Thursday, February 7, 2013

What the Popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey” REALLY Says About U.S. Culture

Why the “Sugar Kink” Phenomenon Indicates an Existential Sourness in American Society

Because I just HAVE to know everything that’s going on in American popular culture, I recently decided to read the astoundingly popular romance-erotica-novel “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Well, “read” is kind of an ill-fitting term, because I more or less skimmed its contents instead, and seeing as how the Google Books preview stops at about the fifth chapter, I was only exposed to about a quarter of the tome, but I think that’s more than enough to anchor a clumsily-worded, overlong diatribe around it.

The gist of the story here - a trilogy which began life as an unauthorized, X-rated “Twilight” fan-fiction, if you weren’t aware - involves a young woman, whose sexual history is limited to the aberrant hand hold and peck on the cheek. It’s strongly insinuated in the first book that the main character has never even tongue kissed a boy before, which probably explains why she acted so abnormally horrified when her stereotypically impassioned, reluctantly platonic Hispanic friend tried to snog her. Not that there could be other reasons, of course. So, she runs into this really weird dude, but since he’s handsome and rich, the fact that he’s probably “American Psycho” doesn’t bother her. At one point, the dude shows up at her place of occupation - a hardware store - and starts buying all sorts of cords, and ropes and miscellaneous items. Eventually, she visits him at his sex dungeon, and she gives him her V-card, and I don’t know what happens after that, but apparently it involves lots of kinky, rugged, reckless pre-AIDS crisis style doin’ it, assisted, primarily, by Black and Decker hardware. I can only imagine how sales at Home Depot have improved since this series hit the mainstream.

Now, the question as to why this stuff is popular is, on the surface, a little difficult to answer. Let’s start off with the obvious things first. From the get-go, I think we can all agree that the series isn’t exactly what you would call “good writing,” in any way, shape, form or incarnation. If there’s a singular reason as to why folks are flocking to this dreck, it’s probably not because of it’s literary excellence.

The sexual angle is pretty hard to dispute, but that brings up a sub-question, of sorts; of all things, why this particular novel? Surely, there are scores of romantic-erotica novels out there, which are both more articulate and better sources for smut. I mean, have you people ever actually read what Anais Nin wrote about? Reading a snippet of “Little Birds” is probably the only time I’ve ever gotten a boner doing philosophy class homework.

The reality here, I think, is something of an inversion of the male/female porn dichotomy. For years, male-centric smut was anchored around aesthetics and intensity, whereas traditionally marketed erotica for females has been all about a facsimile of intimacy and romance. In other words? All the dudes are about the instant gratification and release of sexual experiences, whereas the gals are about finding a particular emotional quality to accompany the physical dynamism of sexual fantasy.

What makes “Fifty Shades” so interesting, however, is that it’s very much a flip-flop of the tried and true spank-fodder dynamic. The primary audience for “Fifty Shades” is clearly a female audience, but the tomes themselves are utterly devoid of anything resembling traditional romantic elements. Instead, the books are loaded with dark sexual overtones, replete with some strong misogynistic qualities and even some strongly hinted-at date-rape fantasies. There’s not a whole lot of warmth and tenderness to be found in the books…unless getting strangled by a dude wearing a tuxedo and a Mardi Gras mask is what you consider “sweet” and “amorous.”

With that in mind, maybe it’s a little more understandable why the series is such a hit with bored, sexually frustrated middle-aged women. Instead of giving them visions of an ideal lover, the book allows the reader to transport herself back to her salad days, and instead of losing it to some dude that worked at Foot Locker, the “Fifty Shades” fantasy allows women to vicariously “re-write” their own sexual histories to getting deflowered by a sex-addicted Batman. The first reason for the series’ success is because so many middle aged ladies - divorced and on the verge of menopause, most likely - are such utter failures in the romantic arena of their own lives.

The strong sadomasochistic qualities of the series is particularly interesting, especially when you look at the overall “softening” trends for male-tinged erotica. The spectator-as-voyeur craze seems to have given way to a bizarre, new-wave form of electronic titillation that, instead, simulates an oddly intimate experience between the video subject and he-who-spanks-it-while-watching-it. Very rarely does graphic sex come into the equation, with "JOI” videos simply involving a female talking dirty to the viewer (without being even remotely naked, for the most part), and the even more bizarre “ASMR” videos simply involving women speaking - at low pitches - to the viewer about casual affairs. That’s right; men have so lost touch with their own sense of outside-the-Internet humanity that they’ve turned banal chit-chat into the hottest emerging porno trend going. For every action, of course, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and for female-centric erotica, the inversion has been a drift away from emotionally-tinged fantasy and a quick U-turn into some particularly aggressive territory.

With “Fifty Shades,” what we’re seeing as a conscientious decoupling of “emotion” from sexual experience. The “love scenes” in the first novel are gloriously devoid of anything that resembles ardor or passion; instead, the main character of the novel completely deindividuates herself via the myriad acts of really tough love her disturbingly one-dimensional “aggressor” hoists upon her. Even the basest of standardized pornography has some human element to it, plastic it may be; with “Fifty Shades,” however, we’re seeing a concentrated effort to do away with the emotional experience of lovemaking altogether.

Now, I’m no Puritan, folks, but this kind of popularized “sex-for-the-sake-of-self-obliteration” fantasy really gives me the heebie-jeebies. As Mormon-ish as the “Twilight” romance was, it at least carried with it something that tried to mimic the experience of human love, but with this “Fifty Shades” stuff? Love is literally the only four-letter word that’s verboten.

The shelf-life for the franchise seems surprisingly evergreen. Despite being sold at big-box marts in plastic shrink wrap (designed to keep the kids from learning about all the things you can do with a socket wrench to void its warranty, no doubt), the title remains a perpetual best-seller, and an omnipresent book section stalwart that might just supplant “Mario Kart DS” as the longest running shelved product in Wal-Mart history. Eventually, a movie will get made, but scores of horny fan girls - before you get too excited, just remember that most of the hardcore “Fifty Shade” enthusiasts are probably grandmothers - will be aghast at the lukewarm R-rated simulation of all that NC-17 raunch and rancor they loved in the source material. Eventually, the fad will die out, but as Stephenie Meyer has no doubt shown us, those tasteless fads can have some shockingly able-bodied legs.

If I had to take a complete stab in the dark at what the “Fifty Shade” sensation says about contemporary U.S. culture, I would have to summarize it as an indicator of our changing emotional values. The franchise represents a marked movement away from the romanticized leanings of most mainstream literary sensations (you won’t be seeing anybody getting smacked around with a bullwhip in a Nicholas Sparks’ novel, that’s for sure), and seems to be heralding a new era of “anti-romantic” erotica, in which things like “passion” and “spiritual connectedness” have been replaced by focalized (sometimes, explicitly violent) sexual intensity and the complete disintegration of interpersonal identities. If the traditional Western romance is generally about  the journey of two people merging into a singular self, than “Fifty Shades” and its progeny are anchored around the complete opposite; sexuality as an individual experience, sans contextual merits of any kind.

The characters in “Fifty Shades” - and seemingly, a majority of the series’ fan base - find no wholeness or happiness in their sexual forays. Instead of seeking and fantasizing about intimacy or togetherness, they seem to be embracing a nihilistic way of life in which value-less experientialism and loss of self-identity becomes the most desirable thing in the world.

In other words? I think this “Fifty Shades” fad means we’ve finally become a culture preferring sensational pain over sensationalized pleasures.


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