What Does 50 Shades’ Popularity Tell Us?

Note: This piece is cross-posted at Junior Ganymede because I think they are awesome and they said I could.

964 - 50 Shades Teddy Bear

Almost all of the many articles and blog posts in the lead up to the 50 Shades of Grey release last weekend have been negative, so I had some hope that better sense would prevail and people would stay home rather than prove that controversy and porn are quick and easy paths to profit. That just goes to show you that my sense of cynicism has room to grow. “Box Office: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Explodes With Record-Breaking $81.7 Million,” reads the headline at Variety, with the first paragraph providing the depressing details:

“Fifty Shades of Grey” sizzled at the weekend box office, setting new records for the highest-grossing Presidents Day holiday opener of all time and ranking among the biggest R-rated debuts in history.

Let’s start with some background. 50 Shades of Grey started out as an erotic Twilight fanfiction called Master of the Universe. When the book became massively popular online, E. L. James (who had written Master of the Universe under the penname “Snowqueen’s Icedragon”) rewrote it as independent book to avoid charges of copyright infringement. Apparently, she did this by basically using “find and replace” to change the names, because the supposedly stand-alone 50 Shades is more or less identical to the Twilight-derived Master of the Universe.[ref]Stephanie Meyer hasn’t sued yet, but then again she of the ostentatiously chaste vampire romance novels may be just as happy as E. L. James to downplay the connection.[/ref]

Fanfic is universally derided for poor quality compared to the source material, and Twilight is hardly great literature to begin with. Thus Sir Salman Rushdie: “[50 Shades of Grey] made Twilight look like War and Peace.” These books are truly, irredeemably bad. [ref]In case you’re curious: I did read Twilight. I have read many excerpts from 50 Shades, but not the entire thing. I’m willing to sacrifice for you, dear reader, but I have my limits.[/ref]

Poor quality didn’t hurt sales, however, and by 2014 50 Shades had sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. In June 2012 when sales were at their peak, “nearly one in five adult fiction books purchased for women in June were from the 50 Shades Trilogy.” (Yes, world, there are two more: 50 Shades Darker and 50 Shades Freed. There will be movies. I’m sure we’ll all do our best to quell our rapture and maintain a decorous façade.) That quotes is from Jo Henry, by the way, who is the Director of Bowker Market Research which described the 50 Shades audience as “more likely to be women, live in the Northeast, and have a significantly higher household income.”

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Actual 50 Shades movie poster with actual 50 Shades book quote. (the6thsiren)

And this is where we come to a real puzzle. It’s not that 50 Shades is popular despite being awful. There’s no accounting for taste, after all. It’s not even that 50 Shades is popular despite being pornographic. That is, tragically, just a sign of the times. It’s that 50 Shades is popular specifically with women (80% of the audience) despite being (according to a plethora of writers) deeply and irredeemably misogynistic. The series is basically a tale of how one powerful man grooms one vulnerable woman, isolates her from her family and support network, stalks her, assumes domineering control over her life (the classes she takes! the clothes she wears!), and eventually abuses and rapes her. And then they get married and live happily ever after. (Sorry, spoilers.) Who says romance is dead?

I am, of course, not the first person to hazard an explanation for 50 Shades’ popularity, and I think many of the extant explanations have merit. One of the best comes from Kirsten Andersen who explains the story’s appeal this way:

All we know about each girl [Bella from Twilight, Ana from 50 Shades] is that she’s ordinary – like, so ordinary that if you looked up the word “ordinary” in the dictionary, you would find their pictures – only you wouldn’t; you’d find a little mirror reflecting your own face back at you, because that’s the entire point.  You’re meant to insert yourself into the story, and suddenly it’s you, in all your banal lack of glory, who has proven irresistible to these powerful, godlike, beautiful, deeply damaged men, and only you can help them find their humanity again.  The best part?  You didn’t have to do anything to capture their undying devotion but be yourself.

