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.

Photo: Getty
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Winning tears: Chad Le Clos is a great swimmer, but his display of emotion shows real strength

The South African Olympian and his parents offer something we rarely see.

Headlines from the swimming world championships might well have been stolen by Adam Peaty’s world records and golds, but Chad Le Clos’s reaction to winning the 200m freestyle last night had a victory all of its own.

South African Le Clos was visibly moved to tears during the awards ceremony, unafraid to appear emotional after having left the world’s best in his wake. His parents Bert and Geraldine were also filmed wiping away tears in the stands.

Bert had already gone viral at the 2012 Olympics in a BBC interview with Claire Balding, during which he described his son as “the most down-to-earth, beautiful boy you’ll ever meet in your life”. If “beautiful” doesn’t quite chime with expectations of a chiselled, Adonis-like athlete like Le Clos, perhaps even more refreshing was Bert blowing his son a kiss from the commentary perch, saying through the TV: “I love you”.

Last night’s tears were all the more emotional given both Bert and Geraldine are receiving treatment for cancer. It was something weighing on Le Clos, who said that it was “an emotional race, before, during and after it".

Men being so openly affectionate in public is still rare. But it comes during a week in which ITV aired Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, with Princes William and Harry talking about their love of their mother.

When interviewed before the programme, William said: “I think it's been quite cathartic for us doing it. It's been at first quite daunting – opening up so much to camera... but going through this process has been quite a healing process as well."

The Le Clos family might be leagues away from the upper reaches of fame occupied by the Princes, but they both speak to something wider – that it is perfectly fine for men to be emotional, either in times of triumph or of difficulty.

Jack Urwin made the point for Vice and, later, in his book Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity, that “the stubborn lost-husband-refusing-to-ask-for-directions might be a handy caricature – one that's helped people like Martin Clunes sustain a career in television for over 30 years – but it's also rooted in a very real, very destructive notion of masculinity. We're conditioned from an early age to believe that acknowledging weakness is somehow a weakness in itself.”

It is relevant when considering that suicide is the leading cause of death in 20 to 34-year-old men in the UK. The epidemic of young male suicide in the UK cannot be simplified as having one defining cause, or one defining solution. But preventing male suicide and being more willing to accept very natural male tears, are two concepts which stem from the same roots: expression, communication, and destigmatising emotion.

The emotion shown by the Le Clos men is not, however, born out of difficulty – it is born out of happiness and, at the risk of being trite, love. “The Le Clos only cry when we win,” Bert told Sport24 after the Olympics. “We don't cry when we lose and that's the bottom line.”

The reality is that everyone loses as often, if not more often, than they win. Yet in being so willing to display their love for each other, the Le Clos men continue to set a bold precedent. Any criticisms of a snowflake generation, or even predictably crass tweets citing Dunkirk as evidence of 21st century men’s weakness, are spectacularly missing the point.

Yes, Chad Le Clos’s performance in the Budapest pool was muscular, powerful and dominant – but in his tears and his admission that his “family's health is more important than gold medals," he showed another form of strength.