Fifty Shades of Progressive Dialogue

Those of you who know my mother might be surprised to know that she is my primary supplier of kinky romance novels, but she is and don’t let her deny it. In point of fact, she nags me to read series that she has particularly enjoyed. Her latest campaign had been going on for well over a year before I finally caved and read the Shades of Grey trilogy that she bought for me and made John unwrap this Christmas in front of the entire family.

Warning: This post is a review of the Shades of Grey trilogy and it contains massive spoilers. 

I’ve been avoiding it because I had heard (a) that it was Twilight fan fiction and (b) that it was a BDSM bodice ripper. I’ll defend Twilight to a degree, but as I was pretty sure that anyone crazy enough to write Twilight fan fiction was too nuts to write a decent book and BDSM isn’t my scene, the appeal was…lacking. Regarding point (a) … the fan fiction is how it started, not where it ended, and even though it was a pretty good indicator of the crap writing of the series, there is such a thing as crap writing that’s still worth reading. Regarding point (b) … I now have a better appreciation for how BDSM can serve as a lens for power dynamics in relationships.

When my mom insisted repeatedly that the reason for reading the books was to follow the relationship between the main characters, I snorted and rolled my eyes. Repeatedly. Having read the books, I will now concede that she’s correct, and while I would also say that you can’t really separate their relationship from the especially kinky stuff, I will recommend the series for a few specific reasons.

1. Consent is sexy.

There’s been a lot of talk coming to my attention lately about the problem of rape culture. One of the fundamental problems is that consent gets framed as “not saying no” instead of “saying yes.” There is a HUGE difference between the two, and it is a difference that the Shades of Grey series explores through the D/S side of their relationship. The characters aren’t perfect examples of when consent is working ideally, but they have an open and honest struggle with what good consent looks like in a relatively authentic way. And when the consent piece is working, it’s sexy.

2. Safe is sexy.

The main characters have a discussion about previous partners, blood transfusions, and test results for STIs before they have sex. Grey takes a very active (though arguably heavy-handed) role in the birth control discussion. When Steele isn’t on birth control, every single description of sex includes the use of a condom in a way that makes it seem exciting and sexy. These are awkward issues that are too easy to brush under the carpet, especially when you have an extreme imbalance of experience between partners. While there is eventually a failure of birth control that Grey is initially pissed about (seriously, I hate that she gets pregnant so quickly and that he reacts as he does), the overall message is that safety is not only important, but also sexy.

3. Women aren’t delicate flowers.

Don’t get me wrong–Grey does not start off demonstrating a belief in this sentiment. But Steele does, and she repeatedly chews him out for overprotectiveness (some of which is semi-merited because of extraordinary circumstances that rarely occur outside the love lives of the fictionally rich and famous). Steele defends herself successfully from a would-be rapist. She handles herself when confronted with a crazy, gun-wielding ex-lover of Grey’s. She saves Grey’s sister from being murdered. And though she does end up succumbing to the inevitability of marriage and babies sooner than she meant to (again, was this really necessary?), she still insists on continuing in the career work she loves and the implication is that she kicks some corporate butt. Romance novels have a way of horribly undermining the image of women as powerful: Shades of Grey isn’t perfect in this regard, but again, it presents an honest struggle and overall proclaims that women are equally as powerful as men in spite of men who refuse to acknowledge their strength.

Would I consider this series high art? Hell, no. Would I consider it even passable writing? Not remotely. The quality of the writing is rubbish, beginning to end.  The author is, however, writing from a position that understands some important struggles in both sexuality and gender equality and strives to resolve those struggles in an enlightened and entertaining manner. However tempting it is to rag on her for all the times where the writing falls down, her writing stands up in ways that almost every other book I’ve ever read falls down, and that’s worth at least an internet high five and a few hours of reading time.

5 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Progressive Dialogue

  1. I’ve tried romance and erotic fiction a couple of times with the best intentions (looking for best practices when it came to portraying romantic relationships between my own characters) and never found something that made we want to continue reading. Here’s a theory from my hero Lois McMaster Bujold: fantasy and sci-fi being political wish-fulfilment, FSF readers try to find romance characters who address and correct the burning political problems of their world. And we rarely succeed. Is she right? Am I doomed to wander the land in a state of romance-appreciation-less-ness?

