Over the past few months, Fifty Shades Of Grey has gone from Twilight fanfiction favorite to "mommy porn" oddity to New York Times bestseller to upcoming movie to, finally, a ridiculous (and clearly rage-baiting) Newsweek cover story called The Fantasy Life of Working Women by — naturally — Katie Roiphe.
Roiphe's predictably anti-feminist piece is not even worth hate-reading, but it's centered on an off-base assumption which is being reported out by plenty of less troll-y writers: that Fifty Shades is successful because women are suddenly crazy for pseudo-submissive sex a la Fifty Shades and, naturally, HBO's Girls. "Why does this particular, watered-down, skinny-vanilla-latte version of sadomasochism have such cachet right now?" Roiphe muses. She finds it "intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming myriad and disparate fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace" and concludes that surrender is a "feminist dream" because "the more theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender offer a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality."
Instead of getting riled up about how obnoxious she is, let's take a look at why Fifty Shades really went viral:
1. Sex sells, but so does Twilight: A few years ago, an unknown author named E.L. James posted a free, x-rated version of the infamous vampire romance on FanFiction.net, the most popular fanfiction website in the world, called Master of the Universe. The book — which garnered more than 37,000 reader reviews before James removed the references to Twilight and repurposed the book on her own site, where she sold hundreds of thousands of copies before snagging a 7 figure book deal — did not suddenly pop up as an homage to feminist fantasies, but as an homage to Bella and Edward in which they actually got to fuck without having a baby/somebody dying. Sure, the sex scenes made James' rendition a million times raunchier, but they weren't all that raunchy by fanfiction standards. (Have you read any of the Draco Malfoy—Harry Potter stories out there?)
2. We Want What We Can't Have: New York reported that Fifty Shades' "pre-titter sales were no major anomaly" — most people don't realize that the romance genre, which includes erotica, is "a nearly $1.4 billion, recession-proof industry and the top-selling genre of fiction in the U.S., beating mystery and sci-fi combined." Sometimes, said one literary agent, "a random book will just pop." Fifty Shades probably "popped" because New York's media scene caught wind, likely because the book was pricey, hard to track down, and apparently so sexy moms would only read it on their Kindles. No one really knew what the book was like, just that it was mysterious and BDSM-related — so more and more people wanted in on the Zeitgeist. It's not like past bestsellers such as the The Help and The Da Vinci Code implied we fantasize about maids or art history — some books just catch on. And those with sordid reputations catch on even more quickly.
3. Who's Downloading, and Why: According to the publisher's data, "gleaned from Facebook, Google searches, and fan sites, more than half the women reading the book are in their 20s and 30s, and far more urban and blue state than the rampant caricature of them suggests." But, again, that could just mean a ton of women were affected by the media hype. 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. Anastasia is so whiny and immature! Christian makes for an oddly wimpy Dom! Check out the book's reviews and you'll see that critics claim the book isn't subversive and the vast majority of fans fawn over the emotional relationship Anastasia and Christian have, not about the sex. "There has been a lot of coverage of the BDSM aspect in the news lately but it is so much more than that. The romance is the main character" says one Barnes and Noble reviewer. "The best Twi fanfiction ever," say hundreds more. If fans love the backstory — which is no different from typical romance novels or Twilight — and detractors aren't getting off on the sex, how does that imply that working women want to read about being dominated more than ever before?
I do think Roiphe is right when she says that it's no coincidence that, in a time when "women are less dependent or subjugated than before," they're intrigued by alternate depictions of female sexuality, but it's because they're permeating the mainstream like never before, not because "there's something exhausting about the relentless responsibility of a contemporary woman's life, about the pressure of economic participation, about all that strength and independence and desire and going out into the world." Sadomasochism "always existed in sexual pockets," Roiphe writes, but never trafficked in "things as banal or ordinary as love." Maybe that's because now it's possible to be the kind of woman who doesn't don chains and leather but still wants to "experiment" in the bedroom — those women always existed, they just didn't have champions in popular culture. And, really, what the fuck does "experiment in the bedroom" even mean? What are we supposed to want to do in there? What would Roiphe consider "normal" and not any kind of fantasy?
Maybe you think Girls is problematic in terms of privilege or Fifty Shades is poorly-written — I'm definitely not recommending that anyone read the latter, just check out our choice selection of quotes instead — but, thanks to the book's success, there are customizable guides to finding your perfect brand of smut, and it will undoubtably be easier for more talented female erotica authors to get book deals. Besides, I would rather read the next two sequels in the Fifty Shades Trilogy ten times over than read even one paragraph of Roiphe's article again. Because I don't think there's a "renewed popular interest in the stylized theater of female powerlessness." There's a renewed popular interest in non-"vanilla" sex, even if it's superficial and imperfect, and hopefully Fifty Shades is just the beginning.
Image via Newsweek/Daily Beast's Tumblr.