Fifty Shades of Grey's cover
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Laurie Penny in defence of Fifty Shades of Grey

Critics' main problem with these books seems simply to be that they are porn for women.

Fifty Shades of Grey is easy to mock. The reason it's easy to mock is that it's porn. I picked up the book, with its dark-and-mysterious cover that looks, through half-closed eyes, a bit like one of the Twilight novels, in an airport. I read it on the plane, and I enjoyed it. There, I said it. I enjoyed it because there were, amongst some terrifically trashy bits of girly romance and some eye-watering blow-job scenarios[1], a few quite good, quite detailed descriptions of fucking written from the point of view of a woman who seemed to be really enjoying herself.

That's it. That's all. Fifty Shades of Grey is porn, and porn can be quite fun. With the publishing industry in such choppy waters, I fail to understand why this record-pounding paperback has come in for extra-special derision all over the world, other than the fact that some people are appalled at the idea that somewhere out there, well over ten million women might be – whisper it – masturbating.

"But it's badly written!", I hear you cry. Um, hello? It's PORN. Whilst there is some pornography out there written with a deft stylistic hand – from Anais Nin and Henry Miller to Anne Rice's luscious, filthy Sleeping Beauty series – that's hardly the point, even if you don't buy Oglaf author Trudy Cooper's adage that "erotica just means porn that works for me." A dildo painted with an intricate lubricant-insoluble motif may look delightful, but a plain old rubber shocker gets the job done just as well. This book is porn. It is for wanking to. Pornography made for men is rarely judged on its artistic merits – the average 20-minute RedTube clip has hundreds of thousands of views and practically nobody leaves comments complaining that the lighting is garish, that the pounding cheese music is weird and unsettling, or that there's someone's Bassett hound running about in the background[2].

Similarly, I can't recall Page Three of the Sun ever getting taken to pieces for its lack of artistic imagination. The point, the only point, is to show three million men some tits in the morning, and they've been happily ogling those pixellated teenage breasts on public transport for thirty years. That's understood. Exactly the same basic principle applies to the Fifty Shades series, which has the added bonus that no actual nubile, desperate postpubescents were harmed in its production – but somehow the idea that women might gobble down a poorly-written book in their tens of millions just because they've heard there might be some fucking in it is uncomfortable for the sort of snobbish commentators who have absolutely never themselves bashed out a cheeky one over FHM magazine.

When you get down to it, the problem most people seem to have with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it's for girls. Even worse - it's "mommy porn", porn for mommies, for older women to read and get excited about, and that dangerous nonsense really needs to be stopped right now. Everyone knows that the only women who are allowed to actually have sexuality are slender, high-breasted twenty-one year old virgins – rather like, it has to be said, the heroine of "Fifty Shades of Grey".

Tens of thousands of words have been wasted over whether Christian Grey, our well-tailored, long-dicked hunk of fictional man-meat, is an appropriate lust-object for today's right-thinking feminist, but less attention has been paid to the fact that Anastasia Steele, the protagonist, rather embodies the contemporary concept of "fuckable". Those of us reading Fifty Shades may not all be innocent virgin college graduates, but getting moistly involved with a hardcore sexual fantasy feels less uncomfortable if you can temporarily imagine that you are. Virgin college graduates don't have to feel guilty for fantasising about being seduced by a gorgeous young multi-millionaire entrepreneur with his own private jet and a fleet of audis who's rather unnervingly like Mark Zuckerberg, if Mark Zuckerberg were hot and well-dressed.

Derivative and aesthetically childish though they may be, women everywhere are reading these books, especially now that ebook technology uptake has reached a point where anyone with a smartphone or Kindle can read porn privately on public transport, or one-handed in their bedrooms. The only people who haven't bothered to read the damn books, it seems, are most of the journalists writing about it – which seems to be the only possible explanation for why the parts of the series that have been most anxiously discussed are also the least interesting.

Firstly, there's the sadomasochism. Katie Roiphe's now-infamous Newsweek cover story claimed that the popularity of the Fifty Shades books was evidence that women everywhere are tired of all this feminist liberation and secretly want to be tied down and whipped by wealthy plutocrats. But in fact, there are barely two spanking scenes in the whole of the first book – by far the most in-depth and detailed sex-scenes are "vanilla" – and our protagonist spends most of the time feeling shocked and horrified about her paramour's predilictions, to an extent that anyone actually involved in the S&M community might well find offensive. The watered-down approximation of sadomasochistic sex in the first book, at least, is merely an extended fantasy of possession, of being utterly desired by a person who takes full physical, moral and social responsibility for any boning that may or may not ensue. In a world where women are still made to feel ashamed of ever wanting to experience sexual pleasure for its own sake, that's an appealing fantasy.

Secondly, and most importantly – these books started out as smutty fan fiction. The publishers are extremely keen to underplay this aspect of the Fifty Shades books, and E. L James doesn't discuss it in interviews, but the fact that these books began as extended stories published on the internet in the Twilight fandom community is, to my mind, the most fascinating aspect of the whole Fifty Shades phenomenon.

If you're not familiar with fan fiction, or "fanfic", please just take my word for it that there are countless thousands of men, women and girls out there on the internet – mostly women, mostly young women, and some of them extremely young women – writing and sharing long, dirty stories set in their favourite fictional universes, from Harry Potter to Buffy and Twilight. These stories tend to place beloved characters in sweaty pairings that make private sexual fantasies a community experience – readers comment on and critique one other's work, correcting the most anatomically implausible details and discussing the ins and outs and ins and outs of possible scenarios at breathless length.

