Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Thoughts on Animals' Lives and Deaths

We humans enjoy a certain degree of supremacy on Earth. We’re not the biggest, strongest or fastest animal (and I often doubt that we’re the smartest), but we are the most powerful. We have tools and weapons and a boundless capacity to imagine which has led us to dream and create and take over the planet.

I don’t think it’s unnatural for us to care most urgently about the lives of humans, our own kind, and to be inclined to value them more highly than those of other creatures. Just like how I’d be saddened more by a death in my family than a death in your family, and no one could fault me for that – it’s proximity to each of us as an individual that makes the greatest impact. But, as any animal rights advocates reading this will certainly agree, the lives of other animals matter too. I say other animals, as we, after all, are also animals. Their lives matter a lot, and should be valued, respected, and protected. We should be using our power to protect and fight for those who can’t fight for themselves.

I am saddened and sickened by the two, seemingly intentional, barn fires that occurred yesterday in the Goulds. I was so relieved and grateful to hear that all the animals – horses and dogs – that were caught in the first barn fire managed to escape unharmed. Then I heard there was a second barn fire – in the same area, on the same day – and this time, all animals were killed. That’s seven horses and three goats that burned to death in the blaze. People are upset and appalled and saddened, but it has occurred to me that it would, of course, be a much bigger story if 10 human beings had been killed in a fire in St. John’s last night. And I want to try to understand why this is.

Like I said, it doesn’t seem unnatural to me to be more upset by human death because we are humans and we connect deeply on an emotional and psychological level to other humans. But are we upset enough about animal death? Particularly in this kind of incident, where it appears like a human being willfully set a barn on fire, likely being fully aware that there were innocent living creatures inside. Some people are relieved no people were killed, but what about the ten lives lost?

My feelings about how we psychologically relate to animals and value their lives isn’t restricted to domesticated animals and animal companions like horses and dogs. Something that really upsets me, that is very regionally specific to Newfoundland and Labrador, is our relationship to moose. I care about people, and I don’t want anyone to be in a moose-vehicle collision. I fear being in an accident, and I am ever vigilant for moose on the highway. But the attitude that some people have about moose is troubling.

My occupation allows me to interact with a lot of people, including a lot of strangers on the phone. I spoke with a woman recently who actually thought the moose should be eradicated, because they are such a problem on the highways and because “we don’t need them.” Lady, moose have just as much a right to live on this island as you do. Of course we don’t want any people losing their lives on the road because of accidents, but more times than not it’s the moose that is killed. A moose that is someone’s mother, or father, or baby.

The argument that it’s OK for moose to die because the population is “out of control” doesn’t sit well with me. Isn’t the population of humans on the planet the most out of control? Aren’t animal species everywhere becoming endangered and extinct while human populations surge? Moose populations may be out of control, but maybe if we hadn’t exterminated the wolf population 100 years ago, it wouldn’t be an issue.

Something good: The man and woman charged with animal cruelty, for the suffering and death of their dog, Max the German Shepherd, were found guilty.

“The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.” 
- Leonardo da Vinci

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Christmas Conundrum: Enslaved to Tradition

“There are only 22 more days to shop before Christmas!” As I continue to hear this kind of sentiment, it increasingly agitates and baffles me. As children, we tend to accept the world around us as inevitable. Certainly as a little girl in Newfoundland, an environment predominately saturated by Christian culture, I never questioned Christmas. It seemed like an inevitability, a non-optional custom regardless of one’s actual religious leanings.

Can you opt out of Christmas? Not all of it, but the parts you dont like and enjoy. I think, yes. Of course, if you actually enjoy the season and the traditions and the increased emphasis on certain values, then why would you want to? The sad thing is, so many people seem to hate, or at least feel indifferent towards, Christmas, and yet they still grudgingly participate.

