What 50 Shades of Grey Tells Us About the Nature of Female Fantasy

April 9, 2012

Women want their romance heroes to be like coconuts: hard and tough on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside. But the hero’s sweet interior can’t be available to just anyone. Only the heroine gets to crack him open. The hero is granted free reign to be a badass with everyone else, as long as he’s tender and attentive with the heroine.

Ogi Ogas, A Billion Wicked Thoughts

 

 

The 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon has captured the worldwide attention of readers, industry observers and media outlets. Its publication is a remarkable success story that touches on several of my personal interests:

  • Female psychology and sexuality
  • Politics and feminism
  • Literature and stories
  • Business and economics

In researching this post, I came across quotes from readers, and reports from writers, but no journalist who had both read the book and discussed its significance. Last week I read the first two books in the trilogy, and will review the first book here. Please be aware that this post is a spoiler. It’s not possible to discuss the extraordinary event that is 50 Shades while attempting to hide the story’s arc and ending. If you don’t want to learn what happens in the book, stop here.

EL James originally wrote the story as Twilight fan fiction, posting it for free on her favorite fanfic site. 50 Shades bears little resemblance to the Twilight series on the face of it, but there are some underlying common themes:

  1. An innocent, socially awkward heroine with pale skin and dark hair. (Note the author’s appearance.)
  2. A powerful, enigmatic, damaged male.
  3. Love at first sight.
  4. Two parties so different in their wants and needs that a lasting relationship appears impossible.
  5. True love conquers all.

The Synopsis

Anastasia (Ana) Steele is a 21 year old college senior who has never dated a boy, much less had sex. In fact, she confesses at one point that she has never masturbated or even touched herself. She states that she has never met a man before who made her “want to be kissed.” She is deeply introverted, described as ordinary in appearance, and spectacularly clumsy: “gawky and uncoordinated.” She works part-time at a hardware store, her  primary extracurricular activity. She has never owned a computer, and doesn’t even have an email address. An English major, she frequently references Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Her father died when she was young, and her mother is on husband #4. The book begins with Ana filling in for a sick roommate who’s editor of the student newspaper. She travels three hours to Seattle to interview Christian Grey, one of the college’s benefactors.

Grey is a 27 year-old telecommunications magnate. We never learn how he made his fortune, but we do learn a lot about his traumatic childhood. Like TV serial killer Dexter, he was adopted at the age of four, after he was found alone with the dead body of his crack whore mother, who had been dead several days. His chest is covered with cigarette burn scars.

He happens to be gorgeous – Ana describes him as the epitome of male beauty, having “intense bright gray eyes that regard me shrewdly.” He has unruly, copper-colored curls, a straight nose, and square jaw. Clumsy Ms. Steele literally stumbles, then falls into his office, which for some strange reason causes his eyes to glow hot with desire. Their meeting is all raised eyebrows and sardonic grins (Christian), combined with awkward pauses, blurting, stuttering and blushing (Ana).

Soon after, Grey saves her life from a crazed bike messenger, but when she falls into his arms with relief he warns “You should steer clear of me. I am not the man for you,” and “I don’t do the girlfriend thing.” Nonetheless, a few days later he sends her a $14,000 first edition of Tess, then invites her to his Seattle apartment for dinner, where she plans to lose her virginity. Once there, he asks her to sign a non-disclosure agreement, leading her to ask, “Does this mean you’re going to make love to me tonight, Christian?”

“No, Anastasia, it doesn’t. Firstly, I don’t make love. I fuck…hard. Secondly, there’s a lot more paperwork to do, and thirdly, you don’t yet know what you’re in for. You could still run for the hills.”

He shows her his Playroom, equipped with chains, cuffs, ropes, floggers, canes and bizarre metal instruments of all kinds. He proposes a three month trial contract, during which he will dictate nearly every aspect of her life: what she eats, wears, and how she exercises. She will be his “sub” every weekend, bending to his will and obeying him in all things. She must agree to keep her eyes cast downward unless given permission to gaze upon him directly.

Grey got his own start with kinky sex as a sub at 15, when a friend of  his mother’s seduced and dominated him, regularly “beating the shit out of him.” That monogamous relationship lasted for 10 years, and he never made a single friend during that time, even at college. When it ended, he became a dom and has had 15 women under contract prior to Ana.

