Nothing’s black and white with the mommy porn of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

[10 May 2012]

By Connie Ogle

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Black and blue is the new black. Or so you might conclude, given the surge in popularity of the bondage romance “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the first book in the erotic trilogy derisively labeled “mommy porn” (though hundreds of thousands of women are reading it, and they’re not all mommies).

Considering its rapid ascent as a pop culture phenomenon, one might think that women the world over are stocking up on handcuffs, rope, carabiners and riding crops and redesigning their Pottery Barn-style bedrooms into early Marquis de Sade pain palaces.

But look past the hype, the debates, the criticism, the spanking and the swooning — and there is plenty of all that — and you’ll find other forces at work here besides a sudden desire to explore a tie-me-up, tie-me-down lifestyle. Even author E.L. James, the “Twilight” fan fiction writer-turned-bestseller is adamant that the appeal is not only about the kinky bump and grind: “It’s a love story, fundamentally. I’ve said this before: When people fall in love, they have a lot of sex.”

Here’s how swiftly the story of an impressionable young virgin and an enigmatic billionaire with a taste for bondage and discipline became big: James, a former production executive for the BBC, just signed the paperback deal with Vintage on March 7. Entertainment Weekly, which featured the book on the cover of its April 6 issue, reported the Random House imprint paid seven figures for the rights. The book has sold 2 million copies so far in April, sales powerful enough to knock the beloved “Hunger Games” trilogy off the top of bestseller lists.

Along with its sequels, “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed,” it dominates the New York Times e-book bestseller list and launched a fierce battle in Hollywood, with Universal Pictures and Focus Features emerging triumphant with the film rights for which they paid an undisclosed but presumably staggering sum (James retains some control over the script and casting). Christian Grey may be — in the words of his creator — 50 shades of f——- up, but he’s 100 shades of lucrative.

“If there had been a notion that these books would only sell discreetly and digitally, we can confirm that’s not the case,” says Anne Messitte, vice president and publisher of Vintage/Anchor. “The sales pace of the paperbacks rival those of the bestselling e-books on a week-to-week basis … We are still in early days … and these books will have a long, long life.”

James, who was just named one of Time’s 100 most influential people, acknowledges she is still reeling over the speed with which her life has changed since Christian Grey and his lover Anastasia Steele went viral.

“I’m gobsmacked, really,” she says, laughing. “It’s completely crazy … I did a private party in New York when ‘Fifty Shades Freed’ came out, and that gave me a small taste of what it would be like. There were lots of screaming women. It was strange. I did not expect that. I learned some interesting intimate details from people about their sex lives. It’s extraordinary.”

With success comes the inevitable backlash, of course, and James has taken a beating, so to speak, from authors and bloggers unhappy about the attention the books are receiving (they did start life as fan fiction, after all, not a well-respected genre in most literary circles). There has been a backlash in the erotic writing community as well, she says: “They’ve been doing this for a long time” without all this attention.

So why has “Fifty Shades” struck such a nerve? In a Newsweek article with the headline “Spanking goes Mainstream,” cultural critic Katie Roiphe credits the “happy convergence of the superficial transgression with comfortable archetypes, the blushing virgin and the whips. To a certain, I guess, rather large, population, it has a semi-pornographic glamour, a dangerous frisson of boundary crossing, but at the same time is delivering reassuringly safe, old fashioned romantic roles.”

Joyce Peterson, associate professor of history and women’s studies instructor at Florida International University, sees the question a bit differently.

“I’ve seen all this commentary asking why modern women, who have achieved all these things they wanted, would want this fantasy. Part of the attraction might be not having to be in charge, a release from responsibility.”

But as for the idea they seriously want to be tied up and dominated, “there’s a difference between fantasy and reality. What bothers me is we keep asking why women like this stuff, but to me the question is why are we making such a fuss about it and being so judgmental and censorious? The idea that they just can’t wait to go home and be spanked seems so silly to me.”

“This book does seem to strike a chord right now,” says Miami author Diana Abu-Jaber, author of several novels, including the recent “Birds of Paradise.” “I think women enjoy reading sexy stuff as much as the next guy, but this book dresses it up a bit, makes it seem a little more respectable. Supposedly, it’s written from a more womanly point of view — there’s actual foreplay! And e-readers make naughtiness all the more accessible — you don’t have to worry about sneaking it home in a brown paper bag.”

Perhaps a perfect storm of events was required for “Fifty Shades” to explode. Books are easier and quicker to purchase via download now. Twitter, Facebook and other social media allow fans to share recommendations in new ways, and there are definite social benefits to being familiar with what everyone’s talking about.

When times are tough, people turn to fantasy, and “Fifty Shades” is a particularly attractive fantasy about a guy who struggles to change for love (the sex toys are just a bonus). Perhaps the end of the “Twilight” series played a factor, too. James credits Stephenie Meyer’s vampire novels as her inspiration — it’s “a fabulous love story,” she says, happily confessing she has read the four books over and over — and maybe fans of Edward and Bella desperately longed for the next big thing in romance, which turned out to be Christian, who’s battling his own twisted version of bloodlust.

“I didn’t even know there was a ‘Twilight’ parallel at first,” says Mary Wilbur Reed of Miami Springs, who has read all three “Fifty Shades” books. “What I did like about the first book is that it reminded me of Edward and Bella … I don’t care how evolved women get, there seems to be this enjoyment of the idea of ‘I want a man to find me so irresistible he’d give up everything for me.’ Christian is every woman’s fantasy. Now not in reality — I didn’t marry a guy like that. But women like that fairytale fantasy.”

Bonnie Ross of Plantation, Fla., agrees, likening Christian Grey to the character McDreamy on the TV series “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“I never read a book like this,” Ross says, adding that she first heard of the trilogy via friends on Facebook. “I’m a regular reader; I read before I go to sleep at night. But with life being hectic and stressful, I’ve been looking for books that give me a giggle rather than more complex books … I’m not usually one to read a series, and I was going to download another book, but I thought, ‘I miss Christian,’ so I went back and downloaded the second book.”

“Everywhere I go, people are talking about them,” says Elaine Litalien of Parkland, Fla. “I swear, if someone had told me I was going to read a book like this, I would’ve laughed in their face. It’s uncharted territory for me. But it’s fun. I found myself caring about these people, and I didn’t think I would. I belong to a small gym where everyone’s close, and one day there were about 15 of us all talking about the book … I talked about it so much even my husband said, ‘Is this something I should be reading, too?’?”

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