Sunday, February 8, 2015

Why Fifty Shades of Grey is a Bestseller: My Personal Theory

The time is almost upon us, dear reader: the inevitable doom that is the Fifty Shades of Grey movie. So for those of you still tuning in, you should know that you're going to be hearing a lot more from me on the subject until the fateful day arrives. I'm kind of writing all of this off the top of my head, so it may get longer, more rambling, or more stream-of-concious-y as I go on.

(WARNING: Disgruntled ranting, naughty language, snarky attitude and general rudeness ahead. All those easily offended are advised to leave the internet now.)

In case any of you were wondering, no, I will never get tired of ranting about Fifty Shades of Garbage. Well, that's kind of a lie; I do get sick of hearing about it and discussing it plenty of times, but after a while I'll come back around to it eventually. It's like a wellspring of entertaining hatred and masochistic frustration that will never die as long as the media still insists on dredging it up repeatedly. I used to feel this way about Twilight  to a slightly lesser extent, but now that the movies are done with and no one talks about it anymore the anti-fandom has basically been rendered pointless. It's just not fun to criticize anymore. And one day, perhaps sooner than we think, the blessed day will come when FSOG fades into near obscurity as well. But until it does, here I am.

So what the fuck more is there to say about this trilogy that hasn't been said already? Well, not much, frankly, but one thing that many people don't really seem to think too critically about is just how it got to be such a big deal. I mean, of course most of us do frequently shake our heads in utter confusion as to why this bile is a bestseller, but how many actually delve much deeper into it than that? The answer to this conundrum isn't exactly a simple one, and the world may never know the full answer because people are confusing and I really don't think the realm of sociological science is largely concerned with the popularity of erotic literature, but, like the good sociology/psychology student that I am, I really do want to try to uncover the mystery that is this trilogy's popularity.

So initially, way back when I first started pondering this mystery months ago, I took a lot of inspiration from this "Bad Books, Good Times" article: "The Fifty Shades Dilema: It's All Our Fault". Pretty much everything said there is something that I agree with. The gist of the argument is exactly what is says on the tin: that the combination of fans who won't shut up about it and the anti-fans (myself included) who also won't shut up about it are largely to blame for Fifty Shades' bestseller status and popularity in the media, much more so than any merits the book itself might possess. Now that I've had more time to mull this over, I do believe that there is more to it than that, but I would like to focus on this a bit more before delving into my three-fold theory. I think I'll call this part the Twilight Mom Hypothesis.

The Twilight Mom Hypothesis

 To understand this theory, we must first understand the history of the novels themselves. Let's get right down to it: 50 Shades originally became popular because of Twilight. Now Twilight has lots of fans, and among them are lots of fans who wanted to see Edward and Bella actually fuck, so then other fans started writing fan fiction about them fucking. Among these was a little story known as The Submissive, by Tara Sue Me. If you've heard of it before, it's probably because you've either seen it in bookstores or heard idiots complaining to other idiots that this book ripped off 50 Shades. After doing a bit of digging, I realized that there's several layers of delicious irony here. "The Submissive" was written and posted on a few years back, before E.L. James even got her start, and would be the work that would go on to be plagiarized ripped off by inspire James' own fan fiction tour de force "Masters of the Universe", which would of course later undergo a name search-and-replace and become That Novel Which Must Not Be Named. And even though MotU ended up being the most popular, "The Submissive" was still one of the fics to start the strangely popular BDSM trend in Twilight fan fiction. So you can argue back and forth about whether or not publishing fan fiction counts a plagiarism, because it doesn't even matter! E.L. James is still a dirty plagiarist for ripping off the work of a fellow fan fic author.

Believe it or not, before I had found out the entire sordid history explained above, I had found out that The Submissive (now the Submissive Trilogy) was Twilight fan fiction; it completely boggled my mind that out of two uncannily similar novels, written under similar circumstances and published around the same time, FSOG would end up being the one in the spotlight. But apparently it largely boils down to E.L. James being lucky enough to get the timing right and self-publish first by a margin, with Tara Sue Me less successfully trying to cash in on the 50 Shades bandwagon after the fact. Sucks to suck, I guess, Tara.