Advice articles on how to deal with Christmas: Why is this a thing?
And from the outset of this blog, let it be known that I love shopping. I love clothes and accessories and knickknacks and buying things. I’ve even gone through periods of what can only be described as shopaholicism, in which I’ve recorded all my purchases in an effort to curb the habit. 
 I’ve also always enjoyed, really enjoyed, shopping for Christmas presents and I’ve always loved - and savoured - a lot of aspects of the Christmas season. This isn’t about disliking Christmas. I’m also an atheist, so the secularization of religious holidays doesn’t bother me. This has nothing to do with the absence of Christ in Christmas.

Merry Christmas.
What bothers me is how much so many people seem to resent Christmas. My whole life I’ve witnessed Christmas discussed as a mutually agreed upon topic of commiseration. “I’m not ready for Christmas.” “I have so much to do before Christmas.” “I hate you for having all your shopping and wrapping done.” The question “Are you ready for Christmas” has started to sound a lot like “Are you ready for Skynet to take over and the machines to rise?”

Christmas is discussed, especially in polite small talk, as a communally experienced doom, something that becomes increasingly stressful as we get older, and we succumb to the pressure of entertaining and facilitating the charade of Santa Claus. The shopping for many people isn’t fun and enjoyable – it’s a burden. They spend more than they can afford and go into debt to give gifts they feel pressured to give. They worry about getting “enough” and getting “the right things.” And this isn’t just some toys for some Santa-fearing children, but for everyone.

I understand that I’m not a parent, and so there are aspects of the “pressures” of this custom that I have not yet confronted. I have thought for years now that, when I become a parent (and I intend to), I will not reinforce the idea of Santa Claus. I should mention, I told this to my class in high school and it was, especially at that age, a controversial idea for which I took a lot of criticism. It’s not that I dislike the core idea of Santa, or want to “kill the magic” for kids – not at all. I just want to raise my kid(s) from the outset to see Christmas as more than a chance to write a huge list and demand things from an imaginary man, or to behave so Santa doesn’t put them on the naughty list.
Christmas is a time for watching A Muppet Family Christmas.

People need to remember that at the root of all this shopping and decorating and stress is an optional social custom.

(My devil’s advocating, sociologically inclined boyfriend would here say something about how such deeply entrenched and reinforced – and socially policed – customs and traditions become non-optional, or at least they come to feel that way. OK, point taken.)

If the build-up to Christmas, and the holiday itself, is a pleasurable, fun, meaningful experience, that’s great. I’ve personally always enjoyed and embraced the Christmas season and really enjoyed gift exchange and celebrations, however arbitrary they have become in terms of the secularized Christmas I “observe.” But the stress, the debt, the complaining of having to clean your house for company – it’s not worth it. If the cleaning and cooking is so frustrating and annoying, don’t entertain! Let someone else host the family gathering.
At the end of the day (and for the next 22 days and beyond) we should all remember that, regardless of how you were raised and how you were cultured to experience Christmas, your psychological relationship to this holiday is malleable. You can change what it means to you and how you experience Christmas, the good and the bad. Don’t blindly and unquestioningly follow the socially reinforced pressures if, at the core, you don’t enjoy the rituals.

The “true” meaning of Christmas is a lot of different things to different people, but I don't think anyone would insist the true meaning is forced consumerism, ensuring non-needy children get more toys, and being stressed.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider": Expecting The Hobbit

Dressed as Legolas the Elf for Hallowe'en 1994. 
Saving Middle Earth is a big deal, hence my stoic expression.
In honour of the upcoming release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I have been thinking about my love of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, an interest that started at a young age and has continued, uninterrupted, into adulthood. 

When age and experience doesn’t alter or undercut something you love  (I mean, I still appreciate My Little Pony but not with quite the same gusto), then you know that thing is really special. I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t identify as a Tolkien fan, and know all the characters of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This is how it began:

My parents were (and continue to be) LotR fans. Perhaps my fanship was predestined, and I had no choice in the matter. All I know is I was exposed to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings from a very young age. This fabulous animated storybook of The Hobbit (and an amazing book on cassette tape that accompanied) were early sources of entertainment for six-year-old me. I remember listening to the cassette tape in my dad’s truck during long drives to go camping. It never got old, and I craved to know as much as possible about Middle Earth. Luckily, I was equipped with A Guide to Middle Earth and other Tolkien resources as, you, know, the Internet was still a pretty new thing.

