At a recent party, a friend introduced me to two men as “a fellow writer.” One of the men wrote “experimental Sci-Fi” and the other was planning to write something, someday, eventually. When the men found out I write romance, they gave me advice on the plot structure I should use to get published and in the process explained why women like “that kind of smut,” even though neither of them had ever read a romance novel. If you are a woman, you have most likely experienced a situation like this: A man explains something to you that you either already know, have more knowledge about than he does, or is so self-explanatory that you don’t know why he’s explaining it in the first place. To use a term that first popped up on feminist blogs after Rebecca Solnit published her 2008 essay Men Who Explain Things, someone has “mansplained” a concept to you.
The men at the party wanted to discuss/tell me about the phenomenon that is Fifty Shades of Grey. Luckily, I was out of wine at this point and escaped with the excuse of a refill, so I missed what they thought about this book has sold over 100 million copies worldwide in last three years. To put that number in perspective, the vastly popular Girl With a Dragon Tattoo took four years to sell 20 million copies, a milestone Fifty Shades hit in four months.
The audience who exercised this mind-blowing purchasing power was almost all women, mostly in their 30s to 50s, but about a third of the US market were 19-29 years old. What surprised some market researchers is that 9% of practicing Christian women in America have read at least the first book in the trilogy, corresponding to the same percentage of overall US women who picked up a copy of Fifty Shades. If you’re not one of those women, you may wonder why your sisters are so enamored with this story about the virgin college student Anastasia Steele who falls in love with the young handsome billionaire Christian Grey. You could of course read the book and make up your own mind, but why exert yourself when men can explain it all so much better? The Internet is filled with wisdom from males who may or may not have read the book, or seen the movie, but nevertheless can explain why women must be delirious because the book is terribly written and not sexy at all. As a matter of fact, the author E.L. James “doesn’t understand what women find erotic and sexual.” She is just “wrong, and worse, wrong to a very large audience.”
I didn’t completely fall in love with the book because I couldn’t truly relate to either of the two main characters, the story structure at times felt contrived, and the prose was often repetitive. However, I do love that the book incited a worldwide discussion about female sexuality. To me, the story is about a young woman who explores her sexuality and then makes a hard decision when it turns out she will have to sacrifice too much of who she really is in order to be with the one she loves.
Imagine my surprise when I found out this makes me an anti-feminist and that I have a “fear of feminist association.” But I was relieved to find out that it actually is a feminist story, and then bewildered when it turns out that the story is really about the evils of consumerism and women are only attracted to Christian because he’s a billionaire. But actually, he’s a fake billionaire so maybe it’s okay that women like Mr. Grey? I’m so confused.
Either way, the billionaire and Anastasia have severely upset the religious right-wing community. While learning that E.L. James may actually be Bill Clinton’s pen name, the story is a “dangerous distortion of God’s design and intentions for sex,” and that for Christian women, marriages should be only black and white and not include shades of grey, I realized I should re-read the novel because I had completely missed the part where the couple experiment with boiling oil. This exciting scene had been cut from my edition, but that’s probably okay because even without it, the book is “more dangerous than ISIS.”
It’s easy to see why conservative religious men are threatened by a story about female sexuality, but they are not the only ones. The internet is filled with horrified cries of “Is this what women really want?” and confused men who wonder whether “we might often stand a better chance in the arena of dating and sex if we appear to be a bit more like Mr Grey” and how we can celebrate a story about “a predatory billionaire punk” in the first place.
I could calm those men by explaining that escapism and fantasy are not related to what women look for in a partner in real life. I could tell them that not only are women intelligent enough to know the difference between fiction and reality, we are actually able to read a book or watch a movie purely for entertainment. Even better, we don’t crave or expect to act out in real life what we experience on the pages or on the screen. Unfortunately, my voice would be drowned out by the men who have already analyzed Fifty Shades of Grey can explain to other men (and women) “Why 50 Shades’ Christian Grey Turns Women On” and “The REAL Reason Women Want To See ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey‘” and the “7 Things Men Can Learn From Fifty Shades Of Grey.” One man even figured out “Everything You Need to Know About Being a Husband From Reading 50 Shades of Grey.”
Obviously nobody cares what a female reader has to say about a book written for women by a woman. So instead of trying to soothe these men’s anxiety, I’ll just escape into another book. Maybe I’ll even write my own. I’m experimenting with a piece of Fifty Shades fan fiction. It’s about a self-made billionaire dominatrix who ties up young men, gags them, and then makes them listen to her opinions all night long.