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grey matter: reshaping female sexuality and erotica

Image credit: Abhi Sharma

Image credit: Abhi Sharma

None of us will ever know how many private moments under the bed sheets with a book light it has inspired, nor do we know how much marital boredom it has enlivened with riding crops and silk ties, but the new wonder-product otherwise known as the “women’s Viagra” of our time, Fifty Shades of Grey, has an impact that is incalculable far beyond the bedroom. With what is presumed to be a copy hidden in the darkest corners of our Kindles or stuffed at the bottom of our handbags, it seems that E L James’s erotic novel has become the new staple for the sexually awakened 21st Century woman. But at what cost? I read E L James’s newest spin-off from her juggernaut series, Grey, so you don’t have to.

What has been most disturbing – and most discussed – about the series, is the sexist framework through which it portrays its central female character. Anastasia Steele is the innocent, naïve ingénue who signs a written contract, along with a non-disclosure agreement, binding her to a certain sexual lifestyle with the brooding and mysterious billionaire, Christian Grey. Formulaic at best, and downright misogynistic at its worst, it’s the series that everyone loves to hate; indulging in an almost masochistic pleasure… and its success is undeniable.

Forbes listed E L James as the highest-earning author of 2013, estimating her income at $95 million. The trilogy is credited with inspiring a skyrocketing demand for sex toys as well as a new market for ‘mommy porn’, along with everything from silver ties and leather bras to a licensed board game, wine, and love songs.

From a cursory reading of Grey, one may take particular note of how Anastasia is first introduced through the mind of Mr Grey:

‘a whirl of long chestnut hair, pale limbs and brown boots dives headfirst into my office. Repressing annoyance at such clumsiness, I hurry over to the girl who has landed on her hands and knees [wink, wink!] on the floor. Clasping thin shoulders, I help her up to her feet.’

I won’t waste time dissecting the obvious disdain for the flurry of capricious chaos that appears to be the central female character. Though for more – desperately needed – characterisation, we read on to discover that ‘she has a small, sweet face that is… an innocent pale rose. I wonder if all her skin is like that –flawless – and what it would look like pink and warmed from the bight of a cane.’

Have erotic novels always been so forthright, so diminutive of the female love interest? For some further “research”, I hit the romance shelves for an intimate experience with some Mills & Boon.

A Mills & Boon paperback is sold in a UK bookshop on average every 6.6 seconds. Compare this to our domestic market for literary fiction, where some critically acclaimed novels sell so few copies that the author might well have been better to bypass the publishers and knock them off on a photocopier. As it reaches its centenary, Mills & Boon is a truly astonishing phenomenon. And perhaps it has more to say about its swooning ingénues than we think.

The Mills & Boon book The Dallas Contract by Addison Fox is introduced almost identically to the Fifty Shades series, with some discernable differences. The story follows Marina Hathaway (read: have her way), who has one goal: to work for the House of Steele (I know), an infamous security firm. She has one chance, and one chance only, to prove that she has what it takes. Except when she meets with her client, his true identity is revealed—he’s the man she fled after a sizzling fling! Zachary Keene could never forget the woman who turned his life upside down—and then left without a word. He needs someone with her tech skills to go undercover with him for one night to unravel a terrorist cell, and she’s confident she can make it through the mission with her heart intact.

Where James allocated the power to the ambitious businessman, Fox has reassigned it to the other side of the desk, painting the woman as a dedicated achiever, putting her brains ahead of her lust to accomplish the goal she had set her mind to. A much more empowering message when we see that in contrast, the central male figure is cast in a more insecure light, something we would be hard-pressed to see in Christian Grey:

‘Zachary Keene prided himself as a man who was always in control. Always. So why did the sight of Marina Hathaway, standing inside his private elevator, make his mouth go dry and his body tighten in a mix of anticipation and ire? She’d left him. Walked out of his hotel room without a second thought.

And now she’s walked right back in.’

No matter how many scathing articles are written, or how many eye-rolls are directed towards the Fifty Shades of Grey Empire, it is impossible to deny the extent to which it has permeated our literary and sexual zeitgeist. It would, however, be reassuring to know that in the age of male-pleasure reification, whether through the pornography industry or even “women’s interest” erotica, that the ladies on the pages, or the ladies turning the pages, can retain a bit of the power. Instead of biting our lips and stomping our feet, we might be portrayed as the resolute (dare I even suggest, wealthy?) powerhouses that could buckle some males knees for a change.

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