Having gone on to love and devour books, I credit the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as crucial kickstarters to my fascination with fiction, fantasy especially. The Hobbit is the quintessential ordinary life-turned-extraordinary story, and theres never been a time in my memory that I wasnt inspired by Biblos heroism and reluctant adventure participation.

From my parents I inherited these excellent old editions (that they used in high school) of the books. The first time I read each novel, it was these copies. 

Now when I re-read I use snazzy new editions. Display versus real use copies of the same novels = hardcore.

The old school animated movies on VHS were an endless delight to me. The 1977 animated The Hobbit and 1978 The Lord of the Rings were constantly watched and rewatched throughout my childhood. In grade three I first read the non-illustrated The Hobbit novel, but I didn’t actually read the LotR trilogy until junior high.

I vividly remember feeling a sense of juvenile anxiety and jealousy over the release of the Peter Jackson movies, sharing something I loved so much with a wider audience. Growing up, I introduced many friends to the existence of The Lord of the Rings and had mixed feelings about the production of the film franchise.

I’ve been thinking about how hard it is, even for an almost life-long fan, to remember a mental visualization of The Lord of the Rings not influenced by the films.

I mean, everyone knows Aragorn depicted as this dreamboat:

But my first mental conception of Aragorn was this guy:

My favourite character is and always has been Legolas, and that was long before Orlando Bloom. My eight-year-old self still swooned for this incarnation (note that my costume was based on the book description of Legolas, not the 70s animated movie):

And as much as I love to play with toys at age 25, I still have my Legolas action figure unopened in the box.

I'm looking forward to The Hobbit films, and while youre seeing this:

Ill be picturing this:

Thursday, August 2, 2012

“the pictures in your skin”: the sublimity of permanence

Like most people with tattoos, I’m very passionate about mine (otherwise, presumably, I wouldn’t have gotten them). If you’ve talked to me about mine, you know what I like about them, materially and ideologically, and what each one means. Most importantly, I’m intrigued not by the significance of this image or that, but by the irrevocability of the tattoo. That kind of commitment transcends other physical alterations – you are committing to adding something to your body, your self, for the rest of your material body’s existence.

Of course, you can have a tattoo covered with a new image or removed, but the point of getting inked is that you intend for the tattoo to remain forever. Even if that intention wanes and you change your mind, at some point you believed you could live with it forever. 

Tattoo by Mike LeDrew at Trouble Bound Studios, St. John's

My first tattoo was a purple and black filigree butterfly between my shoulder blades that I got in July 2007. This event coincided with a time in my life when I had been feeling quite powerless and frustrated – a shell-of-my-former-self sort of self-loathing. The metamorphosing butterfly is a symbol I’ve always identified with. I love butterflies – I love the symbolism, I love the colours, I love the symmetry. I looked at a print-out of this image for almost a year before the time was right and I decided to make this butterfly a part of my body. Getting my first tattoo was a sublime experience for me – in such a simple way, I could alter the surface of my body and incorporate artistic and meaningful images into my presentation of self. It’s simple and personal, but it’s empowering.

When people ask if it’s painful I often say no – no, as in that it’s not a pain that you can’t endure. If course it hurts, some places more than others, but it’s a very sublime and thrilling sensation of pain. My emotional experience of each of my tattoos was elation, during and after.

The ongoing, persistent nature of the pain triggers a release of adrenaline – it is a rush.
As many people with tattoos can attest, once you have one it’s easy to keep going. My desire has never been to have many visible tattoos and be a heavily tattooed person. I enjoy the choice to show or conceal. That being said, my four tattoos are all in easily showable areas, and showing my foot tattoo in a sandal or my back tattoos in a dress feels akin to wearing jewelry or putting on make-up – it’s all part of my physical presentation.

Tattoo by Fred at Studio Maxx, St. John's
A year later, in May 2008, I decided to tattoo my foot with the quote “Reason Over Passion” and, on a whim, a tiny frog silhouette because, well, Ive always loved and owned frogs (and continue to have one sole survivor, Brutus the African Dwarf frog, at home in NL). A good artist listens to what you want but has an investment in the image and the placement. My artist suggested the placement on the top of my foot instead of ankle, which I love and am so happy with, and incorporating the words and frog into one pattern.

