A friend recommended the Shades of Grey novels to me. She said that she could not put them down. She also said that after buying the first book,she sent her husband out to get the second book in the series a day later and the bookstore she sent him to had run out of the first book.
I could use a page turner, so when I was in Target a few days after the recommendation I went looking for the books (Yes, I know--God kills a kitten every time I buy a book from a big box store.) They were sold out of volume I. I ran into another woman looking for the book. "Maybe I'll just buy it for my iPad." I said. "That's a good idea--that way way no one will know what you're reading." she replied.
It was clear to me that this was trashy romance fiction. But, y'know what? My life is Difficult--work is busy and I'm going to school. I told myself that it was okay to read a silly popular romance--I might even enjoy it*.
I did not enjoy the book. Spoiler alert here--for those of you who don't know Shades of Grey (the first book) is about woman named Ana who at the age of 21 (just as she's about to graduate from college) meets a man named Christian who's a successful CEO about 7 years older than her and who she finds adorable. He thinks she's hot too. The catch? He's "50 shades of fucked up" so he doesn't have normal relationships with women--he has BDSM relationships with women involving NDAs (Non Disclosure Agreements) and contracts between a Dominant (him) and a Submissive(the girl in question.)
The book disturbed me. I was not disturbed by the fact that the male protagonist likes to tie the female protagonist up (and maybe spank her or hit her with a riding crop) before he fucks her--what disturbed me was that 1) the heroine's experience reads like that of a woman in an abusive relationship 2) this is apparently the most popular book with American women since Twilight.
What do I mean when I say that this reads like an abusive relationship? When Ana goes to meet Christian's family, one of her friends mentions that Ana hung out with a guy friend of hers to make Christian jealous. Ana is distressed about this, because Christian's a control freak and she knows he will probably take his anger out on her (he does) but she can say nothing, because she has signed an NDA (and she wouldn't anyways--because she adores Christian.) This is why the popularity of the series disturbs me.
I suppose part of the appeal is that the successful-and-hot-but-fucked-up guy who "doesn't do the boyfriend thing" considers Ana special and dangles the idea that he might be willing to consider her more than his submissive toy in front of her. Some of the appeal might be that for the first novel they mostly have sex in various ways. They then proceed to discuss things they don't talk about in person over e-mail.
When Christian spanks Ana for punishment the first time he is surprised that she doesn't cry. After an e-mail exchange he comes back to see here and s distressed that she is crying--partly because she was crying and he didn't know about it. He says "I take it that when you said you were okay [post spanking], you weren't...Anastasia you can't tell me what you think I want to hear." He then goes on to speak to her more about how she felt about him spanking her. I'm willing to admit that some women might find this attractive. Personally I found this particular scene *terrifying*. To me it looked like Ana was not even allowed to be alone in her head--Christian had to intrude and manage.
When I asked another friend of mine (who also reads romance novels) why this series was so poplar she pointed out that the domineering male protagonist was a staple of romance fiction. That is true, but none of the romance fiction I enjoy includes the rider "He punishes me when no one is looking, but I don't tell anyone because I love him." That is not a quote--it's a distillation. Why is this attractive to american women?
*I can be snobbish about my choices in literature--It's mostly a self-defense mechanism. However, at this point anyone who wants to look down on me for my taste in literature is welcome to come and do my job for a few days and tell me how much they feel like reading Plato's Symposium after all that.