*Attention: The following post frankly addresses issues of sexuality. While it is not graphic in nature, it may be inappropriate for some readers, and unappealing to others. Please continue reading only if you are ready to deal with the content.
So, romance is not my thing. Anyone who knows me knows this. When it comes to actual relationships, I can be quite romantic, but when it comes to books… let’s say that Jane Austin was a good romantic author… the last good romantic author. However, I’ve read several articles lately about how the Fifty Shades series is a horrible influence on young women, how it degrades women, and how it encourages unhealthy behavior… mostly written by people who have never broken the cover of these books.
Something else that most people know about me is that I believe in checking things out for myself. When people condemned Eragon as a horrible novel, I read it (and they were right*). When people condemned Harry Potter as satanic, I read it (and they were wrong). When people condemned The Amulet of Samarkand as an entry level occult text, I read it (and they were wrong, but its still not a book I’d recommend). So, even though the Fifty Shades series is pretty well out of my zone of interest, I thought I’d check out the first one (Fifty Shades of Grey) and see what the fuss was about.
So, I can’t say that I made it all the way through Fifty Shades of Grey. In fact, I barely made it through the first chapter, not because of any dark and wicked content (that comes later), but because it was poorly written. The book is written in the first person present (similar to the Hunger Games, which I still refuse to read, but not because of quality issues), and this perspective works very well for the sex scenes in the book (I’ll get to that later), unfortunately it doesn’t work well for anything else. In fact, it makes the entire thing rather difficult to read. The main character comes across as some combination of naive and stupid, which is not exactly enjoyable, and all of the characters feel like they were plucked from someone’s wet dream (yes, I use the term intentionally, if you don’t know what that is then you shouldn’t be reading this post). So, needless to say, I wasn’t particularly interested in continuing. However, I did skim the rest of the novel.
The majority of the problems revolve around the novels portrayal of BDSM (which can stand for either Bondage, Dominance, Submission, Masochism or Bondage, Dominance, Sadism, Masochism) relationships. Obviously people are never comfortable with the portrayal of any unconventional sexual relationship (whether it be homoseexual, pedophilic, bestial, etc), and the BDSM community is no exception. Honestly, I’m not going to either attack or defend the BDSM community here. It is a very dark world that does not tend to lead to stable, lasting, loving relationships, but that does not mean that such relationships can’t be found. I honestly don’t think that the BDSM lifestyle (even kept within a marriage) is a healthy one. It is a relationship based on dominance and control (though admittedly the relationships are generally based on trust, not force), not an equal partnership. However, what you want to do in bed is your business.
Outside of the BDSM, and the very graphic sex scenes (the first of which takes up most of a chapter), there isn’t anything in this novel that you won’t find in your average PG-13 romantic comedy. The fact that we accept with a great blase shrug the fact that lust has replaced love and virtue as the basis of romance in our fiction (across the board) honestly troubles me a lot more than a novel that glorifies an alternative sexual lifestyle. James’ main character, Anastasia Steele (which is a stupid name in my opinion), jumps into her first sexual relationship because she gets tingly feelings when Christian Grey (actually not too bad of a name) looks at her. Which sounds strangely familiar to every romantic comedy I’ve ever seen (…ok, maybe not the virgin part). The glorification of lust as the basis of romantic relationship has become the norm in American culture, and this is this root problem that needs to be attacked, not the issue of explicitness or strangeness. If this root is dealt with, then the issues of explicitness and strangeness will largely take care of themselves.
So, how explicit was the novel. To put it simply the one sex scene that I read all the way through was pornographic in nature. I’ve written before about the importance of graphic material in fiction, and I will defend that importance. However, I’ve also written about the importance of responsibility in the use of graphic material. This novel does not use graphic material to make a greater point, at least not one that I could find. In fact the entire novel, even down to the choice of perspective and tense (as I mentioned above), is designed to support the graphic sexuality, not the other way around. This makes the sexual scenes the blatant center of the novel, and honestly the only reason for reading it (certainly none of the characters are going to keep you hooked).
So, all of this to say that you should probably avoid Fifty Shades of Grey, unless of course you are searching for a dark, strange, pornographic novel (in which case this is exactly what you want). However, the attacks against it are somewhat off-target. Honestly, you and your teens aren’t going to get many greater messages from this novel that you don’t get from any of the romantic comedies that we seem to devour as a culture. You will just see those messages more explicitly presented. So, look at the real problem, not its symptoms. Attacking Fifty Shades of Grey is kind of like trying to treat Cancer with pain killers. Not exactly an effective approach. Perhaps we should turn our attention to the root of the problem, rather than focusing solely on the symptoms.
And am I going to see the movie?… …Yeah, probably not.
*Let me say this. For a novel written by a kid around fifteen Eragon was an exceptional book. For an author published by a major publishing company, Eragon was a horrible novel. It was poorly written, cliched, and the characters were flat and uninteresting. Paolini showed a lot of promise in Eragon, but promise means that he needs training and practice, not that his first novel should be published and acclaimed.