EL James’ 50 Shades of Grey has turned the world of erotica to a whole new level. Teenagers, mothers, fathers, and even students are addicted to this novel and with the moving premiering soon, 50 Shades of Grey is everywhere. Originally starting of as Twilight fan fiction, 50 Shades has grown to accumulate its own fan club. My question is why the hype?
In this interview of EL James, she admits that she started out writing this trilogy just for fun based on the characters of Edward and Bella from Twilight, “Change the names, kill the vampires, and add some handcuffs and voila 50 Shades of Grey”. James openly states that this novel is her “midlife crisis, writ large,” and basically just an accumulation of her own fantasies. She conducted much research on the concept and ideals of Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism\Masochism (BDSM), and discovered a whole new world in terms of sexual activity.
Before reading this novel, I’d never heard of BDSM. Through all of Christian and Ana’s sexual escapades and the discussions we had in class, I have witnessed that BDSM is a very structured sexual exchange. Generally, BDSM is a variety of erotic practices that pertain to one sexual partner being the “dominant” and the other the “submissive”. Through these roles, the dominant may inflict pain upon the submissive for the purpose of pleasure. Because of the fine line between pain and pleasure and all the risks involved, a contract must be devised between the dominant and the submissive covering everything from hard limits to soft limits and safe words and even up keeping of the submissive that is up to par with the dominant’s liking. The main reason for this practice is the need for power and trust for one person over another. Though it is a widely established community and there is often a written contract, due to legality reasons, BDSM is often considered illegal due to the pain that the submissive can be put through and its danger. The most essential part of this is the consent of the submissive for what they agree to and what they don’t. However, this consent still won’t hold through in court.
The BDSM community is often looked down upon because of their unconventional practices going against that of our heteronormative culture. 50 Shades portrays BDSM as a practice that Christian “needs” to do because of his dark past and how “fucked up” he is. He is power thirsty and needs to feel sexually dominant over his submissive Ana. BDSM doesn’t like this because since it is a relatively new concept and there is not much public exposure, it is now seen as a practice done because someone is so messed up. In reality, BDSM is a sexual concept similar to anal sex and asexuality. People can engage in whatever sexual activity suites them and it is not the business of anyone else even if it goes against heternormative sex.
In her interview, James shyly states that she has tried some of these practices that she explicitly writes Ana and Christian doing. She admits that they are fun and even add some spice to her sex life, and make it better. Thus, we shouldn’t be so quick to judge anything that isn’t part of our social norms. Though BDSM may not be for everyone (in fact only a relatively small amount of people partake in it), no one else should have the right to deem it right or wrong.
Another aspect of this seemingly more and more controversial novel was the problem in its classification. We discussed this in class and I found it to be extremely interesting. What genre is 50 Shades of Grey: a pornography, romance, or erotica? A pornography novel is characterized by being about sex and highly explicit which is what this novel does, but on the other hand there is also some romance between Ana and Christian. A romance is a normative representation that is often portrayed by a coupling and then a problem to break them apart and then eventually they get back together. This is correct for Ana and Christian’s relationship but from the end of the first book we read, they are not together, so the ending is not happy. An erotica novel is characterized as any material that encourages the reader and consumer to question sexual conventions on a deeply personal level. In this case, as we talked about before, BDSM, a more unknown form of sexual pleasure is used against heteronormative sexual endeavors.
During the interview, James was asked if her husband was embarrassed that she wrote this book. I thought that was a strange question but thinking about it, it makes sense. When I first found out that I had to read 50 Shades of Grey for this class I was somewhat embarrassed and when I told my friends about it they laughed. And then when it came time to read this book, instead of bringing it to the gym and reading while on the elliptical, like I do with other material, I read it in the confines of my own room. Due to social constructivism in our culture today, I realized I was embarrassed about what people would think when they see me walking around with this book. Talking about all the different identities and how it fits with out heteronormative culture made me realize I shouldn’t be ashamed to read this book in public just because it isn’t “mainstream” per se. Because of this, I have had some interesting conversations will people who have also read this book, and it is actually a larger amount than I would have ever thought. So I say we should all challenge our social constructivism in some way or another and see what could happen!