The Happiest Sadist: Phèdre and Kushiel’s Dart
Since Valentine’s Day is looming on the horizon yet again, I decided to reread several of my fave romance novels just like I did last year. But this time, I’m reading literary books rather than trashy ones to prove the point that romance can be written about in a literary way. That means you lucky people get to hear even more of my innermost thoughts on the subjects of love and romance, only classier.
Last year about this time I read a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad book by the name of Fifty Shades of Grey. To recap: Fifty Shades of Grey was about this BDSM-y relationship where the SM aspect of it was romanticized and grossly misrepresentative of the behavior an actual controller displays in a relationship.
I’m not saying that everyone into BDSM is a sadistic controller, whatever, keep your black leather chaps on, people, don’t get your G-strings in a twist. I’ve filled out my disclaimer paperwork and left it at the front desk. The fact is the relationship portrayed in Fifty Shades was not healthy, and many prominent members of the BDSM movement said as much (and this was my last free article on The Atlantic this month so thanks for making me waste it).
The thing that makes the mind-boggling popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey so goddamn ridick is that there’s a pretty good book series (ok it’s not LITERATURE literature, but it’s certainly far more literary than Fifty Shades) that covers BDSM stuff in a more interesting and less problematic way.
That book is called Kushiel’s Dart.
Kushiel’s Dart is the first volume in a fantasy series by Jaqueline Carey – a set of three trilogies called Kushiel’s Legacy. Kushiel’s Dart is on the surface a relatively unremarkable fantasy novel with everything that entails — political intrigue, lots and lots of elaborately-named characters, lush wardrobes, a journey across several exotic lands that in many ways mirror our own world (the story takes place primarily in a country called Terre d’Ange which seems to be France, kinda), and a small amount of magic.
Standard fare, really, but the interesting thing about Kushiel’s Dart is that it’s sex-positive. Pretty much every variant of sexual orientation is not only present but accepted in the culture of Terre d’Ange. One of their goddesses even bestowed upon women a sort of permanent birth control, giving them the ability to screw to their heart’s delight without ever getting pregnant – unless they specifically ask to conceive. Their entire culture, not to mention their religion itself, is based on sexual tolerance. (Weirdly, I found Fifty Shades of Grey surprisingly sex-negative, portraying vanilla sex as a solution to a relationship’s problems even though it’s chock full of lurid descriptions of kink.)
The protagonist of Kushiel’s Dart is a courtesan called Phèdre no Delauney de Montreve, who is special because she was born with a “mote” in her eye, a birthmark that declares her a scion of Kushiel, a fallen angel who’s basically the God of Pain. Struck by Kushiel’s Dart, Phèdre is literally born to be a masochist. From childhood, she receives training as an “anguisette”, a kind of prostitute who specializes in receiving physical abuse. Once her training is complete, the author sends her off to have various adventures during which her unique skillset often saves the day.
You may think this all sounds rather problematic, and in all honesty, it is. Some disturbing stuff happens in the pages of Kushiel’s Dart. Obviously, in a hypothetical world in which children are raised from young ages to welcome life as professional prostitutes, who knows how much they’re really consenting to and how much they go along with it out of cultural programming too ingrained to set aside. But we’re all born into a problematic world and do our best to muddle through it, both the recipient and instigator of various affronts. One of the main purposes of fantasy writing is to make us think about other possible systems of ethics. Through that lens, we consider our own values, values that are so familiar to us that we don’t often even see them, the same way people who wear eyeglasses learn to ignore them even when they dramatically change how we see the world. That cannot happen without an author creating cultures based around moral codes that are strikingly different from our own, even repellent to us in some ways.
What differentiates Kushiel’s Dart from Fifty Shades of Grey is that Phèdre, being struck by Kushiel’s Dart, enjoys pain. Masochism is a fundamental part of her nature. Taking part in BDSM play is her choice, but beyond choice, it’s how her sexuality naturally expresses itself. It’s not something another person is doing to her by force, or even just pressuring her into like Christian Grey pressured Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey. While I suppose one could make an argument that the Gods are inflicting their will upon Phèdre, to me the characterization seemed little different than observing that human beings are Born That Way, and I suspect that was the author’s intent.
