Anyone who wandered in to Liverpool’s Waterstones’ café on a sunny Tuesday lunchtime last week may have been surprised to find the phrases ‘sadomasochism’, ‘erotica’ and ‘BDSM’ audible above the coffee grinder and general murmur of other oblivious, or confused, shoppers. However, the ‘Lunchtime Classics’ events organised by Glyn Morgan at the Liverpool One Store are not shut away or cornered off like many public lectures, but set right in the middle of the shop floor; and even the more controversial than usual book choice of Fifty Shades of Grey was treated the same. However, the event itself was very different to any that had been held at the store before, both in subject matter and delivery.
The lecture, by Edge Hill University’s Reader in English Literature, Dr Mari Hughes-Edwards, objectively and unashamedly examined both the criticism and praise of the novel. She stressed that although cultural opinions of the novel are largely condemnatory, ‘it is important to examine the novel because current popular culture is important – it tells us so much about the lives, hopes and dreams of millions of men and women alive now’. This argument is one that was also made by several of the attendees of the lecture, many of whom echoed the importance of exploring not just literary but widely read texts, with the million selling Fifty Shades trilogy being a perfect example. Despite this, the idea of discussing Fifty Shades of Grey in an academic context, or even in the public context of Waterstones, still prompts some outrage. The text itself widely divides opinion, and Dr Hughes-Edwards discussed this, stating: ‘I guess this is because it features a woman who (to some extent) enjoys being brutalised. Some may be outraged because it focuses (for the first two of the three books anyway) on pre-marital sexuality. It also suggests that sadomasochism is the result of psychological dysfunctionality (which it is not). And add in, for good measure, the fact that it suggests that a woman (Christian’s mother) is to blame for his sadomasochistic tendencies, and you have genders, sexuality, motherhood and morality, all being offended in some eyes’.
It is the gender dimension of the trilogy that has proved particularly inflammatory for female and feminist critics of the novels, who find the gender politics of Ana as a female character, and her relationship with the patriarchal figure of Christian Grey problematic. This is highlighted as an especially worrying issue by the combination of it being a female authored text, alongside the masses of female readers consuming the novel. Although within the genre of erotic literature, Ana is set up as a more complex character than your average romantic heroine; her original claims of independence both economically and intellectually are swiftly eroded once she begins her relationship with the wealthy and controlling Christian. By the second and third novels of the trilogy, all claims Ana has maintained over her own free will are subsumed into a heterosexist marital framework, according to Dr Hughes-Edwards, which condemns her to the traditionally stereotypical female roles of wife and mother.
What is perhaps most bleak about the trilogy is that, as Dr Hughes-Edwards argued, it ‘does nothing new in gendered terms – and perhaps that has been its mass appeal’. She also suggested that on some level the appeal of Ana as a protagonist lies in her extraordinary ordinariness; ‘She’s everywoman – and yet she’s the one (the billionaire has chosen her). It’s kind of like Bridget Jones but with a dungeon as well as a diamond ring’. Although it is not often that a mainstream romantic comedy is compared with a BDSM relationship, the ‘happily ever after’ notions traditionally associated with romance are all played out within Ana and Christian’s relationship. Despite her ‘ordinariness’ she is able to attract the rich and attractive man, and then through her love ‘cures’ him of his sexual ‘deviance’ and secures a traditional future of marriage and children / happily ever after. But does the evident popularity of this framework signal a real, or socially conditioned, desire, or does it emphasise how removed the notions of sexuality and love are from the wider social position of women? In essence, asked Dr Hughes-Edwards, should politics be left at the bedroom door?
Although some would argue that the sexual practices of BDSM relationships naturally involve a submissive party which, unlike in Ana’s case, is not always the female. However, E. L. James’ representation of sadomasochism has attracted wide criticism from within the BDSM community for its inaccurate and potentially harmful depictions. Christian and Ana’s relationship is somewhat misrepresentative of consensual sadomasochism, and it lacks a sadomasochistic partnership desired by both parties. The ‘contract’ between the two is also problematic as it extends beyond the expected remit of a sexual relationship, as Christian controls Ana’s eating, drinking, socialising and exercising. Therefore the argument that the political element of female submission is irrelevant when analysing the sexual relationship of the two characters is not valid as the dominance of Christian over Ana extends outside of the bedroom. Dr Hughes-Edwards suggested that we need to develop, ‘new feminist approaches’ in order to investigate the appeal of this dynamic to female readers, as ‘something is obviously still wrong if women like to buy books about their own abuse in such numbers’. This, she argued, could be one important legacy of the trilogy.
The Waterstones lecture also included a dramatization of the text by Edge Hill graduates Louise Grist and John Smethurst. This was the first time that the Lunchtime Classics series had featured a dramatic reading, and it worked well as an engaging technique, allowing the prose under discussion to come to life. The two actors also said afterwards that recreating the scenes had given them a new insight into the characters, and the novel. John Smethurst, who played Christian Grey, observed how one reason for the negative reactions to the novel may be that ‘Christian’s notion of setting Ana free through sexual activity also invites the suggestion that freedom is enacted by bondage’. Louise Grist, who played Ana Steele, also stated: ‘I think the book is written by someone actually very guarded and at first I wasn’t sure of the author’s technique. I thought there was a lack of description when detailing the erotic parts of the book, showing the author’s inexperience, but in hindsight, this is representative of Ana’s character’. Perhaps what this emphasises most clearly is that by dismissing E.L. James’ novel as popular, or non-literary, we can miss features of the narrative that would be analysed and praised within a different context. The event as a whole was an important step in fostering a frank discussion about a text that is often dismissed and diminished in literary terms. Although it may not be a ‘literary classic’ in the traditional sense of the phrase, the Fifty Shades novels have flown off the shelves, thereby both creating and encouraging new readers, book-clubs, generating online debate and inspiring wider spin-off Fifty Shades phenomena. There is no doubt that, for better or worse, it will impact upon the literary and cultural world of the twenty-first century for years to come.