Many people have commented on how I seem more of a passion over reason kind of person. This tattoo signifies my efforts to maintain a balance, and keep reason in the equation. Truthfully, I identify with both reason and passion in different ways, and enjoyed the irony that this tattoo provoked.

In January 2009, I got what is definitely my most significant and deliberately ironic tattoo, a line from American poet Kim Addonizio’s sonnet “First Poem for You.”

I studied this poem in one of my first English courses at Memorial University and, even having no tattoos at the time, I was immensely moved by the language and the sentiments expressed. A poem about tattoos, and about experiencing the tattoo’s on a lover’s body with a sublime fascination and terror, the line “such permanence is terrifying” summed up my understanding of tattoos and their significance to me, on my fleshly, mortal body, that I decided to tattoo this line on my back. I love word tattoos, not surprisingly, and this line seemed exceptionally fitting for a text tattoo.

Tattoo by Mike LeDrew at Trouble Bound Studios, St. John's
After getting this tattoo, I became acquainted with Edmund Burke’s 1757 aesthetic treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke’s understanding of the productive emotional capacity of pain and pleasure and sources of the sublime corresponded to my experience and reverence for permanence:

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

My last tattoo, for the time being, is a quill on my lower leg above my ankle that I got in July 2010, for my love of writing and studies in English. 

Tattoo by Mike LeDrew at Trouble Bound Studios, St. John's
Here is Addonizio’s exceptional poem in full:

First Poem for You

By Kim Addonizio

I like to touch your tattoos in complete
darkness, when I can’t see them. I’m sure of
where they are, know by heart the neat
lines of lightning pulsing just above
your nipple, can find, as if by instinct, the blue
swirls of water on your shoulder where a serpent
twists, facing a dragon. When I pull you

to me, taking you until we’re spent
and quiet on the sheets, I love to kiss
the pictures in your skin. They’ll last until
you’re seared to ashes; whatever persists
or turns to pain between us, they will still
be there. Such permanence is terrifying.
So I touch them in the dark; but touch them, trying.

Kim Addonizio, “First Poem For You” from The Philosopher’s Club. Copyright © 1994 by Kim Addonizio.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Who says monogamy isn’t the aberrant state? Reflections regarding Sister Wives

I’m the first to admit that I’ll watch a show or read a book out of perverse curiosity. Who hasn’t watched five consecutive hours of Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend just to see how it would affect your brain? It’s my casual interest in interspersing long television-free stretches with some random TLC reality programming that led me to watch Sister Wives.

I was not prepared for how much the show would engross me and how much frustrated self-reflection it would provoke.

First of all, this blog isn’t a thorough critique of Sister Wives as a television show, as I haven’t watched enough to adequately analyze it. Rather, I’m reflecting on how taking in a few episodes of this show, and what it depicts, made me question my reactions to polygamy.

One man, four women, seventeen children
The Brown family belongs to a polygamous Mormon fundamentalist church called the Apostolic United Brethren and is shown residing in Utah at the beginning of the series but later moves to Nevada. The show is currently in its third season.

A man, Kody, has four wives: Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn. Legally, Kody is only married to Meri and has “spiritual unions” with the subsequent three wives. The women live in separate houses with their respective children (currently 17 in total) and Kody…makes his rounds. As such, he has four different households and continues to maintain pseudo-separate relationships with the respective wives (as well as procreate with them). The show focuses not only on the relationship between Kody and each wife, but the relationships of the wives with one another, and their participation in a bond they refer to as being “sister wives.” The show also depicts a lot of communal gatherings and activities in which Kody, the four women, and all the children come together as a family.

Some definitions: the term for a marriage consisting of a man and more than one wife is technically polygyny but is often subsumed under the broader term for a person and multiple spouses, polygamy due to the higher frequency of this one man-multiple women arrangement. The term for a woman with more than one husband is polyandry. For polygyny and polyandry there are no marriage bonds between the multiple wives and multiple husbands, respectively, as opposed to group marriage. I’ll be using “polygamy” to characterize the familial/spousal arrangement portrayed on Sister Wives.