Yes, Phèdre may exist in a pretty messed up world, but within the structure of the world of Kushiel’s Dart, she is an active participant in seeking sexual happiness, even using her wiles as a tool for survival when she needs to — a plot point I always respect because I believe it’s how a whole lot of women have had to navigate the world historically and even here in our time. She struggles with her fate at times, just as all of us struggle with our sexuality sometimes, but overall she accepts her innate nature and uses it to her own ends.
Phèdre is such a different character than Anastasia Steele. She’s knowledgeable, confident, and most of the time remains in control of her destiny. Even when others manipulate her for their own purposes, even when she’s powerless and downtrodden and in dire circumstances, she always fights to gain as much control over her life as she’s capable of. Compared to Phèdre nó Delaunay, Anastasia Steele is a non-entity, an ignorant innocent who was forced against her will to take a trip to a place she never wanted to be and when she gets there, she stays even though she hates it and just kinda hopes things get better.
And why? Because Ana thinks she just can’t stand to live without Christian Grey, she thinks she cannot be complete without a man. Phèdre may have had to take some journeys she didn’t enjoy, but in most cases, she took the trip of her own free will, fully informed and with her eyes wide open. Ana didn’t like or want what happened to her and went along with it only because she passively hoped for a happily ever after. And worst of all, in the end, her passivity is rewarded and she gets that fairy tale ending.
It’s toxic. Fifty Shades of Grey is a toxic book on any number of levels, but I think the worst part is how Anastasia Steele just sits there like a lump and hopes for the best, and then gets it.
Remember, Christian Grey sought to control the clothes Ana wore, the food she ate, the amount she worked out, the car she drove, her work environment, the computer she used, the books she read, everything in her life. In the bedroom, Christian was pressuring her into experiences she didn’t enjoy, including inflicting several orgasms on her that she didn’t want to have — so even the good things were bad. And yet she just crossed her fingers and hoped things would get better. Then YAY! They totally did!!!
Phèdre, on the other hand, certainly questioned her lot in life, and even felt at times like she’d been “cursed” by Kushiel with her unique and oftentimes troubling sexual tastes (they were troubling even to Phèdre herself on occasion), but at the end of the day, Phèdre takes ownership of her passions, learning to enjoy them on her terms (or not) rather than trying to repress them or becoming a slave to them. But Ana’s desire is something for Christian to use, to control, to manipulate; her body is for him to play like an instrument or even a toy when it suits him. Phèdre unabashedly uses her body herself, for her pleasure, as a bargaining chip, even a weapon to get what she wants from the world, namely, her own safety and happiness.
I have lately come to believe that human beings focus too much on external signals — things that we can see and touch and hear – and not enough time trying to understand the inner motivation and thought processes of others. We rely on the tangible, the visible, the observable, to tell us about the world and why people do the effed up things they do — the what, not the why. I suppose it makes sense that we do this; after all, you can’t look at a person and know what’s going on in their heart and mind, and people do lie like dogs on a rug. But this state of affairs means that when two people, both real and fictional people, do outwardly similar things for very different reasons. For example, Phèdre and Anastasia both engaging in BDSM activities — people tend to lump them in as being the same thing, with the same motives behind them.
But people can do somewhat the same thing for entirely different reasons. A person can kill in self-defense or in cold blood. A person might steal to feed his hungry family, or because they want luxuries that they couldn’t afford. There could be a woman like Phèdre who’s into BDSM because it’s her preference, and another woman like Ana was forced into it unwillingly, and condemning the latter doesn’t necessarily mean a person is condemning the former.
These seemingly contradictory actions might even coexist in the same person – a person might despise one book about BDSM themes because it imparts a troubling message, and as a different book about them that’s more uplifting and thought-provoking, to give a random example. People are complicated, the things they enjoy, the decisions they make, and courses of action they pursue are all over the map. What makes sense for one person in a given moment stops making sense later on even for that person let alone for a different one.
The definition of insanity is NOT doing the same thing again and expecting a different result. The fact is, when you’re in a different set of circumstances (or when you’re two separate people in two different sets of circumstances like Phèdre and Ana), the reasons underlying the same action can be totally different, the environments in which the actions are taken are different, the motives of the people involved are different, and as such so are the outcomes.
