Power, Sex & Fairy Tales: Decoding the Popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Via on May 18, 2012


Why are millions of American women buying this book?

When friends first started talking about Fifty Shades of Grey I dismissed it as another Mom Book Club selection. Then it started making the news. Then more friends were reading it. So, I caved to that thing that motivates 90 percent of what I do: curiosity.

After some initial looking, I decided,”Oh…it’s the whole ‘bad boy” fixation. Women still buying the Beauty and the Beast myth that ‘he’ll be different because he’s with me.'”

I should back up for the men in the audience—or the women who have so far avoided the Christian Grey phenomenon. Fifty Shades of Grey focuses on a young woman named Anastasia who is about to graduate from college. She is (astoundingly) still a virgin, and generally inexperienced in the love and relationship department.

She meets Christian Grey: wealthy, powerful, mysterious, control freak—and unbeknownst to the general community—a sexual dominant who seeks out women to be submissive under contract and live in his “Red Room of Pain.” Oh, I should also mention, E. L. James started this book as internet fan-fiction about the characters Bella and Edward from the Twilight movies.

Still baffled as to how this ended up at number two on the New York Times Bestseller List? Yeah, I was too.

I see three possibilities.

First: the fairy tale.

So many women (and men) are entranced with the idea that the badly behaved object of their affections will somehow be transformed by their love. Could happen. Probably won’t happen. A recurring theme in this first book of the series is how Christian has “never done this before,” referring to “vanilla sex” or a typical dating relationship. Somehow, it’s different with Anastasia. Normally he’s cold, distant and can only relate to women in a dominant-submissive role; something about Anastasia changes this in him.

This is a dangerous myth. If we fall in love with this story, we find ourselves falling for the wrong person over and over. Do women love this because it gives them hope that the assh*les they keep falling for will one day be transformed by the right woman? Are we still stuck on Beauty and the Beast and all the other bad-boy-goes-good fairy tales? I think it’s more than that.

Second: Power.

Photo: wikimedia

So, I did my homework here. I asked someone I thought might have an idea about the whole BDSM scene (just a hunch…turned out to be correct) if I could pick her brain about how it all works. She agreed. My main question here was what is the big deal with submission? Why does it do it for some women (and men)? Objectively, the dominant thing sort of makes sense. If it’s about control, I can understand why someone would want to feel dominant.

She quickly corrected my assumptions. Apparently, in this type of situation, the person who truly has control is the submissive. The decision to be submissive is the actual locus of control.


This definitely held true in Fifty Shades. Anastasia’s submission to Christian was intoxicating. He waited for it. He needed it. So if you want to talk about control, she had it all over him. Maybe the popularity here is that desire for sexual permission, while still maintaining control. The press has dubbed the Fifty Shades series “Mommy Porn.” Mommies aren’t known for their deviance and wantonness. Pretty much the opposite (unless you’re talking Joan Crawford, Mommy Dearest-style mommy, which we’re not).

So maybe the massive appeal to this audience is that it takes an ordinary woman and connects her with a powerful sense of her own sexuality? Or as E.L. James calls it “her inner goddess.” Sure, the whole domestic goddess, Martha Stewart, PTO thing is great in a sit-com sort of way. But what about just being a woman? What about re-connecting with our own sexuality—not what everyone else wants or needs or demands of us—but giving ourselves permission to let go of that media created ideal and just be women?

Could be.

Or maybe it’s just the third option.

Third: sex.

So, I read it. I read it on an airplane sandwiched in between two older gentlemen. One was quite persistent in trying to make conversation about my book, but I just mumbled something and dug back in. And I got it.

It’s not the power thing, although I’m sure it is for some people. Maybe it’s the fairy tale, but only in the sense that we all like to escape into a fairy tale from time to time. It isn’t well written. The plot is contrived. The characters have been used over and over—truly—it was started as fan-fiction about the Twilight characters who are a rip-off of Cathy and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights (sorry Twifans, it has to be said).

But…and I hope this isn’t a surprise to anyone…women like sex too. So if one friend tells another about this hot book and makes it seem acceptable to tap into that part of herself, and she tells two friends, and she tells two friends, and so on and so on.

Personally I’d take some Anais Nin over E. L. James any day.

(My inner goddess doesn’t need a spanking.)

Tumblr Meme

“Laters, baby.”


Like elephant journal gets sexy on Facebook.

