Fifty Shades, One Story

We are besieged  by do-it-yourselfers wanting to spruce up their homes. Mr. and Mrs. Clayton and John and Patrick – the two other part-timers – and I are besieged by customers.

~E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Terrible Writing Grey

'Mens Yellow Stripe Necktie' photo (c) 2011, Michael Patterson - license:


Yes, I actually paid for and mostly read Fifty Shades of Grey. Feel free to judge me. Heck, I judge me.

But I admit, when any book gets that much traction, it piques my interest and I will read it. Or at least try to read it. The writing in this is just plain terrible and I eventually had to say good-bye to Ana and Christian. If I had to read about one more cocked head or lips pressed into a hard line or inner goddess, I was going to start beating someone, and not in a sexy way.

So why on earth is this book completely dominating the best-seller list? Why are grown-up, adult women consenting to read absolute garbage writing?

I’m sure there are numerous reasons. Curiosity. Dissatisfaction. Boredom.

But I think a big reason why women are reading this trilogy is because we’re tired of the narrative. You know the one.

It’s the story of the virtuous woman who gives in to sex because she’s been worn down by her insatiable boyfriend.

It’s the story of the microwave and the crock-pot.

It’s the story of the man who only wants sex and the woman who only wants intimacy.

Honestly, it just gets old. And regardless of your opinion about Fifty Shades, it certainly does not follow the same narrative that we’ve been told.

Instead, we have a woman who straight up wants sex. Ana’s relationship with Christian isn’t based on love, it’s based on desire. There are moments of emotional intimacy, but what draws them together is much more carnal.

In short, it’s a book about fucking.

The first book that I remember reading about sex was Just Like Ice Cream. It was about a 16-year-old girl who gets pressured into having sex with her older boyfriend. It was very frank in its description of sex, but in a way that slightly frightened me. The main character Julie eventually learned to tolerate sex, but she never wanted it and certainly didn’t enjoy it. In my formative years, my best hope for sex was that it would be tolerable. Not fun, not exciting, not thrilling, not mind-blowing. Just…tolerable.

And as much as I’d like to say this is strictly a religious thing, it’s not. Popular culture tells the same story of the woman who gives in to her husband’s nagging for sex. Or worse, if a woman does desire sex, she is just a slut.

I think this is why Fifty Shades, despite its ridiculous plot, redundant phrasing, and complete lack of editorial input, is a huge best seller. Because women want something else. We’ve grown weary of the story that has us as mere observers of our sexuality, we want to be full participants. We want to know that it’s okay to want to orgasm every time (or, you know, more). We want to know that it’s okay to have physical desires that aren’t just about intimacy or romance. We want to know that we have power over our own sexuality. We want to know that it’s okay to want to fuck.

If we can allow that to be integrated into the lone story that many women encounter, we can go beyond mere grey into something more beautiful and colorful than any best-seller could contain.

I think it’s time to get besieging this story.

  • Michelle Krabill

    i whole-heartedly agree.

  • Jessica Schafer

    I think you’ve totally nailed it: “We’ve grown weary of the story that has us as mere observers of our sexuality, we want to be full participants.”

    I haven’t read 50 Shades and don’t plan on it (I don’t think I could get through it without snorting every other sentence), but I think the reaction to it definitely calls for a better conversation around the importance and role of desire in women’s lives!

    • Alise Wright

      Exactly. I don’t think the book itself has much to say about women’s sexuality, but the reaction absolutely does.

  • Sandra D

    I managed to get through the first book–but it hurt like hell; I’m considering therapy. What I came away with is that women are tired of lax men who lack passion, conviction, and vigor. Your perspective about women growing tired of merely tolerating sex is a new one I hadn’t thought about, though. Either way, it seems women want “something more beautiful and colorful”–in the meantime we’ve settled for one dull shade of grey. *shudders*

    • Alise Wright

      I think your take-away is very valid as well. And yes, I think MORE is the key. Women’s sexuality has been very one-dimensional for far too long.

  • Travis Mamone

    Fifty Shades of Gray = Twilight for grown-ups

  • Caris Adel

    Good insights…I think you’re right.  I know a few women who are reading it and they are also all buying tickets (along with their high school daughters) to Magic Mike tonight and have been counting down the days all week.  Karen Yates had an article earlier about needing to talk about this because this is all about to be big money and flood the market, and I think she’s right.  I don’t even know what to say about it.  I think it’s all terribly sad, even if it’s understandable, and then I think about all of these husbands who are being held up to a different kind of fantastical standard, and are going to fall way, way short……..I know I couldn’t go to MM and lust over it, and then come home and be satisfied with my tired, slightly overweight husband.  :/  It just all makes me sad.  

