Fifty shades of bestsellerdom

April 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

SECRETI put together some thoughts about the recent erotic bestsellers S.E.C.R.E.T. and Fifty Shades of Grey for The Walrus; the piece is now online. What most interests me about these books is the extent to which they endorse traditional notions of romantic love and an unquestioning acceptance of the capitalist ethos:

Both Fifty Shades of Grey and S.E.C.R.E.T. constitute what novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford identified as “very modern romantic fairytale[s].” The trajectory of S.E.C.R.E.T. involves the heroine, Cassie Robichaud, awakening to the notion that she should not feel ashamed of her carnal desires. As independent women continue to be castigated with such epithets as “loose” or “slut,” this is a powerful message. But far from being progressive, Cassie arrives at her epiphany by way of the same makeover motif celebrated in Pretty Woman and Disney movies, coming out of her shell when she is outfitted for a charity auction in a pink dress, makeup, and glittering pumps, then later decked out in fishnets and a bustier for a burlesque show. “What needs are being tickled in us when the princess dream has not died by the age of 35? ” asks Tamara Faith Berger, quite reasonably, in her recent review of the novel for the National Post.

Berger goes on to bemoan the book’s apolitical aspect, but this seems like a misreading. S.E.C.R.E.T., far from being apolitical – and even more than Fifty Shades – displays a highly conservative world view, first evident in the heroine’s sexual encounters. Cassie becomes utterly flustered at the notion of being intimate with another woman, and the sole lesbian character is only allowed a brief walk-on before fading into the background. The novel’s couplings present a narrow window on human sexuality: the most esoteric encounter involves an instance of anal sex described so coyly it is as though it were being viewed through a thick layer of gauze.

I should make clear the distinction between kink – which is at the heart of the BDSM-inflected Fifty Shades of Grey – and subversion, which to my mind involves a more persistent, pervasive interrogation of conventional ideas and assumptions. It is the political, consumerist aspect of these novels that interests me at least as much as – if not more than – their sex scenes.

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