I finally read 50 Shades of Grey (well, most of it) and here are some thoughts. I like good porn and I like good literature. 50 Shades of Grey is really neither, but it is still extraordinary, and arguably worthy of all of its hype. It has mediocre writing and barely above mediocre sex. But there is no denying its popularity. The three volumes have, collectively, spent XX weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers List and have sold over XXX copies. I have never seen the stats, but I am willing to bet the Shades trilogy has outsold by an order of magnitude the latest books by Salman Rushdie and Jenna Jamison combined.
I am hearing people describe the appeal of 50 Shades as porn for soccer moms – erotica veiled in the respectability of literature. Others say it is the advent of e-readers that allow Shades to be read anonymously. I am not buying it. There is an abundance of soft and hard core erotica written as well or better than 50 Shades. And as far as anonymity is concerned, most people read their books at home alone and e-readers have been around for years. To be honest, I think anonymity is the last thing Shades readers seem to want. I can’t walk through a train car these days without seeing 3 copies and every dinner party in the last 2 years has had at least one sidebar discussion about it.
There is more to this than the porn. I think it is the power. Over the last thirty years we have become a culture obsessed with equality – gender, racial, generational. A woman can do any job that a man can do; a man can raise a child as well as a woman. Organizations are becoming less hierarchical. This is a good thing, but I think that at times a primal part of us yearns for the assertion of power. Every animal species has an instinct to both dominate and be dominated. Until recently, so did we. But we figured out that having dominant sexes and cultures with predefined submissive and dominant roles was both unfair and inefficient. We were eliminating 50 percent of prospective CEOs and marginalizing 50 percent of good parents. So, in society, equality is good.
But in the bedroom, where we would like to be a little more hedonistic, playing with power can be fun. And 50 Shades of Grey is telling people it is OK to play with power roles. In fact, it is better than OK, it is fun and sexy. And best of all, who you pretend to be in fantasy play in the bedroom does not change who you are in real life.
There is a reason that sex play in the BDSM community is called a scene.