About Kate Bartolotta

Kate Bartolotta is the strongest girl in the world. She is the love child of a pirate and a roller derby queen. She hails from the second star to the right. Her love of words is boundless, but she knows that many of life’s best moments are completely untranslatable. When she is not writing, you may find her practicing yoga, devouring a book, playing with her children, planting dandelions, or dancing barefoot with her heart on her sleeve. She is madly in love with life and does not know how this story ends; she’s making it up as she goes. Kate is the owner and editor-in-chief of Be You Media Group. She also writes for The Huffington Post, elephant journal, The Good Men Project, The Green Divas, Yoganonymous, The Body Project, Project Eve, Thought Catalog and Soulseeds. She facilitates writing workshops and retreats throughout North America. Heart Medicine, Kate's book on writing, is now available on Amazon.com You can follow Kate on Facebook and Twitter


Loved it? Leave a tip!

(We use super-secure PayPal - but don't worry - you don't need an account with PayPal.)

36 Responses to “Power, Sex & Fairy Tales: Decoding the Popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey.

  1. Katherine says:

    I keep hearing that it isn't well written, so I'm still not interested in reading it; not even for the sex. I guess my inner Goddess is doing okay. :o)

  2. Charlotte says:

    Why should sexual fantasies have to be politically correct? Although I haven't read the book and I DO think it's useful to question why books like this one have a cult following, let's admit it: The potency of a sexual fantasy often comes from its forbidden aspect. Being powerless in the face of love is a great metaphor! It's also true.

  3. Rich K. says:

    Great article. I love your work. I haven't read the book, but I think I may after your review. Being a masochistic, submissive male, I can agree with what your friend told you. Finding the power in yourself to give someone else the freedom (power) to give you enough sensation (pain) to turn you on is intoxicating. It is a beautifully connective experience.
    Anyway, thanks for your review,

  4. I also wonder Kate about the "collective" readiness for this fiction theme–Anne Rice did a whole series of sub-dom/BDSM under a pen name twenty years ago, and it went no where. Something about uncovering the hidden desires element is here in this books popularity. Just as it has been politically tricky to talk about a common female fanatsy of the "friendly rapist" it is not acceptable in this empowered-women age to talk about how sometimes women want a man to do more than take out the garbage or mow the lawn. They want him to take charge and be in control! The Highlander fiction series tappped the same vein in women's psyche–where is the potent and powerful masculine in a day and age where men are taught to be 'sensitive" and women are expected to be competent, successful achievers in a woman-can-be-just-like-a-man way.

    I'm glad you tackled this one! I was going to do the same.

    • @TheAmyBrown says:

      Anne Rampling novels were amazing and opened up an entirely new world for a lot of women – I know I passed on the books to AT LEAST 3 of my friends. At that time though the book got nowhere near as much coverage as 50 Shades has. It is a different time, but this book is also more tame where the main character has a choice and does research and makes her own decisions. In the Beauty series, the character was a slave and was treated solely for humiliation and pain and to be subdued. To the extreme!

  5. Great dissection of the book and why it's so popular, Kate. Now I'm curious. You're such a fabulous writer—have you considered writing a book?

    • Ha! I have thought about it. I also think I'm more of a sprinter than a marathoner in the writing department. (Also in the running department, come to think of it). Thanks Lynn!

  6. Jen Curley says:

    Edward/Christian both put the physical, emotional, and spiritual welfare of their beloved ahead of their own desires. Some parents don't even do that. So there's a daddy thing. And then Christian puts her sexual sexual pleasure ahead of his own- fuggetaboudit.

  7. Ok, I'll admit, I read the whole trilogy in a week. Why? It was different. It was an easy, light read. It was a break from the deeper type books I usually read. It was definitely very different than the other easy light reading I occasionally indulge in. Oh hell, it was fun to read it! Is that so bad?
    As always Kate, a great post. Love your three theories on why it's taken off amongst the mommy set.

