The book is about a young woman who has been turned into a submissive sex toy by a cinematically handsome and charming 28-year-old billionaire. I know nothing about the British author, E.L. James, but by her words I’d guess she’s a precocious 14-year-old girl writing during fevered frenzies of self-abuse. The book puts the “rot” in “erotica.” For example:
“I’m losing all sense of self, every atom of my being concentrating hard on that small, potent powerhouse at the apex of my thighs.”
Because I could not reconcile the success of this book with my respect for women, I turned in desperation to the one person who might: my friend Gina Barreca, an expert on feminist literature.
Gene: Please explain why the success of “Fifty Shades of Grey” doesn’t suggest that women are nitwits.
Gene: Gina, are you crying?
Gina said (this is completely true) that she needed time to compose herself. She called back two days later.
Gina: I have come to the conclusion that the problem is men.
Gene: Excellent! Proceed.
Gina: I admit this is not women at their finest. It is mass hysteria, like when teenaged girls in Colonial Salem started crying “witch.” But hysteria often has an identifiable etiology. The witch girls were driven to madness by the combination of Puritan sexual repression and the low status of women. They were desperately attempting to assert control, but they did so unwisely. What’s happening with the sales of the abominable, leprous “Fifty Shades of Grey” is very much the same.
Gina: The supposed modern equality of women is chimerical; we still bear the primary responsibility for child-rearing, which limits our careers; this gives us responsibility without power. Into this toxic mix enters modern pornography. Are you familiar with it?
Gene: I have colleagues who have friends who know people who are a little familiar with it.
Gina: Splendid. It’s breathtakingly degrading to women, even more so than in the Playboy era, where the reader at least had to use his imagination a bit; to court the Girls of the Big 10, he had to create scenarios in his head, the equivalent of foreplay. Now, with sleazy videos, it’s just about watching acts in gynecological detail, no fantasy, no courtship, no foreplay, just the use of a body as a tool, typically culminating in an act so physically humiliating and perverse I cannot voice it here. This has all extended into the modern bedroom. I know. I hear it from my female students. Women feel used and ignored, and if you read “Fifty Shades” with this in mind, what you see, beyond the adolescent-level sex scenes, is a man lavishing an astonishing amount of attention on a woman. That’s what women are responding to, that little crumb of hope for respect and control, packaged for us by the male-geek-dominated tech world in the Kindles and the felicitously named “Nook” machines that helpfully confer anonymity in public, no book jacket visible, to better hide our shame.
Gene: Not sure I buy that.
Gina: You’re not the target audience, dude.
E-mail Gene at email@example.com. Find chats and weekly updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.