“I’m fully aware this is a dark path I’m leading you down, Anastasia.”

Anastasia demands time to mull it over, a few weeks during which Christian has vanilla sex with her in his bed and breaks many other of his rules, including sleeping in the same bed, introducing her to his mother and the rest of his family, flying her in his helicopter, then his glider. The one thing he refuses her is permission to touch his scarred chest. He prefers that her hands be pinned down or tied to prevent it. He uses a silk gray necktie to accomplish this. Desperate to touch the man she quickly falls in love with, this “hard limit” causes her deep anguish.

She never does sign the contract, but she does have sex as his sub three times. (They have vanilla sex many more times.) Twice he spanks her with his bare hand, and the third time she allows him to hit her with a feathery flogger. She is sexually aroused during these activities, but makes clear she would prefer a more “normal” sexual relationship. She tells him that she is submissive only to please him, and expresses her doubts that they are compatible. Finally, unable to delay his desire to inflict real pain, he whips her bare bottom with a belt six times, an experience she finds excruciatingly painful. When it’s over, sobbing, she ends their relationship, declaring that neither one can give the other what they want and need.

End of Part One (first in a trilogy)

The second book focuses on Grey’s trying to win her back as a man cured of the desire to control and harm. At this point, the relationship is extremely romantic and gentle. Grey’s aggressive tendencies are limited to those who would try to steal his girl away from him. He begs Ana never to leave him, and offers her marriage and children. He learns to enjoy her touch. It is a truly miraculous exorcism of demons.

The Review

The writing is terrible. Really, embarrassingly bad. James is English, and the book was originally published by a small Australian virtual publishing firm. Vintage has acquired the rights and will republish the book in the U.S. this month – let’s hope their editors make significant improvements. Focus Entertainment purchased the movie rights for $5 million.

James relies heavily on trite gimmicks, using them so repetitively in the book that they became a profound annoyance. One is the insertion of the italicized “oh my” whenever Ana feels a surge of sexual attraction for Christian. By my count, this is inserted into the narrative 68 times. She also says “holy cow” a lot, 82 times by Maureen Dowd’s count.

Another is Christian’s constant remarking on Ana’s biting her bottom lip. She does this so frequently it’s surprising it isn’t bruised and bloodied, and whenever he notices this behavior in public Christian “growls” a command that she save it for later. (Grey is very fond of growling.)

Clearly, women are buying 50 Shades at least in part for the sex scenes, of which there are about ten. They are very graphic, and very representative of what one sees in porn. There is an intense connection between Ana and Christian, and that shows in the sex. Personally, I did not find it particularly arousing – there are too many cliches and bits of what I consider misinformation. For example, most of Ana’s orgasms occur only after Christian (growling again) says, “Graaarghghg, come to me, baby,” They always result from thrusting alone, there’s no changing things up, no additional touching. Oral sex, which he performs two or three times, is always performed with her standing up, him kneeling, moving his tongue in perfect circles for a minute or so. This causes orgasmic explosions for her.
Ana is generally passive during sex, to the point of submission, which is of course what he likes. I did find that my interest in the sex increased slightly as their emotional intimacy increased. Though most of the sex is vanilla, even in the first book, I enjoyed knowing that an emotional bond was forming in lieu of the dominant and submissive routines.
Ana makes Grey’s healing her mission. “This man, whom I once thought of as a romantic hero, a brave shining white knight – or the dark knight as he said. He’s not a hero; he’s a man with serious, deep emotional flaws, and he’s dragging me into the dark. Can I not guide him into the light?”
Oddly, every sex scene includes a very detailed logistical description of his fetching a condom, ripping open the foil packet and putting it on his very large penis. This technical report did little to enhance the mood – I don’t know if James is doing her bit to encourage safe sex or plans to reveal that Christian does this to prevent his despicable genes from being promulgated – as a form of self-loathing.
Of course, this is romance, and we never doubt that the light will win out over the dark.

The Phenomenon

50 Shades was published in June, 2011, and became #1 on the New York Times bestseller list last month. There’s been little distribution of the printed version; 90% of its sales have been for e-readers.

The original buyers were followers of EL James’ previous fan fiction, and the book became a word of mouth sensation almost immediately. Indeed, the publishing industry is reeling over the potential in the formula “fan fiction + erotica + digital delivery = big bucks.”  It’s being hailed as the secret to revitalizing the industry.

