Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Let's have an in-depth discussion on why women read what they read.

NO. We are NOT DOING THAT. Everyone is doing that right now and I HAVE HAD IT.

Ahem.

Okay, I am really irked by some of the discussion about 50 Shades of Grey. More to the point, I'm irked by all of it. Whenever there's a big book like 50 Shades or Harry Potter or Eat, Pray, Love, there is inevitably discussion about why it became a hit. I believe this discussion is fueled by those who just do not understand why the book is a success, and they have to analyze the phenomenon in order to "get it". I saw this a lot with Harry Potter. I'm a fan of that series, and I would often hear people say, "It's about kids in witch school. It's a good idea, but it's not well written. It's not particularly innovative. What is driving this thing?" Inevitably, the solution would often come down to the readership (in Potter's case, it helped that the books "grew" along with the audience, and many readers who started at age nine and up with the first book felt they "grew up" with Harry, Ron, and Hermione), or a hole in the market (middle grade books got a boost from Harry Potter's success in the same way Twilight boosted the YA market), and ultimately, everyone seems happy with that solution.

Now, 50 Shades of Grey is subject to that intense scrutiny by people who just don't "get it". They want to know the secret behind the psychology of the book. They want to know what this book says about women, if they enjoy it. They want to know why this book? Why now?

I'll tell you the secret to this book's astounding success, and it has nothing to do with the psychology of women's sexuality, and a whole lot to do with the psychology of our buying culture: it was hard to find, word of mouth made it sound like a big deal, and we want the unobtainable. That's it. 50 Shades became the Birken Bag of books in a few weeks, driven by its lack of availability, and the assertion that wealthy, stylish women on the Upper East Side of NYC liked it.

Now, I'm not insulting the book in saying that, by any means. I haven't read it, I probably won't read it (as I rarely read genres I write in, for the same reason a chef probably doesn't run home and make a four course meal after dinner service. I just need something different), so I'm not going to try to speak to the literary merit of the book here. However, having familiarized myself with the content based on the book description and media attention, there are a hell of a lot of books just like 50 Shades that are already out there. In fact, on sites like Literotica.com, you can get the same types of stories, some of them excellent examples of the genre, for free. There's no hole in the market here to explain its success. There are literally thousands upon thousands of books and stories that explore the exact same themes of female-submissive sex. If you're familiar with the current erotica/erotic romance trends, you know that many publishing houses aren't interested in female-dominant BDSM because it doesn't sell well to female readers, the target of those genres. There is a widespread (heh heh) demand for female subs in erotic fiction, and that demand is being met. The demand that is not being met is the demand for this specific book, and its elusiveness seems to have driven its viral success in the first few weeks of its sudden popularity: "Have you heard of [this thing]? Everyone is talking about [this thing]. I can't believe you don't have [this thing]. Oh well, you can't get it anyway." That is a pretty powerful motivator, in any marketplace.

But no one seems to be addressing this part of the phenomenon, asserting instead that its spotty availability is proof of its success, rather than the cause. The cause, a lot of morning shows, news articles, and blogs are eager to point out, is the sexual content, and the way women respond to it. I am astounded every time a "dirty" book gets a lot of press. It's like suddenly, everyone has "proof" that women enjoy sex, have sexual fantasies, and hell, have sexual fantasies that aren't necessarily the most feminist of feminist ideals. It has been posited that 50 Shades is popular with women because we are sexually frustrated with men (who have become more "feminized" by helping out around the house and pushing strollers, the horror, the horror, the never-ending horror) and want them to dominate us in the bedroom. You can read this assumption, written by a man, of course, here: Paul LaRosa, HuffPo. This morning, Good Morning America touted it as "revitalizing" sex lives. Apparently, women in this country will not "revitalize" their sex lives without permission from a book. A book that has received its new distributor's stamp of approval, complete with a smack-down of the embarrassing genre it, of course, is definitely not at all even a little bit no sir a part of. From the New York Times:

“We’re making a statement that this is bigger than one genre,” said Anne Messitte, the publisher of Vintage Anchor, who discovered the book when a colleague at Random House slipped her a copy. “The people who are reading this are not only people who read romance. It’s gone much broader than that.” 

 So much about the hype and discussion of this book sets my teeth on edge. Again, I'm not hating on the books, I haven't had a chance to read them. But I am hating, pretty hard, on anyone who uses the term "mommy porn" in the discussion. I'm hating on people who think that the success of the books speaks to some innate psychological contradiction in every woman- "Well, you SAY you're a feminist, but you all REALLY WANT to be dominated by a man, as per this book other women have made popular." And I'm sick, sick to death, of every discussion of a book driven to success by female readers devolving into some conversation about women's sexuality and whether or not a book is somehow "proving" that women aren't really into individual empowerment.

I won't even get started on the discussions of whether or not consensual BDSM is "abuse" or speaks to a desire in women to be in an abusive relationship. There isn't enough blood pressure medication in all the land.

50 Shades of Grey is a book. If I read 50 Shades of Grey, enjoy it, am titillated by the content, that doesn't mean I want to live out the fantasy on the page. It doesn't mean I think my husband should hit me with a riding crop to reclaim his manliness. And my enjoyment of a book isn't indicative of an unhappy married sex life. Yet every time one of these blockbusters come along, driven to success by dollars coming out of female hands, we have to analyze and talk to death the reason why-or the justification for why it's okay. Hey. Newsflash. Women like to read. Sometimes about sex. Sometimes about sexual subjects that are still, in the mainstream purview, taboo. Michael Crichton had a huge male readership. I have never once heard anyone level the allegation that men reading Jurassic Park were doing so because they had some secret, shameful desire to run from dinosaurs that wasn't being met. No one tells men that they must be reading Jim Butcher because they secretly want to be wizards and are looking for pointers, or that the widespread popularity of those books are proof of that desire for magic in all men, everywhere. Even more infuriating is that men don't have to go to the New York Times to explain that it's okay for them to read what they want, because other men are reading what they want to read, too:

“Women just feel like it’s O.K. to read it,” she said. “It’s taboo for women to admit that they watch pornography, but for some reason it’s O.K. to admit that they’re reading this book.” 

You know what the "some reason" is? It's because it just is O.K. to admit to reading whatever you want to read. Because you are free, as a human being, to make your own damn choices. If this is something women of my generation are still trying to grasp, well, I don't know. Maybe I'll quit getting out of bed in the morning.

As long as the Morning Shows, the blogs, the newspapers insist on ferreting out the psychology behind every book, movie, television show that is popular with women, the message is resoundingly, "Women are having an affect on the marketplace? Must be something wrong with the product, or their heads." I'm not down for that. How about we end every future discussion of 50 Shades of Grey with, "Eh. I just like it." and leave it at that?

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