I was frankly afraid to review the controversial yet staggeringly popular "Fifty Shades of Grey" S&M-erotica trilogy. Really afraid.
Of what? Name it. Deeply disturbing depictions. Unsettling thoughts. Profound confrontations with my self-image and sexuality. Images of whips, chains, gags, hoods, donkeys, the Gimp from "Pulp Fiction" -- my mind ran wild.
Then I read the first 16 words: "I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair, it just won't behave" and a horror I'd never even imagined settled over me.
Dear God, these were worse than sick.
They were stupid. Really stupid. As in trite. Insipid. Utter %$! cack.
By the end of the first book, "Fifty Shades of Grey," I wanted to pour bleach in my eyes.
By the end of the second book, "Fifty Shades Darker," I wanted to pull my brain out, stomp on it and then run over it with my car in an effort to wipe any trace of this from my memory.
And by the end of the third and final volume, "Fifty Shades Freed," I was found wandering in our back field moaning like Livia Soprano: "I just wish the Lord would take me "
Alas, He did not. I remain here on earth, apparently to help my fellow brethren understand why a trilogy containing sentences like: "If you don't want to be bound and gagged in a cart, then it won't happen" and "No! my psyche screams as he pulls away, leaving me bereft" has topped the New York Times best-seller list since early March, netted its author $5 million for the movie rights and been hailed as literary erotica responsible for the sexual reawakening of women and marriages the world over.
My answer: I have no idea.
These are crap -- but crap isn't new for us. If anything, it's become our moral imperative to either create it or find it and elevate it to glory. Exhibit A: The KFC fried-chicken-in-place-of-bread sandwich. Exhibit B: Congress.
And whether you call this porn or erotica, those aren't new either.
In fact, to paraphrase Woody Allen, I'm not sure what these books are the answer to -- but in the meantime, their existence and undeniable popularity do raise some pretty interesting questions, starting with: What's the big deal here?
At first glance, it's a literary fairy tale: Erika Leonard, a middle-aged British ex-television executive and married mother of two teen sons, takes up the name E L James, writes an online homage to the "Twilight" series, fans love it, she takes it down, renames the characters, puts it into print thanks to a tiny Australian publisher -- and word of mouth shoots it up the e-book and print best-seller lists.
Shortly, hype about the story of a virginal college girl in the sexual thrall of a billionaire keen on spanking and controlling her every move kicked into overdrive.
S&M erotica had gone mainstream! E-books now made it safe for women to indulge! Online forums, spas and family dinner tables were bursting with chat from women swearing it had changed their lives and saved their marriages! Being controlled by a guy: The New Hot!
And to some extent, that's all true. But it's not accurate.
Erotica has been mainstream for decades. Porn has never been more accessible -- for better or worse -- thanks to the Internet. Moreover, the trilogy has sold by the thousands in print books -- and when were women ever afraid to haul out a trashy read, be it in bed or on the beach?
But most of all, this: online forums, spas and dinner tables have indeed erupted with gushy chat about these books -- but they're also bursting with "this sucked," "I couldn't finish them," "I was bored," "this is horrible writing," "what's new about any of this?"
And while James' core demographic is indeed women over 30 if not 40, grappling with rapidly changing bodies and increasingly predictable sex lives, she has a strong male readership with equally strong feelings -- chiefly, that having worked assiduously for the past 30 years to drop almost any form of sexual aggression in the effort to not be perceived as threatening (and to not wind up in jail) seeing women swoon over such brazen bedroom bullying frankly pisses them off. "To turn around and be aggressive in the bedroom seems fake, contrived and wrong," wrote one male commenter.
Perhaps worst of all is the notion that James has cracked open the world of S&M, bondage, domination and submission for the "vanilla" world to see, when in truth she has taken its most disproven notion -- that BDSM is a pathological symptom of past abuse -- and made it the defining character and main problem of Christian Grey, whose sexual prowess, thanks to James' moist but fairly repetitive imaginings, becomes ultimately as boring and repetitive as Anastasia Steele's constant sighing, gasping, murmuring -- and perhaps the very marriages women are trying to spice up.
Without putting too fine a point on it, I like a good racy read or movie from time to time. But I'm pretty sure erotica or porn isn't supposed to put one to sleep -- at least not until the end. Yet the more James described each meal, gown, growl and act in minute detail, the harder I struggled to stay awake.
Do these signal the end of the feminist dream; or that women secretly loathe being Masters of the Universe and just want to be mastered in bed? Here's an idea: Walk into a room or crowd of women ranging from 20 to 60 years of age, and tell them you think the "Shades of Grey" series frankly proves they're not only tired of having more power, money and control over their lives than their mothers and grandmothers did, what they actually yearn for is to be spanked until they scream, told when to eat, what meds to take, how to sleep, whether or not they may touch their lover and quite literally when to sit, stand and turn around.
See what comes back to you.
When the laughter dies down what you'll probably hear is this:
These are sexy but ultimately silly books, written by a woman admittedly in midlife crisis, openly short on sex, full of fantasies and desperately longing for everything she's written down -- a man who tells her she's too thin, feeds her ice cream, buys her cars and MacBooks and iPhones and designer gowns, begs her to talk about her every feeling in excruciating detail and takes her from virginal to multi-orgasmic every time, which is rarely less than 3-4 times a day (which if nothing else suggests women in midlife can behave just as embarrassingly and with just as much ignorance of their partners and kids as men in midlife lusting after the baby sitter). Take that away and what you're left with is nothing more profound than this -- because it doesn't have to be.
At the end of that day -- or whatever DVD or book we retreat into -- our fantasies not only haven't changed much since the dawn of time, they actually bear a striking and rather touching similarity, be they female or male, gay or straight, single or married, "vanilla" or the stuff of video booths on the back streets of Paris' Pigalle District: We all want to be accepted -- with all our kinks, histories, shapes and hopes -- and celebrated by the people we love and choose to have sex with.
And regularly enough to make the everyday financial, familial, physical and tedious day-to-day practical realities that mark our time here on Earth a little more bearable and a lot less grey.
And right now, I could realllllly go for a lot less grey.
Lauri Githens is a former Buffalo print and radio reporter now living in Rochester.
"Fifty Shades of Grey," "Fifty Shades Darker," "Fifty Shades Freed"
By E. L. James
514 pages (Vol.1); 532 pages, (Vol.2); 579 pages (Vol.3) $16 apiece, $10 per e-book download