Ten years ago E.L. James explosively successful series ignited countrywide debates about kink sexuality and feminism in the bedroom — a legacy still playing out today.
The year is 2012. Youre wary of being ambushed by a crowd dancing to Gangnam Style at seemingly any moment. Obama is the first sitting president to declare his support for marriage equality all while various states move to explicitly ban it. The campus sexual assault wars are heating up this is the year after a Yale fraternity was temporarily suspended for making its pledges march through campus chanting No means yes yes means anal while carrying signs reading We love Yale sluts.
At the time I was a student on a different college campus less than 50 miles away trying to foster meaningful connections as a volunteer for our sexual assault prevention program. I hosted semiregular talks at the Feminist Center about representations of gender and power in pop culture and 2012 was a particularly fruitful year on that front The November release of The Twilight Saga Breaking Dawn Part 2 marked the end of a franchise that had bemused titillated and annoyed the hell out of my generation throughout our entire adolescence.
Meanwhile that same year a book originally written as Twilight fanfiction under the title Master of the Universe and published online under the pen name Snowqueens Icedragon was rereleased first as an independent ebook and orderondemand paperback before getting picked up by Vintage Books as a threepart series. The British author real name Erika Leonard who took the pen name E.L. James recast the Twilight characters — a 100plusyearold vampire named Edward Cullen and his teenage bride Bella Swan — as business titan Christian Grey and spunky virginal college student Anastasia Steele the latter becomes swept up in the formers BDSM lifestyle as they fall in love and lust.
Now titled Fifty Shades of Grey — so named as Anastasia says because her controlobsessed boyfriend is fifty shades of fucked up — the first book in the series was an instant sensation quickly outstripping Harry Potter to set a record in the United Kingdom for the fastestselling paperback of all time. In the US the novel was the bestselling book of the decade its sequels earned spots 2 and 3 and as of 2017 the series had sold more than 150 million copies worldwide. Much like the books the film adaptations were critically panned but commercial successes the first made on a $40 million budget enjoyed the biggest international opening for an Rrated movie of all time raking in $94 million in domestic ticket sales and $158 million at overseas box offices over Valentines Day weekend in 2015.
What did it all mean that a poorly written work of fanfiction anyone active in that world could tell you that theres much better fic to be found for free online had circumnavigated traditional publishing routes to become such a mindboggling success? To some this was a story about the anonymous appeal of ereaders like Kindles where most of the books first 250000 copies were sold according to data from Nielsen. Romance and erotica have been at the forefront of the ebook revolution because you can take ebooks anywhere without telltale lurid covers revealing your reading habits Rose Fox Publisher Weeklys fantasy and romance reviews editor told the Christian Science Monitor in 2012. To others the explosion of Fifty Shades was about activating the longdormant lust in bored housewives tabloids and blogs were calling the series Mommy Porn even though many of its readers were also childless women in their 20s and 30s as well as teenage girls.
Katie Roiphe in a Newsweek cover story from 2012 had her own theory about the books surprising success Its the happy convergence of the superficial transgression with comfortable archetypes the blushing virgin and the whips she wrote. To a certain I guess rather large population it has a semipornographic glamour a dangerous frisson of boundary crossing but at the same time is delivering reassuringly safe oldfashioned romantic roles. Reading Fifty Shades of Grey is no more risqué or rebellious or disturbing than say shopping for a pair of black boots or an arty asymmetrical dress at Barneys. What she found most alarming what gave the phenomenon its true edge of desperation and endoftheworld ambience was that millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level.