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Lets Talk About “50 Shades of Grey”

Sam Stryker and Suzanna Pratt | Friday, September 21, 2012

Summer is a time dedicated to spending days outside, and what better way to enjoy the pool or the beach than with a page-turner in hand? One of the pop-culture phenomena of the summer was the erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The book has topped best-seller charts and become pop-culture sensation, but not without criticism. The book has been condemned for its steamy subject matter and the behavior of its central characters, Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. Hoping to break away from the taboo, hush-hush nature on campus surrounding this particular work of literature, The Observer brought in Assistant Managing Editor Sam Stryker and Scene Writer Suzanna Pratt to have what might be the first open, public and civil conversation about “Fifty Shades” in Notre Dame history. Now, let’s chat.

Sam Stryker: It has sold 40 million copies worldwide. It has topped several best-seller charts around the world, including the United States and the United Kingdom. It is the fastest-selling paperback of all time, surpassing even the “Harry Potter” series. And it has been stirring up some major controversy.
No, I’m not talking about “The Hunger Games” or “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but good guess. The pop-culture juggernaut I speak of is E.L. James’ work of erotic fiction, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which is causing a firestorm not just in the literary world, but also across America. The novel has been the subject of numerous stories in The New York Times, the “Today Show,” and James was even named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine. And with a film adaptation on the way, it doesn’t seem like the attention will be going away any time soon.
Why all the attention? One word – sex, and not vanilla sex at that.
There, I said the dirty word. Americans are just not comfortable with sex. What “Harry Potter” is to magic, “Fifty Shades” is to sex. So instead of witches and wizards, readers enter into a dark world of bondage and submission with “Fifty Shades.” Part of the reason the novel (and its two sequels in the “Fifty Shades” trilogy) is causing such a hubbub is because it deals with BDSM – bondage/domination, sadism/masochism.
For the uninitiated, “Fifty Shades” tells the tale of Anastasia Steele, a recent college graduate. The chaste Anastasia is swept off her feet and then some by the enigmatic Christian Grey, a mysterious Seattle billionaire who is one part Hugh Hefner, one part Howard Hughes and one part Robert Pattinson. The couple’s romantic passion is threatened by Christian’s fondness for rough sex. You won’t find this in the children’s section of the library.
I’d argue it isn’t the coarseness of the subject matter that is getting so many readers’ pulses racing. Rather, it’s the fact that for the first time, a chart-topping literary phenomenon is about the birds and the bees. We’re used to reading about unicorns and vampires and Quidditch. Heck, we saw with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” that readers will digest material dealing with adult themes like abuse and murder. Yet as soon as we get to spend some uncensored bedroom time for the majority of a best-seller, boom goes the dynamite.
Because it deals with some admittedly major-league lovemaking, “Fifty Shades” has come under attack for being an insult to literature. A lot of this criticism has come from people who have not even read the book. They may claim the subject material is too coarse for them. These critics are missing the point – if they can’t handle the subject material, then clearly they were not the target audience for the series in the first place.
The book has been knocked for being “mommy porn,” but really, “Fifty Shades” is an escapist novel. Just like “Harry Potter” allowed children and adults alike to escape into a magical world of witchcraft and wizardry, “Fifty Shades” allows adults (and hopefully not children) to escape into a world of sexual passion. If that target audience happens to be an army of mothers who need something more than just a glass of Pinot after a long day of hauling their kids to and from soccer practice, so be it, right, Suzanna?
Suzanna Pratt: As if “Twilight” wasn’t already giving my home state a bad rep, its wildly popular, sexed-up copycat series “Fifty Shades” is putting Seattle on everyone’s mental map. The book was allegedly originally written as a fan fiction to compensate for the squeaky-clean “PG” pages of Stephenie Meyers’ series.
As a Seattle native, I’m generally thrilled by all associations to my state that don’t involve comparisons to South Bend’s winter weather. You know Starbucks? Microsoft? Amazon? “Grey’s Anatomy”? Kurt Cobain? Seattle. Twilight? Yeah, that’s sort of set near Seattle too. But now, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey are giving Seattle a new reputation, and not one I’m sure most Seattleites would appreciate.
I know there’s a significant portion of the female Notre Dame population that has read “Fifty Shades” in whole or in part. Mentally remove the sex scenes. Use bleach if you have to. Are we left with a plot? Sorta. Kinda. It goes like this: girl meets boy and is instantly infatuated, girl thinks “Oh no no, I shouldn’t” – but then does anyway – girl pursues relationship with boy that makes her feel horrible about herself (physically and emotionally), briefly girl realizes this and boy and girl break up, after a weekend of wallowing in self-pity, girl realizes she can’t live without boy (whom she has known for approximately a month), so girl and boy get back together.
