I’ve been reading for forty years, writing for twenty, published for ten. I’ve seen erotica come and go, and am a fan of it myself, but it’s never been mainstream before. It’s always been at the back of the bookstore, or purchased online and delivered in brown paper. 50 Shades of Grey has changed all that.
Ereaders like Kindle and iPad gave women (the main readership of erotica) their first opportunity to read it on the lounge or in the train without anyone being the wiser. But who could have predicted that everyone from schoolgirls to housewives and their husbands would be happily buying paperback copies of 50 Shades at their local BigW and chatting to the checkout operator about who might play Christian in the movie.
BDSM? Mainstream? And the sales figures! Dear Lord. 31 million copies worldwide in six months. That’s the fastest selling series of all time.
To say it’s a shakeup of ‘normal’ reading habits is an understatement. And not that I’m against it. I’m one hundred percent behind readers partaking of whatever takes their fancy. But the speed is astonishing and that speaks about an audience ready for a product.
There’s been a bit of hype about Twilight readers growing up and wanting more – to move from Edward’s patriarchal behaviour to Christian’s overt physical domination. Perhaps that’s true. But the phenomenon speaks to me more of women’s desire to fantasise about relinquishing control. Most readers of 50 Shades would run a mile from a real Dom, but clearly they like to fantasise about that type of relationship, and I wonder if there’s some pendulum effect happening.
Back in the seventies romance novels were full of guardians falling in love with their much younger charges, governesses falling for the master of the house, or secretaries falling for the much older boss. Then Women’s Liberation caught up with the genres and the pendulum started swinging the other way. Heroines needed to have something other than a husband on their minds or we couldn’t relate to them, and by the turn of the millennium we were seeing kick-ass heroines across all genres – women who were not only equal with men, but often stronger: Ripley in Alien, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and one of my favourites, Sarah Connor from Terminator. Her transition from helpless waitress to gun-toting revolutionary epitomised the change that was sweeping across fiction. Women wanted to fantasise about being the hero – about being the one in control.
Put that alongside the rise of the geek/loser hero who more often than not is bossed around by the women in his world: Simpsons, Friends, How I Met your Mother, Big Bang Theory and it was looking as if strong men had disappeared. Or at least that women weren’t as interested in seeing them anymore.
Pendulums, however, have a way of peaking and swinging back, sometimes quite viciously. Shows like Mad Men started to get a following, and while we might wince at lines like “I only got a job here to find myself a husband,” to a modern working mother there was something alluring about the idea having nothing to do but run a beautiful home and have polite children, leaving all the worries of the world to a clever (handsome) dominating husband. The resulting lack of choices would have been claustrophobic to a modern woman, but fiction is all about fantasy so we lapped it up. Alpha heroes were cropping up again, not as Greek tycoons, but as vampires and werewolves – big, strong, sexy and more often than not, domineering. Easy to fantasise about a lover like that because you know it’s not real. But it’s only a hop skip and jump from vampire Edward to human Christian.
Again, not that I’m against it. I’m always happy for adults to read whatever they choose to without having their preferences ridiculed by others. It’s a free world, and women should be free to read whatever they want to. I’m just trying to make sense of why BDSM is suddenly interesting enough for women to read not just one novel to “see what all the fuss is about” but to continue on and read the whole series. That speaks of more than curiousity.
So why do you think women (and some men) are fascinated with the idea of a dominating lover? Is it a desire to give over control to someone you trust? To experience the bliss of a complete lack of responsibility? Are women over being the head of the household? Are we seeing the start of a return to more patriarchal relationships? Or is this just a phase of temporary titillation that will soon blow over?
Would love to hear your thoughts…