Forbes reports that Harper Collins has founded a new division called Mischief just for these kinds of properties:

Surprised and pleased by the sudden interest in the romance sub-genre, publishers are scrambling to ride the wave, saying Fifty Shades will likely generate a fresh cycle of female-targeted erotica packaged for the mainstream reader.

…Where there’s money to be made, the industry will follow. HarperCollins UK last week announced the launch of Mischief, its new erotic romance e-book imprint. It will push titles like Red Grow the Roses, an “original and thrilling vampire erotica” novel, and Sisters in Sin, a “haunting and intensely arousing” tale of a woman’s travels in Italy. Mischief executives say the imprint has been in the works for a year and is not a direct response to James’ series, but admit they are thrilled with the lead-in it provides.

For a look at the popularity of the romance genre, consider these sales numbers for 2011:

  • Romance: $1.37 billion
  • Inspirational: $759 million
  • Mystery: $682 million
  • Sci Fi and Fantasy: $559 million
  • Literary Fiction: $455 million

Who are the women buying 50 Shades? There’s a perception that the original demographic was largely a married, over 30 crowd, though the evidence is strictly anecdotal. The Christian Science Monitor interviewed one reader and blogger:

In Shari Von Holten’s neighborhood, it started with a buzz among friends on Facebook. Then Van Holten’s Long Island neighbors started asking each other about the book the street, discreetly, or during chance encounters at the market. “My friends were saying things like: ‘I just finished it, it’s the best,’” says Von Holten. Intrigued, she floated the title at her book club’s next meeting, and the women quickly agreed to read it for March.

Media outlets have snarkily dubbed it “mommy porn” as a result. An article in The New York Times suggests the book has massive crossover appeal:

We’re making a statement that this is bigger than one genre,” said Anne Messitte, the publisher of Vintage Anchor, who discovered the book when a colleague at Random House slipped her a copy. “The people who are reading this are not only people who read romance. It’s gone much broader than that.

…This book has been credited with something else: introducing women who usually read run-of-the-mill literary or commercial fiction to graphic, heavy-breathing erotica.

Many readers have expressed that they’re bringing their newfound sexual arousal to their own bedrooms:

In the cities and suburbs of New York, Denver and Minneapolis, the women who have devoured the books say they are feeling the happy effects at home.

“It’s relighting a fire under a lot of marriages,” said Lyss Stern, the founder of DivaMoms.com and one of the early fans of the series. “I think it makes you feel sexy again, reading the books.”

Julie Gerstenblatt agrees, describing her enthusiasm at HuffPo:

Here’s the fun (funny? strange? uncomfortable to admit?) part: When you put the book down, you will actually want to have sex with your husband. Like, a lot.

After 13 years of marriage, it’s a damned revelation.

“Matt’s exhausted,” my friend, Sarah, told me.

“Jim’s excited that there’s a sequel!” another friend said.

“It’s actually a trilogy,” Sarah said, slightly awe-struck. With over 900 pages of E. L. James on our bedside tables, we could all be having sex with our husbands… indefinitely.

“Jeff and I are going away this weekend – should I bring this book?” Amy asked.

“Yes!” We told her.

Yes, I tell you. Yes, and yes, and oh, baby, yes.

Reportedly, stores in NYC have seen a sharp increase in the sales of  gray silk ties. Publicist Alison Brod told the New York Post that the novel is “the new Kabbalah for female bonding in this city.”

Not surprisingly, some men find the phenomenon unnerving.  Fox News reports:

While women are applauding the book, some men are expressing concern over whether women should be insulted by a plot dominated by a man who tells a woman when to sleep, eat, work out and even how to groom herself. Television host Dr. Drew Pinsky recently called the book a “rape fantasy.”

Frank Santo at the New York Daily News read 50 Shades on his Kindle while commuting on the subway, and found it profoundly discomfiting.

 I’M JUST READING A BOOK ABOUT SPORTS OVER HERE FOLKS, I’M JUST A GUY READING ABOUT SPORTS.

This experience, needless to say, was unpleasant. As is so often the case with sexual matters, this book left me feeling confused, bothered and seriously doubting whether or not I understood what was going on.

Ultimately, he rejected any notion of a romantic storyline.

