The question of a book’s intended versus actual readership is always an interesting one — how many of us have read young adult series like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games? How many of us read them when we were no longer adolescents ourselves? So maybe it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that the 50 Shades series — widely described as “mommy porn” — is being read by men too; one survey estimates that 20% of American readers are male. That percentage could be as high as 30% in the U.K.
Of course the question of why the books have attracted such a large female readership is complex in and of itself. Is Christian Grey, with his piles of cash and tendency towards stalker-like behavior, really the kind of man women want? Do women appreciate Christian’s single-minded pursuit of Ana, while recognizing that it at times lapses into an unhealthy obsession? Or is it really just about the sex? There is a fairly long-standing idea that women like their porn packaged differently — as “softcore” written erotica rather than “hardcore” visual porn — but 50 Shades of Grey, though written, is explicit in a way that much female-oriented porn is not.
Contrary to what you might expect, though, male readers don’t seem to be reading it for the sex — or, at least, not exclusively for the sex. More than one man has praised the series for offering a window into the inner workings of its heroine’s mind. And some, in a move that completely inverts societal gender norms, have even said that what ultimately stuck with them was not the sex scenes but the romance.
Still, one has to wonder why it is these books in particular that seem to speak to men. After all, there are hundreds of female authors — not to mention female doctors, lawyers, teachers, stay-at-home mothers, etc. — ready and willing to point out that, as Paul Hokemeyer says in the above article, “Men need to stay attentive to the details of their partner’s [sic] lives and consciously value them as human beings.”
What makes this statement even more puzzling is that presumably all of us — men and women — “need to feel valued.” Surely this is a message that can be found in places other than what essentially amounts to pornography.
To be clear, I in no way mean to disparage the reading or writing of erotica. But erotica is usually held to be the stuff of pure fantasy — something to read and enjoy in the moment that has little to no bearing on our understanding of actual relationships. The fact that this series has been assigned — at least in some circles — a quasi-instructive role thus calls for further examination.
The 50 Shades series is not without its flaws. While it is tempting to see a female-penned, BDSM-themed work as somehow inherently liberating, the fact is that the BDSM community itself has criticized the series, both for its implication that an affinity for BDSM is tied to emotional/psychological damage and for its distorted portrayal of a consensual BDSM relationship; Christian, for instance, is depicted as ignoring the terms of the couple’s contract in a way that is clearly distressing to Ana. Relatedly, the series seems to reproduce the old and utterly discredited idea that an abusive man can be reformed simply through the love of a good woman — an idea that has no doubt led many women to remain in unhealthy relationships.
All of these problems are foregrounded when we begin to read the books as something to aspire to. Besides, as Nathan Holic points out, there is something problematic in the fact that it is this particular female work that has garnered so much attention. To quote Holic, “Male writers seem to be allowed to be “edgy” in a lot of different ways, but have we pushed female writers into a corner and determined that we will only read their “edgy” fiction if it is about sex?” Is this, in other words, simply a new and trendy reiteration of the sexualization of women?
I don’t pretend to have answer to these questions, and I’m torn with regards to the series itself; wonderful as it is to see women speaking more candidly about their sexual desires and men indulging their more romantic ones, I personally am of the camp that sees the books as condoning abusive behavior.
Besides, can’t we all just agree that any book that repeatedly uses the phrase “my inner goddess” is just flat-out badly written?