You cannot divorce motive from action, and there’s a whole lot of backstory and inner debate that go into the actions that all of us humans take. And that’s really the biggest takeaway for me reading both Fifty Shades of Grey and Kushiel’s Dart – people do stuff and sometimes the stuff they do looks roughly the same as what other people did, but they’re entirely, thoroughly different because every individual is unique and everyone’s story is, too. And thus we should be very, very careful in judging fiction by the presence of “bad” things happening because sometimes those “bad” things happening are a critical element in the story.
We should also be careful not to dismiss the concerns of others as them being squeamish about “bad” things, as evidence that they are unworldly or prudish (a criticism I received for my review of Fifty Shades). Because while in some cases that may be true, for me personally, when it came to Fifty Shades of Grey, the stuff I objected to wasn’t what some people automatically assumed I was objecting to.
I can, without being in any way anti-sex, say that Fifty Shades of Grey was a terrible and dangerous book that normalized toxic attitudes about sex, and without being in any way hypocritical also say that Kushiel’s Dart was an interesting book with similar subject matter that I liked.
Even though they were both roughly about the same topic, the experience of reading them was entirely different.
I’ve read the Phedre trilogy and the Imriel trilogy, but not the Moirin Trilogy. It might be worth discussing the Imriel trilogy here. Her handling of Imriel (a born sadist) as a genuinely heroic protagonist was masterful.
Her Sundering duology is also good.Report
I just wanted to chime in and say that “The Happiest Sadist” is a really good title.Report
Thanks. I give all credit to Madeleine L’Engle.Report
I thought I’d seen it before 🙂Report
I stand on the shoulders of giants.Report
I’d really wish that the sex positive people would grapple with the fact that there are many people who don’t get to engage in sex ever. This isn’t because they want to be celibate, its because nobody wants us. Instead the create their elaborate fantasy worlds where all who are good get to indulge as much as they want and their isn’t any decent person excluded from the party. Its all just world fallacy rot. What they offer is a shame.Report
Have you read any Houellebecq?
The upper class always sees itself as middle class. Hey, if you’re poor, just bootstrap yourself. The way I did.Report
I haven’t read Houellebecq but I’m very aware of this quote. I guess in defense of the sex positive folk is that they are combating a lot of things they see as evil and need to ignore any weakness in their position. They are also not the sort that are likely to care that much about cis-gendered heterosexual men left out of the loop because they see us all as part of the oppressor class, even if only marginal members and entitled. But it’s all so stupid. They campaign about how unnatural celibacy is and how bad humans are at it but they want those without a sex life to be very good at celibacy.
And yes, I know that Houellebecq isn’t exactly loved among the sex positive people but I never heard a convincing explanation on why he is wrong. It is true that this paragraph is from the perspective of cis-gender heterosexual men but it can be expanded to cover women and LGBT people to. Some people just don’t get to participate in the party no matter what.
Yet, those left out are supposed to go along how great all this sexual freedom that they aren’t experiencing is. Its very much alike how the wealthy want the poor not to be resentful of their material good fortune while the starve in a slum.Report
Dude, you’re an immigration lawyer. I am certain that a non-zero number of people have sat in your office and thought “this is a guy who has a job, has a steady job, doesn’t seem terribly prone to violence, and needs someone to help him pick out ties. Because: Damn. He would be *PERFECT* for my cousin.”
And you know what? You would be. Sure, she might be Catholic, but that’s okay. The kids could be taught both traditions.
Note: I’m not saying this about every person who has come into your office. But I’m damn sure that there is a non-zero number of people for which this is true.Report
This may or may not be true but I haven’t had any client verbalize this at all. I also have good taste in ties. Even if clients thought I’m good for their cousin, doesn’t mean that the cousin thinks that. She is allowed to have her own opinion on these matters. These marriages because one partner had.a steady job could also be sexless easily.Report
A client probably wouldn’t verbalize this as it would of course be wildly inappropriate for them to do so. What Jay is trying to point out is you have a lot to offer people even if they’re not saying that to your face.Report
“I never heard a convincing explanation on why [Houllebecq] is wrong.”