My knee-jerk response watching some episodes of this program was one of protest. The feminist arguments against polygamy are many and well known. To name a few points: women are collected like possessions and added to a spousal relationship that is inherently and completely patriarchal; multiple women have marital access to one man while one man has access to multiple women; young women can be exploited and forced into (sexual/marital) relationships; religious, social, and familial pressures and teachings can raise the children of polygamist families to automatically accept polygamy as the required lifestyle without giving them the knowledge and agency to “choose” another way to life.

My profound fascination with the few episodes I watched, and the resulting contemplation of how I felt about it, led to a lengthy conversation (about four hours) with my good friend and conversational/philosophical debate companion, Chris. Some of the semi-conclusions I’ve made about my responses to the show – and polygamy of this nature, generally – are the result of his excellent interlocution.

The bottom line is I feel adverse to polygamy and I want to understand why.

The hardest part for me to accept is that these women are happy, fulfilled, and satisfied in this arrangement. Of course, it is a “reality” television show and so there is inevitable scripting and plot direction – of the depictions of happiness and satisfaction as well as tension and drama – so it’s difficult to really know anything about the nature of this complex relationship. While each woman gets one quarter of a husband – emotionally, sexually, etc., by virtue of being a man in the Mormon fundamentalist faith, Kody has unlimited access to four women – to bear and raise his children and to feel compelled to love and befriend one another as sisters because that’s how it’s done.

Kody is shown arranging to go on “dates” with each wife while the women candidly discuss the relative challenges of their wifely placement – Merri is the first wife, which has some advantages, but Robyn is the newest wife, and was the first new addition in 16 years, which sparks jealousy. Janelle can tell you why she enjoyed coming into the relationship as wife #2, and Christine feels frustrated as wife #3.

Inevitably, this family revolves around Kody. He is the one person completely tied to everyone else, mothers and children. It’s difficult for me to accept that this arrangement is emotionally and sexually fulfilling for the four wives – but then again, what do I know? I’ve never been in a polygamous relationship.

I’m a monogamist in practice, but my ideals and philosophies do not rely on monogamy (and especially not marriage) as the bedrock of a hetero- or homosexual relationship. I’m very interested in the idea that monogamy and pair-bonding are not necessarily natural (historically, anthropologically) practices for human beings. Im an ardent supporter of being non-traditional and analyzing why we believe everything we do.

I realized that reacting to polygamy as a deviant aberration of the typical sexual/familial union of two adults could be considered akin to reacting to gay marriage as an aberration. And as a feminist and a LGBTQI rights advocate, that makes me uncomfortable.

Just as polygamy seems to me as the most bizarre, unthinkable practice, in terms of what I want in my sexual/familial life, I realize that I’ve been socialized and raised to accept monogamy as the norm, just as these women appear to think polygamy is the way to go.

My politics is always one of personal agency and choice to live life however one wants. I don’t criticize the woman who wants to be a homemaker. But the issue here that makes me confused and uncomfortable is trying to understand “choice” – if you’ve been raised in a faith that dictates huge families of multiple women that revolve around a single patriarch, have you really “chosen” that lifestyle?

I haven’t accepted polygamy. As an atheist, its hard for me to imagine believing in fundamental religious teachings dictating that I should be one of many wives. I deeply believe that polygamy can be oppressive to women and children and I cannot ignore how the practice of multiple wives disturbs me as a feminist, no matter how the Brown family of Sister Wives claims “love should be multiplied, not divided.”

That being said, I recognize that the power of socialization to regard a religious/lifestyle practice as perverse or bizarre works both ways. In such a complex and diverse world, who’s to say what’s natural or normal?

