It seems telling that Grey, the new novel in the 50 Shades series, opens with our romantic hero Christian Grey in the midst of a nightmare: The reader is finally getting as far inside his mind as possible. In the dream, young Christian attempts to get his drug-addicted mother to join in and play with his toy cars. She asks "Maggot" to stop and he loses a car under the couch—poor, poor future billionaire.
Grey is the fourth book in E. L. James's blockbuster of a series (and movie; jewelry line; themed-lubricant; and novelty products, such as Grow-A-Mr.-Grey) based around enigmatic billionaire Christian Grey and his virginal lover, Anastasia Steele. While the books have so far been told through Anastasia's eyes, the new novel retells 50 Shades of Grey from Christian's perspective, who has so far been presented as a complex, brooding character with a dark past.
If Grey is a rehashing of the same plot and boring(…ish) BDSM sex scenes, it's also an opportunity to look at how the same scenes are told from a female and male perspective, respectively. Unfortunately, the book does less to provide a guide for how men think than to package Christian's thoughts in a way that is designed to appeal to female readers, using clichés culled from the romance genre. Ladies: A rich, gorgeous man is relentlessly pursuing you, the smart and beloved heroine, in search of a monogamous yet promiscuous relationship! The formula works for a reason.
"What could be more delightful than knowing what the man is thinking about the heroine when you are identifying with the heroine?" said Susan Ostrov Weisser, author of The Glass Slipper: Women and Love Stories and professor of English at Adelphi University, where she specializes in women, sexuality, and romance in literature.
"We all want to know what that man we're in love with is thinking about us," Weisser told me. "The stereotype, which I think has some truth to it, is that women are always talking about their boyfriends—dissecting the text messages, wondering what this and that means with their girlfriends. Many of my female students confirm that they do that. That's really trying to guess what's in his head."
This is important, Weisser stressed, "because if you know what he's thinking and feeling, you have more control."
Of course, there's something demystifying about this portrayal of romance as a simple struggle for power between two interested parties. The saving grace of the genre, and of the 50 Shades series, is that we're told time and again our heroes are in love. It's not hard to wonder why Ana keeps returning to Christian when he describes her in Grey as "dazzl[ing] me in a way that I've never experienced."
James does let us into Christian's head throughout Grey. During the couple's first meeting, he describes Ana as disappointing, dull, and displeasing. Over this same meeting in 50 Shades, Ana has more of a one-track mind: Christian is described as "attractive, very attractive," "polite," and an "Adonis." Christian picks Ana despite her "homeliness," and we see a glimpse of his controlling edge. "She shouldn't be driving in this weather, but I can't forbid her," he thinks to himself. Yet.
Christian describes Ana as "topping from the bottom" throughout Grey—a phrase borrowed from BDSM sex play, which means taking charge of their relationship despite her seemingly powerless role—because her opinions and emotions supersede her role as his potential submissive. It's because of this so-called sparkling personality that he falls for Ana. On their first night together, Christian marvels at himself by letting Ana spend a full night in his bed. As both Grey and 50 Shades progress, he's wondering how to get through the night without her. Be yourself, Grey seems to be teaching readers, and someone will fall in love with you anyway.
As anyone who's read 50 Shades will recall, Ana's inner monologues are often framed through her "inner goddess." This perky inner goddess—mentioned 57 equally annoying times in the text—is a relentless cheerleader for Ana's newfound sexuality. As Gawker points out, the counterpart in Grey is Christian's cock. But Grey isn't all dicks and floggers; Christian muses on Ana's beauty left and right. He especially enjoys it when her skin flushes "pale rose," that favorite color of straight men. Weisser refers to this tactic as the "adoring male gaze," a byproduct of the perspective switch. Incidentally, it's an old romance-novel trick: James is letting the reader know how men supposedly think by letting us into Christian's mind. Surprise—he only thinks about Ana. Once in awhile he checks his work email.
Weisser points out that romance novels—perhaps especially ones like Grey, which purport to offer the male perspective—can offer unrealistic expectations. "Some women say they're empowered by the romances, that they can expect more of men," she says. "They learn what they need to demand."
But others are more aware that our culture can be pervasive. "How can you say that you live in a culture that has certain ideas about love and that it doesn't effect you?" she asks. "It's silly to say these publishing phenomena don't contribute to that. On the other hand, of course women do understand that these are not real-life scenarios and that they're not the gorgeous women on the cover and that their husband or boyfriend is not the gorgeous man on the cover."
'It isn't fair to say that men aren't into romance. After all, men fall in love.'
Grey is already the highest preordered eBook of 2015 on Amazon. According to the New York Times, there are 1.6 million copies of the book in print since the book's release on Thursday. Surely, not everyone with a Kindle is looking to be a sex slave. But what woman wouldn't like a guide to melting someone's heart?
Still, despite the excessive use of the word "cock" and the addition of luxury-car talk—"the A3 is fun to drive, though it's got less torque than I'm used to"— Grey's perspective shift doesn't inherently make this a more masculine novel. After all, it wasn't written for men; it was written for the women who identify with Anastasia.
"Sometimes I get a man in my class who says it isn't fair to say that men aren't into romance. After all, men fall in love," Weisser points out. "I think it's a cultural idea that women imbibe internally and that really structures their lives. The evidence for that is that the audience for romances is at least 95 percent women and it's written by 95 percent women. How do you explain that if romance isn't particularly something that's associated with women and that women perpetrate?"
That's especially true in the sex scenes in Grey, which are ripped straight from 50 Shades, often landing on the same pages as your dog-eared copy at home. One welcome change is that Christian's experience lends itself to less earnest narration. Whereas 50 Shades' Ana wonders, "He's picked up something from the rack of whips and paddles by the door. Holy cow. What is he going to do?" Grey's Christian knows what he wants in the bedroom and is pleased when he receives it. "She's totally and willingly at my mercy. The knowledge is intoxicating, and I stand for a moment to marvel at her generosity and courage."
The biggest difference between the sex scenes, as told through the male and female perspective, is that Christian's version is full of jargon: "As more choristers lend their voices to the motet I lift the handle of the flogger and flick the tresses across her belly. She cries out, I think in surprise, but she doesn't safe-word." (Translation: He's a classical music snob who's fucking her to choral music using a whip-like leather sex toy. She hasn't used the code word asking him to stop.) In this scene in 50 Shades, Ana—who to be fair, is a little busy being flogged—is thinking simply, "Holy cow, a celestial choir… What in heaven's name is this? I have never heard anything like it."
Even in the passages where Christian insists he's "punishing" Ana with vanilla sex, James throws in a compliment so we can't stay mad at Christian for too long. After one scene in Grey, Christian notes that Ana is "sprawled out beneath me, her dress bunched up around her waist so I can see she's wide and wet and wanting, and looking every bit the goddess that she is." By contrast, 50 Shades' Ana thinks Christian's lack of sexual control around her is "hedonistic" but also gives her a "triumphant feeling."
It's unlikely that the 50 Shades series would challenge your expectations for romance, and Grey is no exception. But not to worry, readers: The real fiction is love itself. According to Dr. Weisser, "It's a fantasy of the reader that a man is going to feel this way about her. Fifty million women are so special that a man is going to feel this way about her. And that's the mythology of love, that everyone is special and is going to be loved this way, which I personally think is horse shit."
Grey by E. L. James is on sale at bookstores and online.
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