The wish fulfillment angle is especially ironic given the reactions of the stars who play Christian and Ana in the film. Jamie Dornan (who plays the abusive billionaire) found his role “a massive challenge” compared to playing other characters who were “sick dudes, serial killers.” For her part, Dakota Johnson (who plays Ana) said simply “I don’t want anyone to see this movie.” The people who come closest to having fulfilled this particular wish don’t appear to have enjoyed the experience.

Andersen certainly has the voyeuristic narcissism pegged, and she also explains the appeal of “damaged men” by a need to be simultaneously saved and savior. Despite all the filth, she insists this reveals that the “core” of the story is “about unconditional love and redemption.” Not that Andersen has been beguiled. She points out that “in reality, Christian’s all-consuming “love” would warrant a restraining order, and Ana’s refusal to leave him would eventually land her at a battered women’s shelter or dead.”

I like Andersen’s explanation a lot, but there’s one aspect it doesn’t resolve. Christian is not just a damaged man in need of saving. He is a dangerous, abusive, manipulative rapist. What’s the appeal there?

It may be that there is some reality to conventional wisdom that girls prefer the bad boys and that nice guys finish last. Last year a Newsweek article reported on a study that determined that heterosexual men view kindness (measured as emotional responsiveness) as a favorable trait when evaluating potential mates. Women, by contrast, were less attracted to men that they rated as more responsive. One of the researchers speculated that “women may perceive a responsive man as… less dominant.”

The idea of dominance cropped up in another study, this one reported in the Telegraph, which found that marriages are stronger when one partner is dominant. The study also found that in more than three quarters of cases, the dominant partner was the male partner. A German study covered in Psychology Today reached more nuanced conclusions. According to that study, women prefer more aggressive men (“who often embody the Dark Triad, a personality constellation that encompasses Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism.”) for short-term relationships, but preferred “less masculine” men for long-term relationships. The authors theorized that this strategy allows women to “maximize their reproductive success” because “appetitive-aggressive” violence (commonly found in stereotypical bad boys) might actually “be an advertisement of good genes.” If that’s the case, then a short-term relationship with a (genetically superior) bad boy followed by a long-term relationship with a (more reliable and supportive but genetically inferior) good guy could be the optimal evolutionary strategy.

Now, I’m not going to try and draw a straight line from popular journalistic accounts of a few academic studies to the sales figures for 50 Shades. If that worked, the best-seller lists would be dominated by professors cashing in on their expertise. Human nature is too complex for that and evolutionary psychology is particularly vulnerable to tendentious etiologies. At the same time, however, it would be foolhardy to presume that millions of years of evolution suddenly ceased to have an effect on human sexual behavior in the last few tens of thousands of years.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what the dominant feminist theory of today days. Christina Hoff Sommers identified this strain of feminism as gender feminism in Who Stole Feminism? She contrasted it with the older school of feminism she calls equity feminism. Equity feminism is about equal legal rights for men and women. Gender feminism is dedicated to ending sexism and defeating patriarchy.

Steven Pinker identified gender feminism as a part of the larger project of denying human nature in The Blank Slate. He wrote that this denialism is “entrenched in intellectual life” and specifically described gender feminism this way:

Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive—power—and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups—in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.

The reason that gender feminism is so compelling is that it has such a simple story to tell. If all the differences between men and women are socially constructed and artificial, then the path to equality is obvious: eradicate those socially constructed differences. Furthermore, because gender feminism sees society strictly in terms of power and dominance, the assumption is that any difference is not only an unnecessary impediment to equality, but an instance of oppression.

This is why gender feminists fixate on differences in gender representation, quickly assuming that whenever there are fewer women this is proof of successful male domination. This seems credible when we’re talking about fewer female CEOs, political leaders, or academics in STEM fields. It’s less clear how gender feminism’s belief in universal male domination holds up in the context of some other discrepancies, however, such as fewer women in prison, more women in college, fewer women unemployed, more women winning custody of children, and fewer women dying in workplace accidents.

Equity feminism, with roots in individualism and classical liberalism, is much more flexible. An equity feminist can examine gender differences on a case-by-case basis to determine when differences are the result of sexism or discrimination and when they might be the result of individual choices. But, where equity feminism may win on nuance or flexibility (not to mention compatibility with basic science), the conceptual simplicity and ability to manufacture unlimited amounts of righteous indignation make gender feminism perfectly adapted to our viral, outrage-addicted society.

