What Fifty Shades of Grey Gets Right (and Wrong) About Men
I did it. I just became the first man on the planet to read Fifty Shades of Grey. The world has gone Grey: The book has sold over 10 million copies, sex-toy shops are booming, hardware stores report an uptick in rope sales (used for BDSM), author E.L. James has announced a new line of Fifty Shades products, and a blockbuster movie seems to be a lock.
For the seven women unfamiliar with the plot, here it is in a (spoiler-free) nutshell: Our young, innocent heroine, Anastasia, falls for a rich and powerful man who “has broad shoulders, narrow hips, and his abdominal muscles ripple as he walks. He really is stunning." This man of mystery, Christian Grey, is the “epitome of male beauty," who seems to have secrets, and “his voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel...or something." As Ana falls for this dangerous man, she learns that he's into kinky sex and that he wants her as a “Submissive," even asking her to sign a contract that stipulates that she cannot look him in the eye unless given permission, she cannot touch him and she must be his sex slave every weekend. At first horrified, soon Ana becomes intrigued by this dark, erotic world....
Much has been written about how this book portrays women. Progressive or regressive? Empowering or debilitating? Since I'm the only male who will ever read this book, the task falls upon me to discuss what it says about men. So here's what the book gets right (and wrong) about guys and relationships:
Right: We would laugh at the phrase “inner goddess."
Ana refers to her “inner goddess" not once, not twice -- but 57 times. (I counted on the Kindle -- it really is 57.) She never once uses these words out loud, presumably embarrassed that Grey would laugh at the phrase. She's right! Some favorites: “My inner goddess jumps up and down with cheerleading pom-poms"; “My inner goddess glows so bright she could light up Portland"; “...my inner goddess bounces up and down like a small child waiting for ice cream"; “My inner goddess is spinning like a world-class ballerina"; “My inner goddess pole-vaults over the fifteen-foot bar"; and then, after the pole vault, “My inner goddess is standing on the podium awaiting her gold medal."
Wrong: We like to dominate.
Clearly, the book is fiction -- I get that. But as Grey mania sweeps the world, some will theorize: To what extent does this mountain of id, Christian Grey, symbolize what all men secretly desire? So here's my preemptive answer: NONE. He's in cuckooland. We don't have fantasies of smothering our wives or girlfriends; we don't want to dictate how they dress, sleep and eat. Not only is this profoundly disrespectful, it sounds...time-consuming. We're lazier than that.
Right: We don't like talking on the phone.
Grey and Anastasia rarely talk on the phone. Yep. The author gets this one right. On the other hand...
Wrong: We want to email back and forth 20 times a day.
Basically, 70 percent of this book is porn, and the other 30 percent is a tedious email exchange between Grey and Anastasia, which was an innovative device in fiction...in 1997. Flirty email check-ins are fun. A never-ending chain that requires a reply every two minutes? Well, maybe that's why he needs the bondage -- to counteract the cyber boredom.Right: We like to be challenged.
Presumably, Grey is attracted to Ana because she offers him a challenge. She's not like his usual Submissives who immediately consent. “No one's ever said no to me before. And it's so -- hot." Sure, there's something to this.
Wrong: We like to hold hands on the first date.
On the way to their very first date, Grey takes Ana's hand, holds it, and they walk hand-in-hand to the coffee shop. Who does that?! I found this more disturbing than the spankings and riding crops.
Right: We can't really just “be friends."
“Jose and I are good friends," Ana muses, “but I know deep down inside he'd like to be more. He's cute and funny, but he's just not for me. He's more like the brother I never had." Predictably, Jose makes a pass at her because Billy Crystal was right: “Men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way."
Wrong: We suggest coffee as a first date.
Lamest first date ever. (Then again, if the second date is in a sex-slave lair called the “Red Room of Pain," maybe it all balances out.)
Right: No man would say the phrase “Holy crap."
Ana exclaims “Holy crap!" 38 times. Some notables: “Holy crap! He's wearing a white shirt"; “Holy crap, that's personal"; “Holy crap -- I just said that out loud?"; “Holy crap...he's angry"; “Holy crap...I need to take my pill"; “...and my nipples tenderly sucked. Holy crap." You might ask: Couldn't she have mixed it up and added some variety? She does. Ana says “Holy s**t" 51 times and “Holy f***" another 23.
Right: We can get irrationally jealous.
Grey is (supposedly) a brilliant man who brims with self-confidence. But even this “Greek god" billionaire is rattled by Ana's bumbling friend Jose and her coworker Paul. Yep. This, too, feels authentic -- jealousy has no rhyme or reason.
Wrong: We want to hurt women.
Obvious? I'd hope so. But just in case people are reading this wondering, Wow, maybe men want to punish women, to make them succumb, to gag them or spank them with a belt, to make them cry in pain. Nope. Maybe a little playful BDSM is one thing, but we're good on the belts and the screaming, thanks!
Right: The naughtiness factor is hot.
Something every high schooler knows: Sex is always a little hotter when there's the chance of getting caught. They do it on his desk, they have a quickie at his parents' house, they claw at each other in the elevator, and he even wants to do it in the restaurant. I buy it.
Wrong: The reason we're emotionally closed off is because of a dark and violent secret.
Grey has some serious skeletons in his closet: He was adopted, he was (maybe) sexually abused as a teenager...and since then he's never been able to open up to women. Awwwww. But if a guy has a hard time channeling his emotions, the mostly likely scenario is not that he had some cataclysmic childhood experience that requires therapy. He's probably just a jerk.
Right: We want to impress her on a first date with manly stuff.
Grey whisks her away to Seattle in his private helicopter (that he pilots, of course), rents out a private room at a four-star restaurant and takes her hang gliding at dawn. True, these are cartoonishly cheesy and over-the-top, but if we had the means, this is probably something we'd do.
Wrong: We communicate through an elaborate range of smiles
Author E.L. James, God bless her, must have been stumped: How to convey Grey's emotions to the reader? Maybe by describing the way he smiles? This book could've been called Fifty Shades of Smiles. “His lips curl in a wry smile," “He smiles, but the smile doesn't touch his eyes," “he says with his oh-so-secret smile," “a polite smile that doesn't reach his eyes," a “wry smile" (there are lots of wry smiles) -- and he has a “satisfied smile," a “triumphant smile," a “half smile," a “gloating smile," and sometimes, “He smiles his dazzling head-cocked-to-one-side smile, and my stomach pole-vaults over my spleen." But then, curiously, Ana is “entranced, and it's because his smile is so rare." So rare!?! By my count, the book has 285 smiles.
Make that 286 if you include my own smile...when I finally finished the book.