The Joys of Live-Reading the Hated Book

Curator's Note

Editor's note: In Media Res maintains a policy that users create accounts under their real names and professional identities.  Among the reasons this policy exists is our desire to facilitate engaged and respectful discourse among our curators, readers, and staff.  In a rare exception, we have attributed the following post to Anonymous after the curator expressed anxiety about institutional blow black due to the content of the post. Theme week coordinator Karen Petruska will address this and other issues of taste and the professional stakes of popular culture consumption in her own contribution for the Fifty Shades of Grey theme week tomorrow.

It all began with a dare-you-to-read-this taunt on Twitter, and enough of us bit to join The Fancy Ladies’ Book Club on Facebook. Through social media we goaded each other into hate-reading through the novels’ painful prose stylings, annoying plot holes, improbable narrative twists (sure, an English major who has only ever seemed to read two authors and acquires her first email address from her lover in 2010 will land a top job at a Seattle publishing company in this economy), and her magical ability to have mind-obliterating orgasms on command. Every time. A few of us slogged through all three novels, while others bowed out after the first. We followed Christian and Anastasia on Twitter; they followed us back; we unfollowed because our feeds were clogged with passages from the novel. Then one of us suggested a live reading at the next academic conference we attended, and a few months later in Boston, it was on.

So with bitten lips and full hearts, we gathered to celebrate our shared experience in person. Kindles and smart phones in hand, we murmured favorite passages, such as defining hard and soft limits (“no acts involving fireplay”), Ana’s multifaceted, acrobatic inner goddess and disapproving self-conscious, and the many utterances of “Dios Mios!” Though we didn’t entirely purge the problematic bad object that is the trilogy, we achieved a different kind of bonding through mocking the bondage in the trilogy. We sipped cocktails, laughed until it hurt, and important literature happened.
We weren’t doing anything that novel. After all, multiple celebrities, such as Ellen DeGeneresGilbert Gottfried, Kristen Stewart, Adam Lambert, Morgan Freeman, and Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell have performed recorded readings of the Fifty Shades trilogy. Googling “fifty shades of grey live reading” finds “about 19,400,000 results,” featuring drunk, or occasionally sober, men and women who were keen to post videos of themselves reading passages from the books. It’s even spawned a musical, a penguin adaptation, and a team reading by the Washington Nationals. Moreover, provides a primer for the literary sensation: “7 Hilarious Excerpt [sic] from ‘50 Shades of Grey’ You Have to Read to Believe,” which confers on it a vague sense of scholarly consideration.  So why wouldn’t feminist academics join in the fun and, in my case, brave the tenure vote to own it?


I'm really intrigued by the stakes for aca-fandom of "Fifty Shades of Grey." I should note that I write "aca-fandom" less to describe the questions through which an academic approaches the text and more as a simple explanatory statement--an academic who is also a regular old reader of the book.  Anonymous' post is not simply a discussion of a debased text but is also a celebration of participating in the pleasure surrounding the text.  Why is this pleasure threatening?

I wonder if there are other academics reading who would hesitate to admit they've read and/or enjoyed "Fifty Shades of Grey" online or in the classroom (or within the tenure file). 

I talk a bit more about this in my post tomorrow, but I found the immediacy of this post so wonderful.  It brings together frivolity and professionalism--and asks if the former undermines the latter.  In our media consumption, are academics always political?  Is there space for simple enjoyment?

On the one hand, I don't like to see fans or anti-fans giving in to the threat of institutional condemnation.  On the other, we're seeing non-STEM program cuts all around the country, which doesn't bode well for humanities, and the further one's tenure file gets from the home department, the more out-of-context it gets.  

I would love to teach the Ferell-Galifianakis video in a class on dialogue and casting AND the musical in an introduction to the genre.  



Next time I teach Gender & Society. Not so much because I think it's a great book or even an interesting one, but because of the 'hate' towards it. A book that, for all its myriad flaws, seems to have kindled (no pun intended) a social conversation about adult women's sexuality is worth discussion on that merit alone. And yet, the thrust of the cultural reaction is negative - it's dismissed as "mommy porn", parodied on SNL, hate-reading, etc.  

I think there's something deeper going on here, and it has to do with the ways we talk about sex, especially for married women (who seem to be the stereotypical consumers of the book).  In a culture where Viagra & Cialis advertise in prime-time, why are we all so bent out of shape over a book that allegedly gets women "in the mood"?  Yes, it's poorly written, illogical, and full of really heinous assumptions, but there's clearly something going on there that's touched a nerve, so to speak.

I think framing 50 Shades in this way, with the hate-readings and the parody allows for a distancing - I wonder how many of the people who are mocking it secretly found it pleasurable?  And when you're mocking the book, you're implictly mocking the readers, which means you're ultimately mocking women's sexuality, which puts us at the good ol' maiden/whore/crone tricotomy again.  (to say nothing of the whole idea that books "for women" are frivolous trifles - 'chick lit' or 'bodice rippers' or what-have-you.)

I also wonder too at our eagerness to engage with the text as a social and cultural phenmenon but how quickly the impulse arises to frame our interest in terms of critique and academic interest.  Why do we place the collective pleasure we got from "hate-reading" the books outside of the books themselves. This need to distance ourselves from the object in this way, even if we wish to understand it as a social object, seemst to reinforce the trilogy's status as bad object. 

I want to echo Cenate's thoughts here, would it be acceptable to have enjoyed the books for what they were or is it only acceptable to approach them with the distanced critical eyes of the scholar who knows better?

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