Fifty Shades of Grey: Pop Goes Erotica
E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey continues to sweep the nation like a hurricane, leaving confusion and commotion in its relentless path, especially given the buzz over the film adaptation. The first in a trilogy of novels often referred to as “Twilight for grown-ups” and “mommy porn,” these soulless works have boomed in popularity, a fact that surprises many recreational readers. But a handful of vague, dismissive, or morally alarmist cultural assumptions won’t serve to explain this phenomenon. To the contrary, a number of nuanced and interconnected contributing elements led to this imperfect storm.
In the novel, Anastasia Steele is a young and naïve college student who falls in love with Christian Grey, a stunningly good-looking company owner with a bottomless bank account and a sordid past (typical love story setup). The storyline is dense with pornographic scenes and description that often become painfully repetitive. It doesn’t take long for the damaged Mr. Grey to prey upon Anastasia’s ignorance and convince her to be his submissive in a dark and twisted sexual game. Christian quickly starts controlling Anastasia through stalking her, telling her when and what to eat, determining her workout regimen, and even deciding who she spends time with and when. The amount of control she gives him is appalling, and Anastasia’s justification of wanting to know him more and therefore submitting to his control — despite the fact that he makes her uneasy and even scared — seems more pathetic than disturbing. Worse still, the plot never gains much momentum, which makes for an even more unsatisfying effort.
Although the story is an aesthetic blunder, it does sell for a few reasons. One of the great forces behind the Fifty Shades boom can be found in recent technological advances. Erotic literature replicates with ever-increasing speed due to the ease, anonymity, and shareability created by the World Wide Web. It’s a safe bet that men and women have always sought out erotica, from the plays of the Greeks, to Shakespeare’s sonnets, to Behind the Green Door.
But now, Nooks, Smart Phones, iPads, Kindles, and other similar reading devices give us the liberty to read anything we want in public without worrying about others’ judgment. Bored housewives can enjoy naughty indulgences during morning commutes and vacation flights, on park benches while the kids play, and in local coffee shops or anywhere else someone may want to access erotica without being readily detected and easily censured. Because the timing of this tedious but risky read and the popularity of electronic novels so closely coincide, Fifty Shades has become far more popular than, say, a number of genuinely inspiring Victorian pornographic novels ever did.
Beyond paranoia about reading erotica in public, the media also generated acceptance for the novel. When they caught wind of the new, erotic, and dangerous book hitting the shelves, articles were promptly blasted across every major newspaper and network in the nation. Whether the reports on the book were positive or negative, the publicity made Fifty Shades famous. This is not to completely denigrate the media for finding a story and reporting it, but the fact is that if people hear about something enough, their interest in it will be piqued, no matter the intention of the source.
Others have been addressing a more intriguing, slippery speculation. In a time when women have more equality and independence than ever, why are so many flocking to the nearest bookstore to purchase a novel about a weak, even pathetic, woman giving up basic freedoms? As odd as this might sound, Fifty Shades might well represent a newfound exercise in cultural bonding. I certainly would have never read it had it not been for a number of my female friends raving about it and calling it a must-read. Moreover, the film will, of course, expand this popularity to a new generation of people who prefer not to read very much. While it’s true that women have struggled for equality in all things, including sexuality, for far too long, Fifty Shades might also give women the same freedom that pornography gives men all over the world — the freedom granted by immersion into fantasy — demeaning or not.
I’m left with mixed emotions regarding Fifty Shades of Grey. Its seductive and dangerously grotesque elements appeal to many women’s primal needs, and who knows? Maybe a portion of the female population has always been attracted to such erotica. For whatever reasons, shock value often sells. Maybe the novel and film aren’t really about women believing they belong in the dungeons of men’s minds. Perhaps current Pop Culture is just pushing another of its favorite trends to the limit. This means the telling of nightmarish tales of women giving up their intellectual, emotional, and physical independence to please and be abused by disturbed men. However, in this case, playing the martyr doesn’t make one a saint.