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    1. That’s an interesting thought. To flip the switch a bit, I get frustrated at the back seat FSF sometimes takes in the writing world. I don’t know about you, but I get a bit tired of all the unpublished and starving MFA types looking down their noses at the literary value of FSF. There is social and artistic value in imagining worlds that are so far removed from ours and there’s a heck of a lot of entertainment value, but the pulp fiction nature of the industry leads to less than stellar quality control. If you take those issues and drop down the literary ladder one rung, you’ve got erotica and romance, bless the poor devils. I have never read a romance that seemed to have been glanced at by even a junior copyeditor, and instead of looking at the world, they’re looking at individual relationships, and usually a fairly focused aspect of those relationships that is perceived as titillating but shameful in our post-Puritanical society.

      Even so, I still think there’s room for this work to be powerful and entertaining on a huge scale. Imagine if, instead of perpetuating antiquated gender roles and body image insecurities, the world of erotica became a champion for gender equality, equal rights for alternative lifestyles, safety and true consent, healthy communication about sex, and a healthier perspective on what a beautiful body is. The terrain is there to be covered, and maybe there are other people covering it. Shades of Grey is the first series I’ve read that tries to take the genre in the right direction, but I’m not an expert on what’s out there. I don’t read tons of romance and erotica precisely because most of what I have read has been disappointingly formulaic and unempowering rubbish.

      As for whether you yourself will ever appreciate romance–what are the burning problems or engaging questions (an important distinction, I think–politics are an inevitable side effect of world building, but not necessarily what every FSF author is most fascinated by) you care about? Would they tend to be addressed in a story that focuses on the relationship between two individuals within that world? Any story’s scope is bound to be limited if the story is going to be focused enough to be readable, so you have to choose, to some degree, where to focus your attention. I say find a smart friend who reads romance habitually and get them to keep an eye out for stories that might overlap with what you care about and don’t waste your energy wading through the muck. Felicia Day’s vaginal fantasy book club might be a source of an interesting perspective too, but I share the link with the disclaimer that I don’t really know what angle they take. I’m just sharing it because Felicia Day amuses me and she associates with geeks whose opinions I often appreciate.

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      1. Ooh ooh. Since I’ve established my creds as a book recommender: read Sidelines, by Lois McMaster Bujold http://www.amazon.com/Sidelines-Talks-and-Essays-ebook/dp/B00BW5SW66/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1368594663&sr=1-1&keywords=sidelines
        Then read everything else she’s ever written, including the sic-fi, the fantasy, and doodles on the backs of napkins. But Sidelines in particular is about writing and genre fiction and it’s really helping me think about what we’re doing.
        Hmm…Perhaps the shameful thing in romance does what the Conceit in sci-fi does. A sci-fi book says IN A WORLD where dinosaurs come back to life… A romance says IN A RELATIONSHIP where she likes spanking and he likes iguanas…
        Politics: this may best be talked about in a conversation of its own, but I literally cannot think of a sci-fi book in which the main characters don’t have political agency—all of them address a problem larger than themselves. If there’s a sampling bias here I didn’t know it, because I was entirely unaware of this trope in sci-fi until Bujold pointed it out.
        Vaginal fantasy book club: Ha! I like the Guild. I’ll check it out.

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      2. As if you’ve just established those book-recommending creds. :) I can’t think of a book you’ve recommended since Ender’s Game in junior high that hasn’t gone on my list of books I would also recommend to someone else, so I will definitely check out Bujold.

        I see what you’re saying with the conceit, and I think that framework is true for a lot of romances, but not necessarily the good ones. What I’m trying to get at is the way that personal relationships act as a microscope for looking at bigger social questions, so when it’s working well, it’s more like IN A WORLD where men are lower on the social totem pole than women and feminine sexuality is not demonized by an evolutionary drive to know who a kid’s father is, and then the IN A RELATIONSHIP is fluff layered on top of that which may or may not be useful in exploring the bigger social questions. I guess my point is that romance is capable of exploring those ideas, but the characters only have the agency to change them within the given relationship, rather than for the world as a whole. (I have been trying to figure out how to frame this for the last week, so hopefully that draws out the idea a bit more?)

        Politics: The Sparrow is the best example that comes to mind of how relationships can be meaningful where characters still have political agency. There, the political issues matter and the characters have agency, but those bigger ideas are addressed through the lens of their relationships. I’d have to think about it more to find examples that break that format, but by and large I think any story following the standard hero journey (which they ALL do in some way, honestly) is going to make the characters political, because what use is a hero who doesn’t impact the world at large?

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      3. Oh man! There’s an essay in Sidelines that says almost exactly what you are about the balance between personal romance and global sci-fi and how to balance them. Using Bujold’s series (the Sharing Knife) as an example. And it’s a GOOD example in every way. The Sharing Knife. Reading list.

        sleepy.

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