Isn’t it, like, so original and cute? If we’re talking literary merit and originality here, “Fifty Shades” is like that story you wrote for your fifth-grade language arts class about the girl who learned she was a long-lost princess and moved to her magical kingdom and married the prince and lived happily ever after.
Despite the riveting plot (or lack thereof), something about “Fifty Shades” has it flying off the virtual bookshelves on the Kindle store. People want to read this book for its subject matter: every chapter features at least one explicit sex scene. And while the content is by no means “vanilla,” its softcore erotica is not so extremely kinky that it’s offensive. Maybe our society has gotten so used to seeing sex in the media that something a little more explicit fulfills a need we didn’t realize we had.
What does the success and fanaticism of “Fifty Shades” tell us about our expectations for relationships? Is “Fifty Shades” popular because we’re becoming less restrained and more receptive of more hardcore sex? Or is it popular because it allows readers to fulfill their sexual fantasies by reading about them?
“Fifty Shades” has received an intense amount of criticism, despite its vast fan base. Again, it’s just “Twilight” for adults. Same plot, same characters, same fan following. They’re even making a movie, and probably a new movie rating to go with it. Otherwise, that’ll be one short screenplay. But despite the criticism, “Fifty Shades” is at the top of the best-sellers list for a reason. People like it. And people are embarrassed to admit to liking it. Sex may not be such a strict taboo, but the type of sex in “Fifty Shades” certainly is.
Reading the novels shouldn’t be a point of shame, just read with a grain of salt and acknowledge it’s making English teachers across America weep, and it’s not the healthiest love story or sexual relationship. “Fifty Shades” isn’t a book of particular literary merit, but the cultural impact is astonishing. The effects of such a popular book about such an under-discussed subject could create monumental change in our society and our attitude toward sex.
SS: Suzanna, I’d like to think “Fifty Shades” would improve America’s thoughts about sex, but unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. In particular, I’ve noticed a lot of Notre Dame students lambasting the book, as if they are above it or something. The funny thing is, several of my friends who have read it will at least admit to enjoying it. Yes, it is a guilty pleasure. But Notre Dame students, don’t judge this book by its cover – if it even still has it.
My favorite is when people tear off the cover and expect no one to notice what they are reading. Luckily, we can thank Steve Jobs and the technology gods for coming to the rescue for embarrassed desperate housewives everywhere.
This is where the success of “Fifty Shades” gets interesting: without iPads, Kindles and other e-readers, I would argue the bedroom adventures of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele would not be the literary smash they are today. People like to be discreet when they read this book – when I see someone on their e-reader, they could be flipping through the pages of “Anne of Green Gables” for all I know. Leave it to the fairer sex to turn to a book for some sexual release. At least girls get creative – guys just turn to porn.
I have to say, your criticism of the book’s literary level is a bit unmerited. Sure, I never will expect a Williamsburg hipster to debate the merits of Tolstoy versus E.L. James over a latte, or analysis of Christian Grey versus Jay Gatsby to be the subject of a freshman seminar here at the University, but give James some credit – this is no Harlequin romance novel. If you take out all the magic in “Harry Potter” or all the violence in “The Hunger Games” you aren’t left with much either – the theme of a book is integral to its plot. Just because sex is a central component of “Fifty Shades” does not mean it is “bad” literature. And for those who criticize its low level of language, guess what – you don’t have to be a linguistic genius to enjoy “Good Night, Moon” or “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” yet those books are not criticized for their reading level.
You also can’t discount the central message of “Fifty Shades.” There is a reason so many women read this book. Ironic, isn’t it, that this college graduate holds so much power over the domineering billionaire? You can argue back and forth whether the series empowers women or not – the important thing is the discussion of sex and relationships is on the table.
More importantly, this is a discussion we Notre Dame students should be having. Parietals and SYR Dances have done their damage to gender relations here – wouldn’t it be nice to have a healthy conversation about sex and relationships on campus? I’m not sure “Fifty Shades” would have been Fr. Sorin’s first choice to catalyze this discussion, but at least it could happen.
We live in a time where female characters are becoming increasingly more and more powerful. We praise Katniss for using her bow and arrow and Hermione for using her brain, so why should we lambaste Anastasia Steele for biting her lip and driving Christian Grey’s hormones insane? It’s her weapon of choice.
