Thursday, June 07, 2012

Fifty Shades of Why?

"Have you read it?"

I've been asked that a number of times recently, and no one has to say what "it" is.  The number one bestseller on both Amazon and The New York Times bestseller list, amazingly enough, is not Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work.  The number 1-4 bestsellers are the trilogy starting with the novel Fifty Shades of Gray, by E.L. James.   #1 Fifty Shades of Gray, #2 Fifty Shades of Darker, #3 Fifty Shades Freed, #4 the set of all three as a trilogy.

So I'm sitting at the pool, without sunscreen and my neighbor tells me that she just finished "this awful trilogy."  Why did she read an entire trilogy if she didn't like it?  Her friend, she says, read all three Fifty Shades books 3 times each--- she knows this because her friend's husband announced that fact on her Facebook page.

So I read the first book, Fifty Shades of Grey, when it first starting getting press in the New York Times as the erotic novel that it was okay to read, one people were discussing with their book clubs.  I expected the novel to be something resembling literature with erotica thrown in.  Oh my, I was wrong.  The writing was awful and stilted with dialogue that didn't flow, and...well, just not "literature."  The erotica was graphic sadomasochism.  There was a little 'vanilla sex' and our fifty shades of F*'d up character, Christian Grey, was kind enough to define "vanilla" as meaning there are no props involved.  

I spent over a decade consulting to a sexual behaviors unit.  Nothing shocks me anymore.  Is that true? Oh maybe, but nothing in this book was terribly shocking, except that it's the number one best seller.  It seemed similar to 9 1/2 Weeks, which also had the plot of a woman who was attracted to a man who enjoyed sadistic sex, bondage, and humiliation.   Interesting that the man in that novel was named John Gray (thank you wikipedia).  But 9 1/2 Weeks did not get the hype or best-selling status that Fifty Shades of Grey is getting. The movie did not do terribly well, even with Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, though apparently it's done better as a home video.

I'm left with the question of Why?  It's not the writing.  It's not the plot-- there is some pull to know what happened to Christian that he's developed this fetish-- it's not just simple S&M, he has a special secret room called The Red Room of Pain with every form of implement and he makes a big deal of having his women sign a legal contract.  And he won't be touched.  He's fabulously wealthy in a way that pulls on everyone's fantasies--who doesn't want to be helicoptered and chauffeured on their first date?-- young, sexy, charismatic, intriguing, mysterious, brilliant, disturbed, and impenetrable.  Still, not enough for the #1 bestseller along with 2 sequels and so much hype.  

The novel is pulled along by the sex, the build up to the sex, and the vivid descriptions of the sex.  James focuses on the kinky--the bondage, the humiliation, the actual infliction of pain, but she includes all flavors here, including some vanilla, it's not all fetishistic.  I think she covers most tastes, and she does it with a perplexing protagonist-- a freshly minted college grad who happens to be a down-to-earth virgin who is conflicted about accepting her billionaire boyfriend's many (and often intimate) gifts-- it feels like prostitution to her.  It's easy to understand young Anastasia's attraction to Christian, but for someone who's never been interested in sex before, she's an awfully ready, willing, and libidinally-driven character who relishes good sex and tolerates, but doesn't quite crave, Christian's more sadistic desires. 

The sex is the draw, and I'm left to wonder why.  The book, I believe, is selling mostly to women.  It's been called "Mommy Porn" and Saturday Night Live had it's own satirical segment on the book for Mother's Day.  Aside to my co-bloggers: please forgive me for posting the SNL skit video and I hope you'll still blog with me...oy.  Why is it Mommy Porn? There are no mommies in the book, the characters are twenty-somethings.   I'm left to wonder if sado-masochistic sexual fantasies (and I'll stress the word "fantasy") aren't much more common then we assume.  There's something liberating, too, about the fact that Anastasia is not craving her role as masochist; she tolerates it for love, though clearly she enjoys being pushed to this place-- she never refuses, she never uses the 'safeword' that Christian has said will get him to stop.  It's as though she (and the reader) are allowed to enjoy the kinky sex because she isn't looking for it, she's just the victim of love and going along is required to remain in the relationship, even though it seems that Christian is drawn to her by more then his desire for a sex slave.  Perhaps part of the draw is a push away from a world where gender equality is the politically correct, where women now often surpass men as the breadwinners, as the more motivated and driven members of college classes and work places.  

Okay, so you tell me, why is Fifty Shades of Grey selling better than Shrink Rap?


Sarebear said...

I think I better not say what I have to say on the subject.

Confusing enough?


Anonymous said...

To answer your question as to why it's so popular...

The book was originally Twilight slashfic. It was very popular, but some people urged the writer to change the names, because it was a little "extreme". The author then packaged everything up and self-published on Amazon as an ebook for $.99. She already had a built in audience with the Twilight crowd and at the low price point, it shot to the top of the Amazon charts (people will buy anything for $.99). And so more people purchased it since it was best selling. Then a publisher noticed and offered her a book deal. Now there is all this online buzz and blogs started commenting and then the MSM picked it up. It continues to snowball as people are talking about how "taboo" it was. Next thing you know Barbara Walters is talking about rough sex on The View and SNL is doing skits.

And that is the phenomena of 50 Shades of Grey.

Sarebear said...

I realized my comment might sound like I'm into that stuff. I'm not. Probably no one was thinking it but I'm afraid of everything, so there.

bdsm addict said...

I have a bdsm addiction according to the many psychologists and psychiatrists I see. I don't enjoy it yet I am pulled towards it like a drug addict to his crack. My therapist think it is me reliving scenes from my childhood and reconstructing them so I can understand the horrible abuse I went through. I have been told many times that bdsm is not a valid life choice something I very strongly disagree with. I know they unsafe way I engage it is harmful to me but on a whole I do think bdsm is much more common then people think and in the right way it can be a very valid choice for consenting adults.
I also hate the fact that I have been repeatedly told that only people who have been abused engage in such activities and that no sane normal person is attracted to bdsm. I would love to do a study one day to prove wrong the many 'experts' who have told me this again and again!

attached said...

@bdsm addict

I wonder how many of the supposedly "normal" people involved in the bdsm lifestyle actually have abuse histories that they don't acknowledge. I mean abuse history to include more than sexual abuse in my definition however because I think many kinds of emotional and psychological abuse are as damaging as sexual and could result in experimenting/enjoying power dynamics and sexuality. I agree with you that it is more complicated than a simple reliving or reconstructing scenes from childhood.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Why is it Mommy Porn?

I think it's derisively referred to as mommy porn because the assumption is that any other demographic would just consume porn-as-porn and be honest about it, rather than porn disguised as chicklit.

Since 'mommies' are tasked with keeping the world safe for children, that means not allowing pornography, which means they have to hide it behind the trappings of the romance novel and to treat their sexual interests as guilty secrets. That the kind of sex is considered taboo just makes it more thrilling. It's like being 8th grade girls all over again, turning down the corners of pages with naughty bits and giggling with girlfriends about them in private.

The sex is the draw, and I'm left to wonder why.
I think there is a draw in the fantasy of being in control but without responsibility. It's a common thread with submissives of all genders. There's control, because the submissive partner can direct the play by cooperating or resisting (or by using a safe word). It's freedom because they don't have to be directly in charge of something for a while.

This combines with the double standard that women shouldn't seek sex, so having pleasure 'forced' on them is the only socially acceptable way to have it. And to be the 'victim' in such a scenario is to feel so desired that someone else will go to great lengths to have you.

Okay, so you tell me, why is Fifty Shades of Grey selling better than Shrink Rap?
I dunno; I bought Shrink Rap and wouldn't touch the other book with someone else's ten-foot pole. :-)

Anonymous said...

I have heard people talking about it briefly. I always assumed that it was some series on HBO or something. Sounds like a matter of time though. Good thing I came here today and you set me straight. LOL

Most likely will not read it. I rarely read fiction other than the occasional piece of classic literature. On the whole, non-fiction is what draws me in. Love a good memoir or auto-biography.

And really, who doesn't like a good psychology/psychiatry book? I'm being serious here, as I own Goodwin/Jamison "Manic Depressive Illness." Amazon keeps hounding me asking if I want to sell back my "textbook." Silly people.

Jane said...

It's your own fault. If you had just written fabrications about Clink begging prisoners to spank her with her prescription pad at every appointment you might have made a fortune. Or maybe you could have lustfully written that you went to Roy's home with a choke collar around your neck and then got on your knees and begged him to put a leash on you so that he could walk you home and watch your husband punish you for being such a naughty shrink. Fiction is always more entertaining than the truth.

Hmmmm...I'm not a mommy, so I don't know why mommy's would be into it. But then I didn't read the book. Does she have a lot of orgasms in the book? I know some married women who have complained about the fact that their husbands are like animals. They can't control themselves and they finish really quick. Does he just have a lot of control over himself in the book?

I have one friend who married an older man, and she told me that if he "wastes it" in the shower then they won't be having sex. So she sends lots of little hints in the morning, so that by the time night rolls around he doesn't take a shower and waste it.

Men are complicated. If I ever get married and have children, I'll have to look at 50 shades of gray and see if that helps me deal with any of the frustration from it all.

Dinah said...

The concept of putting a choke collar and leash on Roy is not unappealing.

I didn't read Twilight

Dani thank you for buying Shrink Rap instead of 50 Shades. I liked your analysis, except when I was reading it, I did you assume you had read the book.

Maggie said...

Maybe people are needing a new perversion fix, while indefinitely awaiting The Winds of Winter?

Elizabeth said...

I read an Amazon preview page. That was enough for me.

I think it's called "mommy porn" because it's assumed that married women with children are soccer moms with nonexistent sex lives, but deep down they're kinky and twisted but can't tell their partners for whatever reason. That's the stereotype I've gleaned, anyway. I'm not entirely sure how many women actually fit this stereotype - a lot of the married folks I've talked to are happy with their sex lives, though keeping it interesting is an on-going process of course.

It's unfortunate that there are so many talented erotica writers out there and this one is making cash on a terrible series. And I bet it's making people who had been practicing BDSM prior to the books coming out cringe.

Eh, whatever gets you off I guess. There are way better books out there, though.