It’s like Papal Infallibility turned round. If Houllebecq is right, then the whole system is bullshit based on lies, therefore he’s wrong.Report
I’m going to be a bit more fair to Houellebecq’s critics. They want to push a narrative about sex that it is fun and natural rather than the previous narrative that sex is not good and it should only be done by cis-gender heterosexual married people. At the same time, they also want to emphasize the importance of consent. Coming out and saying that romantic and sexual attraction is unfair and that some of you are going to end up with great sex lives, others no or horrible sex lives, and most of you in-between is not great advertising.Report
What do you expect from sex positivity?
Sex positivity a relationship model that grew from the LGBTQ and BDSM communities. It’s built on principles of consent and acceptance. However, it’s not a dating service. It doesn’t guarantee everyone a partner. How could it?
More specifically, it doesn’t guarantee that every dude will get a hot, high status girlfriend. Again, how could it?
You speak of exclusion, but you could find love. There are women who would date you. So who is excluding who? There are social spaces that would accept you, but would you accept them? The people there won’t look like Hollywood. But you don’t look like Hollywood.
Dude, figure this out before it’s too late.Report
There’s no recession, there’s plenty of jobs for people who are willing to work hard and tighten their belts and stop spending so much on luxuries. Not everyone is guaranteed an executive position with a million-dollar salary, but there’s always going to be a space for someone who’s willing to pay their dues and put in the time and be a real go-getter. And remember, any time you have debt, just make one extra payment a year–it really adds up in the long run! And also make sure you save for retirement, you should have at least three times your yearly salary saved by age 35.Report
Women are people not things.Report
and yet here you are telling LeeEsq that he doesn’t fuck because his standards are too high, which is a rather transactional way to describe the situationReport
That’s a fair point. Allow me to explain.
Recently Lee complained that everyone he dated was “status seeking.” I can believe that. There are a lot of shallow people in the world.
The point is, I don’t think Lee is any better than those women. He is also status seeking, which is why he’s trying to date those women. He wants the “trophy girlfriend,” but he isn’t trophy boyfriend material. Those women want to show off their guy to their friends. Lee ain’t that guy.
This sucks, but it’s how those women think. Why does Lee keep trying to date them?
Do you think that all women are like that?
They aren’t. I know this from personal experience. I know plenty of women who don’t care about looks that way. They have cool, nerdy boyfriends. Women like that would totally date a guy who looks like Lee. Would Lee date those women?
That’s not even the biggest problem. While such women would happily date a guy who looks like Lee, I don’t think they’d want to date a guy who thinks like him. His attitude would show through.
However, attitudes can change.
So yes, this is about “transactional” relationships, but not in the way you mean. Lee is trying to play the “transaction” game with women who don’t want what he’s selling. But he keeps trying with those women. Why? Other women exist.Report
You have no idea about who I’ve been on dates with and what women I’m trying to date. I’m not trying to date the stereotypical hot, high status woman and my dates have generally never been with that type of woman you are talking about.
Most of my dates have been with college or above educated women. Some of them are conventionally attractive, some of them were average, and some not conventionally attractive. Some of them had my hobby interests and some did not They were teachers, lawyers, doctors, vets, dancers, etc.. But none of them fit the mold of the woman you believe that I’m going after.
You also have no idea what I look like besides that I’m below average in height. I’m not over weight, I work out, and take care of my grooming.
I do not believe that I am really going for women that are out of my league or are looking for a hot guy to show off to their girlfriends. I do not believe that I will be happy with such a woman. I do admit that I am not interested in plus size women or somebody who is miserly with physical affection.Report
Lee, I only know what you share here, but you share a lot. I think I have a decent grasp of who you are when it comes to dating. I stand by my analysis. You could find women who would date you, but those who otherwise would are going to be turned off by your attitude.Report
I have this attitude because I’ve been throguh many bad experiences and not a lot of good experiences. I’ve been on donzens of first dates that went no where no matter what I tried. And it leads me to wonder whether anybody was seriously interested in me or whether I was an evening’s entertainment.
I’ve also had dates that cancelled at the last minute because they literally told me that they found somebody they like better to date. I guess they get points for being truthful. I think my favorite example was during winter several years ago. There was a sudden storm. My date contacted me that we were sitll on, so I went home from work and showered to get ready, and went out into the snow again. When I was nearly at the restaurant, my date texted me and said she decided to stay in. I then slipped on the ice and got some bruises. There were other stories but these stand out.
