The Academic Politics of Fifty Shades of Grey

Curator's Note

There’s a lot you have probably heard about Fifty Shades of Grey—it is poorly written, it started as Twilight fan fiction, it presents a character engaged in BDSM.  Significantly, most of the discourse about Fifty Shades has centered around its naughty bits gone mainstream.  The part less frequently discussed is how lame is the whole trilogy. When I started skimming every sex scene in book two out of boredom, I wondered how books about dangerous sex had been transformed into an embrace of “vanilla” lovemaking. 

Despite the relative vacuity of its heroine and the complete fantasy of her impressive ability to orgasm on demand, Fifty Shades has nevertheless threatened hegemonic institutions of power, even while its menace operates more through its reputation than its actual content. The series has made e-readers the preferred interface for subversive content. Colleagues on Twitter have referenced “outing” themselves online and in the classroom as readers of the books. Our curator who asked for anonymity did so largely due to anxiety that an embrace of the book series may adversely affect her her tenure case. When scholars engage with popular culture, a fear of destabilizing legitimacy persists despite decades of work by cultural and media studies scholars. In academic circles, however, the danger to our legitimacy may derive less from an embrace of sexuality and more from pleasure in the banal.

I make fun of Fifty Shades, but I read all three books, and I did so quickly. It was not a chore. With respect to the millions of readers who have also found pleasure in their pages, I resist any suggestion that the quality of the writing discounts the broader value of the series. In particular, I worry that discourses of “outing” in relation to Fifty Shades imply not only a condescension of the audience and the pleasures they may get from the series but also that scholarly readers are not included within that audience.

I’ve embedded the video at the left because it depicts the typical way this series has been presented in the press—with attention to the butt plugs and other sexual paraphernalia owned by Christian Grey. The video disappointed me for more than its misplaced focus on what ultimately becomes an abandoned plot device; instead, I had hoped these older women would have looked at each other and said, “Big deal? Who doesn’t like a little BDSM?” When we react to Fifty Shades of Grey without the need to distance ourselves from it—whether from its explicit sex, its female audience, or its disparaged quality—the conversations will become much more interesting.  How might academics enter this conversation to reframe the series in a more productive manner?


Thank you for this week of Fifty Shades, all! I think Karen raises an incredibly important question, and one I've been confronted with recently myself. At the women's college where I teach, I off-handedly offered to run an informal student discussion on the book's incredible popularity, and the session was immediately scheduled by the students, beating out the European debt crisis, I might add. (Not sure how to feel about that.) I think we have a real opportunity here, however, to remember the historical devaluation of popular, best-selling women's literature, all the way back to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Why are the books women write about and read always such a source of shame? In my session with the students, I'm planning to use Jane Tompkins ideas about "cultural work" to get away from the notion that what matters is whether the book is "good" to arrive at some conversations about what it achieves in a cultural sense. (Confession: I still need to read the book, but I'm nevertheless fascinated by the idea that women and sex and desire are pervading the public discourse, and yet many women are still afraid to own these topics as important or worthwhile.) I am excited for the rest of the week!

Thanks for the reply, Suzanne.  I think Cenate's comment from the Anonymous post yesterday also works toward a similar concern about the distancing device of quality.  I agree that 50 Shades has a long line of predecessors, and I'm sort of shocked that the discourse has to this point been so limited.  

There is a need for feminist critiques of Fifty Shades, but the fact that pleasure and female desire are often framed through masculinist ideologies does not necessarily negate the fact of the desire.  Pleasure can come from a variety of artistic forms and for a variety of reasons, and 50 Shades has opened a space for more attention to the interplay between transgression, heteronormativity, and romantic fantasy.  

There are probably many reasons I have such a difficult time discussing the book publicly that I haven't thought about but I totally agree that I fear my reputation would be tainted by the series's reputation. It is wholly irrational and yet I worry that discussing this with my students (even in the most general here's an example of x-y-z way) would paint me as the "hormonal old lady." 

The thing is I love romance novels. But if I had to summarize one I've read I could usually tell what there was and then go from there. With 50 Shades? The plot IS the bdsm. The plot IS the "moneyshot." So it becomes difficult to navigate in a public discussion even with regard to description. Which is why I think it's easier to mock than to try to tell straight. 


Thank you for the post, Karen. Admittedly, I am guilty of the 50 shades distancing myself. Despite my enjoyment of popular fiction, I have not yet read 50 Shades, mostly because I do not own an e-reader and would be embarrassed to be seen carrying the book around. Academics could do a lot with these books and the discourse surrounding them, in the vein of Janice Radway's Reading the Romance project, but for the digital age. In addition to the gender politics, the 50 Shades phenomenon raises important questions about technology, especially the e-book market and politics of gendered consumption. Even the clip-featuring the older women struggling to use an i-pad while critiquing the text and chastizing the "30 somethings" for enjoying it-evokes how 50Shades is situated at the intersection of discourses of gender, technology, age, and popular culture.



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