If you haven’t been living under a rock lately, you’re aware of the new ‘must read’ book, 50 Shades of Grey, a novel about a wealthy white male, Christian Grey, who uses and abuses the female protagonist, Anastasia Steele. Much of the discussion I’ve seen centres around the poor quality of prose, the lack of imagination including repetition (bend over this piece of expensive furniture, this time bend over a different piece of expensive furniture), not to mention the abusive nature of the relationship. Questions are being asked: is this novel’s popularity due to poor education? If so, who is responsible? Are writers responsible?
The Sponsored Lady seems to think the point of 50 Shades was a novel to provide extra stimulus for masturbation. Having been promised non-traditional sex (e.g. anal sex), Lady is bitterly disappointed. Add to that empty promise the unimaginative forms and low-level language of the female protagonist who is, allegedly, a Literary major, topped with Grey’s lack of knowledge of wine, and Lady is disgusted, let down like the promise of alcohol (it provokes the desire, but takes away from the performance).
Why, then, is 50 Shades so popular?
In times of economic depression, people turn to forms of escapism to cope, whether it be gambling (lotto sales tend to increase at these times, enabling people’s dreams), drugs or other forms of entertainment. The romance section of publishing has been booming, catering largely but not solely to women.
Women’s liberation saw a swing towards freedom of expression for women. Germaine Greer exposed key societal attitudes towards women eloquently when she penned the title Damned Whores and God’s Police. Horror movies present women as either the virgin or the whore; the whore is inevitably mutilated for her sins while the virgin may be the pure sacrifice or her purity may be rewarded by escaping the awful deaths to which her friends succumb (see this blog by Kirstyn McDermott .)
In recent times the pendulum has swung back towards traditional patriarchy, almost an attitude of blaming women’s lib for the loss of the ‘good ol’ days’. This backlash against women’s lib has increased the sexualisation and objectification of women coupled with political moves to return women to ‘their place in the home’ and legislate increasing control over women’s reproductive systems. Women are still damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Novels are a much safer vehicle for sexual stimulation, with or without self-stimulation, hence the proliferation of erotica aimed at women.
But why is this particular book a runaway success?
50 Shades was extraordinarily well-marketed prior to its release. Ellen Degeneres was allegedly asked to record the audio book version of 50 Shades, but ‘things didn’t go according to plan’: Ellen coquettishly refused to read portions of the book aloud, skipping to other salacious bits, pulling out props, etcetera. This YouTube clip has over 2.6 million views today. In a market that laps up romance, including paranormal romance and ‘romance’ in abusive or co-dependent relationships (e.g. Twilight), a savvy publicist launched what is apparently poorly written copy amid huge fanfare. 50 Shades is so popular it’s acceptable for people to read it on the train to work without concealing the cover. It’s a must-read to the point that certain people in my twitter feed have succumbed to purchase 50 Shades and begin reading it before throwing it down in disgust.
50 Shades couples the current patriarchal attitudes towards women with eroticism: Anastasia is submissive in these sexual encounters. This is Twilight for a slightly more mature audience. The problem with women being submissive and dependent is twofold: it is harmful for women and their relationships. A submissive, dependent woman is more likely to suffer from depression (see Martin Seligman on Learned Helplessness).
The proliferation of werewolf and vampire romantic fiction set the stage for 50 Shades by seeding acceptance of inequality and even abuse in relationships. 50 Shades isn’t the end of this trend. Writers can write about healthy relationships, seductively describing explicit erotic scenes, but those who’ve internalised the messages of Twilight and 50 Shades will stay away in droves because they won’t identify with the characters.