The Success of 50 Shades of Grey: An Analysis (with a bonus self-mental evaluation!)


50 Shades of Grey is getting a movie. I’m sure this is nothing surprising to those of you who have used the internet in the last couple of years, but I feel it’s a good start to this entry. I will repeat now for emphasis:

Shades. Of. Grey. Is. Getting. A. Movie.

And as far as I am aware, it will not be airing in any “adult” theaters.

Clearly it’s a horror movie.

How the hell has this happened?

Now I know the obvious answer to this statement is that “Twilight happened.” The fact that the now widely popular wanna-be BDSM novel originally began as a piece of Twilight fanfiction is well known and you can find people citing that fact in every conversation across the internet. However, I’d like to present a different idea for why this has become so popular.

WARNING: I am about to express ideas and opinions that, while they are my own, may not be consistent with your opinions. Some of the things I say may also offend you on a personal level for some reason. Some of the things I say could be interpreted as “Anti-Feminist” or a way of “Encouraging terrible writing”, and for that I apologize.

WARNING #2: Some of what I’m about to say might be painfully obvious to some of you, and for that I’m sorry for disrupting your day to point out something that is obvious to anybody with a couple of brain cells. Sad fact is though, we’re on the internet, and my experiences have led me to believe it’s better to assume that the majority of people have less than a couple of brain cells, even in cases when I’m clearly wrong.

WARNING #3: If you feel this may pertain to you and that this article will not be enjoyable in any way, kindly click the “X” in the corner of your preferred browser and know that you are welcome back to this blog anytime you like. Especially if you enjoy books.

WARNING: Blog contains excessive warnings

With all of that out of the way, let’s look at what 50 Shades of Grey is:

A Misrepresentation of BDSM
Vanilla
Twilight Fanfiction
A Best Selling novel that has spawned two more books
A book featuring repeated use of the phrase “inner Goddess”
Loved by Middle-Aged women and late teen-to-early-twenty-somethings alike
A book featuring sex

Pictured: 50 Shades Darker Sneek Peek

(What’s scary is that I could almost be describing 1 Direction or Justin Beiber.)

The appeal here seems to be a mystery at first, but when you break it down it starts to make sense.

First, let’s look at the BDSM aspect, or lack thereof.

I’ll be the first one here to admit it, since I’m sure most of you won’t: For the longest time, I wasn’t particularly savvy on what exactly BDSM was all about. I had a casual knowledge of it, which, thanks to internet research and some, ahem, websites, has been expanded. While I know my one experience does not equal all of the experiences of everybody in the world, I do firmly believe that it is not far off from the mark.
Most people do not have a deep, understanding knowledge of BDSM outside of the BDSM community. They know only what pop culture and porn have told them. 50 Shades cashes in on that. Unwittingly, of course. The author, from my understanding, displays only a casual knowledge of BDSM paired with misconceptions involving the very idea of BDSM (for example, ignoring consent/safe words).  While this is offensive and infuriating to some, the target audience eats it up. Why?
Let’s face facts: Despite what others will have you believe about their sex lives, a lot of the fan base for 50 Shades has probably never been involved in anything they consider part of BDSM. It’s something foreign to them, something exotic and almost forbidden in a sense. Reading these books taps into their idea of what super-kinky-leather-wearing-whip-using sex is all about, and in their blindness to the truth, they love it.

The idea is that people don’t seem to bother checking how their imagination matches up to reality. When people have a limited knowledge of something, they tend to think of it more fondly. If a person knows nothing about how statues in Italy are often covered in graffiti, they will picture the statues as the most beautiful and pristine pieces of art in the world. Likewise, when people know next to nothing about certain sexual activities, chances are they will be terribly misrepresented in the mind.  The same can be said for romance, which takes me to my next point.

Woah. SO kinky.

Allow me to beat you over the head with this statement yet again: This story was originally Twilight Fanfiction.
I will spare you my typical “Twilight is the sparkly anti-Christ” rant and tell you my point: Twilight was, for some deeply troubling reason, popular. Fan fiction is popular. Combining the two was sure to equal something that would even leave Cthulhu terrified. People have a nasty habit of latching onto something for a while before jumping to the next big thing, and unfortunately for people with a respect for the literary world, the thing people latched onto after Twilight was the Twilight fan-girl wet dream that is 50 Shades of Grey.
The fact that this was originally a fan story using the same characters from Twilight should have raised red flags for people to start with: Edward is abusive. So is Christian Grey. Bella is a Mary-Sue-card-board stand-in for the reader. So is Anastasia. Vampire lore is established in literature and the author ignores that. BDSM practices are established in general and the author ignores that. Anything problematic in both texts is completely ignored or romanticized in a way that makes people believe it is perfectly acceptable. Characterization is completely ignored. I could go on, but to avoid boring you to tears with stuff you’ve known since Twilight was released, I’ll move along.

