Lifting Up the Shades: Sara Nelson on the "Fifty Shades" Phenomenon
Allow me to be the last person on the planet to weigh in on Fifty Shades of Grey. I put off reading it until I was actually getting embarrassed that I couldn’t respond intelligently when someone (inevitably) brought it up. So I hunkered down with the first volume in E.L. James’s trilogy last weekend. I’m doing research, I told my Beloved. He muttered something that sounded like, “Yeah, and when I was a teenager, I read Playboy for the articles.”
Theories abound as to why this particular series is so popular: because it’s empowering to women—or the opposite; because women who are in charge in the outer world like to imagine having someone else take charge at home (this is news?); because the stories offer more romance than sex, at least for the first 100 pages, so it doesn’t “feel” like porn. (File that under good news/bad news, depending on your mood.) But I have another, simpler theory: everybody likes a good steamy read, once in a while.
When I was a teenager, I kept the complete oeuvre of Harold Robbins under my bed so I could read the racier scenes aloud with my best friend after school. I know more than one person who can tell you the exact page numbers of the hottest parts of The Godfather in paperback. And what were Anne Rice’s books about, if not sex? (Well, vampires, of course—but apparently, to many millions of readers, the undead are the sexiest men alive.) Nine and a Half Weeks, Josephine Hart's Damage—about a man who has a torrid affair with his son's fiancé—and Naked Came the Stranger—a fabulous hoax of a novel written by a bunch of newspaper reporters—were the Fifty Shades of their times. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by today’s standards more racy than downright dirty—oh, well, there are a couple good scenes—was so scandalous in its time that it spawned a Supreme Court case on censorship. In fact, I think that part of what made these books so appealing to us was their very verboten-ness. No one was supposed to know you cared about this stuff. Just by picking up a naughty book, you were being naughty, even subversive.
What makes 50 Shades different is that, while a huge hit in Kindle—e-technology being the plain, brown wrapper of our time—it’s become such a mainstream phenomenon that there’s really no need to hide that you’re reading it. While I kept my racy books hidden under my bed, readers today don’t seem to have the same hang-ups. Just the other day I watched as a well-dressed woman on a New York subway gestured to the man, presumably her partner, sitting next to her. Pointing to a tote bag at their feet, she waggled her fingers and looked into his eyes. Ever dutiful, the man reached into the bag and pulled out… no, not a plate of grapes to peel for his inamorata, but a plenty-perused copy of Fifty Shades. She winked at him, opened to a page past the halfway mark, and started reading right there, in front of God and everyone. —Sara Nelson