Story of O
By Pauline Réage
Translation by John Paul Hand
Influences: The Marquis de Sade
We had no idea that this book would have such an affect on us. In reflection, we are disturbed, intrigued, confused and frustrated. Story of O was suggested to us by a co-worker who said that he knew of a writing that “surpassed” Fifty Shades of Grey. Curious, we each read it and tears of anger flowed from our eyes. Binge eating, hugging and raving rants were all we could do to fill the void of unpleasantry that Story of O ripped in our hearts (and frontal lobes). Before we officially sat down to write this review, we did “research” for several hours which included watching several Rihanna music videos, listening to the lyrics of “E.T.” by Katy Perry and “No Church in the Wild” by Jay-z, Kanye West and Frank Ocean and, finally, reading the testimonies and self-help blog of an actual submissive / BDSM slave. It was a fun time.
And now, because we simply cannot handle this book or take it seriously, for a limited time only, we have chosen to re-write the beginning of Story of O, almost word for word, with our own context, setting and sense of humor. You’re welcome.
One day Nicole and Darragh go to a section of the Internet where they never go — the scary part. After they have taken a stroll through Youtube and have scanned the higher numbered pages of Google search, sitting together in the dank lighting of the Office, they notice, on one link of Wikipedia, on an interface where there are never any good articles, a page which, because of its title, invites them to click.
“What is this?” Darragh says.
She opens the page. It is Summer, but they have been inside all day. They are dressed as they always are: beat-up Converse sneakers, ripped sweaters, black-framed glasses, and no hat. But long hair which gets caught as they huddle close over the keyboard, and in their dirty book-bags they have their dirty books and feminist theory articles.
The page loads slowly, Nicole still not having said a word in response. But she pulls out a notepad from her bag and her eyes scroll down the window. She takes off her glasses, thinking Darragh wants to talk about what they’ve just read. But instead Darragh says:
“I think I threw up a little.” Nicole hands her a napkin in humorous response. Darragh takes it distractedly, puts it on the table and adds:
“There are just too many things wrong with this. I don’t know where to start. Can you please hold me?”
By now the Internet connection, which is less than trustworthy, has decided to freeze the screen, and Nicole has some trouble closing the window; she’s also afraid that Darragh may actually vomit. Finally, though, the window is at least minimized, but they’re not the least bit embarrassed to be reading NSFW articles at their job. Besides, it the same office in which they started this blog anyway.
“Fasten your seatbelt,” Nicole says, “and hold onto your panties, because I think we need to review this on FF.”
That’s easy enough, all they have to do is read one of the most infamous BDSM “erotic” novels ever written in less than two weeks and retain their sanity. And it’s written by a French woman. Nicole looks over at Darragh and says:
“You shouldn’t stay curled up in a ball in the corner. You’ll only start rocking back and forth.”
The floor is littered with burger wrappers, crumpled pages, broken audio cables and pens left empty and lonely. It’s quite a disgusting sensation to wade through it to get to the computer. Then Nicole says:
“Oh God, there’s a movie version and it’s on Netflix.”
The Internet connection is no longer frozen and is streaming a disturbing clip from the 1975 trailer, and Darragh doesn’t dare ask why Nicole just sits there without moving or saying another word, nor can Darragh guess what all this means to her – having Nicole there motionless, silent, so sad and exposed, so thoroughly glued, to a story going God knows where. Darragh doesn’t need to tell Nicole what she thinks or how she feels, since it’s obvious, but she’s afraid to un-bunch her legs and come close to the screen. She sits with out-stretched arms braced on either side of the wall.
“Well that was…..yeah,” Nicole says suddenly. Here they are: on the Internet, beneath fluorescent lights – they are annoying lights – inside of some sort of institution which can be seen nestled between North Philadelphia and Center City, the type of huge collegiate dwelling where one finds students asleep on sofas at any time of the day or night and wandering aimlessly through the halls along Broad Street. The real world is some distance away, and it is always a little unsettling anytime anyone leaves. Outside it is raining.
Yeah, we did that. And now here’s our actual review:
Enter the world of the woman called O, and give up any thought of mercy. This is no coy rip-off, couched in the supernatural realm of fantasy. Here there are no excuses, and absolutely no safe words. This is a testament to the power of conditioning on the human brain. Also, it’s torture porn.
