‘Monstrously Romantic: The Pleasures of Fifty Shades,’ Ania Malinowska, University of Silesia, Poland

‘Stop acting like I’m not a monster [. . .] Look at yourself [. . .] Then tell me I’m not a monster’ (Meyer 2008: 54)

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The potency of Romance never wears out and, as proven by the genre’s outstanding position at the consumer market – $1.438 billion in sales in 2012 (Romance Writers of America 2013) – the stories of bewildering affection, emotional struggle, solid bond and exclusive togetherness still raise interest and sell extremely well. Popular Romance fiction is thriving and seems to have reached another climactic moment, marked by exceptional (at least for now) inventiveness in  representing love, the emblem of which became the Fifty Shades trilogy by E. L. James, that confirmed the potential of fandom ‘fantasies’ and pleasure deficits to be met in readers worldwide.

With a Cinderella storyline, Fifty Shades of Grey (2011), and the two subsequent volumes, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed (2012), offer an extensive narrative on the relationship between 21-year old Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey (28) who express their fondness and emotional engagement through BDSM (bondage / discipline, dominance / submission, sadism / masochism). Relying on conventional patterns – love at first sight -, well-working schemata – he is wealthy, handsome and unapproachable; she is pretty, mysterious, smart and poor –  and cultural codes – the eventual marriage proposal – the books create an ideal romance as they tell a story of ‘an intelligent and independent woman . . .[who] is overwhelmed, after much suspicion and distrust, and some cruelty and violence, by the love of an intelligent, tender . . . man, who in the course of their relationship is transformed form an emotional pre-literate to someone who can care for her and nurture her in ways that traditionally we would expect only from a woman to a man’ (Storey 1996, p. 48).

But content-wise, the novels arguably exceed the frames of a popular love narrative; as the two characters go beyond common courtship and replace the well-tried forms of physical togetherness with non-normative sexual acts.

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The peculiar combination of aesthetics emerges slowly in the story and is administered to the reader in incremental doses. The series opens with the couple’s encounter, when Ana substitutes her friend to interview Christian (a young multimillionaire) for a college magazine at his company headquarters in Seattle. They make a tremendous impression on each other and develop an obsessive need for mutual company which eventually leads to the union sealed with a contract in which Ana agrees to be Christian’s submissive. The agreement is preceded by chivalric gestures (Christian rescues drunk Ana from an abusive civility of her beau José); expensive presents (after her finals, Christian sends Ana, a literature student, a first edition copy of Tess d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy); demonstrations of affluence (he flies her to his apartment in a private helicopter); and scenes of transition (Christian takes Ana’s virginity in a tender physical union). Since the contract, they ‘don’t make love. [They] fuck… hard’, (James 2011, p. 69), which causes a dramatic break up at the end of book  one, followed by a happy reunion in book two, and a long anticipated marriage with two kids, hearth’n’home and continued ‘kinky fuckery’ (James 2012, p. 88) in book three.

Reviewed as ‘awesome,’ ‘captivating’ and ‘thought-provoking’ (Amazon 2012), the novels begat a cultural phenomenon; originating from Twilight fandom, they started a new cult, the scale of which exceeded expectations of the very author. Offering the alternative version of the immensely popular story by Stephanie Mayer, Snowqueen Icedragon (the pen name of E. L. James) intended only to give Twilight a more mature slant and customize it to the needs of adult readership. As James admits, she ‘never, ever, ever, ever’ imagined her Fifty Shades fantasy succeed the way it has, and finds the aftermath of the book ‘really, quite scary’ (ABCNews 2012).

