The “drooling enthusiasm” of “millions of dreamy-hearted women” for E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey has inspired them to take more control of their sex lives. Or so claimed William Giraldi in the New Republic in May.
Giraldi lampoons one example of such James-inspired passions: “a painfully white-bread couple from some nook of New England” he spied on television talking about the book’s positive influence on “their sagging sex life.” This is how cultural commentators discuss the book series for which a film adaptation is currently in production; shots from the set of the movie, set for release on Valentine’s Day, were recently released, causing a small earthquake in the entertainment press. Giraldi went on, describing his nook-dwellers: “As the wife read aloud her favorite lines from the books—sentences, as you know, of such galactic ineptitude it was hard to believe a primate could have written them—the husband sat beside her on the sofa, blinking at the camera with a look of the most shell-shocked capitulation.”
Men write most of the commentary about the disastrous effects of romance novels on women and the public despite the fact that women from all regions and educational backgrounds compose the vast majority of the genre’s writers and readers. Surveys by the Romance Writers of America indicate that 91 percent of readers are women (although men are on the rise!), 42 percent of whom hold at least a bachelor’s degree—well above the 30 percent of women who currently earn such degrees nationally. But men’s predominance as commentators about a genre with which they have obviously little expertise is perhaps not so surprising when one considers the bigger picture of our media landscape. White men, after all, still make up 80 percent of the opinion writers in leading traditional news outlets and 67 percent in new media, according to The OpEd Project’s most recent survey.
“Why is it that when women writers of the modern school deal with passion they succeed only in ‘nastifying it?'”
As a historian who specializes in the history of popular culture’s relationship to changes in gender and sexualityI was aware that jeremiads about the destructive influence of romance novels on public morals have deep roots. My current research about the success of Elinor Glyn—the early 20th-century British “sex novelist” who helped to invent modern romance fiction with an explicit erotic edge—reveals that such critiques date back to the genre’s origins. Around the turn of the 19th century, at the dawn of the bestseller-era in the Anglophone world, critics blamed “readers—chiefly women—who make the fortune of English fiction” for supporting a “Scarlet-crested Elinor Glyn wave” of writers accused of “naturalizing” the sexual mores of “the erotic, absinthe-drenched, nerve-racked decadents” of Paris. Or, as one eminent American critic wondered in 1908: “Why is it that when women writers of the modern school deal with passion they succeed only in ‘nastifying it?’”
In the century since, other views have of course made their way into print. But only one popular review of Fifty Shades, by Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books, offered a genuinely contrarian voice.Parks understood the book’s role as effective porn as its raison d’etre.This obvious but often unremarked upon point bears emphasizing:These novels and their handsome hero are preoccupied with a woman immensely enjoying herself in the sack. “Trust me?” the heroasks before “forcing” the heroine to submit to the first of many sex-scenes distinguished by lengthy, imaginative foreplay. “I nod, wide-eyed with the realization that I do trust him. What’s he going to do to me now?An electric thrill hums through me,” the heroine thinks. Presumably many readers find such descriptions—again in a media landscape so dominated by representations of sex geared toward satisfying a man’s point of view—a good read, at least when in a certain mood. One can hope that the movie will display a similar sensibility. But odds are against it given that what film scholars call the “Peter Pan Syndrome”—an emphasis on pleasing an ever younger and more international audience of boys—still reigns in Hollywood.
The topic of women’s sexuality has occasioned much shame, fear, and confusion in many cultures over time. Little wonder then that Giraldi concludes his piece by conjuring a picture of how the books have caused women’s desires to run dangerously amok. “We can expect a resurgence of the Fifty Shades evangelism when the film version is released next year, “ he warns, “when middle-class ladies everywhere tug their porcine beaus off the sofa and put them through another 90 minutes of torture.”
This obsession with the “not normal” bit—making a reader aroused by the book a dangerous or unnatural freak—was on particular display in one interview with E. L. James on the BBC in April of 2012. Although erotic romances had been the best selling genre over the last century, the “erotica book boom” and “mommy porn” was constant international “news.” “You’re not worried about introducing women into this world where this sort of extreme stuff becomes normal?” the interviewer asked James after briefly gesturing at the subject of violence against women in the real world. When James said that she was not, that it was a story about two consenting adults, the interviewer repeated, “You’re not worried about this becoming normal?” “It’s a love story,” James replied. “It’s a love story but there is fisting in it,” the interviewer shot back, revealing he had failed to actually read the book.
Fifty Shades of Grey ultimately tracks the education of the hero, Christian, in the pleasures of true love and kinky “vanilla” sex. A man schooled in the art of sex by an older woman dominant, Christian’s facility with BDSM mostly serves as a sign of his sexual expertise. This is one hero who has given serious thought to the subject of what it takes to get a woman off. Or, as James said of her hero: “Women like a man who knows what to do in bed.”