Why Do Women Love the New Smutty Novel Fifty Shades of Grey?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 7 2012 1:37 PM

Book Club Erotica

Why do women love the new smutty novel Fifty Shades of Grey?

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The women’s book club has a new romantic heroine. By day, Anastasia Steele is a college senior at a Vancouver University and a virgin who wears indifferent jeans and reads the usual novels (Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Pride and Prejudice). By night, she is the willing slave of Christian Grey, who trusses her up in his “red room of pain” and slaps her and makes her shiver with just the tip of his whip. You can tell by the characters’ names what general territory we are in: erotic fiction mixed with Harlequin and just a hint of legal brief (apparently bondage drama requires the exchange of elaborate documents and disclaimers).

Hanna Rosin Hanna Rosin

Hanna Rosin is the founder of DoubleX and a writer for the Atlantic. She is also the author of The End of Men. Follow her on Twitter.

Fifty Shades of Grey is the Kindle and Goodreads sensation that recently made the round of the morning talk shows and is apparently bewitching women from “the Upper East Side of Manhattan to the suburbs of Seattle,” says Today. Part of a “triple-X trilogy,” the book began as a Twilight fan-fiction story called “Master of the Universe” by someone who called herself “Snowqueens Icedragon” and has now revealed herself to be E.L. James, a TV executive, wife and mother of two in London.

Today convened a Boca Raton, Fla., reading group to discuss why they could not put the book down, and one of the women in it confessed that after working and taking care of the kids all day, “it’s nice for a man to take over in the bedroom.” Host Savannah Guthrie, who used to be the show’s legal correspondent, responded with a version of the mild horror the book has provoked on many a feminist blog: “Is that really where we’ve come to after 50 years, now that women have the power? … Do you think women really want to fantasize about someone causing them physical pain?”

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Critics have been comparing Fifty Shades of Grey to the Story of O, the smutty 1954 French novel that titillated the Parisian literary scene, but the comparison is not quite right. The Story of O is a cold, hard read almost entirely devoid of humanity. On the first page, O is smuggled into a taxi, ordered to remove her bra and panties and handed over to a room of masked men. Within a few pages she is gang raped, not for the last time. The book is so brutal that even when, 50 years later, its author Dominique Aury revealed her identity, critics had trouble believing it was actually written by a woman. It’s far too brutal to titillate any Boca Raton housewife.

Fifty Shades employs a much slower seduction. For more than half of the novel, our very normal heroine tries to keep Christian, the kinky young billionaire, at arm’s length. They go on coffee dates and dancing at bars. (He is very young for a self-made billionaire. And devastatingly handsome. Eyes like, what else, “smoldering embers.”) She continues to lead her mundane co-ed life driving around in her old Beetle and applying for internships. He buys her a Mac Air, and they exchange lots of pithy e-mails. He spends the night in her bed and tells her he’s never done that before. When he finally shows her the red room of pain, there is no doubt that a woman crafted the gentle scene:

You can leave anytime. The helicopter is on stand-by to take you whenever you want to go; you can stay the night and go home in the morning. Its fine whatever you decide

And she responds with:

Just open the damn door, Christian

The particular genius of E.L. James is mixing the red room of whips and cable ties with the safer territory of emoticons and job applications and brotherly affirmations such as, “It’s fine.” The novel aims at the sweet spot between banal and outrageous that turns on not just the Boca Raton housewives but the Jane Austen fan-fiction junkies. Our heroine is not one of Fabio’s ravishing redheads or raven beauties. She says things like “Holy crap” and writes witty e-mails. She has never really been kissed, or even tempted, preferring to spend her evenings in the library. She is pale and “scruffy,” and so uncoordinated that when she first meets Christian she trips and falls onto the floor, much as Bridget Jones would. She is, in other words, all brain, and the point of her is to show that any woman can override her intellectual mind and give herself over to pure sensation.

Whether this constitutes an insult to thinking women everywhere is sort of beside the point. James is not aiming for social commentary; she is instead writing a textbook female fantasy long recorded by sex researchers but embarrassing to feminists. Decades of liberation have not erased the very taboo fantasy among women of being sexually overpowered. Researchers say this is because women’s desire is not, as many people assume, necessarily connected to close intimate relationships, as Daniel Bergner pointed out in his  New York Times magazine cover story, “What Do Women Want?” Instead the desire is narcissistic, meaning that women want to be the object of someone else’s overwhelming lust and need. Women want to be wanted, and if they are not they lose interest quickly. “What really turns women on is being so sexy that someone can’t help but transgress to get to you,” says Marta Meana, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada.  These desires, she told Bergner, are a real dilemma. “Women want to be thrown up against a wall but not truly endangered. Women want a caveman and caring.” Their ideal man, she says, is someone like Denzel Washington, someone who seems like a mensch but also truly in charge.

Christian Grey is the ultimate gentleman predator. He is a scary control freak who insists on monitoring every aspect of Anastasia’s life, down to her clothing. Yet around mousy Ana he can’t control himself. “There’s something about you. I can’t leave you alone.” “I’m like a moth to a flame.” “I want you very badly, especially now, when you’re biting your lip again.” Do you have any idea how much I want you, Ana Steele?” He beats, flogs, and otherwise physically overpowers her and then asks, “Are you okay? Seriously, are you okay?”

James has created perhaps the most relatable dominant and submissive couple to date, the Ross and Rachel of  BDSM (for bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism) fiction. When faced with a room full of cables and hooks, Ana has the same reaction any average woman would have. She decides that Christian is a freak and a pervert with serious problems. Over the next few chapters her “thinking brain” is at war with her “subconscious,” which wants her to relent. “Stop thinking so much Ana,” Christian warns, sounding like an inspirational life coach, or Tim Gunn, and eventually she gives in, and of course, she is more “sated” and empowered than she’s ever been.

One of James’ goals seems to be to make women the world over fear their own subconscious. If so, I have this to offer as consolation. Thankfully the BDSM subculture is extensively and often pedantically documented online. A quick Google search will reveal that in the real world of red rooms, men seem to vastly prefer to be dominated.  And the latest fetish seems to be something called “ballbusting,” which is exactly what it sounds like, and proof that women have nothing to fear.