Why is a tale of sexual submission so dominant in women's thoughts?

Mon, Apr 2, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:The bondage-themed ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ has caused a frenzy, but it is more conventional than it seems, writes MAUREEN DOWD

WHEN I was 14, I sneaked into the empty bedroom of my scholarly older brother to poke around in his bookcase. Tucked behind his law school tomes and Winston Churchill memoirs, I found the Story of O.

I was quickly submerged in the submissive: masks, chains, brands, whips, blindfolds, piercings. In the classic bondage novel written in 1954 by French author Anne Desclos under the name Pauline Réage, a beautiful, young fashion photographer agrees to be the slave of a powerful master who turns her into “a mannequin of perversion”, as the New York Times’s 1966 review said.

Even skimming, the book was too scary for me, so I stuck it back in its hidden spot and scampered away. Now comes the story of E, a London writer named Erika whose pseudonym is EL James.

The plump, happily married 40-something mother and former television producer seems like “a normal lady”, as one shocked Hollywood agent put it. Yet she has written the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy – bondage-themed romanticas that whipped up a frenzy with the housewives of Long Island and rippled out from there.

James started writing the series as Twilight fan fiction under the pen name Snowqueens Icedragon, spinning another strange, obsessive love story in misty Washington state with a pale, virginal 21-year-old brunette student named Anastasia Steele and a breathtakingly handsome, 27-year-old telecommunications mogul named Christian Grey.

There is, naturally, a barrier, but this time it’s not supernatural; it’s that Grey wants Ana to be his “sub”. (Not the sandwich, though she does fix him subs with the French bread he favours.)

“I type ‘Submissive’ into Wikipedia,” Ana says. “Half an hour later, I feel slight queasy and frankly shocked to my core.”

But soon she decides “some of this stuff is HOT”. Especially because he gives her looks so steamy that they “could be solely responsible for global warming”.

Even though James writes like a Brontë devoid of talent, her saga is the first smash hit in the era of “Mommy’s naughty reader”, as a 10-year-old dubbed it in the Wall Street Journal. Women can now download erotica on their Kindles, Nooks and iPads anywhere they want, with no bodice-ripping Fabio cover to give them away.

“I told my mah-jong group, ‘Oh my God, you have to read it’,” Janice Abarbanel, a 57-year-old jewellery maker and mother of two, told the Boston Globe. “It makes you think you could add more spice to your life.”

Even though bondage movies have had a troubled history – the embarrassing 9½ Weeks and Exit to Eden – Hollywood had a bidding war over the movie rights, which were sold to Universal and Focus Features for $5 million (€3.7 million).

In a season when Rick Santorum and other conservatives are on a tear trying to debase women, it’s natural to wonder why women are thronging to the story of an innocent who jumps into the arms of a Seattle sadist with a “Red Room of Pain” full of chains, clamps, whips, canes, flogs and cuffs, falling in love to the soundtrack of the Police’s King of Pain.

Admittedly, Grey uses winking smiley emoticons, believes in monogamy and likes to dance to Frank Sinatra. So he’s not as ominous as the orgy-loving sadists in the Story of O. But he does want Anastasia to sign a contract to be a weekend Submissive, to always keep her eyes cast down, call him “Sir”, stay “shaved and/or waxed”, and not snack between meals (except fruit).

The contract stipulates that “the Dominant may flog, spank, whip or corporally punish the Submissive as he sees fit, for purposes of discipline, for his own personal enjoyment or for any other reason, which he is not obliged to provide”.

He shows he’s not a total ogre in the appendix, when he stipulates there will be “no acts involving fire play”, children, animals or “gynaecological medical instruments”. He gives her safe words: “yellow” means caution and “red” means stop.

And he buys her a platinum and diamond bracelet to cover the bruises on her wrist.

Anastasia’s typical response to sex or anything else is “Holy cow!”. In fact, she utters that phrase 84 irritating times in the trilogy. “Venus in Fur it ain’t,” Erica Jong told me. “It’s dull and poorly written. A girl falling in love with a rich guy is very ’80s.”

Although the book is being snapped up because it seems daring, a woman I know who works as a phone dominatrix under the nom de dom Jennifer Hunter dismisses it as “just another conventional depiction of female submission. And more off-putting than most.”

James cleaves to hoary conventions out of Harlequin: powerful and wealthy heroes with a sense of entitlement who need to be rescued; smart and strong-willed heroines who tame their men.

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, a two-volume novel by Samuel Richardson published in 1740, tells the story of a 15-year-old maidservant whose noble master becomes infatuated with her. He kidnaps her, locks her up in one of his estates and tries to seduce and rape her, but eventually her innocence, intelligence, resistance and love persuade him to straighten up, ignore class differences and marry her.

Anne Rice, the godmother of vampire and SM fantasies, told me that “Twilight is like Jane Eyre”. Or Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. As is Fifty Shades of Grey. A mousy, virginal girl, who is spirited beneath her shy demeanour, falls in love with a rich, arrogant man. She learns that he’s damaged, but decides to persevere and heal him through her transforming love. HEA, as they say in romantica: Happily Ever After.

The Harvard-educated Hunter says most women are sexually submissive and scoffs at the idea that anything in the book is offensive except its overwrought prose. “Every good dominant knows that the submissive is really the partner in control,” she says.

“All a submissive woman has to do is relax and enjoy the ride while delicious sexual acts are visited upon her. She’s the star of the proceedings.

“Someone is ministering to her needs for a change. Master is choreographing all the action. The book seems to have resonated with so many women because, after a long day of managing employees, making all the decisions and looking after children, a woman might be exhausted about being in charge and long to surrender control.”

Anthropologist and Rutgers University professor Helen Fisher warns keening feminists: “Let’s not confuse the bedroom and the boardroom. This is the world of fantasy and play.”

In the animal kingdom, she says, females surrender and males dominate, with female robins looking for the male robin with the reddest breast and best leafy real estate.

Rice agrees that submission fantasies are no big deal: “A woman has the right to pretend she’s being raped by a pirate if that’s what she wants to pretend. Very few people act out their fantasies, except in northern California.” – (New York Times service)