Like anything worth worshipping or ranting about, E.L. James and the entire idea of 50 Shades of Grey has only one thing to thank for its success: the fans. Horny housewives and sexually curious college girls alike have banned together and made 50 Shades of Grey their new literary master.  What I find most interesting about the fan base is that it seems to be split just among those two groups: young women who are likely still in school, and older women who are slowly creeping closer to menopause. While I suppose that is not entirely surprising to some, it does seem like a very weird audience to have.

Sharing porn interests with my mother makes me feel sort of uncomfortable.

On the one hand, the appeal for younger women is very much focused on how self-centered people in that age-group tend to me. Wait, before you leave me an angry comment stating that I’m wrong because you/everybody you know aren’t like that, hear me out.
In high school I knew plenty of girls who consumed praise/attention from others like they were a succubus at Frat boy party. Yet these same girls seemed to be convinced that they were “nothing special” and more often than not would act like anytime a guy they were interested in complimented them it meant that person was their true love and they would be together for the rest of their life, and when it didn’t work out, the entire world came crashing down.
Sound familiar?
The fact that Ana and Christian go on to have a happy, perfect life appeals to what they feel like they deserve, and in a sense, gives them hope for every relationship they will have. That’s not a bad thing, but it is setting an unrealistic standard for relationships and life in general just as Disney movies do. In fact, it might be worth pointing out that a lot of the girls who are drawn to these stories are the same ones who still view themselves as Disney princesses waiting on Prince Charming to show up and whisk them away to a beautiful life of beautiful perfection.

“Excuse me, what do you mean I’m NOT a Disney princess?”

“HA! You idiot, older women know better than that! So what’s your smart-alecky-stupid response for why they like it?”
I’m glad you asked voice of potential readers in my head.
Older women are probably not going to have the same view as these girls—though some of them definitely do—so what draws them to this story? It’s much easier than you might expect.
The totally vanilla BDSM. As I mentioned earlier, while poorly done, the idea of BDSM is strange and new to most of these readers, particularly the older women who, no doubt, have had more sex than most of their younger counterparts. Save for those who are actually part of the BDSM community, I’m going to go ahead and assume that most of the older women who have read these books haven’t done anything too wild (Shut up. I need to assume most people aren’t into/don’t have wild sex so I don’t feel dirty every time I make contact with other human beings). So put some, er… wild, crazy… sex… in front of them in a totally socially acceptable way and they’ll go bonkers. It takes them from their stagnant lives and lets them re-imagine their youth in crazy and exciting ways. A wonderful example of this is found in the character of Sam in The Casual Vacancy, who starts fantasizing about a boy band member when her love life has started to bore her. This craving for excitement could also tie into a mid-life crisis of sorts. Men buy flashy cars and hit on college girls, women read porn in novel form and throw their panties at teenage boybands.

And this is perfectly okay, for some reason.

Now for my potentially controversial view for why women like this garbage. I’m sure many of you are familiar with, and possibly appalled by the idea that “All women have rape fantasies.” I actually agree with it in a sense. PLEASE DON’T HIT ME!! I CAN EXPLAIN!!!

I can’t speak for everybody, so please remember that it IS NOT my intent to speak for all women in any way. This is merely my own theory and not something I expect anybody to whole-heartedly agree with. Personally, I can say that I have a fantasy that, while NOT a rape fantasy, can be twisted to seem like one. The idea of having a handsome stranger have his way with me is something I like. I’m not saying I want somebody to break into my bedroom and have their way with me while I’m screaming for them to stop. I’m not saying I want somebody to take silence as consent (because it’s not). I am simply saying that I find it attractive when a man takes control and has his way with “poor little me”. Hey, I don’t judge you for your fantasies, do I?

I know some other women may hold this view as well. In the same way, I think that is another reason the 50 Shades series appeals to the people it does. Some of the readers may have a similar fantasy, which is why the idea of Christian Grey seems like such a good one to them. Although Christian Grey does in fact do things that are actually classified as rape, such as ignoring consent, I cannot honestly say that it is impossible for me to see the appeal of his character. He’s rich and handsome. Yawn. He is attracted to the reader Ana despite being less interesting than a wet piece of bread. He is dominant in the bedroom. YES PLEASE.

Also under the YES PLEASE category: Hugh Jackman in a suit

I also like to think a large portion of the popularity ties into the taboo of women and sexuality in public. This has been vanishing in recent years (or maybe I’ve just been making less contact with the outside world), but for a long time the idea of women being sexual creatures was totally scandalous. 50 Shades of Grey is porn. 50 Shades of Grey is porn. Not very good porn, but overall, that is exactly what I see it as. In fact, I’ve flipped open to random pages during several visits to Barnes & Noble, and I can say with 99.97% certainty that every single time I’ve opened it to a page depicting a sex scene. Say it with me: 50 SHADES OF GREY IS PORN. It’s “naughty” and “improper”, so of course that’s going to draw a crowd, no matter how undeserved it is.

Now for the self mental evaluation that I promised in the title.
I just used roughly 2,000 words to talk about 50 Shades of Grey. I kindly ask that if you are reading this that you alert the nearest mental institution and find me. Please.

I like books…. books are good…

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