thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

50 Shades of WHAT IS GOING ON

In girl culture on June 4, 2012 at 7:21 am

Sarah T.

The summer before I started college, the graduating seniors at my soon-to-be school pulled off the prank of a lifetime. Each incoming freshman received, on official-looking letterhead, a note informing us that the book selected for our required summer reading would be Truly Madly Viking. Eventually the college got wind of the switcharoo and sent out the real summer reading notices, but it was too late for some of the over-achieving types (a category that does not include yours truly unfortunately), who had already dutifully plowed through the timeless tale of the love between a modern woman and a tenth-century Norse warrior.

I’m holding out hope that 50 Shades of Grey is also an elaborate practical joke. But on the off chance that it’s neither a prank nor a collective international nightmare, here’s the basic rundown. 50 Shades of Grey is terribly-written Twilight fan fiction that somehow manages to be a million times worse than the (ludicrous) original. It is a masterpiece, and by masterpiece I mean that it masterfully manages to make this charming young man hide inside his hoodie with discomfort. (He actually does a really funny and great job reading selected quotes, and if you’re curious about all the fuss but don’t want to subject yourself to the actual book, the video and the hilarious recaps from Oh Hai Desk are solid alternatives.)

The hoodie-hiding in which readers may feel compelled to engage probably won’t have much to do with embarrassment over the supposedly racy subject matter. The book pulls off the trick of selling itself as risqué (thereby sending digital copies flying off the e-reader shelves) while actually being remarkably tame and boring. We are talking about a book that includes pages and pages of a legal contract complete with clauses and appendices. Multiple times. THE SAME CONTRACT. We saw it already, E.L. James! Why don’t you and BarBri get a room.

Our narrator is Anastasia Steele, a clumsy, bland 21-year-old who has somehow managed to get through college in the twenty-first century without having an email address. She vocalizes romantic ecstasy with the same expression Charlie Brown uses when Lucy pulls the football away from him, and she’s really into tea.

One fateful day Anastasia meets Christian Grey, a 27-year-old business tycoon. He is constantly smirking or looking at her with hooded eyes or gasping. Here are some questions. Does “hooded eyes” make you think of Bellatrix LeStrange or maybe an evil Care Bear? Would you find gasping a lot during regular conversation appealing, or kind of weird? Also, how many different facial expressions do you think a real person goes through in sixty seconds? Like, one or two? Christian goes through hundreds and we hear about all of them. His face is a dizzying strobe light of emotions.

Anyway, they instantly fall in lust with each other and it turns out Christian is into BDSM and Anastasia is not, and that is the whole book. UNSPOILER: nothing happens, for hundreds of pages. No wait actually, here are the few things that happen, over and over again. It’s like a bizarro Groundhog Day where there is no Bill Murray and no laughter and no sense in the world:

  1. Anastasia and Christian read, discuss, debate, and revise the stupid contract, because nothing gets people’s blood pumping like paperwork.
  2. Anastasia bites her lip and Christian tells her to stop it (this happens every few pages).
  3. Anastasia isn’t hungry and Christian orders her to eat (this also happens every few pages, same exact conversation every time).
  4. Anastasia has conversations with her subconscious and her “inner goddess.” The inner goddess does dances and yoga and pole vaults and stuff but the subconscious doesn’t seem to take any kind of bodily form, which seems inconsistent? Who am I kidding, this is the least of our problems.

That pretty much covers it. Everything else—major and minor characters, plot, scenes, etc—is the same as Twilight but without the abstinence and vampires. Oh, and Christian has all of Edward’s stalking and controlling tendencies and then some. The reader is somehow supposed to find romantic a dude who angrily comes to “rescue” a girl who’s just getting like, normal-college-drunk with her pals at a bar. He traces her phone to find her! He also buys the seat next to her on an airplane so she won’t talk to any strangers and realize that she is dating a madman, and later he flies out to join her in Georgia–unannounced and uninvited–while she’s visiting her mom. How is this at all attractive? Nobody knows.

50 Shades makes Stephanie Meyer—a writer who literally includes passages where Bella describes, in detail and as flatly as possible, what it is like to boil water and fold laundry—look like John Milton. It is the worst. But if you have already read it, or if you read it in the future because, like me, you are unable to contain your curiosity, please come on over into the comments and talk to me about it. I think it’s the only way I’m going to regain my sanity.

And if you do like the book, of course that’s perfectly within your rights! I’d love to hear about why, since I’m pretty curious about how it became such a mega-hit. And anyway, I’m not like, Captain Taste Arbiter or anything. Although I would like to have a cashmere eye patch. And maybe a little parrot on my shoulder that only wears Chanel.

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  1. Thank you for this. I have read it twice already, and now cannot stop smiling. I think I’m due for a third after I come back from lunch. Question: have you braved books 2 & 3? I’m curious what you think of the character development long-term, also whether the contract ever goes to the courts or at least, binding (lolz) arbitration?

    • Thanks, Brian!! I haven’t read books 2 and 3 and I’m not sure I can bring myself to take them on. But it might be worth it for your excellent puns alone.

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