A Room of One’s Own: E.L. James’ ‘Red Room of Pain’

Britt Kidder

Have you noticed anything different about the books people are reading lately? Specifically, I’m referring to the ‘it’ books. The ‘best seller’-‘everyone’s reading it’-‘I hear they’re making a movie’-type of book. And when it comes to a good book, what’s your type?

Many of us here at Hogwarts the University of Idaho still cherish the fond memories of our Harry Potter obsession (Go Manticores!). Then came the Twi-Hards, infiltrating every book club known to human kind with the saga of Bella and Edward. While both of these examples had a clear impact on pop culture, did either of them make you feel embarrassed to be seen reading them in public?

It seems pop-culture is blushing, too, because E.L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey: Book 1 has not only found its way to your grandmother’s book shelf but has also clung (in a most passionate manner, I am sure) to the New York Times’ Best Seller List for a mind-blowing 79 weeks. That’s a year and a half. Currently, Fifty Shades of Grey: Book 1 still holds first place in Paperback Trade Fiction, while Book 2 and Book 3 of the series hold (tenderly?) places five and six on the list.

I wondered if this series might be today’s cult phenomenon in literature, and I will just assume it is rather than consult the more than 21,000 readers who took the time to review James’ first installment. They gave it 4.5/5 stars, by the way.

But, like all romance, it gets a little complicated.

In response to Jezebel’s post, “Fifty Shades Of Grey Not That Great, Admits Author of Fifty Shades Of Grey,” a commenter by the name of DoraDoraBoBora sums up the problem:

“I read this the other day…the whole book was just really lazy and poorly edited, and not sexy at all.

I also don’t really feel like it WAS an accurate BDSM novel because the book makes it seem like the ONLY reason someone would be into that sort of thing is because of deep-seated emotional trauma and they need to be “fixed”. Isn’t that kind of offensive?

I’m curious, though. I got bored before I finished it, and I kind of feel like this book is more dangerous to women than Twilight was. The book constantly drives home the fact that the heroine is often LEGITIMATELY FRIGHTENED of physical punishment from the “hero” when he’s angry (she pleads with him not to beat her more than once), and not in the sexual spanking sense either. He berates her for doing things wrong or for not behaving a certain way when she has no idea what he wants from her. The biggest problem, however, is that the book heavily implies she can “fix” him if she loves him enough, and basically says that if you really love an abusive controlling asshole, all you have to do is stick with him and love him and eventually he’ll see what he’s doing is wrong. It seemed super irresponsible.”

Undeniably, the Grey series has affected pop-culture. If you’re a fan, then — generally speaking — welcome to the ‘book club.’ If you are not, then take a minute to consider the common complaints against James’ novels.

How about, all of the above.

Feminism means everyone EVERYONE gets to be themselves, without fear or harm. If you want to wear a short skirt and walk alone at night, then start marching. If you want to protest patriarchy while topless, then start marching. And if you want to read BDSM erotica, then march to your local bookstore. But please, let’s be smart about deciding what we really want. It’s OK if you like some of the ideas in Fifty Shades, but don’t be fooled into thinking there’s anything healthy, safe or empowering about partner abuse. Portraying abuse as a means to a loving relationship is not helping anyone.

Author Alisa Valdes, of The Feminist and the Cowboy: An Unlikely Love Story, came out earlier this year in admitting she had survived terrible abuse during the real-life relationship chronicled in her romance novel, including violent rape and threats against her life. She wrote to Salon:

“[W]hile I set out to write a memoir that was a love letter to a man I was deeply in love with, a man who challenged me in myriad ways, a man who changed my life profoundly, a man I respected and honored greatly at the time, what I actually wrote was a handbook for women on how to fall in love with a manipulative, controlling, abusive narcissist.”

Sad.

While I wish I could point out an exciting romance novel free from exploitation, generalizations or flaws, there’s probably no such thing. No reason to stop looking though, eh? Fight the good fight? Some of the most popular contenders out there include Silvia Day’s Crossfire series and Ann Rice’s Beauty trilogy. These other books might raise your eyebrows, but they should also raise some healthy questions for you.

Do you think the Grey series is exciting and fun or an example of Stockholm Syndrome? Do you think that Beauty is a sexually unbarred fairy tale or a glorification of rape? I admit I wasn’t able to read more than a few pages of each because the subject matter was too disturbing and too far from my definition of romance.

Just. Please. Put. An. Opinion. On. It. Because what you think is really the only opinion that matters. It’s your book, it’s your brain and it’s your definition of sexy.

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