; it is very fun to be that dizzy with desire. But the book doesn’t just talk about desire, it talks about punishment and I have to wonder—why is that a turn on or a need? Do love and punishment feel the same? Still? Even after all these years of therapy, all these years of Oprah?  Do successful women feel the need to be punished for being successful in what is still male-dominated culture? Or does it not feel like men are dominant in the United States anymore and that what we need is the forcefulness and not so much the punishment? And do we still believe that the love of a good woman can change an abusive, narcissistic and remote man? And does the fact that the main character is so rich have anything to do with the joy of submission? I wonder: if the man were poor, would he be called a “dominant” or just a guy who participates in domestic violence?

Now, I know. I sound like a self righteous shrew. . .(Remember that joke: How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One! And that’s not funny!) What’s the big deal? It’s just a book, right? Just fantasy we can escape into. Stop analyzing it!

I know. And I only read one book, and (spoiler alert) I was delighted that by the end, she’d finally grown enough self-respect to leave him (after being whipped…) but there are two other books, so one can only surmise she goes back to him…and oh I just find that so depressing. I just keep thinking of all the young women who will read this and internalize the message that somehow, it’s okay to give up all your own agency, that somehow, if you just love him enough, he’ll change for you. And that has just not been my experience, nor my observation of others’ experiences. And, too, it bums me out that this poorly written tome is the one that’s making it finally okay for women to publicly rejoice in erotica, when there’s so much out there that is so much better. Read Anais Nin! Read James Joyce’s letters to Nora! Read Lonnie Barbach’s collections!

And yet—it’s so interesting to me that this is what so many women are choosing for their escape. It is so in the culture right now, so in the zeitgeist. It seems worthy of some sort of discussion…this fascination with domination and submission. 

I have to give this book credit for this: it did get me thinking about where I am dominant and submissive in my own life. Where do I give up agency?

And, dammit, I have to admit, I give up my agency in a lot of ways. I’m not good with money and I don’t look it in the eyes. I let food whip me every day. And then I let my lizard whip me about letting food whip me. I let my unwillingness to exercise take over. I say yes when I should be screaming my “safe word” (NO!) at the top of my lungs.

And where am I dominant? I’m far less sure about this one. I try to facilitate experiences with my kids, I don’t want to dominate them. Or my husband either.  In fact, I’m completely uncomfortable with the idea of my own power being used to gain control over almost everything.  I got to thinking: maybe the fact that I’m not dominant in a lot of ways is why I get so irritated with this book. Maybe I see too much of myself in the unrelentingly pliable Ana. Conversely, maybe that’s why the really strong women I know like the idea of submission so well. They don’t see themselves in her at all.

I’m still thinking about this, though I’m loath to admit that this book has given me anything of value to think about. And I haven’t come to many solid conclusions. Except for this: The best place I know to be dominant is within my own willingness to think about things, to try to see from many perspectives. To be willing. And the only place that I believe it wise to be submissive? Hmmm. I guess that would be in my own soul. When my mind is thrashing with craziness and too many words, if I can get my brain to calm down and submit to my soul’s wisdom, then that’s submission I don’t mind. But I think that’s because it doesn’t feel like submission, it feels like balance. Balance. And I believe that may be what’s missing for most of us right now. Too much dominance, too much submission. When what we crave is just the right amount of each.

This entry was posted on Monday, May 28th, 2012 at 7:48 pm and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


6 Responses to “50 Shades of Yuck”

  1. Justine Says:

    Thank You for sharing your review of this book that I have been hearing so much about from “everyone!” I haven’t read it myself, so I can’t formulate an opinion about it, but it sounds as if I might lean more toward your point of view on the goings on in “50 Shades of Grey” …. I certainly hope that the submissiveness of the female character only inspires women to be stronger and not fall victim to a controlling abuse. I see you as a powerful and successful woman and I appreciate and respect your perspective, especially on things as popular and part of the culture as this book is right now. I also believe in the pursuit of balance in life…. although, I think this may be a continual chase. We may catch moments of balance, but as it seems, life is all about the ups & downs – the roller coaster ride! I just hope when the ride is over, we all get free cotton candy, popcorn & caramel apples! ;) Thanks again for sharing, Sonja! Rockin Love! <3

  2. Deb Says:

    Sonja, this is brilliantly written, and I’m sure there are many people who disagree with you. I’m not one of them.

    I LOVE erotica – when it is good… and you mentioned a few good examples. But the premise of this ‘story’ totally turned me off. It spoke to me of exploitation and abuse – not a little bondage play between two equals. I did not buy it.

    I aplaud your courage to go against the swell of admiration and excitement about this book, and give it a thoughtful, measured critique You rock! xoxo

  3. angela@spinachtiger Says:

    Now we have a woman who is “normalizing” abuse, a trend that is now taking off and we’ve not seen the last of it. Getting physically hurt to escape into strange sadistic fantasy is not modern. It’s backwards, as it once again is robbing a woman of feeling truly loved, cherished and having good hot sex, and ROMANCE with a man who might actually be around if she needs chemo therapy. The execution of punishment becomes a drug for both parties, needing more and more of this escapism. It’s not love. And, it ends up being very unsexy. Imagine the emotional turmoil inside the soul. The recovery alone robs a woman of her creativity, her passions. It’s escapism from some kind of unhappiness.

    You worry about being old fashioned in your opinion? Don’t. I know I’m in the minority too with not “getting” this book. I was a therapist. I heard the stories of women who needed to be spanked and I counseled a dominatrix. It always stemmed from a very low self-esteem and father issues, not from the “I need someone to plan the date.”

    Women who love these books because they can’t find a real man need to examine their own view of femininity and maybe step back from controlling everything and be willing to allow a man to lead. I’ve seen these kind of women who won’t even let their husband do the driving. They emasculate with great ease and then bitch when he shrinks back.

    They often pick men who want mommies and then they spend all their girlfriend time complaining about the man. How in the world is the answer finding a man who will beat them raw? What do they think happens to the mind and heart of the man with the erection inflicting pain? Do they think the pain ends with a whip? Are these successful woman so out of balance they they honestly don’t know what a mutual sweet kiss feels like. There is a way to be vulnerable in a relationship without turning your man into a wife beater. Because no matter how you shake it down and pretty it up, a man with a whip or a raised hand (even with consent) is still a woman beater!

    It’s not in the human DNA to desire to be beaten. It means something has gone twisted and it’s often an inability to have real intimacy. It’s all YUCK!

  4. ThisCouple Says:

    We have been wondering if this was very good or just a watered down BDSM meets the main stream type of thing. Is it starting to get “out there” so much that BDSM isn’t kinky anymore?

  5. Carolyn C. Martin Says:

    Thank you!!!!!!!! It is so good to hear someone else saying all I’ve been thinking and saying. As a psychotherapist who sees a lot of sexual abuse survivors, I have had to warn them about this book. As for my other clients, I have one male client who read it hoping to get his wife to read it to improve their sexual relationship. After reading it, he decided not to make the recommendation. That says a lot.

    As a screenwriter, I found this book so boring I couldn’t finish it. Maybe someday when I can’t find anything else to do and am bored out of my mind, which is unlikely, I will get back to it.

    It has been announced that this trilogy is going to be made into movies. As a screenwriter, I have great compassion for the screenwriters who are going to have to take this schlock and try to make it into something resembling a good movie.

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