Why We Love Fifty Shades of Grey

by Joe Bunting | 57 comments

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).

Why Is Fifty Shades of Grey Popular?

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?

Because yes, this novel depicts abuse. Not normal BDSM.

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) Valentine's Day!


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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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  1. hmarieb9

    Fifty Shades of Grey is a horrific piece of work. We DO NOT love it at all. Sorry Joe. Why did the director make this film? It is an enticement to women to become voyeurs of pornography. I think it is a very, very poor comment on our society and the way we view relationships. An abusive relationship is very wrong, no matter how you try to link it to romanticism. And it is not even close to what love really is.

    • Paola

      100% agreed.

    • Sonja

      There is nothing wrong with women accepting and loving their sexuality as much as men. This includes watching and reading what turns them on and getting to know their own tastes and kinks. However, you’re right. The abuse in this book/movie is apparent and wrong. But in real couples who practice BDSM, there is no abuse. It is done correctly and respectfully, with two people who enjoy themselves, each other, and their common kink.

    • Joe Bunting

      Thanks for the comment, and there’s no need to apologize to me! If you read the article, you know that I have some tough feedback for the story, and for those who like it.

    • hmarieb9

      Just wanted to say that you handled the criticism very well, Joe. This is a tough topic, and it is better to bring it out in the open then to not address it at all. Thankfully, it seems like everyone is on the same wavelength.

  2. Shelli

    I have been amazed at the vehemence that some women will defend this book. With so much erotica out there, I cringe to think that *this* is the one that became popular. I think your observations are spot on, and that’s kind of horrifying.

    • Joe Bunting

      Thanks Shelli. I think fixing a damaged person is a fantasy a lot of us have (not just women), and if 50 Shades stayed in the realm of fantasy, it might not be a problem. Unfortunately, fantasy informs our reality, and the results can indeed be horrifying.

  3. Kathy Rupff

    Do not love it.

    • Kathy

      Very well written, thorough, and informative blog post though… Thank you, Joe

    • Joe Bunting

      Thanks Kathy! I was worried you just read the title and gave up on me. 🙂

  4. Lauren Timmins

    Love is food, Netflix, and cuddling. Whatever is going on in the movie preview looks downright scary.

    • Joe Bunting

      Yes, and especially Thai food. And Amazon Prime too in case Netflix doesn’t have the movie you want.

  5. Jessica Cardinal Heeg

    Haha, I love the mix of sarcasm pervading this article. In my research, (don’t ask) I have found that readers will overlook VERY BAD WRITING for a porn scene! It just goes to show the American imagination is not dead.

    I’m not going to dive into how bad 50 Shades is, because you have already expressed the worst points, and your readers are going to think what they’re gonna think. But I don’t need bad writing and bad morals in my craft. I’ll opt out of this fad. It will come and go just like Twilight and 50 years from now, no one will care….because they’ll be jumping for 100 Hues of Black. XD

    • Nocturnea

      100 Hues of Black… Can I use that for the title of a parody? That is, once I actually find out what the plot and content of the book are.

    • Jessica Cardinal Heeg

      Absolutely! Heavens knows I won’t be needing it. Oh, you know what? The plot should be about a woman interviewing the new JANITORIAL intern! It could be the “trashiest” story of two socially awkward individuals “cleaning” out the “garbage” in their lives!

      Haha, I crack myself up. 😉

    • Joe Bunting

      I’ve already read 100 Hues of Black. Amazing. Like Marquis de Sade on Mars. 😉 Okay but I can’t help but ask: research?

    • Jessica Cardinal Heeg

      I can’t call it research so much as blind observation, since I don’t write romance. But I was looking for a short story writing community and stumbled on a UK one. It was chock full with all sorts of trashy erotic stories–thousands! And the writing was of course by the members so most of them were atrocious. XD So yeah, that’s my experience.