Regardless of my frustration and skepticism about polygamy as a lifestyle, the show had a powerful effect on me, making me analyze the reasons why polygamy bothers and concerns me, and forcing me to recognize how even educated, very liberal thinkers can operate with hard-wired assumptions.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

My Love of Toys; or, A Tale of Two Tutters

If you’re reading this blog post, you likely came across it via my Facebook page, and are thus likely already familiar with the exploits of a loveable, blue, mouse finger puppet named Tutter (full title: Travel Tutter) and perhaps even the full-sized model, affectionately known as Big Brudder Tutter.

Tutters unite!

But do you know his* origins? Are you privy to The Story of Tutter?

Tutter, the character, is a creature from the Jim Henson Muppetverse and hails from The Big Blue House. According to MuppetWiki, “Tutter (born Tutter T. Tutter) is a blue mouse who lives in the Big Blue House with Bear on Bear in the Big Blue House.”

With a brother six years my junior, I managed to stay up to speed on children’s television programming long past my childhood (and adolescence…). As an ardent fan of The Muppets, I was inclined towards Bear in the Big Blue House and the adorable, albeit saucy, mouse Tutter.

Then one day, around age 12 or 13, a friend and I came into possession of a finger puppet Tutter. I won’t divulge how, for the privacy of those involved in Tutter’s dubious beginnings.

Tutter after a hard night on the town.
Like the Ring of Power, Tutter lay dormant for many a year – approximately 10, to be precise. I liked him, and played with him alongside my vast and ever-growing collection of toys and puppets, but he didnt really have a personality of his own. In my mid-teens, I purchased the full-sized plush Tutter, because two Tutters are better than one.

Perhaps ironically, it wasn’t until my early adulthood that Tutter, shall I say, blossomed into the mouse he is today.

My mother was likely the biggest accomplice in gradually and inadvertently ascribing a personality to Tutter. Likeminded in our zaniness, my mom would take Tutter to the office with her as a companion, occasionally sending me e-mails about how Tutter was slacking off, or being a nuisance. I’d retort with instructions about how she should set him to work sorting her paper clips. She also thought it was funny to make the larger Tutter, who she later dubbed Big Brudder, lip sync to the Cutting Crew song “(I Just) Died in Your Arms Tonight.”

Big Brudder pretty much has a Master's in English.
Travel Tutter, specifically, was born in 2008 when he accompanied me to England for a four-week study abroad program at Memorial University’s campus in Old Harlow. He went on some day trips, saw some plays, but wasn’t quite yet a tourist gimmick. Within the following few years, he gradually became my travel token, a subject for every requisite touristy photo.

Many people have taken toys or figurines on trips for photo ops but Ive kept it up with surprising alacrity.
Tutter at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland.

Tutter’s everyday activities eventually came to eclipse his travels, and what started as this:

Tutter smoking some Cubans in Cuba.

…soon devolved into this:


As long as I can remember, toy animals have been – and are – magic.

A Wrinkles puppet
I brought my two GANZ Wrinkles dog puppets, Shiloh and Rink-a-Dink (I came up with the latter appellation all by myself) to school pretty much every day of Grade Two and entertained (annoyed?) my classmates with informal puppet show sagas. I wrote and illustrated stories about the adventures of these two dog puppets.

A few toys guarding my former office.

Anyone who has known me for a long time is well aware of my (healthy!) obsession with toys and other collectable objects. And not just sentimental stuffed animals that have stuck around since childhood; many of my current plush toys, puppets, and other creatures are acquisitions since adulthood. Penguins, Paddingtons, or an Edgar Allen Poe doll – I love toys. 

Playing with stuffed animals and other toys was an incredibly valuable part of my childhood and imaginative and creative development and, in many ways, this part of my personality never faded with age.

Let's not forget about Grandma Flutter.
Tutter is an elaborate inside joke that keeps on growing. Eventually, everyone was “in” on it – friends, family, co-workers. Sometimes Tutter is very active, and sometimes he lays low for awhile.

It went without saying that I would bring Tutter to Montreal when I moved here for September 2011, and, while I never gave it too much thought, I did wonder how to “introduce” my new friends to Tutter beyond the obvious: this is an old mouse finger puppet that goes places with me.