    • Alise Wright

      I do agree that it has impact on real marriages. Which is why I don’t think we can afford to not talk about it. And we definitely need to include men in the conversation.

  • Christie

    I totally agree with your assessment of the writing. Just plain horrible. If all it takes for a book to become a sensational bestseller is to throw in “forbidden” words like cock and pussy, then we could be bazillionaires. I actually think that the story is much of the same old story – inexperienced girl meets and falls for a hunky, rich guy who is “flawed” in some way and afraid of commitment. She wants more, he wants sex. I can’t help thinking that because of Ana’s inexperience it’s not that she really wants the sex, it’s just that she wants to be wanted. Obviously, I didn’t enjoy the book. I do agree with you, however, that it’s popularity might says something about women’s desire to regain control of their own sexuality, but the borderline abuse in Fifty Shades sadly puts us right back in the position we were before as the cultural and sexual submissive.

    • Alise Wright

      Yeah, the whole sub/dom thing is troubling. I don’t mind play, but when it’s an obsession, it’s really problematic. Believe me – I’m in no way advocating these books!

  • Judy5cents

    I’d never even heard of this book until one of the sweet old ladies in my Board of Elections training class told me her book club was reading it. Then suddenly it seemed like I couldn’t get away from it. It was every where. I even considered reading it to see what all the fuss was about, as I did with “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” But I came to my senses, as life’s too short to read bad books.  This isn’t the first poorly written book about sex to become wildly successful. And it won’t be the last.

  • Sarah Moon


    I will never read 50 Shades of Grey (I’ll stick to smutty Torchwood fanfiction, thanks :P), but some of the responses to it I found odd. No one was discussing whether or not consent was present or how such terrible writing became such a sensation….

    It was like all the critiques were, “Why are women reading this? Since when do women like porn?”

    • Alise Wright

      Right??? First duh. Women have been reading erotica since forever. Though I don’t know that it’s been so crazy popular like this one.

      But yeah. The inability to see women as sexual creatures with desire is just really unfortunate. And harmful to EVERYONE. I think a lot more people would find a lot more happiness if they would just let women enjoy sex.

      • Hilary Lambert

        I was thinking the same about the 50 Shades phenomenon, haven’t women always read smutty romance novels? How is this any different?? But, I’ve never read any books with Fabio on the cover and don’t plan on reading 50 so I guess that’s why I don’t qualify to answer these questions. Not that I’m against reading these types of novels, I would definitely read a book with intense sexual situations if it were any good. I don’t want to read a book just for the sex. 

  • sweetpea

    Thanks for writing a response.  I’m also the type to read hyped up books just to see what the hype is about but…I think I’m gonna pass on this one.  Time better spent reading more quality fiction.  But I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for conversation surrounding.

  • Stephanie Sikorski

    “Heck, I judge me” …. great line! Found you from Sunday Superlatives. I wrote about 50 Shades too. Here’s my take

  • Donotdisturbblog

    I have many thoughts and opinions about this subject.  In short, women wanting to be free to express their own sexual desires in the same way men have been afforded to over the years is not the answer.   I believe there is great freedom to recognize our sexuality and to enjoy it but I am not sure we should take any cues from men as to how to do this.  Not sure it has historically worked in their favor to truly experience what I would describe as great sex.

    I did however want to share a good article that I think some of your readers may be interested in.  The article talks about how to approach sex with your husband when you just want to be taken.  It is written from a Christian perspective.

    • Alise Wright

      I don’t think any of us, men or women, should be pigeon-holed into a particular sexual role. You won’t see me advocating for women to behave like men because I don’t think any of us have one single way to approach sex.
      I just can’t read a story like Ruth & Boaz, or the Shulamite woman & Solomon and come away with the idea that women aren’t perfectly capable of being the ones who pursue sexual enjoyment. The standard story for women & men (both in and out of the Church) has been very one-dimensional. I do not (!!!!) endorse the message of 50 Shades, but I think its popularity speaks to a longing for something more than women have been feeling for a long time.

  • Jenn

    Great perspective. I agree, I read it as well just to figure out why it is so dominant in my demographic. How can something so poorly written, with such a lame plot be such a sensation. I think it appeals as well to our desire to “fix things”. To be able to draw someone out of their hurt and pain and heal them. 

  • Janet Oberholtzer

    Really late on this one… but the one thing that annoyed me in all the  50 Shades books* is the use of the phrase “because I can”. At times I thought it was funny, but at other times it made me doubt my very existence. 
    *Yes, I read them all, I’m an avid reader and a writer who is curious why the heck they are so popular, what can I say?