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Lynn Crosbie (James Pattyn for The Globe and Mail)
Lynn Crosbie (James Pattyn for The Globe and Mail)

Lynn Crosbie

Does Fifty Shades cast a pall on feminism? Add to ...

“Oh my.” “Jeez.” “Holy cow.” “Oh no.”

These erotic profundities are pried from a page of Fifty Shades of Grey, uttered as the male protagonist’s fingers wander “there.” And wander and wander, often snapping up a crop, handcuffs or an already iconic necktie.

As sales of the grey and white textured silk tie rise, I am reminded of 1992, when simple white Hermès scarves were flying off the shelves because of another BDSM sensation, Basic Instinct (in which the glacial heroine played by Sharon Stone, then deemed “Grace Kelly with nipple clamps,” uses the luxurious items as arm restraints on her lover-victims).

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Rich, beautiful, stylish and polysexual; passionate and vicious: Catherine Trammell (her name a blunt onomastic, or character sketch) was the perfect heroine for the sexually wild and politically fierce bikini killers of third-wave feminism.

Twenty years have passed and what do we have here?

Anastasia Steele, the wife of a man who may as well be Trammell, as drag king.

As E.L. James, the British author of the Fifty Shades trilogy, prepares to tour the U.S., buzz around the series – the bones of which are all too familiar; it started out as Twilight slash/fan fiction – continues to pour forth (recent updates: Universal/Focus Features has acquired the rights, vamp-idol Ian Somerhalder may play Christian Grey, Ellen DeGeneres did a mock-serious reading and James made public the “midlife crisis” that inspired the series).

And critics, largely female, largely angered, have risen to respond to this possibly toxic writing and its deleterious effects, and commentary, on modern women.

Among the most recent is Katie Roiphe, who has stepped out of the cryogenic freezer where she has presumably lived since cynically blaming rape victims – in The Morning After – for scandalous profit in the mid-1990s. In a Newsweek cover story about the new female dream of “surrender,” and citing Lena Dunham’s controversial new HBO series Girls, Roiphe argues, essentially, that the power we gained through equality is boring us; that we do not want it all of the time.

Response to the Newsweek feature is already heated. Female commentators, including dominatrixes and hanky-panky spanky-types (Madonna returns again!), are intently debating the article and the trilogy, and, in doing so, creating the first major pop debate since, well, Twilight. And that debate (unsurprisingly, as the palimpsest of Stephenie Meyers’s books is visible throughout Fifty Shades) centred on the same issues: female passivity and male power, or sexual politics, as the old locution goes.

Leaving Roiphe’s point aside (the prima facie argument of which is repugnant in its exclusionary ignorance), is there, in fact, a growing need among Western women to submit sexually, and in broader terms, to men?

The book, deemed a “Bonkbuster” in Britain, would suggest otherwise.

Read in toto, Fifty Shades is a strange concoction made from Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Bridget Jones’s Diary (the e-mail exchanges between Ana and Christian are clearly pillaged from this funnier, crasser source,) Twilight (of course) and the feverish, crisis-racked mind of Snowqueens Icedragon, James’s former nom de plume.

The writing is shockingly repetitive (Ana purses her lips, Christian looks “snide”; Ana sighs, “Oh my,” Christian says, “Don’t bite your lip!”; Ana rolls and rolls her eyes.) But, from a stylistic perspective, these repetitions are fascinating, as they cement the characters’ essences: After reading the whole series, one is left, indelibly, with a sense of the heroine’s sweet incredulity and defiance; the hero’s strength and weakness.

Further, and as with Twilight – the entirety of which one must read in order to understand the true meaning of Bella’s haplessness; of Edward’s overweening machismo – this is not a novel about submission at all.

Quite the contrary, with a far more sly nod to She Stoops to Conquer (She Kneels to Conquer?), James creates a heroine who is able to express her sexuality in the most ribald of terms (her pregnant body is lashed in the final pages), while occupying a safe (emotionally, physically) site, not unlike the red room – and here Jane Eyre is also updated – where the hardest core of the sex games are played out.

What is BDSM after all but the safest, most vanilla sex imaginable?

If one simply meets someone and takes him or her to bed, all bets are off. Try negotiating a “safe word” with an actual sadist. Or creating a sexual compact with an amorous, pop-eyed drunken pig. Good luck.

The Shades of Grey series is, quite simply, an exciting instance, or dream, of female power, and Anastasia is of a piece with the very best female smut-queens, like Jackie Collins’s Lucky, Sidney Sheldon’s Noelle Page, or Twilight’s Bella Swan, for that matter (it takes her a long time, but she and Edward do break the bed).

Notable, too, is her name: a reference to Anastasia Romanov, of the Imperial hemophiliacs.

For a hemophiliac, to shed a little bit of blood is to die. Right from the outset, Ana’s safe word is her name, which assures us that, while this heroine may be playing dangerous games, she will never be truly hurt.

So few of us have that assurance in our so-called vanilla lives and how is it possible that one – having the space for wild desire and serene security – could ever tire of this power?

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