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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.

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Baby you’re a rich man: the impossible madness of Paul McCartney’s life

“I was on the scrapheap,” the Beatles bassist had thought, aged 27, when the band split up. How wrong he was.

Hard though it is to grasp the full extent of Paul McCartney’s wealth, this book showers you with gentle reminders. He once ordered a pizza to be flown from New York to London by Concorde. He sent a sick puppy on a 280-mile return journey by taxi to a vet in Glasgow, and made the same sort of provision for a duck with a broken leg. “Hundreds” of his cash-filled weekly pay packets were discovered at his house in 1967 but he was already so rich that he hadn’t bothered to open them. He had a yacht turned into a 24-track studio and converted a minesweeper to accommodate the band.

What’s more, he has several Magrittes and a circular bed that used to belong to Groucho Marx. He organised a display involving 25,000 flowers beside the M4 to advertise a Linda McCartney photo exhibition and gave his second wife, Heather Mills, a £360,000 annual allowance (almost £1,000 pocket money a day). If Pete Best, the sacked original Beatles drummer, got “about £8m” for playing on ten tracks on The Beatles Anthology, what sum would the band’s bassist have earned for co-writing most of its output?

But whenever you find yourself envying a life in which you could underwrite a $200,000 heart operation for a friend’s daughter, you remember the grim reality of such fame. McCartney is forced to erect ramparts of privacy to allow him even the ghost of a normal existence. He systematically purchased all of the land around his farm on the Mull of Kintyre, in Scotland, to create a vast, continuous exclusion zone. The wire fences and 65-foot observation tower at his Sussex retreat prompted neighbours to call it “Paulditz”.

His profile is such that he occasionally resorts to riding in vehicles with tinted windows and had to disguise himself in an afro wig to attend a George Harrison concert. Women claiming that he slept with them in the distant past file paternity suits: can you imagine the indignity of being asked to submit blood samples to disprove some pissed event that may or may not have taken place decades ago in a Hamburg Bierkeller?

The repercussions of his celebrity are colourfully examined in this detailed and engaging book, as are the chief figures in his life – his mother and father, his early girlfriends, John Lennon, Brian Epstein and his first two wives – but it is the changing nature of another relationship that makes the most gripping narrative: that of the subject and the author. Tough, fascinated, painstakingly thorough and studiedly unemotional, Philip Norman was always firmly in the Lennon camp, once declaring McCartney’s rival and professional partner to be “three-quarters” of the band. Norman’s bestselling Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation and his superb John Lennon: the Life make this abundantly clear.

But things have changed. The author’s stance has softened. First, McCartney gave his tacit approval for this book – “neither authorising it nor discouraging it” – which allowed Norman access to countless crucial, first-hand accounts. And second, a growing awareness and understanding of McCartney’s predicament both within and beyond the Beatles now allows Norman to excuse various characteristics that he once disliked or considered suspicious.

He accepts that McCartney developed his “double-thumbs-up” demeanour as a valuable public relations shield between the band and the ravenous world: somebody had to “be nice to the endless relays of boring, bombastic local dignitaries, officious police chiefs and dumbstruck, dumb-cluck journalists” and it is entirely to the bassist’s credit that he volunteered.

McCartney’s legendary charm now seems beguiling rather than offensive. It took serious powers of persuasion, Norman points out, to sell millions of copies of the syrupy “Mull of Kintyre” in the teeth of the punk revolution. Who wouldn’t want to be allowed through international borders when you’ve forgotten your passport? Who wouldn’t want to be able to hold the attention of a court of law with just the tiniest modifications of facial expression, after informing a judge that it was your “interest in horticulture” that had led you to possess the marijuana in the first place?

When a Lord of the Rings film project was mooted in 1968, McCartney was tellingly cast as Frodo Baggins, Ringo as Samwise Gamgee, George as Gandalf and Lennon as Gollum. On TV, Paul’s angelic looks made him “seem three-dimensional while the others remained flat”, an irresistible trait that let him conduct love affairs with two other women while officially stepping out with Jane Asher (the reason John and Yoko were initially inseparable, Norman suggests, was that Lennon didn’t dare to leave his new squeeze alone with McCartney, for fear that she might fall under his spell).

There is something attractive, too, about the notion that McCartney ended up being the sole Beatle with a firm grasp on the tiller. While George invited a troop of Hells Angels to hang out at the Apple office (where they harassed the female staff) and John sent spherical packages to meetings with the message “Listen to this balloon”, McCartney had the sixth sense to flag up concerns about employing Allen Klein as their manager, a deal from which they later paid a fortune to escape.

So why alarm bells didn’t ring when he ran into Heather Mills is a mystery that baffles even Philip Norman. At the time, friends advised McCartney (with excruciating irony) that taking up with this doughty campaigner would be like “walking into a minefield”. In selfless support of his new wife, he started to wear T-shirts bearing the slogan “NO LANDMINES!” when they used to scream: “GO VEGGIE!” There is something profoundly sad about the whole episode; it is a tale so unnerving and crammed with agonising incident that Norman devotes 80 pages to it.

Mills convinced the world – and her apparently suggestible new husband – that she was some kind of romantic rebel, who had run away from home as a teenager to work on funfairs, sleep rough in cardboard boxes and steal food from supermarkets. She was soon labelled a “fantasist”, revealed to be a former topless model and accused of pedalling untruths and exaggerations to the extent that Jonathan Ross declared that she was “a f***ing liar” and that he “wouldn’t be surprised if we found out she’s actually got two legs”. With her press profile switching from “Diana” to “Mucca” in a matter of weeks, she sued her exasperated husband for £125m and settled for £16.5m, which speak volumes in itself.

And what of the music? Very little of this book concerns McCartney’s songwriting, which is understandable, as it is the area so comprehensively explored by the great Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn and by Ian MacDonald’s peerless Revolution in the Head – though when Norman describes Lennon’s and McCartney’s harmonies as “like vinegar and virgin olive oil”, you rather wish there was more of it. Instead, he is aiming to produce the most detailed composite picture imaginable and he succeeds effortlessly.

You’re left with a sense that McCartney’s life in the Beatles was impossible madness and that he has been in recovery ever since. “I was on the scrapheap,” he had thought, aged 27, when the band split up. “It was a barrelling, empty feeling that just rolled across my soul.” You’re so sympathetic that you want to forgive him everything.

Well, almost everything. He paid Wings members £70 a week and once deducted £40 for “hire of amplifier”.

Rock Stars Stole My Life! by Mark Ellen is published by Coronet

Paul McCartney: the Biography by Philip Norman is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (864pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism