July 24, 2012

50 Shades Of Gender, Power And Sex

What the "first mainstream erotic novel" can tell us about desire and gender in literature.

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The 1957 pulp fiction novel Burlesque Jungle is shown next to the cover of Fifty Shades of Grey

The 1957 pulp fiction novel Burlesque Jungle is shown next to the cover of Fifty Shades of Grey

The verdict is in: the Fifty Shades series has taken America by storm. Shattering sales records and rocketing author E.L. James to instant stardom, the erotic trilogy has caught millions of women under its BDSM-flavored spell.

The media frenzy over Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t too surprising. The idea of middle-aged moms poring over sex scenes full of anal beads, handcuffs and genital clamps comes as a shocker to those who dub the books “mommy porn,” and such an explicitly erotic novel is a novelty on mainstream bestseller lists. But is the success of James’s series anything new?

Nothing New Under The Sun…

For strictly professional objectives, I skimmed the first installment- okay, maybe the first two- on an available e-reader this week. Then, I headed upstairs to the Kinsey Institute Library to see how Fifty Shades measured up to several centuries of archived erotic literature.

Whipped Heiress, Spanking Stewardesses and The Sex Club of Don Pedro are just a few selections out of more than 1,000 pulp fiction novels in the Kinsey Institute collection. Replete with outrageously illustrated covers and every kind of sex scene imaginable, these books demonstrate that Fifty Shades comes from of a long legacy of niche erotica written by and for women.

So why didn’t the above-pictured Burlesque Jungle make the top of the 1957 New York Times’ bestseller list? Some cultural critics think today’s women are particularly primed to desire sexual submission in their real lives due to advances in gender equality. After checking out the Kinsey erotica collection, I’m dubious. Based on such pulp fiction titles as Assault in the Swamp and Hot for her Uncle, it’s hard to argue erotica readers always want arousing fiction to come to life.

…Except E-Readers

On the New York Times Bestseller lists for the week of March 18, 2012, Fifty Shades of Grey tops both the “E-Book Fiction” and “Combined Print & E-Book Fiction” lists. On the print fiction list, it’s nowhere to be found- because it hadn’t been printed yet. Tellingly, the first book was downloaded 250,000 times before it was physically published.

Fifty Shades may be the first novel of its kind to go mainstream because people can purchase and read it discreetly, unlike paperback romance novels that might raise an eyebrow in public. The take-away message from its runaway success? Women- of all ages, in red states and blue states, are looking to books for sexual arousal. Fifty Shades of Grey may be the first erotic novel to be successfully marketed to the e-reader set- but we can probably expect plenty more in the near future.

Don’t Confuse Secrecy With Shame

Fifty Shades’ success likely has a lot to due with secrecy- but on the other hand, everyone’s talking about it! Just because American women are more likely to download a story they can read on a bus than carry a “bodice ripper” out of a local bookstore, that doesn’t necessarily indicate embarrassment or repression. Sexual fantasy can be deeply personal, and not everyone wants to be public about it.

Perhaps the best thing women have to gain from James’s success is a publishing community keyed in to what they really want to read. Fifty Shades doesn’t break any cultural norms in terms of gender dynamics, race, class or sexual orientation, and some people consider its depiction of sadomasochism to be pathologizing. Still, its mainstream status could pave the way for women’s erotica writers who will take more risks. After all, if books like Laurie’s Female Lovers had been available on e-reader in 1978, who knows whether J.R.R. Tolkien could still have lasted at the top of the charts?

  • Great blog, and so nice to see some of the history behind 50 Shades. Trailblazers galore, including Pam Rosenthal, who writes as Molly Weatherfield. Her blog says:
    “I don’t want anybody thinking that the advent of 50 Shades and all sorts of other stuff had nothing to do with feminism. For better and worse, it has everything to do with it, and I’d love to see this discussion.”