It only took the first night of inebriated merriment at Thomson House following the Departmental Wine and Cheese for Tutter to make his appearance, and the hilarity with which my new friends have accepted, embraced, and loved, this old, ragged, purportedly alcoholic mouse was a great sign of things to come.

* I typically refer to Tutter as a single character/entity although embodied in two forms.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lecherous, lewd, libidinous: An analysis of Fifty Shades of Grey

The first thing you should know is that I did enjoy this book. I’m a proponent of the idea that enjoyment of a literary or cultural product ≠ the product’s quality. Fifty Shades of Grey reads like it was written; I was rarely unaware of the fact that I was reading a novel. It did not disguise its own artifice and constructedness. Nevertheless, it engrossed me and I wanted to keep reading it, no matter how many times my “inner goddess” said “WTF?”

It is a greatly titillating novel. One of those books you feel naughty reading in the company of others. Like the time I read some of Fanny Hill with my family in the room and felt really embarrassed. E-readers are excellent for improved subject secrecy. Is Fifty Shades “porn?” Yes. By the definition of that it “must have the power to be or be intended to act as an aphrodisiac – that is, to excite sexual passions or desires” it is most certainly pornographic (H. Montgomery Hyde, A History of Pornography).

I finished Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James a few weeks ago and have been stewing ever since. I wanted to let my reactions simmer for a while before attempting to articulate my feelings. This post is only responding to the first book, as I haven’t yet read the next two. I like to know what people are talking about when it comes to new, exceedingly popular books (and book series). I decided to read Fifty Shades very quickly after first hearing the hype, before learning too much about the premise and getting reactions. All I knew about the novel was very basic: my mom had asked me, for instance, “have you heard about this book? The one all about sex?”

All about sex certainly doesn’t cover it, though.

First of all, I wish I had read the book without looking up the gender of the author. More on this later.

Fifty Shades of Grey is to popular conceptions of Bondage Discipline Sadism Masochism (BDSM) practices what Moby-Dick is to whaling. Not a helpful analogy for some of my friends? Fifty Shades basically feels like a dictionary/ textbook of BDSM practices. You still don’t necessary understand the principles, but you’ve learned a lot of jargon. One wonders about the inspiration, and if James gleaned this information from her personal life or from Wikipedia.

The basic premise is about a young, soon-to-be college graduate (of English literature – more on this later) in Washington state named Anastasia (Ana) Steele who, although inexperienced, virginal, generally clumsy and obtuse (or maybe…because?) attracts the attention of a (*deluge of adjectives ahead*) fabulously wealthy, successful, handsome, sexy, well-dressed, intelligent, controlling, confusing, brooding, CEO named Christian Grey. He pursues her, not to be his girlfriend, or even sex friend, but the submissive (sub) to his dominant (dom) in a BDSM relationship.

As Christian is wealthy and famous, he wants Ana to sign a non-disclosure agreement as well as a contract about their agreed upon activities and “arrangement.” The latter isn’t so much having to do with privacy, but because the dom-sub relationship relies upon previously established limits including everything from what kinds of bondage equipment can be used and how, to what kinds of pain punishment, to who can put what where, etc. A large portion of the novel involves negotiation and discussion about limits and recapitulation of the details of the contract...over and over again.

This arrangement isn’t just about getting to whip or spank or bind a submissive sexual partner – it’s about not having to discuss it in the moment. That would break the illusion and compromise the integrity of the arrangement. Who wants to be in the “playroom” and have to ask “can I do this?” There is no asking once the…performance of roles begins.

As a feminist, generally and literarily, I had many automatic reactions to the power dynamic developed in the novel. And very little of these reactions had to do with any prejudice against BDSM sexual practices (because I have none) or the woman playing the submissive sexual role. It’s how the dom-sub roles prevail into every aspect of these characters’ non-sexual lives (if you can even separate them) and how Ana is completely, utterly, enthralled by Christian to the point of witlessness. He tries to control every aspect of her life and often succeeds.

Fifty Shades of Grey is hyperbolic to the point of irritant. This isn’t a sort-of well-to-do young man who is a control freak in every aspect of his life and so, thus, in the bedroom as well – Christian flies helicopters and private jets and buys Ana a laptop, smart phone, and car as part of his control over all aspects of her life and well-being (and his accessibility to her).