  8. guest says:

    thanks, finally an intelligent dissection of the book. to be honest, the twilight connection made me almost boycott the book because Twilight is the stupidest phenomenon in a really long time.
    So far I like 50shades, easy read and I am glad I am not a guy (reading on the bus would have been embarrassing ;))

  9. […] Sometimes in my head I might run with this idea, and envision myself donning a cape with ‘Sex Goddess’ displayed over my breasts. Most of the time however, I simply remember that like many sexually […]

  10. @TheAmyBrown says:

    As long as something is main-stream and acceptable something as scandalous as BDSM themed reading can go viral just as quickly as a baby monkey riding on a pig on You Tube. Everything in this article speaks truth – the reason behind the popularity and why even though the writing is on the same level of a Stephanie Myers college essay, we continue to turn the pages. It is an easy read but hard to connect with because the characters TRY to have real human qualities. Are you telling me that within 5 weeks of knowing each other this Anastasia girl (not woman – GIRL) can change a man's deviant behavior enough to make him profess his love to her and then even propose marriage? Give me a break.

    Oh – and to nit-pick it to death I have to comment on the little things that are unbelievable and obnoxious- that an innocent, modest, conservative GIRL who has never known love, a normal relationship or engaged in any sexual behaviors can SO quickly become engrossed in a person & lifestyle that is so FOREIGN to the normalcy that she has always wanted. Ugh – I'm on book 2 and the gaps between my reading times are getting longer and longer. It's hard to continue to read a story where the writer only knows a handful of adjectives and actions to describe situations and where the female protagonist is not likable or believable at all. Don't go on and on for 3 pages on how the girl isn't hungry and DEMANDS to go to bed rather than eat, but at the first sit of a bowl of macaroni and cheese she is famished and scarfs it down like it is her last meal. Oh, and she gets excited about peas to put into an omelet. I'm rambling now about tiny annoyances…so I'll stop.

    The sex scenes are somewhat juicy though and do play to the fairy tale that all women entertain: That a rich, good-looking powerful man who could have anybody – wants ME and worships ME and will change for ME. Whomp whomp Everybody I have talked to has had almost the same reaction to this book – my opinion – borrow it from a friend instead of spending money on it. It will make it easier to swallow the faults of the writing!

    • Tracy says:

      Agreed…..I've been thinking very similar things as I've skimmed my way through the first 2 books, and am attempting the third (all borrowed from a friend), although I haven't picked it up in days. It's just the same thing over and over and over……oh, now she's jealous of "Mrs. Robinson" and is having a little fit…….oh, now another male character is in love with her because she's just sooo appealing……..oh, now she's talking about him touching her "there!" ……uggh. I was curious about it, but the writing and flat, superficial characters make me wonder about this latest trend of women reading stories about girls who are still, actually or simply emotionally, adolescents.

    • I agree…the massive life changes for both characters in a short time was pretty unbelievable, but maybe that's part of why it's entertaining.

  11. It's a sad reflection of our culture that badly written books about things become popular instead of the well-written ones. The question is, why aren't books written in a similar vein popular? In our system, usually, a few people make lots of money and get lots of attention, while everyone else struggles just to get by and hopes for a few readers/viewers, etc. I attribute the success of this specific book completely to the Twilight fanbase.

    Jack & Dora Do L.A. http://www.amazon.com/dp/1468195808

  12. […] and last week, and the week before…I hear from my interns, Kate our editor, Kate our editor again, and—you know—millions of women that they’re all reading, loving, and—you […]

  13. […] noticed it came up over and over in our discussions on elephant about Fifty Shades of Grey: “skip that stuff and go for Anaïs […]

  14. chad says:

    Like P. T. Barnum says, you'll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, or words to that effect.

  15. […] Kate’s article (and Waylon’s article), talk about how a lot of moms or middle-aged women are reading this book as a guilty pleasure. I’m a senior in college, and I’ve noticed a lot of my friends (Twilight fans included) are also talking about Fifty Shades of Grey. For example, the phrase “Laters, baby,” often repeated throughout the book, is becoming a commonly used saying on my Facebook mini-feed. […]

  16. […] Power, Sex & Fairy Tales: Decoding the Popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey. (elephantjournal.com) […]

  17. […] Power, Sex & Fairy Tales: Decoding the Popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey. ~Kate Bartolotta […]

  18. […] Best 50 Shades of Grey review yet (and we’ve seen a few good ones). […]

  19. […] the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey the kink community was caught. On the one hand, the community wanted to build on the attention and […]

  20. […] The “50 Shades Frenzy” shall continue with the 2013 release of 50 Shades of Shiva, featuring the Hindu god of yoga, sex, […]

  21. hey, I’m unable to subscribe to your RSS feed. Can you aid or do you know why? thanks to your info.

Leave a Reply