Not all fan fiction is filthy, but a great deal of what makes the enormous volume of dirty short fandom stories out there on the internet so exciting is that it's a unique way for readers to re-occupy a text, to rewrite anhedonic, sexless sagas like Harry Potter or actively disturbing chastity propaganda like Twilight with all the bonking and bodily fluids back in. Dirty fanfiction existed before the internet, but online forums have allowed enormous communities of antsy fifteen-year-old girls to crowdsource the education their classmates are getting from RedTube. It was in one of those communities, written largely by women, largely for women, that Fifty Shades emerged, and that fact probably goes quite a long way towards explaining why it works so damn well as what it is. Which, to reiterate, is porn. For women. To masturbate to. Horrifying, I know, but I suggest we all get used to the idea.

[1] "My very own Christian Grey-flavoured popsicle" is not a phrase I'm going to be able to burn out of my brain any time soon.

[2] For more on this theme, visit the absolutely genius indifferent cats in amateur porn tumblr, which just goes to show that the oceans of human time lost in the lonely, backlit wank-alleys of the internet have not been entirely wasted. If you're under 18, get someone who isn't to Google it for you.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Sky Atlantic
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Guerrilla: this drama about the Black Power movement is a missed opportunity

The cast is incredible, but it plays with historical facts, arming its revolutionaries not with serious arguments, but with guns

Dial “B” for Britain: the Story of the Landline (BBC4)
Guerrilla (Sky Atlantic)

Friends poke fun when they come to our house. Our television is too small, and our telephone – the landline of yore – stands on a tiny table in the hall. They seem not to understand that, for a couple of a certain age, the hall is simply where telephones belong: a symbol of agony and ecstasy long after such crazy emotions have been (more or less) erased from one’s life. Mobile phones rule us now, but it was once the landline that was God – and boy, do I remember its tyranny. The blush-inducing lack of privacy as you tried to whisper into the ear of some gorgeous (ie, lumpen) teenage boy; the itchy
misery of having to wait until 6pm to make the call, and of knowing that six minutes precisely thereafter an adult would appear, tapping their watch; the delirious freedom of switching to the red box down the road, even though it stank of pee and Bubblicious.

I’d have liked a bit more of this kind of thing in Dial “B” for Britain: the Story of the Landline (20 April, 9pm). The closest we got was when the Radio 3 presenter Matthew Sweet described the weirdness of the shared “party line” (people you didn’t know jawing away in your ear). Nevertheless, by the standards of most BBC4 documentaries, this one was a treat. Not only did it dig up Buzby, the Post Office bird that told Britons to “make someone happy with a cheap-rate phone call” (or, in my case, unhappy), but someone had also thought to include the episode of Trumpton in which, thanks to an engineer’s mistakes, the town’s telephone exchange was thrown into chaos (a period of mayhem that, as Sweet wryly noted, put its already somewhat stretched emergency services under even more pressure). Best of all, the show had no presenter, so we were not expected to endure the sight of some annoying TV historian in a backcombed wig and headphones pretending – “What number, caller?” – to be a Sixties telephonist.

I guess everyone knows who invented the telephone (Alexander Graham Bell), and that in Britain it was that wild old Queen Victoria who purchased the first couple of machines. But the film delivered so many more interesting facts than these. The Victorians, for instance, worried that the telephone would be too great a leveller, enabling their maids to converse with gentlemen callers. Much later, Giles Gilbert Scott designed his classic K2 telephone box (he took his inspiration from the Soane mausoleum in the yard of St Pancras Old Church) and in 1925 two of the earlier K1s, with thatched roofs, were despatched to Eastbourne, to match the roofs of local pavilions. I do miss telephone boxes, for all that they were such a faff, and so very stinky. Or maybe I just miss
what they symbolise, which is a time when we still valued – and even craved – privacy.

Meanwhile, over on Sky Atlantic, a more horrible kind of nostalgia, in the form of a whacking great dose of Seventies racism and police brutality. You may already have encountered Guerrilla (Thursdays, 9pm), a drama about the Black Power movement in Britain, written by an American, John Ridley, who won an Oscar for his screen adaptation of 12 Years a Slave. Not only are all six episodes now available to watch (assuming you’re a Sky subscriber), it has also been celebrated in the newspapers and online for its ambition and its amazing cast (Zawe Ashton, Babou Ceesay, Idris Elba, Rory Kinnear, Nathaniel Martello-White, Daniel Mays), but attacked because its principal female character (Jas Mitra, played by Freida Pinto) is Asian rather than black.

I go along with the stuff about ambition, and the cast is completely wonderful. But I have great misgivings about the show in other respects. What a missed opportunity. For one thing, there is the way it plays with historical facts, arming its revolutionaries not with serious arguments, but with guns. For another, thus far, our heroes Jas and Marcus (Ceesay) have devoted their energies to springing a simple thug (a burglar called Dhari) from jail. If the viewer can’t sympathise with this, how can she sympathise with them? Answer: she can’t. I can also do without the (patronising) speeches people keep making to each other. Two episodes in and, alas, I’m already out. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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