Firstly, and I can’t believe anyone would argue otherwise, “50 Shades of Grey” is pornography, plain and simple. There could be no other use for it. The narrative is comprised of 9 or 10 lengthy yet well-paced sex scenes tied together with some mindless, almost purposefully banal filler about Anastasia Steele’s college life. I think I remember Christian Grey playing a piano in one scene. That happened right? I don’t know, I was extremely anxious and uncomfortable the whole time. But this is exactly why this book matters. It manages, miraculously, to be at once pornographic and deeply unappealing to men – it is a kind of pornography that attracts only women, and thus far it is selling off the charts.

Alecia Simmonds, writing in the Australian publication Daily Life, disagrees, seeing 50 Shades as traditional romance fiction:

This is not to suggest that the tedious prose or conceptual vapidity of E. L. James should be compared with Austen, Bronte, Smith or Rousseau. But romance has the potential to explore the relationship between power and intimacy, which, in relegating romantic fiction to the trivial, we seem to have collectively ignored.

Of course women are also reading erotic romance for the same reason as we scoured our parents’ bookshelves for The Joy of Sex when teenagers. It offers a pulse-quickening, delicious delight. There is an absence of good erotic writing in serious literature and a puritanical disdain for literary descriptions of sex. We applaud literature if it makes us weep or inspires indignation. Rarely do we give credit when a book leaves us breathless, coy and pleasurably twitching.

But she also claims the sub-dom theme is a new low:

More than anything, the book shows us how much mainstream porn – with all its hair-pulling, choking and fantasies of violence – has made BDSM seem terribly ordinary. What were once transgressive sexual practices have become standard mumsy desires.

I’m nor so sure. I recall reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander in the 90s, the first in a series of highly successful romance novels set in the 1700s. In it a woman’s husband beats her when she misbehaves, and the sexual tension is palpable. They are both aroused by it. This proved controversial and was ultimately justified by pointing out the novel was set in a time when wives were property. That didn’t prevent contemporary women from considering the book extremely sexy, however.

Rachel, a 39 year-old lawyer who spoke with ABC News, describes what I think resonates most for many women:

“I loved the book — all three,” said Rachel, who has been married to her husband since she was 19 and has a healthy sex life. “But this is pretty hard-core porn.”

“The first book is very, very graphic and harsh with a lot of S & M – and quite frankly, did not do it for me,” she said. “I would never try anything with pain.”

But, she got hooked on the romance that develops in the second book, when Steele tries to change Grey. “What I loved was that it was a great love story.”

The heart of the romance is the notion of submission and the way in which Steele accommodates Grey to “make him love her,” according to Rachel.

“She sees being submissive as a necessity to save him,” she said. “He was broken. That was more of the appeal. And the sex was a bonus.”

The Backlash

From the New York Times article:

The trilogy has its detractors. Commentators have shredded the books for their explicit violence and antiquated treatment of women, made especially clear in the character of Anastasia, an awkward naif who consents to being stalked, slapped and whipped with a leather riding crop.

“What I found fascinating is that there are all these supermotivated, smart, educated women saying this was like the greatest thing they’ve ever read,” said Meg Lazarus, a 38-year-old former lawyer in Scarsdale, whose friends and acquaintances have been buzzing about the book. “I don’t get it. There’s a lot of violence, and this guy is abhorrent sometimes.”

Other feminists have found the book true to the goals of sex positive feminism. From Fox News:

Jill Filipovic, a blogger with Feministe.com told Fox411.com that because the book depicts a consensual relationship (Steele does sign that contract), she is unconcerned.

(Note: This is incorrect, as Steele never does sign the contract. She does consent to being tied at the wrists and hit on three occasions, which is the mildest form of domination stipulated in the contract. But Grey makes nearly all of the concessions. He never performs any act without her permission, though he does several times ask Steele to trust him rather than disclose what he has in mind. The sex in the book barely ventures out of vanilla territory, and when it finally does, Ana ends the relationship.)

“Amy Robach for NBC News says that the novel answers the age old question of what women really want. Never mind being left breathless or captivated, says Robach, this book makes it clear that domination and submission are on the minds of most American women.”

“We had the women’s movement which really was about empowering women not to be submissive to men anymore. Now we’ve moved onto a new generation where women are more empowered than ever before, the glass ceiling has been broken and we have as much control as we want. And what are we longing for? A little bodice ripping,” answers author Laura Berman to NBC.