We have many thoughts about O and her story. The plot is minimal, summed up and spoiled by the blurb on the back cover. O is kidnapped, conditioned to be a submissive sex slave, and given to two men. Both tire of her and discard her at the novel’s end. The last sentence? “O, seeing that Sir Stephen was on the verge of leaving her, preferred to die. Sir Stephen gave his consent.” She needs his permission to die. O has nothing to call her own.
Why do we resent this book? Why does it anger us? Dehumanization, for one. Previous readers have already commented that “O” might as well be an abbreviation for object. Indeed, the novel follows O’s transformation from a human into a living sex toy. The book glorifies the most generic role-playing of master and servant. There’s no individuality in the characters. They are not defined by anything other than their extravagant sexual acts. They are animals that happen to have extreme mating rituals. We can’t speak for anyone else, but watching dogs and cats have sex is not arousing to us. That’s how detached we felt while reading….as if we were watching several stray cats do it. O isn’t a person, she’s a sex-bot.
[Added Paragraph] But then there is the idea that O may very well be the perfect woman. She is thin, beautiful and submissive. She lives to be loved in whatever form “love” many take. She is simple and un-materialistic and low maintenance. She doesn’t mind if you beat her, brand her or betray her, as long as you don’t leave her. Because then she’ll want to die. O is so perfect, she’s living, breathing clay for any Pygmalion that comes along to sculpt. She is so devoted to her idea of acceptance that she does whatever she can to find it and receive it, including, but not limited to: being raped by several strangers one after the other, being flogged and whipped until she bears permanent scars, getting a leash attached to her genitals and proclaiming slave status to appease her Master. And what really makes O the perfect woman is that one may assume she does not have a menstrual cycle nor can get pregnant. There are no consequences for her Masters to be concerned about. They have nothing they need to apologize for because their actions only seem to ripple to O, who is literally an “o,” an orfice, a sex doll. O cannot possibly be the ideal woman because she seemingly does not live the lived experience of what it is to be a woman, biologically or gender-chosen.
We are struggling in a conflict between accepting O’s submissiveness, because she accepts it and being overwhelmingly frustrated by her awareness of oppression. At the end of the day though, we just are trying to wrap our brains around understanding how anyone could live an authentic BDSM lifestyle. We’d like to think that Story of O is perhaps an ironical take on patriarchy and a hyperbolized tale of gender roles and politics. Maybe that is myopic, but it is the only way we can consume its passages in good conscience while hoping, praying and at least pretending it is commentary on the ills of society and institutional brutality against women. From this perspective, it’s as if Pauline, the author, is mocking cultural standards by writing a satirical subversion that says, “Of course women want to be abused! They cannot think for themselves! Yes, violence is the answer! Oh, and men are insane, sex-crazed lunatics without an ounce of compassion. Yes, that’s it; women are merely walking, talking (if they’re allowed) holes for self-centered dicks to put their dicks into!”
Analyzing Story of O in this way lets us compare it to the graphic movies of South Korea’s “extreme cinema” genre. Ki-duk Kim, a director who has created several films that fall into this category, is often called a misogynist for his violent and profuse use of rape, prostitution, gang brutality and sickening sub-cultural realities. His defense for such accusations? Well, he says that his movies are actually more like commentary on society, forcing audiences to see what they ignore in their communities everyday. He believes, like other “extreme” artists, that the “slap-in-your-face” method is disturbing enough that it actually does raise awareness about social issues. We would like to think that this is what Pauline had intended for her book to do; the idea that Story of O is not criticizing the BDSM community, but is highlighting the larger problem of gender-typing and manipulation.
This also settles into the “reality” of “desensitization.” Just look to any one of the music videos listed below as examples of the male gaze, of self-sexualization and of the “pornification” of the mainstream:
“Dirty Talk” – Wynter Gordon
“S&M” – Rihanna
“Disturbia” – Rihanna
“Alejandro” – Lady Gaga
“Dirrty” – Christina Aguilera
“Lady Marmalade” – Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, Pink (there’s a riding crop in this one!)
You can read the novel (if you’re a little crazy or a little curious) here, although we do not take blame for any emotional distress caused.
*Two young feminists were scarred in the reading of this book. No animals were injured. Lots of sweet potato fries were consumed though.