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Grey matter of fantasy and reality

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There are several highbrow ways one could write about the publishing phenomenon of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the soft-core, S&M trilogy that has found its way onto the Kindles of millions of women worldwide.

One could — sounds highbrow already, right? — ponder the conundrum of public libraries confronted with consumer demand for “Fifty Shades.” Should libraries, um, submit to the public’s craving or take a stand for decency? Answer: It’s a bad idea for librarians to turn themselves into the taste police.

One could lament the lamentable prose. As one Amazon.com reviewer noted, “characters roll their eyes 41 times, Ana bites her lip 35 times, Christian’s lips ‘quirk up’ 16 times, Christian ‘cocks his head to one side’ 17 times, characters ‘purse’ their lips 15 times, and characters raise their eyebrows a whopping 50 times. . . . If I wrote like that, I’d use a pseudonym too.”

But going highbrow on “Fifty Shades” is a way to evade the larger, uncomfortable question: What’s the attraction?

In case you’ve missed the hoopla, “Fifty Shades,” by E.L. James, a pseudonym for British writer Erika Leonard, tells the story of Anastasia Steele, an inexplicably virginal recent college graduate, and Christian Grey, the impossibly handsome and twisted 27-year-old billionaire who falls for her. Boy meets girl, boy whips girl, boy loses girl.

In the end, which takes a looong time to get to, Ana has it her way: She declines to sign Grey’s “submissive” contract; they keep on having kinky sex, but not too much; and Steele helps Grey recover from his wounded childhood.

Think Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester and a “Red Room of Pain” instead of mad wife in the attic.

The “Fifty Shades” books have sold 15 million copies in three months, evenly split between e-readers and paperback as the novels jumped the barrier from the cyber-equivalent of plain brown wrapper to prominent display at your local bookstore. To put this in context, the publisher, Vintage, says it took three years to sell that many copies of the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series.

In a Newsweek cover story on “The Fantasy Life of Working Women: Why Surrender Is a Feminist Dream,” Katie Roiphe suggests a link between women’s empowerment in the public sphere and their fantasies of submission in private.

This is a moment, she notes, “when women are ascendant in the workplace, when they make up almost 60 percent of college students, when they are close to surpassing men as breadwinners, with four in 10 working women now outearning their husbands, when the majority of women under 30 are having and supporting children on their own, a moment when — in hard economic terms — women are less dependent or subjugated than before.”

Roiphe then confuses correlation and causation: “We may then be especially drawn to this particular romanticized, erotically charged, semipornographic idea of female submission at a moment in history when male dominance is shakier than it has ever been.”

Not buying. Women’s fantasies about being swept away, or worse, arrived long before the first bra was burned. Women in their pre-liberated state wanted Rhett Butler, not Ashley Wilkes. Elusive arrogance is oddly attractive; see Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy, or the aforementioned Mr. Rochester.

It is no coincidence that these novels were written by women. It is no surprise that, in an era of one-click-away porn and disconcerting comfort with explicit public discussions about sexual proclivities, the modern manifestation of this tendency would be so graphic.

Still, especially for women who have spent a lifetime arguing for gender equality — in politics, the workplace, and, yes, family life — the popularity of “Fifty Shades” is a disconcerting phenomenon. It requires acknowledging gender differences that we’ve been conditioned to deny.

Yet there is a feminist upside to “Fifty Shades” as well. Ana set the limits, not Christian — and gets the lake house to boot.

And it has ushered in a moment of frank talk about women’s sexual needs and desires. Consider the “Saturday Night Live” Mother’s Day parody ad from Amazon.com in which families bearing gifts — breakfast in bed, new washer — interrupt mommies occupied, ahem, with “Fifty Shades.”

Ultimately, Leonard, the author, makes the key distinction: between women’s fantasies and their realities. “In real life, I think it’s something very, very different,” she told NBC. “You want someone who does the dishes.”

Now that’s one hot fantasy.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com

Read more about this debate: The Post’s View: Fifty shades of popular demand Alexandra Petri: Fifty shades of what? Alexandra Petri: Mommy porn

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