Anyways, I should probably discuss the events that conspired to create the perfect storm that fueled 50 Shade's rise to fame. My account of events probably isn't 100% accurate, so feel free to correct me on anything I get wrong. From what I've come to understand, "Master of the Universe" was a super popular AU Twilight fic, until decided to have a mini-crackdown on explicit fics and I guess hers got the boot. So instead of re-posting it after time had passed (despite the fact that there continue to be WAY more explicit fan fics on that site and such crackdowns are rare because no one really seems to care about it), James decided to rage-quit and post it on her OWN site and all of her dedicated fans followed her.

Subsequently, she somehow got the idea in her head that if she were to just search-an-replace all the character names, it would totally be marketable original fiction! But I suppose she did realize that no mainstream publishing house would touch her writing... though probably not for the reasons she was thinking (less "it's soooo naughty and subversive that it could NEVER be accepted by those mainstream prudes who can't appreciate true art!" and more "this is an editor's worst nightmare").

My guess is that God felt the need to punish humanity for some reason, because James' decision to self-publish through Amazon just so happened to coincide with the e-reader big bang. So all of her devoted minions from her fan fiction days bought the book (despite it being almost the exact same story they had already read for free), then told all their friends how amazing it was and they all bought it, too. From there the readership kind of split into several camps: those who loved it and told all there friends to read it while giggling about how "naughty" the felt; those who hated it and told all their friends about it and whose friends simply read it to find out how bad it was for themselves, and those who didn't hear about it from anyone directly but either stumbled across it or heard about it and had to read it to believe it. Imagine! Porn that you can discretely read on the bus to work/eating lunch/at your kid's friend's stupid 5th birthday party! It could've been just about any book that captured the essence of the e-reader popularity boom, but for some reason it just had to be this one. As they say, porn does tend to always be the first to latch onto the latest technological advances (see VHS tapes and the internet for reference). But really 50 Shades being the erotic novel to be launched into undeserved stardom by Kindle was just the unholy combination of rabid Twilight fans and shear dumb luck at first; despite  the trilogy itself having no real merits, this unlikely set of circumstances has still contrived to convince half the Earth's population that FSOG is literally the first work of erotic literature ever written EVER.

And I guess from there is all just kind of snowballed. People started hearing about the anomaly that was an erotic novel making the Amazon bestseller list, then people started hearing about how it was so amazing/so awful, and a whole bunch of us really just started reading it for the same reasons that people watch The Room or The Last Airbender movie: curiosity, bile fascination, and pure, unrestrained masochism. And here's where the horrible irony becomes apparent: for so long now, we've wondered why this trilogy has sold so many copies and everyone keeps talking about it, when in reality it more than likely never would've become a worldwide phenomenon if those of us in the anti-fandom hadn't accounted for approximately half of the copies sold. The Twilight Mom's who were the original audience could never had sustained its massive popularity without our help. Way to go, guys, it really is all our fault.

The Delicate Sensibilities Hypothesis

Of course, I am a sociologist (kind of), so in order to do this theoretical approach justice I should probably investigate just why and how these circumstances that came together to ruin the collective lives of the world's population exist in the first place. And while it is true that bad books get published all the time and one such (Twilight) was a large part of the bestseller equation above, the other half of the equation is the genre in question. If 50 Shades wasn't classified as erotica, there's no way that it would've skyrocketed into fame (or infamy?) the way it has, and in fact would likely have never even generated enough sales for it to have ever made the jump from self-publishing to the mainstream.

Nothing scandalizes people like sex. This has been a fact of life since the dawn of time and no matter how advanced our society becomes and how "enlightened" we claim to be this still has not changed. We love to watch people fuck almost as much as we love to shame other people for fucking or for watching people fuck. In fact, I'd say that people in general are sick weirdos who practically get off more on the social stigma than we do the fucking itself. It's naughty, it's bad, it's taboo, and goddammit if we don't all secretly love jerking it to that that endless circle of shame and derision and dirtiness. 

