Fifty Shades Of Grating – How A 1970s Comic Book Might Explain The Perplexing Success Of E L James’ Writing
At the end of June this year, E L James held a Twitter Q and A session. We all knew how that was going to end. Many people speculated as to why E L James’ publicist thought that a Twitter Q and A might be a good idea in the first place. The answer is simple. It was a good idea. Publicity is publicity. Or as Oscar Wilde put it: “There’s only one thing worse than being talked about and that’s not being talked about.”
If you are one of the thousands of people who trolled E L James on that June evening, then I’m afraid all you did was blast the oxygen of public exposure onto the already disastrous forest fire that is the Fifty Shades phenomenon. You didn’t make her look stupid, you merely helped her sell more of her books.
Putting aside this cynical observation, some of the trolling was actually quite clever. Here’s one example:
There were quite a lot of tweets along those lines. Here’s another example:
That’s an allusion to the fact that 50 Shades started off as Twilight fan-fic. That E L James somehow stole Stephanie Meyer’s ideas and that the Twilight author should sue her or something. That would be a little ungracious, given the amount of free publicity 50 Shades has given the Twilight series, and so Stephanie Meyer has not sued. If she did sue, karma being what it is, she might have to hire an exorcist on a nightly basis to fend off the disgruntled spirit of Bram Stoker.
And here is one final example from the E L James Twitter storm:
Two interesting points there. Does E L James hate women? The answer to that is simple. She is a woman herself. Of course she hates women. Women don’t like each other very much, that’s a well-established fact. It’s the fact that allows men to continue to dominate society. If women could suddenly bring themselves to like each other , they could take over the world in an afternoon and men wouldn’t have a prayer of stopping them.
Does E L James hate the English language? Why would she? The English language – albeit in a severley mangled form- has earned her millions of pounds. Perhaps “Is she a good writer?” might be a better question. Well, clearly she is not a good writer. But to be fair to her, has she ever claimed to be? Not to my knowledge. To be honest, I think she’s just as bewildered by the success of her books as the people who trolled her on her Twitter Q and A.
So what if her books are unreadable? She’s in illustrious company. For instance, have you ever read a Salman Rushdie book all the way through? Of course you haven’t. Nobody has, not even Salman Rushdie’s editor. Though it has to be said that he approaches unreadability by being too clever rather than not being clever enough.
There were many points raised in E L James Twitter Q and A, but by far the most common one was the assertion that her books legitimise rape culture. That 50 Shades encourages men to objectify women and to buy into the old myth that no really means yes. Now, that would be a very convincing argument if it were not for one thing. Men do not read these books. They are bought almost exclusively by women. And women are very good at distinguishing fact from fantasy.
I am a middle aged man, so I have had quite a few sexual relationships. Some of these relationships have involved having a set of handcuffs in the bedside cabinet. I didn’t buy them. Sometimes there have been packets of black cable ties in the bedside cabinet. I didn’t buy those either.
I have had a couple of relationships where the ladies in question wanted me to pretend to rape them. It’s a very common female sexual fantasy. But the key words in those two sentences are “pretend” and “fantasy”.
No woman actually wants to be raped. No woman actually wants to be held captive in a dungeon. Just like no man would actually want to be standing with a sword in his hand, fighting for his life against armies of killer Orcs. Real is real and pretend is pretend.
The nature of women’s fantasy lives still doesn’t quite explain the massive popularity of 50 Shades though. Something a bit deeper is going on there. To find out what that is, we need to go back to the 1970s.
Back in that decade, there was a girls’ comic called “Tammy”. It was a pink, fluffy sort of magazine full of pink, fluffy stories. Its sales were declining rapidly and it was in danger of being shut down. In order to rectify the situation, its publishers did some market research. They asked the little girls why they didn’t like Tammy’s cheery, upbeat storylines.
They were told that what was desired were sad stories that made the little girls cry. So Tammy’s publishers tentatively dipped a toe in that particular area. First they tried tales of bullying at posh boarding schools. Next, it was heartbreaking yarns of girls sent away in times gone by to work in big London houses, where they were beaten and humiliated by the butler. And eventually, young orphan girls, sent to live on a farm during the war, there to be used as slave labour and forced to eat swill from pigs’ troughs.
Here is a frame from that very comic strip, which was called “The Slaves Of War Orphan Farm”:
As long as it was implicit that the final score was going to be four-nil to the abused youngsters, the more the little girls lapped it up. And the more violent and degrading the treatment the characters endured, the faster the copies of Tammy flew off the shelves.
And that is the point. Women are buying E L James’ books in the hope of a happy ending. Fifty Shades is not “Twilight” in a different form. It’s Cinderella. Granted, it’s a weird, fucked up version of Cinderella where Christian Grey is both Fairy Godmother and Wicked Stepmother, but Cinderella is what it is.
So the logical conclusion to the story is Christian ceasing to be the Wicked Stepmother and transforming into Prince Charming. And this is, indeed, how the story sort of ends. In the final book “Fifty Shades: Freed”, Anastasia and Christian are married. He has confided in her where his controlling behaviour comes from and resolves to work on it. The book finishes with Ana and Christian preparing to meet with family and friends to celebrate their son’s second birthday.
E L James may not be the best writer in the world, but she has been savvy enough to tap into a principle that sold a hell of a lot of comics back in the 1970s. I bet she used to read Tammy when she was a little girl.
© Copyright Michael Grimes 2015