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Scary is a word most apt to describe the entire Fifty Shades phenomenon. There is something monstrous about the novels, its literary position, social functions and the representations of love they offer. This monstrosity manifests itself at many levels and is most demonstrated by: (1) the terrifying popularity of the series, which has already sold over 60 million copies worldwide, crushing ‘Rowling . . . Shakespeare, Austen, and all the Booker Prize nominees combined’ (Lennard 2012); (2) the abhorrent literary style of the narrative, referred to as ‘repetitive,’ which some may pin on the fandom origin of the story, but which, in fact, comes from the simplistic manner of framing the plot that is ‘terribly badly written’ (De Lacey 2013); (3) the hybrid (fandom-originated) nature of the story, and the generic cross-breed of ‘mommy porn’ it produced; (4) the horrifying impact of the series on non-literary markets, observable in trend-setting the Fifty Shades lifestyle, followed by the emergence of gadgets, sex toys, events and rituals imitating practices from the novel; (5) and finally, its hideously superficial image of non-normative intimacy, which appropriates and domesticates hard-core sex, providing it by means of legitimized symbols (monogamous, heterosexual marriage) and most appreciated aesthetics of literary production (popular romance novel).

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Modern Romance is a literary form designed to support specific cultural models that have contributed to the development of Western societies. Introduced by the bourgeoisie, romance has served to encourage love ideals expected to reinforce the social structures of the Western world, and stimulated emotional evolution which, as Eva Illouz observes, changed ‘sexual arousal [in]to the codified sentiment of love’ (Illouz 1997, p. 4). For a long time, the Romance novel has promoted the value of strong bonds and heteronormative, monogamous relationships. The genre has underpinned the establishment of social order where marriage is sacred and crucial to the organization of life. Putting a monogamous and stable relationship in its centre, romance has supported the idea of social stability and critiqued or disavowed any ‘aberrant’ relationship form that could be viewed as endangering or corrupting the established order – that is, one in which heteronormativity is regarded as ‘correct’. The genre has not abstained from erotic representations and, since Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), it has eagerly explored the exotic and scandalous. Fifty Shades of Grey, however, marks a certain shift: for the first time hard-core sexual practices (no matter how ‘vanilla’ they are in the book) have impacted upon the popular circuit of culture with such intensity. The enthusiastic reactions to the novels have proven high interest in, and even a higher acceptance for, non-normative sexualities.  The novels became a successful formula to sell the hard-core to the mainstream, and a good recipe to transform the status of porn that, served and consumed as a popular product, lost its marginal flavour, turning into something ‘well-liked’ and ‘widely favoured’ (Williams R 1988, p. 236). Although some romance scholars question the novelty of tropes used in Fifty Shades claiming that ‘nothing (E.L. James) has done is new, apart from having 20,000 fan fiction followers ready to buy the book the instant it was available’ (Teach Me Tonight 2012), the phenomenon of Fifty Shades has been of an immense impact on the genre of romance, the book market and the entire process of consuming romance fiction, which emphasizes the social status of love narrative and defining anew its cultural functions.

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As defined in the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Romance is ‘principally a form of entertainment’ (Cuddon 1999, p. 758), and thus ‘is only to give pleasure’ (Fuchs 2004, p. 86). It stands out as a form of exceptional developmental dynamics, characterized by a particular ‘instability of narratological and ideological foundations’ (Fletcher 2008, p. 4). The dynamics observable in the romance novel results from, as Diane Elam asserts, the genre’s ‘concern with the persistence of excess’ (Elam 1992, p. 2). If, as definitions say, Romance is to generate pleasure – if it is primarily to help find contentment and satisfaction – or, at the causative level – thrill and excitement, the discussion on contemporary Romance could be phrased as a discussion on contemporary pleasure – namely, love fantasies produced by the imagination of contemporary mind.

The phenomenon of Fifty Shades has revealed that consumers’ expectations from romance fiction have shifted. The ‘pleasure’ which consumers seek in romance (as a literary genre and a cultural practice) arguably exceed “traditional” representations of love and the fantasies they pursue challenge the common institutions of intimacy, namely, that of the heterosexual – and therefore legitimate – couple). Central to the change of expectations from the popular images of togetherness is the mainstreaming of hard-core sexuality, a tendency Linda Williams defines as “proliferating obscenity on-scene”. As she explains in the preface to Porn Studies, a work that explores the shift in sexual standards,

