News & Politics

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 Greyon 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 Shadesis 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.

If you want to go back even further into literary history, you'll find this story echoes even more classic tropes; the seduction plot is an essential part of the English novel's long life. You can certainly find echoes of of Samuel Richardson's Pamela in Fifty Shades' ploddingly written pages. Pamela is one of the most important early English novels, whose plot consists entirely of our virtuous servant heroine writing letter after letter to her parents relating her master's repeated attempts to rape and seduce her (over and over again for hundreds of pages). Her ever-successful resistance results in her falling in love with him despite the whole rape attempt thing, and finally convincing him to marry her.

Around the same era as Pamela made pages turn throughout Britain, the underground literary sensation was Fanny Hill: Or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the first mainstream porn novel, all about an innocent country girl's eventually willing corruption into the sinful libidinous lifestyle of the big city. It all sounds familiar, doesn't it? A less kind reviewer might say that Fifty Shades is a combination of clichés rather than archetypes, but clichés are common for a reason--people like them. 

Fanny Hill'sspot in the literary annals, along with sexually explicit gothic novels like The Monk, demonstrates what snobs who dismiss Fifty Shades don't want to remember: readers have always read for pleasure, in its most literal sense, as well as for edification. There's nothing unexpected about readers of all gender persuasions liking their obvious fantasies--or as Maya Dusenbery points out, fantasies that interact with social rules and norms. As any sex expert will tell you, domination and submission are common fantasies with both men and women. As "Leader of the Pack" and its ilk reminds us, women finding the lost boy beneath the hard man is an ever-present cultural theme. And there's a correlating fantasy out there with gender roles reversed--think about that age-old genre of male-penned rock songs about mysterious women who are really just sad girls (Cat Stevens' "Sad Lisa" or anything by the Counting Crows).

But here's the thing: when fantasies cater to readers who are not straight white men, they're treated differently. Imagine a thousand concern-trolling pieces about James Bond and spy novels: "Do men just want to be spies and seduce women because of the recession?"

 As Ester Bloom notes at the Huffington Post, the hubbub is a gender thing:

Ultimately, the BDSM buzz around Grey seems like a red herring. What shocks the media is not that women are paying to read about a naïve college student submitting to a relative stranger; it's that women--even adult, married women with children--are jonesing to read about sex at all.

As a society, we tend to ignore Harlequin's massive success, or treat it as some kind of anomaly; and we seem more comfortable with the long-running joke that Porn for Women is men doing housework than the idea that women also like their raunch, including material that's less-vanilla and more Karamel Sutra. 

Exactly. And as for the sex scenes in the novel themselves, author E L James gets to have her sex-positive feminist cake and eat her patriarchal normativity too. Anastasia loves a lot of the kinky sex--loudly and repeatedly, and even has dreams about it. But she also repeatedly claims she's mostly submitting out of love, or should I say passionate "lurve" for Christian. To which I say, this is unsurprisingly exactly like the reason readers love Fifty Shades' parent YA novel, Twilight: it's selling women a titillating read that comforts and reaffirms socially prescribed gender roles at the same time.

It's my hope and belief that a future big novel sensation will combine the badass feminist heroines of The Hunger Gamesand Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with the sexy currents of Twilight and Fifty Shades. If both these elements can be bestsellers, their combination is inevitable. Shake, stir, and get a hit.

And if not, I can always go back and read Jane Eyre again. 


Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published at the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Jezebel and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @fellowette and find her work at