For years, people have been gushing over the novel 50 Shades of Grey, and now that it’s a major motion picture people are gushing about that. Praise or condemnation, it doesn’t much matter – either way, people are talking about it. It might not be quite true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. For people. For ideas, for memes, that seems to be the literal truth.
I’ve been monitoring how the book is discussed in various male-dominated circles, and my overwhelming impression is that the people claiming to explain the ‘true significance’ of the novel just aren’t getting it.
50 Shades is a combination of two kinds of fantasy: sex-without-guilt, which like the ‘rape’ commonly found in romance novels permits women to enjoy forbidden/tabooed sexuality without being responsible for breaking the social codes – basically having the cake and eating it – and the fantasy of having a man be so obsessed and emotionally tied to the woman that he can be induced to change his bad-boy nature.
It’s the same basic pattern found in lots of romances. The only difference between this and the standard bodice-ripper is that as more and more forms of sexual expression have been normalized, more extreme practices are needed to give people the frisson of transgressing what’s ‘good’. Go back far enough, and sex we’d consider tame and standard would be kinky and shocking.
Readers get to be titillated by the forbidden, then released from guilt about enjoying the forbidden by having it be treated as a shameful male crime – “It’s not my fault, he tempted me” – then given what they really want.
And what is that, exactly? The medievals knew perfectly well.
Go read Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’. Or better yet, go listen to Professor Corey Olsen’s Fairie and Fantasy lectures about ‘Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle’ and ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’. And consider how the basic pattern of those works compares to the structure of 50 Shades.