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Porn Lit: Why the S&M "50 Shades of Grey" Is Freaking Everyone Out

The erotic lit-sensation is nothing new, but a collection of classic archetypes about gender and sex.

Have you heard? Women across the country are passing around an erotic book under the anonymous cover of their Kindles and Nooks. Originally written as one of many adults-only pieces of Twilight fan fiction, the BDSM-lite romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey threw off the teen-vampire shackles and has become a media hot topic, prompting dozens of trend pieces as well as the now-notorious Katie Roiphe insistence, on the cover of Newsweek, that the books' chronicling of a submissive kinky relationship is proof that women have advanced too far in the workplace, and want to be punished for it. (Shira Tarrant debunked this handily earlier this week--most feminists are in a longstanding sadomasochistic relationship with Roiphe, let's face it.)

Whenever a book for women gets labeled a "sensation," I try to read it--particularly if it prompts scoffing or bemusement from the critical establishment (usually amounting to: "Those women and their trivial womanly obsessions"). I decided to read Fifty Shades of Grey on my Nook while using public transportation, in an attempt to experience that furtive feeling that has been described in so many major news articles.

After I finished, I decided that this new novel lacked the narrative pull (or the fascinating, deeply problematic elements) of previous lady literary blockbusters like The Help and Twilight. Instead, it had the essential narrative drive of many a middling novel of its genre--the audience's desire to get to the next sex scene already. Confession: my thumbs got tired from the e-book equivalent of "skimming" over the parts in which the characters were fully clothed. I have to largely agree with Katie Baker's assessment: "If you've ever read the book, like I unfortunately have, you were probably as shocked as I was at how boring the whole (loooooong) thing is."

Still, it's not hard to see the appeal, the reason the book has clicked. Fifty Shades is the story, if one can call it that, of a young, clumsy, virginal, cipher named Anastasia Steele and her newfound attraction to the impossibly handsome and rich tycoon Christian Grey. Grey is the perfect guy in all respects except for the fact that he has a "red room of pain" and wants Anastasia to sign a contract to become his "submissive" in the bedroom. She indeed experiments with submissiveness, but never signs the contract. Still, after her spanking, whipping and plain old "vanilla sex" sessions (all of which she enjoys very much, as does the reader, at least until partway through when author E L James starts getting quite repetitive, linguistically) are over, she watches her domineering lover sitting melancholy, at the piano, and realizes that beneath the kicks he gets from her pain, there's a profound loss on his part, a childhood nightmare that left him unwiling to be touched, but very into touching her. In all sorts of ways. And her heart melts.

There's nothing new here. It's a story as old as time. 

"They told me he was bad/But I knew he was sad." -- "Leader of the Pack," the Shangri-Las.

When '60s classic "Leader of the Pack" came up on my Spotify this week, it solidified my thoughts that this book's success arises out of a combination of some old standbys. It simply combines two fantasies: a sexual one involving riding crops and cable ties, and a social one involving taming the dominant alpha-male and getting to live in his awesome apartment while he submits to your wifely interference. Stir the two together, shake, and you've got a hit.

Put it another, more literarily provocative way, Fifty Shades also combines elements of the two archetypical 19-century marriage plots: the pragmatic desire for the wealthy master of the house of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice with the fraught, sexy male-female power dynamics of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. (For instance, one of Christian and Anastasia's arguments is right out of Mr. Rochester and Jane's playbook: "I will buy you nice clothes!" "No you won't!" And the "red room of pain" obviously and perhaps clumsily references Bronte's famous red room.) But, to make an obvious point, Fifty Shades lacks the astute social commentary of either of those brilliant works. It's just got the cheapest thrills that readers find in each.

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