The dirty picture
Vir Sanghvi
Friday, August 17, 2012

The controversial Fifty Shades of Grey is an indicator of the level of permissiveness that has crept into popular entertainment

If you’ve already read lots and lots of articles trying to analyse the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, then I’m sorry to inflict yet another piece on the same subject on you. If, on the other hand, you’ve already read Fifty Shades of Grey itself, then I am even sorrier. It must really be one of the most boring books in the history of popular publishing. And you have my sympathies.

But what I think of Fifty Shades of Grey is largely irrelevant. So are the views of most critics who have dismissed it as trash. Where I differ from most critics is that I have a fair amount of respect for good quality trash — hey, I am part of the generation that thought that The Carpetbaggers and The Adventurers were classics of popular fiction, after all — and I enjoy a good airport bestseller.

The problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it is not even good quality trash. It is poorly-written Mills & Boon content spiced up with the addition of some entry-level sado-masochism and lashings 
of dull sex.

Add to that the repetitive quality of the writing. The British writer Stuart McGurk counted the phrase ‘Oh my’ 62 times. Eyes, he noted, were always ‘hooded’ and all gazes were ‘penetrating’.

But the reason why all these objections are irrelevant is because Fifty Shades of Grey is a publishing phenomenon. It has outsold the Harry Potter books and is well 
on its way to becoming one of the biggest bestsellers in modern history. Forget about John Grisham, Lee Child, or Tom Clancy. EL James, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, will end up outselling them, book for book.

I am not terribly concerned by the poor quality of the prose. I concede, as McGurk notes, that bad writing at least aspires to be good writing whereas Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t seem to aspire to any kind of writing. But it is always a mistake to judge popular fiction on the basis of its writing. For instance, critics always sneer at Chetan Bhagat’s prose. But nobody can deny that Bhagat’s books have revolutionised Indian publishing.

More interesting, from my perspective, is why so many people should want to buy a book that is so overtly sexual in nature. Pornography is usually a minority interest. And the salacious scenes in most airport bestsellers are incidental to the plot. In Fifty Shades, however, the sex is the point of the book.

Most analyses of the book’s success have focused on the demographic that is most closely associated with its sale. The British press has called 
it ‘mummy porn’. This is 
a catchy phrase but it 
does seem to me to capture the book’s essential appeal. It is a traditional Mills & Boon love story and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that such themes appeal to women of all ages. But whereas the traditional Mills & Boon reader aspires to wonderful, passionate intimacy, the older demographic is a little fed-up with that standard. These are women who have been married for several years and for who the business of cohabitation with the husband has taken on a boring, domestic dimension. Fifty Shades transports them from the reality of squelchy marital sex (after the kids have gone to bed) to a forbidden world where being kinky 
is glamorous.

But there are also other factors. One of them is the influence of the Internet. Fifty Shades started out as a blog and many of its sales came in Kindle and e-reader versions. The advantage of Kindle is that nobody else knows what you are reading. There is no embarrassment in downloading a dirty book. On the other hand, women are often embarrassed to walk into bookshops and buy erotic fiction.

Once Fifty Shades crossed over from the Internet and became a mainstream phenomenon, widely written about in the traditional media, then it became legitimate to walk into a bookstore and buy a copy.

So, a second wave of sales has ensured that the book remains a bestseller and sales of the paperback version vastly exceed sales of the e-book.

But there is another 
explanation. These days when I watch television, I am sometimes surprised by the level of permissiveness that is regarded as acceptable. Forget about Sex And The City, which at least includes the word ‘sex’ in its title and ignore such shows as Californication (about a sex addict) or Hung (about a male hustler) which are overtly sexual in theme. But so profound is the sexualisation of television that even period serials and fantasies now have to include a hefty dose of promiscuity. The Tudors got its history wrong but that did not matter because there was enough flesh show to cover up the gaps. Rome was as much about sex as it was about gladiators. Game of Thrones made an effort to include gratuitous nudity wherever possible. It has now got to the stage where when a new actress appears on the screen, you wonder how long it will be before she takes her top off.

We live in an era where media and entertainment are heavily sexualised. The old idea that you could hint at a sexual encounter and leave it at that is dead. Now, audiences expect that the consummation of every relationship will take place on camera and that nudity will be on view.

One problem with 
this is that it is nearly always designed to appeal to men. This is eroticism from a male perspective. Even Spartacus, which 
has plenty of bronzed young men in evidence, ends up being about naked female slaves who cater to the whims and desires of the rich and powerful.

Clearly, there was something missing here. We needed a cultural phenomenon that evened out the balance; that looked at eroticism from a female perspective. The success of Fifty Shades can probably be attributed to the fact that it took a tried-and-trusted Mills & Boon formula and then updated it for our sexually super-charged age.

It was the right idea at the right time. And as it hits movie screens and TV channels, I suspect that popular entertainment may never be quite the same again.

(Vir Sanghvi is a celebrated Indian journalist, television personality, author and lifestyle writer. To follow Vir’s other writings, visit www.virsanghvi.com)



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