What am I trying to say exactly? Well, fuck me if I know. I do apologize if this section of my theory seems more rambling and incoherent as the others, but really I'm not sure what else to say besides observing that despite what the media hype would have you believe, all of this has happened before, and it will all happen again. You'd think that after a few decades- hell, a few centuries- people would start catching onto the fact that there's a strange trend going on, and yet it would seem that has not come to pass. Because it seems like at least every couple of decades there comes into the spotlight some work of erotic fiction (movie, book, outright porn) that stirs up a bunch of controversy, and with it comes all the usual buzzwords like "perverted", "sexist", "exploitation", "disgusting", "disturbing", "pornographic", "This isn't art!", "Think of the children!", "What is society coming to?!?"... on and on  and on. We've seen this before: Lady Chatterly's Lover, The Story of O, Emanuelle, Deep Throat (yes, the porno), Exit to Eden, The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy, Secretary, all the way back to the works of the Marquis de Sade himself. 

This shock and perverse curiosity-fueled popularity is far from a new phenomenon. And despite what many might think, it's not like Fifty Shades of Whatthefuckever introduced any new ideas that weren't present in any of the works I just mentioned, and it certainly didn't present them in a way that was any more enlightened, nuanced, or progressive than many other BDSM-related works that have come before. Quality (or lack thereof) of the presentation of its subject matter aside, there is absolutely NOTHING novel whatsoever about the contents of 50 Shades. No matter how many people claim that this trilogy is deserving of praise for making a lot of readers feel sexually "empowered" or "liberated", you have to remember that this exact thing has happened before. It happens all the goddamned time. 

But of course, from a sociological perspective, none of that crap matters. The point I was (kind of) originally trying to make was that every decade/couple decades some book or movie with some not-really-subversive sexual themes has to come along cause a big stink in the media, and I guess due to all the circumstances conspiring the way they did as stated above, this just happened to be that thing. The thing is, though, a lot of those previously mentioned works- a lot, but not all- did have something working in their favor besides hype, such as some kind of artistic merit, a small but noticeable positive impact on public opinion of sexuality and romance, or some kind of social commentary or unique perspective. But unlike The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, which was clearly enough in the realm of fantasy to take refuge in audacity, 50 Shades is presented as clearly taking place in reality, and therefore has no way to excuse its depictions of emotional abuse and various unrealistic elements. Unlike Secretary, which did have a few problems of its own but still had the balls to depict a BDSM relationship as shockingly "normal", 50 Shades instead does more harm than good to the real world kink community.

But, I digress. Like I said, this isn't about the contents of the book itself, but the fact that it is just the latest entry in a time-honored tradition of tiresome media sensationalism. And we have all been fooled by it once again, and we will continue to be. Forever. There will be another 50 Shades, and then another, and another, and another...

Not even season four of BSG is more depressing than this thought.

The "I Guess I Should Consider Why Some People Like this Shit" Hypothesis

So I suppose somewhere in a big fucking essay on why a thing is popular there should probably be some discussion as to why some people actually like the thing. Because believe it or not, bestseller status DOES depend on more than just people being tricked into spending their money on a book that all odds say that they will hate; some people actually have to LIKE it. I know, shocking, right? 

I'm just going to dive right into this because I'm tired as fuck and just want to be done with this already. Yes, there is a fantasy element in play; lots of women enjoy the fantasy of having a hot, rich guy sweep them off their feet, lots of women fantasize about being dominated, and lots of women fantasize about changing a man. But then again, we already know that this is true because there are literally thousands of books and movies and crap that already have these elements. E.L. James just happened to do a fantastically inept job of throwing all of these elements together, slathered on a thin coating of "it's sooo naughty and kinky, teehee!" and managed to sell it to an audience already primed to enjoy terrible romance (*cough*Twilight*cough*) and they ate that shit right up.