Are these the worst things that could happen? No, they aren’t but going through a very late start and decades of rejection is not fun. Yet, I’m supposed to maintain a good attitude and prove my value and fake it till I make it. Well, I don’t want to fake till I make it. That means my pain is irrelevant and I have to put on some act while people get to blare their pain at me and I have to make it better.Report
I apologize for lashing out at you but I’m feeling rather frustrated lately and with no good or easy solution available.Report
Do you remember me saying ‘hey, what about you joining a history book club?’ and you explaining to me that you could never date those women, you need someone with a glam factor?
I mean, I don’t need you to explain it or discuss it further or any of that.
But it seemed like a thing that if you don’t remember it, it might serve you to remember it. In conjunction with this conversation.
If not, man, no worries. We all have our things. (I certainly have a truckload of my own.)Report
I’m part of the dance community and social club called Events and Adventures. I’m trying to get out a lot and meet people.
What I really need now is what I guess you can call girlfriend as an activity partner, somebody to do things with, and sex that doesn’t feel that I have to earn it. Amd Ihaving been placed in the non-romantic category for my entire life, I don’t really see anything with wanting somebody who will show the world that she kind of likes me.
Yet the women who might be most open to dating me are the ones that seem least likely to give me what I need because that isn’t their personanlity.Report
so the only two pieces of advice Lee has gotten here are A) go into spaces that don’t have “find a date” as part of their charter and try to find a date, and B) lower his standards.
Like he could be hip-deep in ass except that he’s too ~picky~, like there’s chicks just throwing themselves at him all day but he’s like “eewww, no fatties, no uggoes”Report
I think Maribou’s advice is go to places that “don’t find a date” to meet women of similar interests and see what develops. It is a common but slow working piece of advice. We might all want to be on a direct path but not everybody can be on it.Report
I expect not to hear their preening constantly and not being called to support their cosmology, otherwise I’m an evil bad person, while also being put in that category because I can’t participate.
And the hot, high status girlfriend thing is a red herring because at least for heterosexual men we seem to operate with the severe penalties. I work out, work hard, take care of appearance and clothing, and yet somehow completely fail to register romantically or sexually with women. I’m not exactly what i consider to be a lie status man.Report
I would lay even money on the idea that every person on this post is unhappy with their sex life. Give you 2:1 even.
There is no greener pasture full of ‘sexy time’. You are not weird or an outlier for feeling how you do or doing what you do. You are amongst fellows!
Check out the angst in all the comments on Kristen’s recent posts. We are all there scared and alone with you (more or less)!
Sorry to speak so directly to you, a person I do not know or have any knowledge of besides this board. It’s probably a step too far.Report
For all my frustration, I do note that people with great sex lives often have that and only that. A few weeks ago, I intended an amateur comedy show. The last act was by a woman who talked about her sex life, which from her routine seemed to be the only thing that was occurring in her life. Her routine was more pitiable than funny.
Yet, I’m approaching middle age and still single without any relationship. I know I’m not the only person in the world to experience this but it is still really frustrating. There is a great feeling of uncertain on when will something happen and what will happen if it does.Report
You’d lose that bet. I’m real happy with my sex life. (It’s *never never trouble free* but I’m really happy for it.) And it greatly informs and sturdies and … is a gift that makes the rest of my very happy life (overall, despite the really fucking hard parts) even happier. Consistently. Like…. I’d say 98:2 lifetime-after-21 ratio… it is a glorious benefit. (The other 2 sucks to a degree that seems unimaginable for most people. What can i say. Baggage is really fucking hard sometimes. Doesn’t change the ratio.)
And yes, despite Jaybird’s snark above, I really *did* bootstrap myself to that point. except it isn’t bootstrapping if you can lean on the queer community of an entire city, that happens to be at a particular point in history when it’s seeming like maybe we’ll stop seeing so many friends die miserably and young, to figure out what you need to know.
But like, seriously folks. I was *seriously sexually and otherwise abused by a primary caregiver* from the ages of as far back as I can manage to remember (probably longer than that) until I managed to break away at 18.
