Fifty Shades of Grey. The mere mention of E. L. James’ blockbuster is enough to make many people roll their eyes. (Those who have actually read the book and its sequels know what happens to people who roll their eyes in James’ erotic universe. They get spanked. Hard.) Disparaged as a symptom of cultural decline and a backlash against feminism at the same time as it has been relished by millions, the Fifty Shades series still can’t get any respect.
Sociologist Eva Illouz aims to change that. Hard-Core Romance sets out to explain why women in our ostensibly enlightened era are drawn in droves to tales of erotic domination. In a terse 81 pages, she argues that the Fifty Shades trilogy is a window on to our culture and, moreover, a “toolkit” for these confused times. Specifically, the novels address the anxieties of the gender-equality struggle by offering women weary of negotiating roles and trying to achieve autonomy a fantasy of submission to a protective, “feudal” masculinity.
And the sex? Building on the widely reported uptick in sex toy sales correlating with the publication of Fifty Shades, Illouz proposes that the trilogy “functions as a self-help sexual manual…for a better sexual and romantic life”. Illouz contends that BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) is “a romantic utopia”, a “brilliant fantasy solution to the volatility of romantic relationships, precisely because it is an immanent ritual grounded in a hedonic definition of the subject, providing certainty on roles, pain, the control of pain, and the limits of consent”. In sum, Christian Grey, with his nipple clamps and big…bank account, offers an escape from feminist freedom.
Now, all of this is compellingly audacious. It nicely undercuts the idea that women’s romance/erotica is meaningless pabulum. It also dovetails with a 2013 Journal of Sexual Medicine study proposing that practitioners of BDSM are “less neurotic” than those with less exotic proclivities. But does buying ben-wa balls or a blindfold really make one a member of the “BDSM community”, as Illouz assumes? And how does the interpretation of Fifty Shades as a Kama Sutra crossed with The Rules square with James’ actual narrative, which Illouz hardly references at all? Sidelining the fantasy elements of the novels, Illouz argues that reading Fifty Shades is “a supreme act of modern selfhood”, a gesture of “self-empowerment and self-improvement”. As James’ wide-eyed heroine Anastasia Steele might say, Holy cow!
Writing with bold but sometimes maddening economy, Illouz summarises complex matters such as the rise of the public sphere and the history of erotic literature faster than Christian Grey can cuff his sub to a spreader bar. Illouz’s stated goal is “to understand how the intense reading pleasure [Fifty Shades] created resonates with the sociological structure of men and women’s relationships today”. However, she offers almost no empirical data about those pleasures, and in classifying Fifty Shades as self-help rather than erotica, Illouz minimises James’ obvious aim: arousal. Illouz asserts, for example, that “Fifty Shades of Grey cannot be characterized as being simply and only mommy porn – unless one naively assumes that the romance is the ‘pretext’ to wrap the sex in the pink paper of sentiments. In fact, the opposite is the case: it is the sex that is the pink paper in which the love story is wrapped.” Numerous internet postings guiding readers to the hottest sex scenes in the novels suggest otherwise. As Oprah Winfrey remarked in an interview about Fifty Shades, “I’m thinking, stop with the story, get to the juicy part.”
Illouz poses some valuable questions, such as “Why have sexuality and desire proved to be such reluctant arenas for women’s equality?” The success of the Fifty Shades trilogy suggests that eroticism thrives on repetition, stereotype and cliché as much as originality. In the realm of fantasy, the balance of sophistication and silliness may not coincide with our more considered judgement. Many – most? – Fifty Shades of Grey readers know it’s inane and implausible and that the prose is bad. But none of that interferes with their enjoyment of it and, indeed, those narrative shortcomings may well be part of the pleasure. We may want women to seek constructive solutions to life issues in their pleasure reading, but their choices don’t always support that theory. The truth hurts, baby.
Hard-Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers, and Society
By Eva Illouz
University of Chicago Press, 104pp, £38.50 and £14.00
ISBN 9780226153414, 53698 and 53551 (e-book)
Published 22 May 2014