[r]epresentations of sex that were once deemed obscene, in the literal sense of being off (sic) the public scene, have today insistently appeared in the new public/private realms. . . . The term that I have coined to describe this paradoxical state of affairs is on/scenity: the gesture by which a culture brings on to its public arena the very organs, acts, bodies, and pleasures that have heretofore been designated ob/scene and kept literally off-scene. In Latin, the accepted meaning of the term obscene is quite literally “off-stage” or that which should be kept “out of public view” (OED). On/scene is one way of signaling not just that pornographies are proliferating but that once off (ob) scene sexual scenarios have been brought onto the public sphere. On/scenity marks both the controversy and scandal of the increasingly public representations of diverse forms of sexuality and the fact that they have become increasing available to the public at large (Williams L 2004, p. 3).

The trilogy of novels by E. L. James, referred to by Thorpe as ‘the porn version of cupcakes and Cath Kidston’ (Thorpe 2012), has indicated that the Twilight-like gentle intimacy is no longer sufficient to satisfy the popular vision of a romantic relationship.” Data behind the popularity of the Fifty Shades series show that pleasures of romance wish to reach beyond the usual / standardized sex package. Although ‘sadomasochism has always had its articulate evangelists’ (Thorpe 2012), the appreciation of sex scenes presented in the novel – which critics described as “overly kinky” or unusual enough to make ‘unconventional modern relationships [in] Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy read like Charlotte Brontë (Thorpe 2012) – communicate a substantial change of standards. Consequently, romance becomes suspended between different experiences: the one (using Barthesian distinction) ‘that contents, fills, grants euphoria; . . . that comes from culture and does not break with it’, and the other, ‘that imposes the state of loss, . . . that discomforts . . ., unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language’ (Barthes 1975, p. 14). The mixture of qualities offered by Fifty Shades of Grey provide inconsistent representations and equally inconsistent pleasures. The book combines two orders: the marginal and the mainstream, subjugating the first to the custody of a conjugal couple and its ‘juridical dimension in the deployment of sexuality’ as well as ‘the economy of pleasure and the intensity of sensations [caught] in the regime of alliance’ (Foucault 1990, pp. 3&108).

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It is difficult to say whether Fifty Shades of Grey is a ‘porn dressed up as romance, or romance dressed up as porn’ (Thorpe 2012). Even if properly deployed, the pleasures in the books operate by the economy of surplus. Sexual representations they depict are excessive and outgrow the conventional images of love making. They complicate the cultural status of a normative love scene, which, according to Žižek – should be kept ‘out of sight’, aestheticized and fantasized.

[A] love scene is always built around a certain insurmountable limit; . . . at a certain point the image is blurred, the camera moves off, the scene is interrupted, we never directly see ‘that’ (the penetration of sexual organs, etc.). In contrast to this limit of representability defining the ‘normal’ love story or melodrama, pornography goes beyond, it ‘shows everything’. The paradox is, however, that by trespassing the limit, it always goes too far, i.e., it misses what remains concealed in a ‘normal’, nonpornographic love scene (Žižek 1992, p. 86).

In a story where everything is revealed, the ‘charm is dispelled . . .. Instead of the sublime Thing, we are struck with vulgar, groaning fornication’ (Žižek 1992, p. 86). As Northrop Frye states in his Study of the Structure of Romance, the pornographic and the erotic are the not same thing (Frye 1975, p. 24). ‘Pornography,’,  Žižek writes, ‘is perverse’ and ‘its perverse character lies not in the obvious fact that it ’goes all the way and shows us all the dirty details’; its perversity is, rather, to be conceived in a strictly formal way. In pornography, the spectator is forced a priori to occupy a perverse position’ (1992, p. 86), which does not mean all the viewers of pornography are perverts, but rather suggest the possibility (or even necessity) of embracing a viewing perspective that guaranties the satisfaction of specific pleasures. Developing such a perspective when reading the Fifty Shades novels is a task hard to achieve due to the inconsistent development of the narrative and the inconsequent location of pleasures.

