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‘Fifty Shades’ Is a Fantasy, Just Not the One You Think

The cover jacket of "Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L. James. Source: Random House Inc. via Bloomberg

I tried to duck “Fifty Shades of Grey.” I’m good at ignoring trends. By the time I got around to “The Sopranos,” I was able to watch six seasons in one marathon viewing.

But when, in a single 18-hour period, the woman sitting next to me on a flight to San Francisco, an always-sensible co-worker and a whole tableful of women at a benefit all asked if I had started it yet, I caved.

And none too soon. The three books in the series beginning with “Fifty Shades of Grey” top every bestseller list in the universe, having sold 15 million copies in just 3 months. The popular explanation is that this tale of the bondage and discipline enjoyed by Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey has tapped into middle-class women’s hidden desire to be spanked. This is so-called Mommy porn.

I have a different view. “Fifty Shades of Grey,” along with its companions “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed,” is porn all right. But underneath the titillating allure of E.L. James’s books is another, more elusive female fantasy.

Not lust for sex, but lust for control. Lust for power. Love. Respect. Financial independence. Fidelity. Family. Motherhood. Talking about your feelings. Being hotter than his ex. Oh, and cute clothes and shoes, too. Who doesn’t lust for all that?

I understand that this is kind of like saying you read Playboy for the articles, but bear with me. (And if you’re among the few who haven’t read the books yet, be warned that there’s a spoiler ahead.)

The Basics

We start with the chick-lit basics.

He: An impossibly gorgeous gazillionaire. Older, but not so old as to be creepy. He pilots his own helicopter. He drives cool cars. He broods.

She: A standard-issue gawky, badly dressed, insecure girl who thinks she’s unattractive.

He: Sees beauty in her that she herself does not see.

She: Is the only one who can soothe and cure his horrible secret emotional wounds.

Seriously. Does it get any more erotic than that?

Okay, I admit it. Once they get down to it, the sex scenes are steamy. And marvelously inventive. I had no idea human beings could do stuff like that.

But well before the end of the first volume, I found my attention wandering every time I hit the word “moan” (which, by the way, appears 39 times in the first book, 46 in the second and 33 in the third). By “Fifty Shades Darker” I was flipping and by “Fifty Shades Freed” I knew exactly how many pages to skip.

Even in the world of bondage, it appears, there are only so many variations on a theme.

Wanton Desires

Yet what kept my attention is that all the gasping and panting is delivered with a whopping payload of fantasy aimed at satisfying a woman’s even more wanton desires.

For example: Christian isn’t just rich. He’s virtuously rich. While it’s hard to tell exactly how he got his billions, it sounds suspiciously like he’s in private equity. But not just any private equity -- no, his work involves renewable energy, sustainable building and helping people in third-world countries better their lives.

He’s a family man. After his very first sexual encounter with Anastasia -- which involves a bit of light restraint and a tour of the Red Room of Pain -- what does he do? He plays a Bach concerto and introduces her to his mom.

Safe Sex

Christian is responsible. He practices safe sex. Nearly every erotic encounter begins with the tearing of a foil pack. He only whips Anastasia when she really wants it: He gives her total control, offering her a detailed contract in which she is able to list exactly what she will and won’t do. (Just reading the list was mind-boggling.)

He likes it that she’s sassy and talks back. He accepts her financial independence, gained working as an assistant at a Seattle publishing house. When he showers her with expensive gifts -- including a first edition of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” (he’s literate too!) -- she resists at first. Once she has made this stand, though, she is free to melt into his fiscal attentions.

He buys her clothes: A $540 bikini. Expensive lingerie. Manolo Blahniks. He forces a personal trainer on her. A new haircut. All the waxing she wants. Before the series ends, she is remarking with satisfaction that she is now a sleeker, more polished version of her old self.

Talking Cure

But wait. It gets better. When she compels him to talk about his childhood, his relationship with his mother and his innermost fears, he of course protests. But secretly he wants it. He needs it. He gets better. It’s all because of her!

Moreover, dear reader, E.L. James delivers the coup de grace. (Spoiler coming.)

He marries her.

The final scenes of the saga feature Anastasia and Christian sitting on a picnic blanket in a bucolic field with their perfect copper-haired son -- as they discuss what to name the daughter they are expecting. The titan Adonis turns out to be not just a sexual powerhouse (pregnancy, it seems, is no barrier) but a great dad as well.

I read that the novel has sparked a run on stores that sell adult, uh, toys. Go for it, ladies. Stock up on handcuffs. Cute little fringed whips. Paddles. Maybe it will spice up your sex lives. But don’t forget the other stuff. Because that’s where the real fantasy lies.

The “Fifty Shades” books are published by Vintage in the U.S. and Arrow in the U.K. ($15.95, 7.99 pounds each). To buy these books in North America, click here.

(Amanda Bennett is an executive editor at Bloomberg News and author of “The Cost of Hope: The Story of a Marriage, a Family and the Quest for Life.” The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include James Pressley on business books and Elin McCoy on wine.

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