SP: I’ll have to disagree with you that Anastasia uses her feminine wiles as a weapon. First of all, the character guilty of weaponizing sex in this book is certainly Christian Grey, both literally and figuratively. Anastasia, against her fleeting better judgment, bends to his desires and winds up suffering physically and emotionally. Further, the idea of a female protagonist using her femininity and/or body as a weapon should not be compared to using a brain or a bow.
Female empowerment ought not to encourage the use of the body as a manipulative instrument. All Anastasia has going for her is that she can make Christian squirm; she doesn’t display the intelligence or bravery that make heroines like Hermione and Katniss the excellent role models that they are.
Is “Fifty Shades” demeaning to women? I think so. Anastasia, as you so helpfully pointed out, is a recent college graduate who displays none of the qualities I hope I have when I get my degree. She’s the helpless, clueless heroine who is swept off her feet by a very, very good-looking tortured soul of a man who feeds, clothes, and houses her. He’s a control freak and she lets him reshape her life.
They are Edward and Bella half a decade older, but clearly still lacking in the character development department. Anastasia has just enough personality to appear on the page before ravenous readers project themselves onto her skeletal character and live vicariously through her romance with Christian.
Obviously, this demonstrates that all women in this day and age are to fall in love immediately after college, lose their virginity to someone they barely know, be tied up in the bedroom and have someone with more money than the national debt begging to take care of them. No, thanks. I don’t see Anastasia as strong-willed or independent. She strikes me as irresponsible, naive, and – dare I say it – submissive.
I realize the book is a work of fiction and not reflective of reality, but the character of Anastasia simultaneously disappoints me for the reinforcement of negative gender stereotypes and makes me jealous I don’t have a trillionaire to seduce me when I’m unemployed after I graduate.
The availability of the raunchy romance novel on one’s Kindle, iPad, or phone means that it could be anywhere. The girl two seats over in your marketing class might not actually be frantically checking her email for the recruiter to tell her she’ll be employed after graduation. She might, in fact, discreetly be reading “Fifty Shades” right in the middle of class.
Yes, the book is about nothing but sex. So what? Should it be labeled pornography and treated with the same hush-hush attitude as say, breaking parietals? Or can we just get over it and stop being embarrassed by our reading material? Clearly neither of us is ashamed to admit that we have read the book. Despite my criticism it is not good literature, I enjoyed reading it.
The book evokes contradictory ideas: the notion of the rich, attractive bachelor swooping in to rescue the helpless damsel in distress and live happily ever after, and the idea that rough sex should be discussed more freely. It’s no wonder “Fifty Shades” is pornography for soccer moms and bored housewives. Just a hunch, but I’m pretty sure the next book in the series will not be “Fifty Shades learns to change a diaper, do laundry, and drive the kids to school and piano lessons and baseball practice every day.” No one wants to read about real life; they want to escape, which is why Anastasia’s flat character and her Energizer Bunny libido make the book so appealing.
At a place like Notre Dame, we can only wonder what the role of such a book might be. As students, we all know there is no candid talk about sex on this campus. Ever. It’s not something spoken of openly, and certainly not on a “Fifty Shades” level. And yet, you and I are not the only students to have read the book. I definitely agree with you that although “Fifty Shades” may not be the ideal way to start a discussion about healthy relationships, sexual or not, we do need to get the ball rolling and address the implications of the popularity of the book on society as a whole, but also on the scale of our own campus.
SS: Suzanna, you’re right. “Fifty Shades” is escapism, but that is what makes it so thrilling. Just like I’m not expecting to play a game of Quidditch tomorrow or be named tribute to play in the next Hunger Games, I’m also not expecting to participate in hardcore bondage between History of Rome in the morning and my Film Theory in the afternoon. And with our hectic schedules, running from classes to tests and then to the Career Fair, a little escapism is in order for every Notre Dame student.
I get it. “Fifty Shades” isn’t going to win the Pulitzer any time soon. E.L. James isn’t the second coming of Ernest Hemingway, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say Oprah won’t select this as her next book club novel – though I’m sure she’s read it. “Fifty Shades” wasn’t written for acclaim, it was written as an outlet for readers to escape from their everyday, mundane lives. “Fifty Shades” seems to be doing the trick for millions of moms everywhere, like literary Viagra. More important, it might prompt some interesting discourse on campus. Notre Dame students should at least give it a chance.

Contact Sam Stryker at
And Suzanna Pratt at
The views in this column are those of the authors and not necessarily those of The Observer.