Fifty Shades of domestic violence, and yet some call it romance
HERE’S AN alarming thought. There are more copies of Fifty Shades in circulation than there are people in the whole of Argentina.
Here’s another. More people have bought into the trilogy than ever owned the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
In all, EL James’s novels have sold 40 million copies – that’s about the same as the lower end of estimates for the civilian death toll in the second World War.
You might be forgiven for thinking there’s not much more that can be said about the publishing phenomenon that is Fifty Shades.
I thought so myself after I read it three months ago, and dashed off an article in which I declared it a lowbrow Pretty Woman with bondage gear, and about as sexy as a stale cheese sandwich.
I was wrong – or at least, woefully premature – to dismiss it as a bit of silly fun. Fifty Shades might be laughably puerile, but it’s not harmless.
Strip away all the talk of mummy porn and female empowerment and the whips, chains and nipple clamps, and what you’re left with is the story of a damaged bully who manipulates, sexually tortures and spends his way into the life of an inexperienced young woman. The books’ singularly charmless hero instructs her what to wear and what, when and how much to eat – as he goes about eroding the boundaries of what she considers acceptable physical force.
Yes, that’s right. It’s the classic narrative of domestic violence, with a few more wifi-enabled Apple devices thrown in. If Christian Grey was your mate’s new boyfriend, you know you’d have staged an intervention the first time he used GPS to track her cellphone across the country.
None of this would matter a jot if EL James’s trilogy had remained the preserve of readers of Twilight fan fiction and a handful of mildly titillated newspaper columnists, but somewhere in the early days of the summer it became a fully-fledged, worldwide cultural phenomenon.
How did we get to a place where the equivalent of the entire population of Kenya are happy to kick back on their lounger to devour a story that might have been lifted straight out of a Women’s Aid training manual, and call it romance?
I can answer that in a word. Porn.
Specifically, it’s because our cultural perceptions of normal sexual relationships have been so skewed by porn that it’s possible to read Fifty Shades and fail to notice how disturbing it is that a woman reluctantly allows herself to be tied up and beaten in exchange for a new laptop.