The end result is that the most dominant form of feminism is also the one that is dogmatically opposed to any and all gender roles. Combine that with the fact that biology and anthropology both reveal that gender roles are a part of our innate human nature, and we have a recipe for trouble.

Of course, claiming that gender roles are innate is not one of those things that you’re supposed to do in modern discourse, so it’s worth pointing out that Pinker includes a bullet-point list of the evidence in The Blank Slate that is impossible to summarize because it goes on for five full pages. As a couple of highlights, for example, he notes that “All cultures divide their labor by sex, with more responsibility for childrearing by women and more control of the public and political realms by men. (The division of labor emerged even in a culture where everyone had been committed to stamping it out, the Isreali kibbutz.)” He also observes that “many of the psychological differences between the sexes are exactly what an evolutionary biologist who knew only their physical differences would predict.” He concludes by saying that “If that [social constructionism] were true, it would be an amazing coincidence that in every society the coin flip that assigns each sex to one set of roles would land the same way.”

So, going back to the research stated earlier, it is entirely possible that many women are attracted to men who show stereotypically masculine traits like aggression and domineering. The mistake that drives many people away from an understanding of evolved human nature is to erroneously assume that if we have innate characteristics then everything is pre-determined. That’s not true, because in many cases our innate characteristics conflict. The most important reason for being open-minded and accepting about the science of human nature is that—far from reducing us to impotent fatalism—it provides more control.

This is particularly true of maladaptations. Citing Pinker again:

The study of humans from an evolutionary perspective has shown that many psychological faculties (such as our hunger for fatty food, for social status, and for risky sexual laisions) are better adapted to the evolutionary demands of our ancestral environment than to the actual demands of the current environment.

So, in an ancient setting where calories were scarce, a hunger for fatty food made sense. In a modern setting where calories are plentiful, the same trait is one reason why obesity is a leading cause of death. And yet many techniques for combatting this maladaptation work by tapping into other innate characteristics. Think of a dieting group like WeightWatchers; it taps into our innately social natures and allows us to leverage mentor and friend relationships to win the battle against our drive to eat fatty food. Innate characteristics is not the same thing as genetic determinism.

So in a world where innate characteristics and gender roles are openly discussed and considered, it is possible to bend them in useful directions. A lot of this already happens without any conscious direction on our part. Organized sports, for example, can form a more civilized, pro-social alternative to violent aggression between men.

But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where gender feminism is categorically opposed to all gender roles, and therefore overt, potentially beneficial, and healthy avenues for exploring female attraction to male aggression and dominance are categorically ruled out. Men are actively discouraged from enacting these roles, and women are actively discouraged from appreciating them. Dating and courtship are dead, long live the hookup culture.

In simple terms: if you see huge demand for an inferior good, the most reasonable conclusion to draw is that there must be a dearth of the superior good. There are some major works with overt and pronounced depictions of gender roles (Twilight was one of them), but by and large any major book or movie has to go out of its way to apologize for, downplay, or offset any appearance of traditional gender roles. If you want to unabashedly celebrate gender roles, you’re going to run afoul of the gender feminism dogma police. It is therefore absolutely no surprise to find the pre-eminent example (50 Shades) coming from the margins of our entertainment ecosystem. There just aren’t enough dogma police to patrol every pornographic, self-published, fanfic out there.

In a healthier environment, 50 Shades would face competing models of male leadership, but gender feminism’s take-down of gender roles has left 50 Shades as pretty much the only game in town. It represents the collision of deep human desires for gender roles with an ascendant political ideology that is dedicated to eradicating them. It’s possible that the rape, abuse, and general misogyny play no role in attracting women to Christian Grey, but when it comes to finding someone to represent that aggressive male role there just aren’t a lot of options. When gender roles become monstrous in the eyes of society, only monsters like Christian Grey are left to enact them.

