According to Box Office Mojo, Fifty Shades of Grey grossed $239,670,000 worldwide during its opening weekend. The book itself has sold over 100,000,000 copies worldwide. There are many who have a hard time understanding this phenomenon, believing it a fluke—chalking it up to the power and momentum of hype and suggestion. For fans and devotees of E.L. James, the appeal is obvious, simple. From the other side of the fence, however, there is nothing simple about it. Most of the negative and hostile reviews are written by people who have not seen the film or read the book, however, many have done both and were horrified by what they read and saw. They interpret the messages in the book as reprehensible: rape, forced seduction, restraint, control, manipulation, abuse. Fans beg to differ.
Years ago, I moved to a new city. I didn’t know anyone and after several months, I became lonely and depressed. I used to walk my son to school every morning, and there was always a group of women standing around and chatting long after the bell had rung. I longed to join them. Then the day arrived when they invited me over. It felt like I had been given a glass of crisp spring water after stumbling through a barren, arid desert. At first, I was a little shy and uncertain, but after several mornings, I began to loosen up, laughing and chatting animatedly, enjoying the friendly camaraderie. That is until I told a joke.
One of the women regaled the group with a joke she had heard. It was cute and witty, and I chuckled along with everyone else. I offered up one of my own, one I had recently heard on a radio station. It was provocative, sexy, and a little dirty (seriously, it was really, really, funny). Except, when I delivered the punchline, I was the only one laughing. I was awarded a few polite smiles, and the conversation was diverted. That was a hard limit. Sex was off the table.
I went home that morning in a daze. I wanted desperately to fit in, and given the strict guidelines of the group, I adjusted my behaviour accordingly. I closed off a really fun, witty, playful side of myself in order to toe the line of respectable conservatism.
A part of me died that day.
Let’s flash forward a few years. I taught yoga, and I co-wrote an inspirational book called Life: Living in Fulfillment Every Day. I blogged about finding balance, about managing expectations, about finding the beauty and joy in our every moment. In my actions and thoughts, I tried to embody peace and serenity. I strove for balance and attempted to reduce stress in my life. There was an image I was expected to project, and at first, I embraced it willingly, but after a few years, I found myself wanting more. I was missing something. Part of me was still shut off. I was still toeing that line.
Let’s catch up with the present. In addition to Life, I’ve now written a historical fiction, Avelynn, which will be released this fall through St. Martin’s Press. It’s sexy, sensual, gritty, powerful, and compelling. I’ve also written a sexy, short story: Italian Delicacy, which is very yummy. Should I have written under a pen name? Hidden this other side of me? After years of tamping down my vivacious half, I coaxed it out of hiding. I offered it flowers and chocolate, begged it to come out to play. In fact, I’ve pushed so hard against the constraints and limitations that once bound me, that I’ve externalized that journey with a tattoo.
Now, what on earth does all this have to do with Fifty Shades of Grey? Like the dragon and the OM. There are two parts of me. One is calm, the other likes to roar. One is peaceful, while one is rebellious and wild. One is mystical, the other one magical. One is powerful, one surrenders. One is dignified, and one is downright naughty. I am a kaleidoscope of colour and nuance. All women embody that brilliant tapestry. We are sexual and conservative. We can be dignified and respectable, nurturing and matronly, but we can also be playful and mischievous, hot and wild.
Women have a rich internal world and a vibrant external one. But too often, we are expected to live outwardly in a completely opposite fashion from who we really are deep down inside. Let me give you another example. Several years ago, I went out with my husband on a date. After months of spit up and diapers, I wanted to dress up—I wanted to feel sexy again. As I was leaving, kissing my children good-bye, my mother-in-law asked me if I was really going to wear that out. She was referring to a lovely blouse that showed off some considerable breastfeeding cleavage. She said this in front of my eldest. At the time, I was too dumbstruck to speak. It wasn’t until later that I explained to my son that I was a mom, but also a woman, and it was okay to be both.
I was done with shutting down that vibrant part of myself. The world needed to accept all of me. Every part, whether that fit into their expectations or solicited their judgments and disapproval. I was tired of being flat and colourless. I needed to be me. E.L. James fans get this. And they want to be given permission to enjoy the movie without condemnation and censure.
In my opinion, the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey rests on the broad shoulders of female sexual fantasies. The part of us that we don’t always show to the world, the part that ignites a spark of desire and arousal that might not seem politically or socially acceptable—the dragon.
To fans, the movie and books are not extolling abuse, but rather are condoning women’s fantasies, bringing to the screen a fantasy that upwards of 60% of women find arousing.
Anne Rice defended women’s fantasies in a recent Facebook post: She wrote: “Lecturing women on their fantasies, telling them NOT to like “Fifty Shades” because it includes abuse is just as bad, in my opinion, as telling women that “nice girls” don’t imagine being kissed, loved, touched, ravaged, swept off their feet. “Nice girls” can imagine anything they want.”
For a unique perspective. Huffington Post recently broke down another study by a team of researchers from the University of North Texas and the University of Notre Dame.
According to the article, there are two schools of thought as to why so many women get aroused by behaviour that the detractors of Fifty Shades of Grey consider deplorable. One is the ‘sexual blame avoidance’ theory, the other, newer, more enlightened theory is an ‘openness to sexual experience.’
The sexual blame avoidance theory proposes that women fantasize about being controlled and forced into having sex because they are unable to own their sexuality and instead worry about how society will perceive them. Being forced into and ultimately enjoying sex because of their submission removes personal responsibility—they couldn’t help themselves, it wasn’t their fault.
The women who fell under the new classification, described themselves as being open to sexual experience and didn’t feel a need to hide or repress their sexuality. They had high self-esteem and while enjoying the idea of being forced into sexual situations similar to what is depicted in Fifty Shades of Grey, they were also just as likely to fantasize about overpowering and forcing a man to surrender sexually against his will.
Fantasies are a natural and very normal part of our sexual lives, for both men and women, and we do ourselves a great disservice when we disavow that part of ourselves. A part of me died the day I hid the sexual, fun, flirty side of my personality. Rather than tamping down the gains we’ve made as women to express ourselves, (thank you, Madonna) to own our sexuality, to admit freely that we enjoy and think about sex as much as men do, we need to embrace all aspects of who we are. We are a dichotomy, and one aspect is not better than the other, we are both, we are all. We can stand against all forms of violence and abuse, whether it be against women, men, children or animals. We can fight injustice and ignorance. But we can also have a rich and varied fantasy life. We can be both the dragon and the OM.