The problem is, though, I'm still struggling to figure out WHY in God's name this shit in particular so deeply resonates with modern readers. Again, I should probably look to my own Twilight Mom Hypothesis and the e-reader boom for my answer. This book was in the right place at the right time for a lot of people, and the wrong place (this universe) and wrong time (all of existence) for a whole lot of other people. And as much as it kills me to say it, I have my suspicions that all of the unfortunate tropes and stereotypes the story is built on actually help its popularity since they are things that a lot of people buy into (hence them being tropes and stereotypes). We, as consumers of fictional media, have been conditioned to accept such tropes as: abuse disguised as love (so long as the abuser is a hot guy); abuse disguised as BDSM (so long as they pay lip service to "safe, sane, and consensual"); manipulation disguised as willing consent; constant fighting equated with passionate true love; BDSM being something that the love interest must ultimately be "cured" of; and the age-old myth that if you give the brooding asshole with a bad childhood enough love then he will change his ways for you (this in spite of the fact that there is actually no real change evident in Christian's character over the course of the 3 books, but I'll be addressing that in my upcoming reviews of Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. Pray for me, friends.). FSOG and its sequels perpetuate every single one of these harmful ways of thinking, and it is perhaps because it is so utterly conventional and traditional in that regard that it is so easily digested by many readers. There's no need to go into this with an open mind, no need to challenge the stereotypes you've previously bought into. 

But with all that in mind, I still can't help but find it extremely troubling that it is not only easily accepted, but held up as a romantic ideal by so many women. Just ask around, and you'll find that many fans will find the need to defend their love of the books by saying that it was NOT the kink that drew them in (and in fact, some apparently dislike it), but rather the "beautiful love story" (my own words, but you get the point). Since the narrative itself pretty much all but says outright that is is an abusive and unhealthy relationship (we really only know that its "love" because Ana keeps telling us but not showing us that it is), I really can't see how this is a beautiful love story, so I can't help but wonder if perhaps the majority of fans simply use it as a means of projecting their own fantasies, rather than actually paying attention to the way Christian does behave. They wish they could have a fancy new car, yet also want to be viewed as modest and humble, so the image of a rich man gifting them a car by force is a nice fantasy. They wish that they a man would find them so desirable that it would drive them to extremes, so maybe they imagine that a fictional guy being all controlling and crazy because he can't help himself is appealing in some way. You get the picture.

But regardless of what some people say about it being more about the epic romance and less about the sex, what really fascinates me is that in a weird way, 50 Shades is kind of the perfectly constructed erotic novel for a sexually repressed person. I swear I originally saw this theory mentioned by someone in a comment on the Pervocracy FSOG read-through, but I'll be damned if I can't find that comment now. Anyway, the commenter brought up an interesting point about how the central (and quite confusing) message of the story is that BDSM is bad, but it's also fun... so a person needs to be cured of their need for it, but in the end it's all ok because they don't need it... or something like that. Throughout most of the novel, Ana doesn't actually like kink and on occasion outright states that she wishes she didn't have to do it... until of course she does like it, but only sometimes, and only when she still also thinks it's something "dark" at the same time. But no matter what, it's almost always her "inner goddess" that bears all the responsibility of sexual pleasure; Ana herself is oddly detached from her own libido, and it is this compartmentalization that allows her to remain sexually repressed, closed-minded, and "pure" while still being sexually active. This book is "perfect" for equally sexually closed-minded readers because it serves the unusual double purpose of allowing them to fantasize while at the same time reinforcing their own negative feelings about sex. I feel bad because I don't think I articulated this point quite as well as that Pervocracy commenter did, but it is still something to think about... 

(I should probably clarify that I'm not talking about all sexually "repressed" people here, though. I do understand that there are plenty of women who did become more open-minded about sex after reading this, but I still think it's interesting to consider, since 50 Shades, more so than many other similar books that came before, is uniquely anti-sex while being promoted as pro-sex. Sure, plenty of people can read these books purely for sexual enjoyment with their critical thinking caps still on and recognize that it's unrealistic and unhealthy and simply not care, but I worry for the many others that will look at this book as a kind of sex/relationship/BDSM ideal. Not everyone will come away from these books with negative attitudes reinforced, but some certainly will. I just figured I should clarify this point.)

Ugh. I think I'm done for the night. Unbelievably I actually started writing this post almost a week ago, but got sidetracked by life obligations and took a long time to muster up the motivation to explain all my thoughts. Sorry if this one ended up being a little dry, I'll try to liven things up when I finally get around to posting my reviews for Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed; it may kill me, but I'm trying to get all these over and done with before the movie comes out so I can finally give that shit its own proper review. This could be either the greatest or the worst Valentine's Day ever. Whatever. Goodnight.

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