And *I’m* over the moon happy about my sex life and work hard at staying that way and even getting happier such that the overall arc is that I”m probably three times as happy with it now as I was twenty years ago.
It’s *hard fucking work* due to my history and that life is hard for all of us.
But it’s not IMPOSSIBLE.
And it’s not UNFAIR that I have that and (many of) y’all don’t.
Pretty sure it’s real fucking fair that I was able to eke out a happy existence through my own determination and the good fortune of finding found family and intensely safe contexts, given my 18 years of decidedly non-consensual torture first.
A nice story of success! That is really honest and I am glad you are happy. I guess I should have qualified I was thinking over a longer timeframe than *right now*, but that doesn’t change anything about what you said. Thanks for responding.Report
I’m replying to Ozzzy but this observation is really directed at more than one person, just that this was a good jumping off place.
Also, I am using “you” just because it’s convenient and not because I am singling out YOU whoever you are.
There’s an expression, “comparison is the thief of joy” and it is super true. Like, I could look at EL James, that chick who wrote Fifty Shades, and be consumed with rage that she’s had all this fiscal success when she sucks and I’m so much more deserving than her yet I’m sitting here writing for free. I could let that bother me all the time to such extent that I would refuse to write anything because it’s so unfair that I have to give away my writing when others so much worse are making bank off it. (and I have a friend who thinks I am nuts for giving away writing I “should be” charging for even though no one would ever see it otherwise. He said I was “writing for dopamine” LOL and it’s a fair assessment. This is an actual attitude people do have, not a straw man.)
But me worrying about EL James and her bank account wouldn’t make me HAPPY. I wouldn’t enjoy that. I would only be hurting myself and reducing my enjoyment in life because I would turn away from things that bring me joy for no better reason than it wasn’t what I “deserve”. I have learned over the years that what brings me joy is being the best darn Kristin I can be in my little circle of the world. Even though I may occasionally complain how bad the writing in Fifty Shades is, it doesn’t eat me alive even though I know I could do way better (or I like to think so anyway). And it isn’t just writing/money, it’s kids and marriage and sex and the decor of my house and my work accomplishments and other people’s good health, all sorts of other stuff.
Defining your life and happiness by what you imagine other people have/deserve (whether it’s better or worse than you have) is a losing game. Getting happiness from assuming other people are not happy is not a good way to get happiness because what happens when you find out they ARE happy? And assuming that you would BE happy if only you had Element X, Y, Z of someone else’s life is also a losing game because trust me, you get those things and then find out you’re not happy anyway. It’s hella shocking because you built your life on a lie that some achievement or event would create this state of satisfaction and it doesn’t. It doesn’t because satisfaction is a choice you make, not a state of nirvana you attain.
If you don’t change that mindset of expecting happiness to come from externals, you’ll just go on looking for the next reason why you’re unhappy even if/when you get the thing you think will answer all your prayers. Because you’ll still be unhappy, and you’ll look all around at your life still hunting for the reason why and trust me, you’ll find it. You’ll blame that person, that thing, that goal you haven’t reached, because there is ALWAYS going to be something in life that you’re lacking, something that the other guy seems to have that you don’t. There are people on this site without financial security, without social standing, without good health, without kids, without a relationship, with a relationship but it isn’t a good one, every person you meet has both blessings and burdens and it has absolutely nothing to do with your own personal level of happiness what another person has or doesn’t.
And I know that’s not something another person can explain, it’s a realization that has to come from within, but once you have the revelation, it will change your life forever.Report
This is very much what I was getting at, Kristin, and quite well put. Thanks!Report
There is a modern Hebrew word, firgun, that doesn’t really translate well into English, but roughly means to be happy because other people are happy.
I recognize that resentment isn’t very attractive and it isn’t likely to get me what I want. However, resentmetn can also come very easily, especially when you feel like you are being called to support something you are excluded from participating in. There is a sort of meaness in this. People want to be free of resentment aimed at them but many, not all, want to be able to exclude and be mean to those that the exclude. So it’s something like you can’t be resentful of my super-happy sex life but I get to go after you for your lack of one. Rinse, wash, repeat with lots of other stuff.Report
Resentment is a very particular emotion. It is different from disappointment or frustration or sadness. There are multitude of emotions that are not resentment.
