The Academic Politics of Fifty Shades of Grey
by Karen Petruska — Northeastern University
September 25, 2012 – 00:00
There’s a lot you have probably heard about Fifty Shades of Grey—it is poorly written, it started as Twilight fan fiction, it presents a character engaged in BDSM. Significantly, most of the discourse about Fifty Shades has centered around its naughty bits gone mainstream. The part less frequently discussed is how lame is the whole trilogy. When I started skimming every sex scene in book two out of boredom, I wondered how books about dangerous sex had been transformed into an embrace of “vanilla” lovemaking.
Despite the relative vacuity of its heroine and the complete fantasy of her impressive ability to orgasm on demand, Fifty Shades has nevertheless threatened hegemonic institutions of power, even while its menace operates more through its reputation than its actual content. The series has made e-readers the preferred interface for subversive content. Colleagues on Twitter have referenced “outing” themselves online and in the classroom as readers of the books. Our curator who asked for anonymity did so largely due to anxiety that an embrace of the book series may adversely affect her her tenure case. When scholars engage with popular culture, a fear of destabilizing legitimacy persists despite decades of work by cultural and media studies scholars. In academic circles, however, the danger to our legitimacy may derive less from an embrace of sexuality and more from pleasure in the banal.
I make fun of Fifty Shades, but I read all three books, and I did so quickly. It was not a chore. With respect to the millions of readers who have also found pleasure in their pages, I resist any suggestion that the quality of the writing discounts the broader value of the series. In particular, I worry that discourses of “outing” in relation to Fifty Shades imply not only a condescension of the audience and the pleasures they may get from the series but also that scholarly readers are not included within that audience.
I’ve embedded the video at the left because it depicts the typical way this series has been presented in the press—with attention to the butt plugs and other sexual paraphernalia owned by Christian Grey. The video disappointed me for more than its misplaced focus on what ultimately becomes an abandoned plot device; instead, I had hoped these older women would have looked at each other and said, “Big deal? Who doesn’t like a little BDSM?” When we react to Fifty Shades of Grey without the need to distance ourselves from it—whether from its explicit sex, its female audience, or its disparaged quality—the conversations will become much more interesting. How might academics enter this conversation to reframe the series in a more productive manner?
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