If you are just joining us, this is the second installment of a two part blog post taking a critical look at the writing of E.L. Jame’s FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, and why its selling. I have divided it into two parts.
Part One: A brief explanation of what should be in a first chapter, and detailed suggestions on how the writing could’ve been improved.
Part Two: An exploration of why the book is such a hot potato, including the mass appeal of Dominant/submissive subject matter.
Now, on to Part Two.
Several months ago, I took a class on BDSM “for beginners.” This was a class specifically designed for writers who wanted to conduct research on the community, and integrate the material they learned into their writing. The class was conducted by Dr. Charely Ferrer, Clinical Sexologist, TV/Radio Host & Producer, Award Winning Author of BDSM FOR WRITERS and BDSM THE NAKED TRUTH. I asked Dr. Ferrer to provide a quote for this blog, commenting on the mass appeal of Dominant/submissive subject matter. She responded with the following:
Passion. Desire. Lust. Danger. The forbidden. All of these emotions and hungers and more are appeased within the lifestyle of Dominance and submission (D/s). These are just some of the reasons why individuals seek the BDSM lifestyle. It is the ability to be vulnerable with your lover and know he or she will keep you safe; of having someone trust you unconditionally; these truths are at the heart of any D/s relationship. Is it for everyone—no! Yet for those that seek more than dull or unfulfilling sex; for those who seek adventure and thrills in their lovemaking; for those who wish to experience what else is possible, exploring D/s is a must. Like bungee jumping into sex and love—scary and full of butterflies and laughter.
Apparently, over one hundred million readers (as of 2014) of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY would agree.We vanilla types hear the term “BDSM” and instantly think of whips, chains, ropes, and black leather, and get all flustered and nervous. Then we might pathologize those in the community. Its true there are some activities in the community that warrant anxiety because they are intended to produce that reaction. And yes, perhaps some members are acting out old wounds. However, that’s not true across the board and it exists in the extreme. Between here and there are a thousand degrees of control and the abdication of it that influence the way we relate to each other, in any lifestyle.
But we are here to talk about FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. And specifically, why so many heterosexual vanilla women like it. Below, are three reasons why.
1. It’s a Cinderella story. Alpha male meets directionless virgin, gives her life meaning and direction by popping her cherry, and then popping “the question.” Add a little conflict from creepy competitors and it’s a fairy tale come to life. Cinderella rated NC-17.
Certainly, James is not the first to capitalize on Western archetypes of romance. FIFTY SHADES OF GREY was originally written as TWILIGHT fanfiction–a franchise grossing over $3 billion as of July 2014. James subsequently decided to write the book as an original work, substituting our tortured vampire, Edward, with the equally enigmatic bad boy, Mr. Grey. In January 2012, she published the book as an e-book and print-on-demand. Now, it’s a New York Time’s Best Seller, and the recently released movie grossed a whopping $81.7 million its opening weekend.
Both of these stories were so successful because they capitalize on the Bad boy archetype, which represents repressed aspects of our ego–all those naughty indulgences we can’t let ourselves have. Thus, he embodies unconscious, libidinal energy. We desire him because we desire to be whole, but it scares us shitless. Isn’t that exciting? (To learn more, check out my post Paranormal’s Popularity: Bitten by Bad Boys.)
2. Women like Dominant men. A Dominant man is a secure man. And secure men make women feel safe. If a man makes a woman feel safe, and I mean truly, down-to-her-soul safe, she’ll let him do just about anything–even with whips and restraints. Three things define a secure man: self-discipline, financial security, and empathy.
A secure man has self-discipline; he is in control of his body, mind, and emotions. This means he is fit, smart, and self-sufficient. Thus, he stimulates a woman sexually, mentally, and she can reasonably assume he won’t turn her into his unappreciated mother. Because of his inherent knowledge of self, he has no need to act controlling (especially not abusively so). Controlling behavior comes from insecurity, particularly emotional insecurity, and women can sense emotional instability a mile away. Defensiveness and overtly aggressive behavior are telltale signs of an insecure man. A Dominant man can’t be bothered with “spitting game.” He already knows his worth and he isn’t going to waste his time trying to impress you.
Dominant men also tend to be resourceful and are therefore financially secure. Other men respect him his as well, and this opens doors. A woman likes a man with resources (industrial tycoons like Mr. Grey being the epitome of this) because it means he can support her, provide for her children, make her feel secure, and safe. Women also appear to be biologically hardwired to prefer a man of wealth. In 2008, evolutionary psychologist Dr. Thomas Pollett and Professor Daniel Nettle surveyed 1,534 Chinese women with male partners, and conducted in-depth interviews about their sex lives, income, and other factors. They found the frequency of female orgasms increased with the income or wealth of their male partners. These results have also been replicated in Western and European countries.
But self-discipline and financial stability aren’t the only benchmarks of Alpha maleness. Empathy is also an essential ingredient. How do you think he gained all that self-control? He asked questions of himself. Examined his own behavior. Learned the relationship between cause and effect, and explored the emotions most men are taught to bury. In doing so, he mastered those feelings, and now recognizes them in others. He developed a construct of understanding human behavior, especially the desires of the opposite sex. He empathizes, whereas most men patronize.
3. Women like creative sex. Science tells us a man seeks novelty in variety. But exchanging one woman for the next doesn’t mean he’s doing anything differently, or better, than with a long-term partner. Little to no foreplay tends to be his method of approach. And even if he is skilled in the art of arousing a woman, he views it as a means to an end.
But foreplay is where the opportunity for creativity lies. It’s where you learn each other’s bodies and stroke the anticipation into a state of aching frenzy. It’s the most exciting and generous part of sex. Often, it is also the most emotionally vulnerable. How much do I give? How much can I demand? Am I doing this right? Am I turning my partner on? What his he or she expecting?
Foreplay is a particularly powerful and visceral metaphor for our most essential issues. James exemplifies this point by giving Mr. Grey an abusive childhood; it’s not unrealistic, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all “answer” to why one might engage in BDSM. Each individual comes to creatively explore the art of foreplay for a variety of reasons too varied to explore in this post. But the manner in which those anticipatory moments are handled reveal a lot about character, and the nature of the relationship between partners. The BDSM community calls this a “power exchange,” and its members typically plan the “scenes” in which this exchange will occur with considerable forethought.
For example, in one scene, Mr. Grey restrains and blind folds Anastasia, puts head phones on her head and “works her over” with a variety of instruments, (think feathers and boot spurs), intended to produce a range of physical sensations, timed to the music. Needless to say, that’s a lot sexier than, “Roll over, honey.” In short, those who creatively master foreplay, master intimacy. And romantic intimacy is a woman’s porn.
As we discovered in Part One, maybe the writing in FIFTY SHADES OF GREAY isn’t so great, but the average reader doesn’t look for well developed scene structure and detailed character arch.. They might recognize it when they see it, but odds are they aren’t going to be overly analytical. A woman picks up an erotic book to escape her life, not to think critically about character development. FIFTY SHADES OF GREY assures the average woman there is a Prince Charming waiting to blow her socks off in bed, and make her the center of his abundant universe. Now who wouldn’t spend $15.99 for a taste of that?