Over my life, there are a great many things I wish I had, but did not. There are many times I felt excluded. Sometimes I could understand why I was excluded. Other times I could not. It just felt shitty. It felt personal. However, I seldom felt anything like full-on, sustained resentment.
Resentment is different, as is its cousin bitterness. In short, resentment doesn’t automatically happen when you don’t get what you want. There are other factors. Those factors are attitudinal. They happen inside your head, based on your view of the world.
When someone encounters someone else who is resentful or bitter toward them, it is not the same as encountering someone who is frustrated or sad. The resentment implies underlying assumptions.
Examine those assumptions.Report
I think your point about how people practice similar things with different motivations is a good insight.
Although most fantasy novels are based on premises which would be unpleasant if we were to actual live them out (A world of nobility and classes and enforced servitude? No thanks) they allow us to insert ourselves into lives we can only vicariously dream of, sort of like daydreaming of being a rock star.
I attempted to read Fifty Shades but got tired after a chapter or two and skimmed the rest. The difference between it and the classic works of the genre like The Story of O or the Beauty trilogy by Anne Rice is that Fifty Shades really was about the fantasy of money, and the romance was pretty much secondary.
Ana falls for the idea of having an endless buffet of goods and toys and power. But she really brings nothing to the table except her willingness and availability. It is sort of the reverse of those movies where a schlubby guy somehow manages to bag an impossibly hot model- there is never any explanation of why Christian (or the reader) would be interested in her.
By contrast, O and Beauty are more vividly drawn characters who are more easily believable as the object of fixation and devotion. More importantly, they approach the relationship more on the plane of equals. Their motivation is different, more on the lines of classic romantic tales than the trivial aspect of Fifty Shades.Report
Ana and the schlubby guy that gets the hot girl are usually purposefully blank to allow the readers or viewers to see themselves in their space. When the average, and presumably female reader, reads or watches 50 Shades, she is supposed to be placing herself in Ana’s stead. Same with the the average, presumably male viewer of the shlubby guy-hot woman heterosexual male romcom. The readers live vicariously through the books.Report
I don’t necessarily agree with that take and it’s in this essay from last year: https://ordinary-times.com/2019/01/20/the-twilight-zone/
I don’t think a lot of people WANT to be Bella Swan or Ana Steel or Seth Rogan in Knocked Up. I think they’re getting something else out of it, like believing in a world where someone unremarkable can find love.Report
Excellent essay as usual.
“I can, without being in any way anti-sex, say that Fifty Shades of Grey was a terrible and dangerous book that normalized toxic attitudes about sex, and without being in any way hypocritical also say that Kushiel’s Dart was an interesting book with similar subject matter that I liked.”
I have been avoiding the former for those reasons, and avoiding the latter because it’s so meaningful to so many people I know that I’m afraid of not appreciating it. There’ve been a lot of drops of water pushing me to stop avoiding Kushiel’s Dart, this year. Yours is definitely one of the most useful. (not that you said it was especially meaningful to you! just… every ‘no really this one is good’ from an unexpected source is making the thought of reading it less daunting.)Report
I have two contrasting takes on Fifty Shades. This first is, it is a fantasy, and closing the book is the safe word. In other words, enjoy your transgressive fantasies on their own terms.
My second take is based on the fact that I’ve met multiple real-life women, who were entering the BDSM scene, who were fairly naive, and who were searching for their own Christian Grey.
This is troubling for the obvious reasons.Report
Kushiel’s Dart actually was meaningful to me in an artistic sense, as I generally prefer slow moving, carefully paced storytelling and I happened to read it at a point in time when every popular book and movie seemed hell bent on doing the opposite. I felt like everyone was dispensing with the niceties and having Frankenstein pummel Van Helsing rather than spending any time on world building or character development. It really came along at a time I needed to feel like “ok I’m not alone in what I’m trying to do here” so I’ll always be grateful to Jacqueline Carey for reminding me that people were still writing books that way.
The sexuality part was interesting to me but more in an academic sense. But I can completely see how it would be meaningful to other people, unlike Fifty Shades which I think is suitable only for starting firesReport
Neat! Thanks for clarifying.Report