  6. Marcy Mason McKay

    Hey Joe,
    I haven’t read Fifty Shades, probably won’t see the movie, so I’m guessing here, but I’d say the book has done so well because SEX SELLS. E.L. James took that hot topic to a taboo place and hit the market at the right time. $$$$

    • Joe Bunting

      I saw that post (and actually just shared it above!). Crazy, right? Thanks for sharing it, Marcy!

    • J. Conrad Guest

      Does it (sell)? There are myriad other novels in the erotica genre that are far better written with far better story lines than this piece of garbage, and none of them have done nearly as well.

  7. Gem x

    People love it because Anastasia is so “ordinary” that EVERY woman sees herself in the character. The shyness, unsure of herself, apparent ordinary looks, etc etc. And therefore we completely immerse ourselves in it. That, and the book is focused on sex. Who doesn’t love sex and happy ever afters?

    • J. Conrad Guest

      Yeah, right, and Christian is the Prince Charming every young woman hopes to meet: handsome, rich, the bad boy for whom she dumps the warm and caring guy she professes to want because the bad boy is so broken he needs to be fixed and only she can love him in the manner he needs and deserves.

      I’m so glad my wife is EXTRAordinary.

    • J. Conrad Guest

      Precisely. I’m learning why my fiction, which is head and shoulders better written than this drivel, can’t compete with it: I write about everyday people dealing with everyday issues of love, loss, divorce, infidelity, and regret, about relationships between men and women and fathers and sons—universal ideals. But consumers would rather fantasize about something like this, that in real life a relationship built on abuse and humiliation of another human being can end happily ever after.

    • Gem x

      Well yes that’s probably true, which is why people love it so much. People love to dream :p I believe the books are fairly horrific. But I didn’t stop at the first book. I read all three…that must be saying something, even if I did hate myself!

    • Jas

      Um, no. Anastasia isnt ordinary, shes stupid and banal. She has no brains, no personality, no nothing. And NO, EVERY woman who reads that drivel does NOT see herself as Anastasia. I certainly didnt. I couldnt even finish the book, it was so bad. The book isnt focused on sex, its focused on two inane, extremely unlikable characters and their extremely abusive and dysfunctional relationship. If someone wants “sex and happy ever afters” there are choices out there that are 1000 times better than Shades. Did you even read the book?

    • J. Conrad Guest

      No, Jas, I didn’t read any of the books, and I refuse to. I’ve read excerpts—enough to deduce James can’t write well—read enough professional reviews as well as those on Amazon (raves and bashes), and discussed the books in forums to support my disgust that this piece is the bestselling book of all time.

      I’ve read and heard that Anastasia is ordinary, at least ordinary looking, so yes, many women who reviewed the book on Amazon and those in forums in which I participated claim to relate to her very ordinariness.

  8. R.w. Foster

    What I find shocking is how the fans of this crap deny the rape and stalking going on in book one. I’m left with a huge WTF.

    • Joe Bunting

      It’s well hidden, unfortunately. A spoonful of sugar can hide the taste of a dose of poison. It’s also impossible not to feel empathy for Christian. He has been victimized, even as he victimizes others. Things become very grey very quickly (sorry for the cheap pun!).

    • R.w. Foster

      Not that well hidden. Remember chapter 12? That was pretty danged blatent.

  9. Nocturnea

    My friends say I can read Fifty Shades of Grey in about five years with parental permission, but shouldn’t… From that, and the other comments here, I’m thinking maybe I just won’t read it at all. I’m quite curious as to what it’s about, though.
    Also, I don’t quite know how to do today’s practice, since I’m an aromantic asexual (at least, as of yet – also not done puberty). Should I just write about other kinds of fantasies and store that somewhere nobody but me will find it?

    • hella dawn

      That is exactly what you should do.

    • Joe Bunting

      Thanks for your comment! Yes, I wouldn’t read the book. It’s not worth it. Perhaps instead of writing writing about a romantic fantasy you could write about a place where you would feel the most love, whether from parents or friends.