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Actual 50 Shades movie poster with another actual 50 Shades book quote. (the6thsiren)

9 thoughts on “What Does 50 Shades’ Popularity Tell Us?”

  1. Nathaniel, I really appreciate this review, as well as your researched commentary. Very thoughtful and well written! I have no desire to read the books, nor have I seen the movie, but I DO have an interest in the psychological reason for its huge appeal to women, so I’ve been following the reviews written since its release, as well as the comments written in response. I find yours to be one of the most thoughtful and rational up-to-date. I especially appreciate the fact that you acknowledge (without condescension) the dichotomy that exists within the female mind/body. I believe if more women would acknowledge it and become aware of the way it plays out in our lives, we’d be able to make wiser life-choices.

  2. While I have not read the books (nor am I likely to), I do plan to see the movie at some point (to cheap to see it in theaters).

    My objection to the books come from a different perspective than yours. Having explored a bit of the BDSM community, I have heard quite a bit about this series from people who regularly participate in the kinds of “monstrous” behavior portrayed in this story, and their objection is that it’s poorly written and paints an ultimately negative picture of the lifestyle.

    I think part of the popularity of 50 Shades is that it’s an introduction to a lifestyle that is enormously popular (more so than I think you realize), but still seen as highly taboo. There have been some movies that depict BDSM, but usually it is seen as aberrant, usually something that the villain participates in, or something that leads to horrible things. In almost every episode of CSI that includes BDSM, someone dies because of it.

    50 Shades seems to me like it’s trying to depict it as a valid life choice, as something that can, and is, healthy for some people. Not for me. I investigated it and found it just wasn’t my thing. But I met so many people for whom this was the only healthy relationship they’d ever been in. They are happier now than they have ever been, because they embrace what brings them joy, instead of denying their desires. In fact, I once dated a woman for a short time who enjoyed Shibari (a Japanese form of rope binding that is incredibly popular even here in America). She claimed that being bound actually calmed her, and helped her relax.

    The simple truth is, some men get off on inflicting pain, and some women get off on feeling pain. Some men get off on being dominant, and some women get off on being submissive. And yes, frequently, that role is reversed, and yes, there exists every combination of the two, and several that don’t even technically fit those categories (but I won’t get into those here). And when the right dominant meets the right submissive, a truly amazing and powerful love can be found, and a truly satisfying life can be lived. I state this not as hyperbole, but as someone who has witnessed a number of such relationships. And 50 Shades tries to show that possibility. Whether it succeeds in that or not, I will have to wait and see, but from what I’ve heard from those who have read it, it ultimately fails in the end, resolving the tale in a way that infuriates many in the BDSM community.

    But at the same time, it depicts a lifestyle that many people fantasize about but would never find the courage to even admit, let alone participate in. And this appeals to so many people! 50 Shades allows them to live vicariously those experiences they – for whatever reason – choose to deny themselves. I believe that is the ultimate key to its success.

    And as for that final image, the poster with the quote: again, I haven’t read it, and in order to be certain of the context, I would have to see the full text of the scene, but to me it fits perfectly into a very popular “scene” amongst the community you may have heard of: A Rape Fantasy. The illusion of a lack of consent can be a powerfully erotic experience, for BOTH parties.

  3. John-

    There is a scene in 50 Shades where Ana uses the safe word to get Christian to stop what he is doing, and Christian ignores it and continues with what he wants to do to her. That’s not “the illusion of a lack of consent.” It’s the actuality of lack of consent. It is not rape fantasy. It is actual rape. In fact, quite a few defenders of BDSM attack 50 Shades for this exact reason: it is showing what they consider to be a warped view of their lifestyle and practices.

    I’m not interested in defending or attacking BDSM (in this post or anywhere else), but even if you do think consenting BDSM is a valid, healthy approach to sexuality that has very little to do with 50 Shades, which does not depict consenting BDSM at all.

  4. Point taken, Nathaniel. And that’s exactly why I qualified it with the point that I still haven’t seen the movie or read the books. In that case, yes, that’s beyond acceptable, and clearly a violation of both trust and generally accepted practices within the community.

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