In January 2009, a British TV producer and mother-of-two began writing under the pseudonym “Snowqueen’s Icedragon” after being inspired by the Twilight saga (if you’re a regular, you know we have mixed feelings about Twilight).
Ms. Icedragon published her first novel, Master of the Universe, online, which was loosely based on the Twilight characters. In 2011 she decided to self-publish the series, which soon built up enough buzz to be talked about by Fox News and other networks.
In 2012, Random House picked up the series. Since then, the now-titled Fifty Shades of Grey series, has sold over 100 million copies, making it one of the bestselling of all time.
Why Is Fifty Shades of Grey Popular?
Why do people love Fifty Shades of Grey so much?
Let’s get the obvious of the way: It’s not because of the writing.
Over at the New Yorker today, Anthony Lane says:
No new reader, however charitable, could open “Fifty Shades of Grey,” browse a few paragraphs, and reasonably conclude that the author was writing in her first language, or even her fourth.
Of course, Anthony isn’t the books target audience (nor am I), and great writing is not a requisite of good storytelling (again, see Twilight), but it’s interesting that even the author herself was surprised at the popularity of the book.
So what is it? What’s the appeal? And as writers, can we tap into that appeal with our own writing?
4 Reasons Fifty Shades of Grey is Popular
First, a caveat: I’m not a woman over thirty, the novel’s main affinity group, and thus I present these observations as theories and interesting discussion points, not an effort to mansplain or shame into appreciation of “real literature.” Feel free to share your own theories or disagree with mine in the comments section (but keep it classy).
I also want to give credit to those who have serious issues with Fifty Shades of Grey. This is a post about writing, not a model for your romantic relationships. But more about that later.
1. We Love Beauty and the Beast
Is it really a surprise people like Fifty Shades of Grey? It fits the time-honored trope: innocent girl falls for troubled man, endures his anti-social behavior out of belief in his ultimate goodness, and eventually teaches him to be a sociable, polite member of society.
Twilight, James’ inspiration, followed the same formula to huge success, and while James takes it to a disturbing level, she is by no means doing anything particularly new.
Bad artists borrow, great artists steal, the saying goes.
2. We Love Gender Politics
They say the best way to make sure a book is a success is to get it banned, and in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, all the hate-press from feminists and religious groups has done nothing but make the book, and now movie, infinitely more interesting.
Not all feminists are anti, though. Many say that the books have allowed women to talk about and explore sexuality (sexual fantasy, in particular) in a way that they would have been impossible even decades ago. In this way, they say, the book is empowering.
The book also presents a worldview in which women in the end—despite male privilege, physical strength, and societal norms—have the power.
(Spoiler Alert) Anna gets everything she wants in the end: the perfect family, the perfect job, and the utter devotion of the “perfect” man. Her power subverts Christian’s less subtle power, and eventually, she, not he, is the one in control.
That she has to win this power by playing his sick games makes it all the more controversial, which is why people can’t stop talking about it.
3. We (Tolerate) Abuse
Each year, 1,500 women are killed in the U.S. by their husbands or boyfriends.
Sixty percent of women between the ages of eighteen to thirty-five have experienced physical or emotional abuse, according to a Glamour study.
Of these, more than half have been hit, shoved, choked, or have felt threatened to the point that they feel like they may be killed.
It’s not just women. At least one in six men have been sexually abused by the age of eighteen.
We live in an abused society.
Should we be surprised, then, that a book depicting stalking, possessiveness, manipulation, intimidation, isolation tactics, physical threats, and physical violence against a relationship partner is so popular?
It gets worse
One study in the Journal of Women’s Health says, “Emotional abuse is present in nearly every interaction” between Christian and Anna.
Worse, the novel actually perpetuates unhealthy behavior, according to a Michigan State University study:
Young adult women who read “Fifty Shades of Grey” are more likely than nonreaders to exhibit signs of eating disorders and have a verbally abusive partner.
For more, see 50 Shades of Abuse.
What we learn from this is not that abuse sells, but that love sells, even at its unhealthiest. Thus…
4. We Love Fantasy
Without spoiling too much, what humanizes Christian in our eyes is that he himself was abused. If he is acting in an unhealthy way, we justify, it’s because he has been damaged.
Anna’s presence in his life, then, functions in many ways as his healer (there’s a song reference in there somewhere), the one helping him work out his demons and leading him to a better, healthier place emotionally.
James has said about Fifty Shades, that “all my fantasies [are] in there, and that’s it.”
Of these fantasies, perhaps this is the biggest, the idea that love alone can take an abused and abusive person and turn him into a healthy, functioning adult.
It’s a fantasy all too common amongst domestic violence victims, who say love is the reason they have not left an abusive partner.
Love can conquer. Love can heal. Love can and does redeem. This is one reason we love great stories, because they show us the truth about the power of love.
But the idea that submitting yourself to abuse can change anyone is pure fantasy, and one I think writers shouldn’t perpetuate.
Fifty Shades of Grey Isn’t Going Away
The conversation that Snowqueen Icedragon started six years ago isn’t going away any time soon, and whether or not you see the movie or read the books, the conversation probably shouldn’t go away. The book brought up important subjects we need to talk about.
What’s the lesson for us, though? As writers, we need to wade into the morally grey areas of society. We need to depict both the darkness of the human condition and the potential for good.
What Fifty Shades of Grey teaches me is that our fantasies have the power to change the reality in which we live. With this in mind, we need to cultivate better fantasies.
Our fantasies have the power to change reality. We need to cultivate better fantasies. (share that on Twitter?)
Why do you think Fifty Shades of Grey is so popular? Let us know in the comments section.
Write your romantic fantasy.
But today, we’re breaking from routine and asking you not to share in the comments section. Instead, write about your romantic fantasy for fifteen minutes, then save it somewhere no one but you will find it!
Happy (early) Valentines Day!