The always insightful James Taranto at the Wall St. Journal agrees:

Female and male pornography are very much two sides of the same coin. While the former tends to be literary and the latter visual, neither has much pretension of being high art (except when such pretensions are useful in First Amendment cases). More interestingly, both present a similar sexual fantasy world, in which women are submissive and men dominant–though because each sex is interested in its opposite, female porn emphasizes the male-dominance aspect of the fantasy and male porn the female-submission aspect.

Bennett, Dowd and Bruni all puzzle over the seeming contradiction between the success of feminism in “empowering” women and the cultural products of which the trio disapprove. It should be noted that neither dirty pictures nor dirty books (“romance novels,” as they’re euphemistically called) are anything new. But it may be that they have become more graphic, more popular or both. At the very least, it is clear that the sexual fantasies of men and women do not conform to the feminist ideal of relations between generic and equal “persons.”

Taranto, who happens to be the only mainstream journalist I’ve ever seen write about hypergamy, goes on to share the work of anthropologist Heather Remoff, who studied female mating preferences in the 70s. Interviewing 66 women about their combined 261 sexual partners, they cited 23 different traits correlated to male sexual success:

  • good-looking (43%)
  • intelligent (40%)
  • good income potential (40%)
  • control of social resources (37%)
  • food provided (36%)
  • control of material resources (36%)
  • protective toward female (35%)
  • male older (30%)
  • male dominant toward female (28%)
  • confident (26%)
  • well-educated (23%)
  • good build (23%)
  • aggressive (22%)
  • generous (22%)
  • accurate focus (21%)
  • chemistry (21%)
  • eye contact (19%)
  • baby fantasies (18%)
  • outstanding talent (17%)
  • high status (16%)
  • tall (16%)
  • good with children (15%)
  • female’s parents approved (5%)
Taranto:

The attraction to most of these traits is a manifestation of female hypergamy–especially “good-looking,” which turns out to have quite a different meaning for women than for men: “Every woman responds to a man whose looks correspond to her particular stereotype of power,” Remoff observes in a passage she italicizes.

This effort to equalize the sexes has created a sexual disequilibrium. For a high-status or powerful woman, a higher-status or more powerful man is hard to find. Although that works out nicely for the highest-status men, it is much more difficult for the average man to make himself an attractive prospect for women. Result: a lot of lonely people of both sexes, and an eager market for pornography of both the visual and literary kinds.

Ogi Ogas, author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, explains the dual nature of the female’s fantasies:

The majority of women have submission fantasies. From classic romance The Flame and The Flower to classic erotica The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty to Twilight BDSM fan fiction (SW: e.g., 50 Shades), submission themes are immensely popular in cross-cultural female erotica. The fact of the matter is that most heterosexual women are wired to find sexual submission arousing–and so are most female mammals.

For the vast majority of romance readers, the hero should be a strong, confident, swaggering alpha. “I think this is one of the problems we’re having in romance in general right now: our heroes have gotten a little too PC. We’re portraying men the way feminist ideals say they should be – respectful and consensus-building,” muses erotic romance author Angela Knight.

Women just don’t want a nice guy – they want an alpha who learns to be nice to her. Women are designed to look for clues that there is a sweet interior worth getting at. Kindness and understanding are most attractive with the tough shell of alpha-hood.

Men are aroused by being dominant and by submissive women, women are aroused by being submissive and by dominant men. In the bedroom, inequality beats equality. Negotiating sexual politics has always been difficult, but paradoxically the laudable and necessary victories of gender equality activism might make it even more challenging. We’re all figuring out how to live in the first society in human history where women have such power, independence, and clout. But just as democracy has no effect on our basic taste preferences for sugar and fat, democracy doesn’t affect our basic sexual preferences for domination and submission.

Fifty Shades of Grey is the first blockbuster novel to entirely bypass the behemoth publishing industry and the mainstream media. It exploded on the scene thanks to word of mouth among readers, aided by the discreet digital format. No feminists or feminist-leaning institutions had the opportunity to influence the content or its delivery. Despite the poor writing quality, 50 Shades delivers what contemporary women are starving and clamoring for. Anastasia Steele gets her coconut; hard and tough on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside. That’s the ultimate female fantasy.