Fifty shades of selfish desire in the twilight of fantasy
Perhaps you remember the viral advertisement where Isaiah Mustafa of the impeccable pecs encouraged women to “look at your man, now back to me, now back at your man, now back to me” and then, accordingly, buy Old Spice so their men could “smell like he’s me.”
The advertisement’s self-aware ribbing of the gulf between the clichéd perfect man and the ordinary guy was cheeky and hilarious, but a sign of the times? With E L James’ adult novel Fifty Shades of Grey still dominating the New York Times bestseller list, I’m starting to wonder. Because though many have marvelled at the runaway success of the erotic novel, its popularity isn’t at all surprising given our collective enthusiasm for romance as a genre - featuring, of course, a male romantic hero against whom men in real life simply cannot compare.
Clearly, romance alone doesn’t explain the astonishing success of Fifty Shades of Grey. There’s also the BDSM-style hijinks between billionaire and control freak Christian Grey and naïve literature student Anastasia Steele.
Their explicit encounters have marked the book as particularly risqué and sent many curious readers thumbing through its pages for a glimpse into boutique sexual thrills that normally drift below the gaze of the mainstream. But when you strip away all the window-dressing kink of the novel - and apparently, the two sequels let up on all that spanking - all that’s left is the familiar romantic fantasy of love that makes a bad man good.
Such romantic fantasy also underwrites Twilight, from which Fifty Shades of Grey sprang to life as a work of fan fiction that re-wrote the chaste relationship between Twilight’s Bella Swan and Edward Cullen before E L James recast the two characters as Ana and Grey. The romantic drama of Twilight kicks into gear with vampire Edward’s obsession with Bella, accompanied by his repeated warnings for her to stay away from him because he might, you know, kill her. Fifty Shades of Grey rehashes this detail with Christian offering similar advice to Ana.
Obviously, such warning is futile: Bella and Ana aren’t put off by the reluctance of these demi-gods - Edward the vampire in Twilight and Christian the billionaire in Fifty Shades of Grey - to get involved with mere mortals. And so embarks the romantic fantasy catnip of both novels: meaningful glances are exchanged, loaded conversations prevail, and the romantic tension builds and builds until Fifty Shades’ Ana and Grey give in to repeated rounds of slap and tickle and a fat diamond gets planted on Bella’s ring finger when she weds Edward in Twilight.
Ana goes on to receive a slew of increasingly extravagant gifts from Christian, and Bella gets to live forever in nuptial bliss as a wealthy, well-dressed vampire. True love, in short, triumphs.
To put it mildly, novels such as Fifty Shades of Grey and its sire Twilight frequently blur the line between romance and the ridiculous. But this is key to their appeal, for they afford women the luxury of rolling their eyes at the farce (and the clunky prose) while frantically flicking over to the next page to find out what happens next. Such novels are a guilty pleasure to read for they are unapologetic about telling a story geared towards women’s romantic needs and desires.
Not that this is a surprise to anyone. Stephanie Meyer admitted openly of the Twilight saga, “I just wanted to write for myself, a fantasy. And that’s what Edward is.” Meanwhile E L James has joked that Fifty Shades of Grey is her “midlife crisis, writ large… All my fantasies, out there.” This female claim to fantasy and the pure enjoyment of it is why, presumably, many fans of the book have described the experience of reading it as ‘liberating’.
And yet it remains a slightly awkward fact that we have little tolerance for fantasies often favoured by men - like porn. There’s good reason for that too, for much porn directed at heterosexual men sexualises male dominance and objectifies women’s bodies.
But romance is its own kind of female porn, and one that peddles a particular fantasy - including the idea that blissful coupledom is the be all and end all and that everyone worth anything ends up ‘happily ever after’. This kind of porn isn’t just a fixture of Mills & Boon novels but also found in Jane Austen’s work, Disney’s fairytales, The Notebook, and romantic comedies since the dawn of the genre.
Even more recent romcoms that appear to challenge the reigning ideal of the committed love relationship by showing us men and women enjoying casual sexual affairs - like No Strings Attached or Friends with Benefits - are love stories in disguise.
Yet romance, unlike conventional porn aimed at men, is often dismissed as harmless fun and enjoys a level of social acceptability of which porn aimed at men can only dream. The term ‘chick flick’ is as derisive as it gets for romance, which is mild by comparison to some of the things that get said about porn.
It seems churlish to take issue with women getting off on romance porn when it is so tame in comparison with that produced with straight men in mind. But while one seems much nicer than the other, the issue with both is not so much what they depict - whether that’s naked bodies having sex, or innocent, tender moments that seem the very antithesis of porn - but the posture they encourage towards the world and others.
Porn for guys and romance porn for women - or even books like Fifty Shades of Grey that drink deep from the wells of both - construe pleasure and fulfilment as on-demand experiences that prioritise individual sexual or romantic needs. Both kinds of porn, then, depict a world where personal desire is paramount and in which other people exist as a means to an end, and not an end in and of themselves. At base, there is not a great deal of difference between the male romantic hero who satisfies the heroine’s every sexual, consumer, romantic, and emotional needs and the female porn star who just lives to please her man sexually and really, really loves having him do that to her.
The vision of the world depicted in both kinds of porn is a far cry from the real stuff of love that requires a whole lot of compromise and for each party to sacrifice their individual needs when it comes to their most intimate relationships. Dare I say - in lieu of the firestorm of late - that for love to last requires men and women both to ‘submit’ to each other? If that’s the case, then it’s ironic that the S&M-inflected Fifty Shades of Grey offers the reverse of this kind of submission because it’s too busy escaping from reality into fantasy where selfish desire runs riot.
Maybe it’s easier for men and women both to seek refuge in fantasy - whether that’s provided by conventional porn or romance porn, its starry-eyed equivalent. But even E L James knows the limits of the make-believe. Maybe women fantasise about someone as mysterious, brooding and handsome as Christian, she concedes, “But I think in real life, it’s very, very different. You want someone who does the dishes.”
Justine Toh is the Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media, Music, and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.
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