Fifty Shades of Grey is marked with a constructional breakage. It fails to maintain the balance between the classical representations of affection (‘I love you’) and unconventional forms of  expressing fondness (‘I want to fuck your mouth’, James 2012, p. 88). As much as the books want to marry the good old love story with progressive forms of physical fulfillment, they get disconnected from either, producing, in my opinion, a very irritating piece of writing. In Fifty Shades of Grey, pleasures associated with the experience of romance mix with what protagonists themselves see as disgusting and abnormal (Christian hates his passion for bondage and Ana believes she can heal him with her love). In consequence, the pleasure to be experienced in the trilling encounter with the BDSM sex is dispersed. The reader can neither enjoy the delight of the romantic nor the bliss of transgression.

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Fifty Shades of Grey is a narrative of conflicting intentions. This is where its monstrosity can be located, and where it communicates the false ‘constuctedness of . . .reality’ and uncovers the incompatibilities of discourses used in the Symbolic order (Hock-soon Ng 2005, p. 6). Words ‘monster,’ ‘monstrous,’ ‘monstrosity’ are etymologically associated with two Latin verbs: moneo, monere  – warn, advise – and monstro, monstrare – show, command (Collins 1985, pp. 48&236). Fifty Shades of Grey conveys both the meanings, suspending the pleasures it negotiates to the public gaze between demonstration and warning. The pleasure of of porn is being balanced with its potential hazards.  It is probably where the titillating tension arises. It is probably how the excitement of pushing Kink to the mainstream is being constructed. The phenomenon of Fifty Shades was born from the friction between the urge to show and the obligation to warn. It has become a part of a larger process in which representations of hard-core and normativity are being mediated and expected to
reach a compromise. The ongoing negotiation of the obscene in forms like Fifty Shades of Grey might be, for now, a new way of reconciling the traditional social model with unsocial love fantasies. Monstrous, destabilizing, inconsistently kinky, irritating and annoying, Fifty Shades of Grey and ’love story recipe’ seem to open a new chapter in the genre’s evolution. After the novels’ success, a stream of similar books have flooded the book market and more are to be published. Big publishing houses call for manuscripts that would imitate Fifty Shades style and tropes. Amy Pierpont from Grand Central admits, ‘we are looking for angsty, emotion-packed stories, stories that tease out the ‘will she/won’t she/should she/shouldn’t she” question for a longer ride . . ., stories that get a little (or a lot!) naughty, stories that emphasize that undeniable, unquenchable passion that burns brighter and hotter by the minute, stories that feature gritty bad boys who make you go weak in the knees and do things you NEVER imagined you’d do – or like so flipping much! We are looking at stories featuring younger characters – heroines in their early to mid-twenties, falling for ‘older’ guys in their late twenties – this is a shift we’re making in response to such strong reader response to characters in those age groups.’ (Smart Bitches 2012). Even if erotic fiction have featured the ‘controlling alpha male trope’ for quite a while, the dynamic provided by Fifty Shades, brought it back to the spotlight, developing a new trend, or a subgenre within erotica. The books title alone makes a sort of cultural coinage used to promote or scoff the phenomenon the story has become

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The phenomenon of Fifty Shades shows that the mechanisms of pleasure – pleasure production and reception – that stimulate contemporary representations of love have largely expanded, and the romantic utopia, offered by popular culture (popular understood in terms of popularity and consumption, as well as in terms of processes of the utopia manufacturing), is definitely searching for new cultural codes.  The juxtaposition of mainstream and marginal aesthetics involved in the process produces the effect of suspension, which makes the pleasure of romance lost between what Barthes calls ‘the heavy desire of pornography’ and ‘the light good desire of eroticism’ (Williams L 2004, p. 6).

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ABOUT

Dr Anna Malinowska is a lecturer (Pl. Adiunkt / Assistant Professor) in literary and cultural studies at the Department of Literary and Cultural Theory, IKILA (University of Silesia, Poland). Her research interests embrace critical theory, cultural narratives, social and aesthetic codes of cultural production. She is particularly interested in the idea of normativity, the cultural functioning of the ‘lowbrow’ (camp, kitsch, filth), popular culture and the romance genre. Her first book, Characters of Camp. The Study of Posing, is due to be released in 2014. She is currently working on a new project, Postmodern love story.