May 19, 2012

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


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 a$$holes 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.)

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“Laters, baby.”


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