Side note: While it’s perfectly plausible that a university student in 2011 can not have a cell phone, and maybe, maybe not even own a laptop (she apparently uses her roommate’s and goes to the library), Ana doesn’t even have an e-mail address before Christian sets one up for her. And this girl wants to go into the publishing industry straight from her four-year undergraduate degree in English – and gets an internship, despite how bumbling, inarticulate, and mediocre we’ve already learned she is. The only evidence we have that Ana has benefited from her literature education is that she knows about Tess of the D’Urbervilles. ANYWAY.

I’ve never been so irritated by a first-person character narrator. James’s writing consists of finding a gimmick and overusing it to the point that it becomes tired and infuriating. Ana’s “inner goddess” descriptions may be the most frustrating narratological creation of all time. We can only assume “inner goddess” is code for “shred of dignity.”

Another overused gimmick is the repetitive e-mail correspondence between Ana and Christian. While a novel written in 2011 can and perhaps should include real life Internet-age communication and technology, certainly for realism, the initially cute transcription of e-mails between them goes too far, recalling writing notes back and forth with your crush in junior high, except these notes include discussion of whether or not to allow fisting.

I’m not into censorship and I’m not against written pornography and erotica (if you read my previous post you’ll know I like to study it). That being said, I do hope that no one without sexual experience reads Fifty Shades of Grey and is wildly mislead in their expectations. A digest of some of my issues:

1.     Anastasia is a virgin before she has sex with Christian; not only is she able to achieve orgasm incredibly early in her sexual career, she is able to do so vaginally. Ana has allegedly never masturbated, either. I suppose Christian is supposed to be that good? (And then every guy felt inadequate).
2.     Christian has virtually no refractory period. None. (And then every guy felt inadequate).
3.     Ana is 21-years-old and seems to have had no real sexual feelings prior to being awakened by Christian. For a novel published in 2011, this sounds rather Victorian to me. The novel perversely reinforces the nineteenth-century view of women as “passionless” until men provoke and arouse their sexual desire. (Nancy Cott, “Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790-1850”).

Anyone with a modicum of feminist leaning will react strongly to the obvious issues of the book. The female is in the submissive role: sexually, intellectually, financially…it goes on. The power gap is extremely exaggerated.

I questioned how I would have reacted if the novel portrayed a rich, powerful woman seeking a naïve young man as the submissive to her dominant. That didn’t really fix anything for me, though. We learn that Christian started his BDSM career as the submissive to an older woman. The dynamic can and does work both ways.

Then I wondered what the book would have been like if Christian had sought Ana to be his dom. That would have been ridiculous as Ana, as she is portrayed, is passive and inexperienced, and it certainly seems more fitting to introduce someone to this world in the passive role. I don’t think the dynamic really works if the dom doesn’t derive great sexual gratification from BDSM.

Then I reprimanded myself for having a knee-jerk response that deems this a misogynistic or anti-feminist creation. Criticizing something based on an obvious, superficial feminist reading is not usually my style.

I questioned: why would I automatically expect a woman writing in 2011, writing a novel that apparently started as a fan fiction response to Twilight, to have a feminist perspective? If I had read the novel under the impression that James was a man, it would have almost (almost) permitted some of the ridiculous depictions of Ana’s sexuality and self-concept. I dont know Jamess intentions or ideologies, but things can be and often are - written to show the world as it is, not as it should be. How do I know James didnt write this book to show a relationship she personally deems ridiculous and unhealthy? To educate young girls about the dangers of hot sex with a sadistic man? I doubt it, but who knows.

And this brings me to a big issue when responding critically to fiction – the disjunctions between “quality,” “success,” and simply what the novel is trying to do.

E L James has clearly written a very successful, well-selling series of novels. I bought it. I read it. I enjoyed it. It frustrated and irritated me immensely, but also provoked a torrent of questions and reflections. The novel may not be well written, but it achieves its desired effect on the reader. It certainly gave me a lot to stew over.