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.