"THIS is wrong, but holy hell is it erotic," exclaims the inner voice of Anastasia Steele, heroine of the phenomenally successfully Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which is currently raking in more than $1 million a week for its author, British TV executive, wife, and mother of two, E L James.
Bizarrely, the novel is set in North America, replete with references to sneakers and soda; at one point, Anastasia describes her sadomasochistic affair with the devastatingly sexy and wealthy Christian Grey as "about as emotionally enriching as cotton candy is nutritious".
Grey is referred to as Bluebeard, a Greek God, Adonis, Michelangelo's David, a dark knight, a white knight, Sir Gawain, Lancelot... He is every romantic hero at once; he is mythic. And, as the novelist Angela Carter wrote in her brilliant 1979 book, The Sadeian Woman, "Myth deals in false universals, to dull the pain of particular circumstances." So what are the particular circumstances that have propelled Fifty Shades to the top of bestseller lists around the world? James is writing in the so-called post-feminist era, which either means that feminism is finished because equality has been won or that we don't want to be equal after all.
Her heroine is conflicted; far from conforming to the traditional Mills & Boon blueprint of swooning and absolute subordination, Anastasia is the errant daughter of chick-lit. She is torn between wanting to consent to Christian's contract and to remain free.
Like a skewed rendition of HBO's hit series Girls, Anastasia has recently graduated from college. She stems the existential crisis brought on by sudden de-institutionalisation by putting the "real world" on hold in favour of Christian's Red Room of Pain. Like Bridget Jones, she possesses a neurotic, self-flagellating inner voice that won't shut up. Such neurosis is supposed to make her endearing; in truth, it casts her in the clichéd light of the post-feminist woman who must compete in a man's world but can't stop falling over because she is so clumsy – shorthand for girly. Indeed, Anastasia literally falls into Christian's slick Seattle office when she first goes to interview him for the college paper. Falling is what she does a lot – eventually she falls madly in love with Christian. Prior to that she falls repeatedly into an ecstatic state of orgasm. The latter is so profound that Anastasia experiences a total loss of self, splintering into a million pieces, "coming apart at the seams, like a spin cycle on a washing machine, wow".
This "coming apart" is, according to convention, what women do best. While Christian is all boundaries, rules, and codes, Anastasia is all melting, merging, and pleading. These are traditional gendered roles, fetishised by James as a route to a new kind of sexual freedom.
But what about the kind of sexual freedom that is based on tenderness, respect, and reciprocity? Although Anastasia claims she wants Christian to return her feelings in a "normal" way, the message of the book seems to be that such mutuality is impossible because women want to make love and men want, in Christian's own words, to f*** hard.
Christian is endowed not merely with a helipad and a fondness for Tudor choral music, but the power to relieve our heroine from the burden of her own emancipation and succumb instead to his control, which is not only sexual, but total. He wants to dictate Anastasia's wardrobe, exercise, sleep, social life, and diet.
Food too emerges as a fetish in the book. He constantly tries to stuff her with so many pancakes and maple syrup that she threatens to explode, if not from sexual pleasure, then from too many mouthfuls of American goo. This is a very post-feminist fantasy: here is a man who is begging you to eat. Christian fills the void that is Anastasia in myriad ways. But he too is a void, we discover, incapable of emotion. His love of violence is disturbing. As Anastasia describes: "…he hits me again and again. From somewhere deep inside, I want to beg him to stop. But I don't."
Although the writing is often ridiculous, the phenomenon of Fifty Shades has serious implications: it illuminates the brutality at the core of common-place gender stereotypes and the regressive bent of our culture. The "love story" that pins the S&M sessions together is merely a ruse, a means to sweeten the fact that Christian can only really come if he has bound, gagged, and beaten his women – with their consent.
While Anastasia is flattered that Christian could desire such an ordinary girl as herself, she opens the imaginative possibility for the female reader to likewise chance upon a billionaire who will extract her from ordinary life and take her hang-gliding at dawn in Georgia. If women want to buy into the myth of the book, then, to borrow Carter's phrase, they are simply "flattering themselves into submission". And what a dangerous kind of submission it is. Zoe Pilger is an art critic for The Independent and is writing a PhD on sadomasochism and romantic love at Goldsmiths, University of London. ·