EROTIC, IRONIC, ICONIC… MORONIC? 28/10/15

Originally published in Phoenix Magazine, 2012.

When NBC featured Philadelphia housewives raving about Fifty Shades Of Grey, a novel series from Londoner E. L. James, it sparked a battle between nine major film studios hoping to make the Fifty Shades film. Focus Features eventually won out for a purported £3.5 million, putting the cherry on the cake of 2012’s first publishing phenomenon.

Originally released by a small online house, and later snapped up by Vintage, Fifty Shades is the latest in a growing trend of popular ebooks selling to traditional publishing houses. Downsides of epublished works include bad editing and unoriginal storylines, but with UK novel sales dropping by almost 100 million from 2008 to 2010, formerly cautious publishers are risking their reputations on ebooks, in the hope that ready-made audiences will offer reliable future revenue.

Fifty Shades’ however, is unique for one reason: it’s erotica. While the anonymity of ereaders has seen erotic fiction climb Amazon’s charts, Fifty Shades dwarfs all other sexy successes by breaking into the mainstream. Is this a case of profit above everything, or sign of a progressive movement towards acceptance of female sexuality in literature?

The series’ success has unarguably highlighted our growing tolerance of sexuality. London is, as always, a trailblazer of diversity and acceptance, with Torture Garden providing BDSM events, Killing Kittens catering for upmarket swingers and, online, Fet Life, an alternative to Facebook, offering twelve options for ‘Sexual Orientation’. What would London be without Belle Du Jour and Black Lace? Who would frequent Soho’s bookshops without photobooks of 70’s muffs in the windows? Would ebooks like London Lust by Amber Hunt, Amanda’s Punishment by Clemency Jopling and Nora’s 21: At Your Service by Nora, achieve success without their irreverent Brit wit?

But while James is the latest Londoner to put finger to keyboard, so-called BDSM book Fifty Shades, depicting the seduction of naïve 21 year old virgin Anastasia Steele by dominant Christian Grey, has been panned by the BDSM community, and deemed regressive by critics.

The BDSM complaint is simple, because the books weren’t dubbed ‘Mommy Porn’ for nothing. Fifty Shades contains man-on-woman penetrative sex, a bit of oral, some light spanking – and nothing else. Plus, any turn-on factor is undermined by references to Steele’s ‘inner goddess’, ‘sternum’, constant exclamations of ‘oh my’, and strange, antiquated phrases like this gem: ‘the small, potent powerhouse at the apex of my thighs’. Grey’s love of BDSM is treated as unhealthy and blamed on childhood abuse, with Steele describing him pityingly as ‘poor, twisted Christian’.

When it comes to feminism, Fifty Shades is much more a topic of debate, enabling some women to discuss their sexuality frankly, and forcing others to balk at an incredibly backward female protagonist. Steele, during the first novel, harshly admonishes herself for her ‘wayward thoughts’ about Grey; then decides she has to ‘please him’ because otherwise she’ll ‘end up alone’. She constantly fears his disapproval, but ‘would do anything’ for him, exclaiming ‘I am his’, then becomes distrustful and jealous, calling Grey’s ex a ‘bitch’. The sub/dom relationship could have, in fact, been a brilliant allegory that questioned traditional gender roles in marriage, if Fifty Shades were an ironic, intelligent text. But it isn’t. It’s deadly earnest.

The key in analyzing its’ feminist perspectives is in asking which women find it progressive. Featuring female submission, cattiness and a grumpy older guy who forces Steele on the pill then buys her clothes and a car, one wonders if the botoxed housewives on NBC were so comfortable with Fifty Shades because it represents the 1950’s values they live by?

What egalitarians everywhere can’t deny is that Fifty Shades’ popularity represents a move towards mainstream acceptance of female sexuality, but what we object to is the damning portrayal of sexual women, which still has far to go, both within the book and in literature as a whole. With PHOENIX readers and Londonites being the sexy intellectuals they are, it might be as well to give Fifty Shades a miss. The greater message here however, is that a new age has dawned for erotica, and the likelihood is that we will see more, and better, from mainstream publishers in the months to come. There’s never been a better time to buy that Kindle.