Fifty Shades of Controversy
It’s been dismissed as ‘mommy porn’ but the real impact of Fifty Shades of Grey is its effects beyond the page, argues Barry Lowe.
“My mum is reading that Fifty Shades of Grey,” Kenny, one of the flyboys who lives in Tofu Towers, was telling me in the lift the other day. “I told her I don’t want to know about it. Can you imagine your own mother reading bondage porn? Eww!”
The novel by E L James is now the biggest-selling book in British history, selling an amazing 5.3 million digital and print copies, and that’s just volume one. Fifty Shades Darker has sold 3.6 million copies and Fifty Shades Freed 3.2 million. The books have been patronisingly dubbed ‘mommy porn’ as well has been panned, pilloried and parodied (see my own Fifty Shades of Ray, for example, in which a hetero jock is tied up in a basement by his coach). Through it all, James is laughing all the way to the bank, stashing away her share of the US $5 million paid for the movie rights to the trilogy.
Critic Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books dismissed it: “It’s not that Fifty Shades of Grey and E L James’s other tie-me-up-tie-me-down spankbusters read as if feminism never happened: they read as if women never even got the vote”. Meanwhile, Dr. Pamela Stephenson Connolly weighed in with how the books are bad for BDSM.
Now American Psycho author, the bisexual Bret Easton Ellis, has got himself in hot water by suggesting only a straight man can play the novel’s bondage-loving hero, Christian Grey. Sour grapes, perhaps, that he has been dropped from the shortlist of writers to pen the screen version. He labeled as “ludicrous” the suggestion out-gay actor Matt Bomer should be considered for the lead male role, tweeting: “I don’t care how good an actor you are but being married to another man complicates things for playing CG”. In response to accusations of homophobia leveled against him, Bret Easton Ellis tweeted: “I am NOT discriminating Matt Bomer because of his sexuality. Fifty Shades of Grey demands an actor that is genuinely into women. Get it?!?”
Actually, I don’t.
Regardless of the books’ literary merits, (did anyone ever claim it was great literature, least of all its author?), Tony Abbott has gone against Catholic orthodoxy and read it – I suspect in an attempt to woo women voters. Catholic critics love to quote philosopher Dr. Peter Kreeft to the effect that “Grey is the devil’s favourite colour”. And here I thought it was red.
I’ve read the first volume and found it erotic even though it’s hetero and, yes, James has some irritating verbal tics, including the repetition of the phrase “Oh my”. The novels, however have led to an explosion of interest in terms up-till-now unfamiliar with many readers, including fisting and butt plug. That has to be applauded.
The last word must go to Stephenson: “All the work that has been done to establish that BDSM is not a pathological symptom, but one of a wide range of normative human erotic interests, is in danger of being undermined by the success of Fifty Shades. Let’s hope we do not return to the days when people were discriminated against – losing children, property, jobs – for their interest in BDSM. Remember, Fifty Shades is just another bodice-ripper. With cable ties.”
Just this week, 50-year-old UK barrister Simon Walsh, after a week-long trial, was found not guilty of possessing extreme pornography: photos of bondage, fisting and sounding (in which a medical instrument, usually metal, is inserted into the urethra). The relevant law from 2008 specifies images as ‘extreme’ if they are ‘grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character’ and if they ‘portray, in an explicit and realistic way’ any act ‘which results in, or is likely to result, in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals’.
Walsh was fired from his job at the London Fire Authority as a result of his arrest. Stephenson talks about a ‘return to the days’ – she doesn’t seem to realise we never left them. Perhaps E L James’s novels might help change things.