I was recently tasked to suffer through all 400-something pages of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight for my Young Adult Literature class. That’s 400-something pages of “Edward’s piercing golden eyes” and “smoldering stares” and “Bella’s aching pull to be with him,” which makes for 400-something pages of my own smirking. But for one generation of Twihards, the Twilight trilogy leaves a certain carnal stone unturned.
With all the glaring moments of passion in the book and the film, Edward does little to seal the deal with Bella. Though this does much to appease abstinence-preaching parents, it does little to satisfy the middle-aged Twilight-moms who have appropriated the novels. Lucky for these Twi-moms, a community of readers and obsessed fans began to fill in the gaps on fan fiction websites, fleshing out the more “heated” moments of the novel to something more than mere intense gazes and heavy breathing.
A fan favorite soon emerged on the fan-fic message boards. Garnering over 37,000 readers, Master of the Universe; written under the username Snowqueens Icedragon (government name E. L. James), has inspired Fifty Shades of Grey, an actual erotic fiction paperback that has been surreptitiously disappearing from bookstore shelves for the past few weeks. The novel rose to the New York Times bestseller list in March, with the majority of purchases made online. Apparently women don’t like to be seen buying erotic books.
The book details the relationship between virginal college student Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, a wealthy and mysterious businessman. Though the characters, and the relationship itself, are loosely based off of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan, Fifty Shades of Grey takes the relationship to the opposite spectrum where the two engage in a sadomasochistic love affair, complete with bondage, safe words, and whips.
Without any advertising on a large scale, the book is a New York Times bestseller, is just below the Hunger Games in sales on Amazon.com, and is now being vetted for a movie deal. Perhaps more than any other book in recent years, this book’s best asset is its taboo nature. Its success relies on word-of-mouth of women in the neighborhood or at the grocery store. It takes these women back to the “did you hear about so-and-so” moments in high school that left them looking over their shoulders before they said any more. For an older generation, detailing the various encounters within the novel amongst friends is perhaps equally as thrilling as reading it.
Despite the readers who whisper the book’s praises in the shrouds of anonymity, many have publicly announced their disapproval of the book. On a recent Today Show interview, Dr. Drew Pinsky voiced concern that the book advocated violence towards women and that “it says something socially about us that’s a little bit disturbing.” Relationship experts, however, have commented in defense of the novel, arguing that the relationship, though at times violent, is consensual. Regardless of one’s stance on the book, the discussion raises an important issue of what women’s sexual fantasies should look like.
It seems that for some, the feminist ideal of the woman on top has come to define not only what women should strive for professionally, but also what women should strive for within their relationship. What seems to be amiss, however, is that a woman’s private fantasy does not have to define her or her public persona. In fact, biologically speaking, women are naturally attracted to a powerful and dominant male who is better able to protect her. Though E.L. James takes this power dynamic a bit further, it is nonetheless a consensual interaction for both parties.
While reading excerpts from the novel this afternoon in Lauinger, I wondered if a woman’s experience perusing the shelves for a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey is anything like flipping through a copy of Maxim or Playboy for a man. I wonder if women will sneak in droves to matinees on Monday morning lunch breaks to see their fantasies fleshed out on screen once the film is released. And I wonder if I’ll have the daring to unabashedly purchase my own copy of Fifty Shades of Grey in line at the bookstore. But such things, after all, should only be discussed in a whisper among friends.