  10. hella dawn

    I have a question. I read an article about how to put real life into stories. The article talked about how it’s not right to literally copy life down word for word in fiction–or, I guess, the article suggested more ways to put real life into fiction. One of the ways was taking the personality of a person and infusing it into the setting, the place around them. Does anyone remember this article? I tried googling it and tried searching for it directly on WTP but I cannot find it. I am hoping that someone found that article as informative as I did, and favorited it, or saved it in some way. Thanks so much for the help in advance!

    • hella dawn

      I do not think this is the post I was looking for BUT it was helpful in a completely new way and I’m glad I read it. I haven’t seen this article before, but I am glad to have read it. Thank you so much for the help!

  11. EndlessExposition

    At summer camp my friends and I took turns reading aloud from this book in Russian accents and had a good laugh. I’d say that’s about the extent of its entertainment value.

  12. Christine

    Reading over the comments here, it sounds like you have successfully tapped into the controversy around this book. 🙂 Sounds like there are various aspects of it that appeal to different people. As you say, many women — especially those who have been deprived of paternal love or approval — fantasize about finding a “damaged” man and meeting all his needs and wants, thus healing him and winning his undying affection. This leads a lot of women into disastrous relationships. And as others have said, sex sells. Verbal porn sells, maybe especially to women.

    Some of your points remind me of an account I read once. In a certain area, a number of teenage girls were getting into trouble for beating up on their mothers. School counselors tried to get to the root of this problem. The girls’ reasoning went something like this: “I asked my mom why she stays with this man (her current boyfriend or spouse) when he beats her. My mom says, “Yes he beats me — but he loves me.’ So since I love my mom too, I beat up on her too.”

    I fear stories like 50 Shades of Grey will establish or reinforce this kind of “love” in teenage minds.

    • Joe Bunting

      Fascinating example, Christine. And I agree with your agreement. 🙂

  13. Dawn Atkin

    What I like about this post is the practice.
    Write your own romantic fantasy and then hide it.

    Hmmm there’s a twist in there somewhere. Joe? 😉

    • Joe Bunting

      Twist? Of course not! 🙂

  14. J. Conrad Guest

    50 Shades is proof that anything can be sold if it’s packaged right. Remember the Pet Rock?

    The movie is being marketed as a couples movie, which is bull.

    Born to a drug addled prostitute in Detroit, Christian’s mother committed suicide when he was four. He remained with her body for four days before the police discovered them. Christian continues having nightmares about the event, but refers to his birth mother as “the crack whore.” This is supposed to make me sympathetic to him?

    As an adolescent, Christian had violent mood swings that often got him into fights, and he drank alcohol. He hated all of the therapists that he’d been forced to see. When he was fifteen years old, he took a landscaping job for his mother’s friend, Elena Lincoln, who seduces him and introduces him to the BDSM lifestyle, where he learns how to control his emotions and channel his anger into positive channels. Yeah. Inflicting pain and humiliation on others is certainly positive.

    Christian briefly attends Harvard, studying politics and economics (how does he manage to get into such an elite school with his background?), but drops out to start his own business. Before he’s thirty, he’s a self-made billionaire and pilot.

    Nothing positive about this story or movie, except that it gives hope to young writers that they too can win the publishing lotto, winning a big contract with a major publisher with a poorly written manuscript about unrealistic characters functioning in an unrealistic story and that it will subsequently be sold to Hollywood.

    • Joe Bunting

      It’s a perfect coming of age story, isn’t it? 😉

    • Sergia Gold

      I watched “Fifty Shades of Grey” last night on Channel My5. Being an adult, the explicit sex scenes were plain ordinary to me. I loved watching again the lovely, young, inexperienced Anastasia and the handsome gentleman Christian Grey, and how their romantic love uniquely blossomed, by sadistic manoeuvres, backed by a yet unsigned contract, and playing the roles of “dominant” and “submissive”. I appreciated the way they played their roles, until Ana after suffering those six bottom whips, finally relented and wondered why in the world a supposed to be loving man would ever inflict such pain on her, as punishment? And at this point, Ana felt so hurt and devastated that she refused to be touched and even mere nearness of the man she learned to love and adore, horrified her. Christian was also distraught after realising the pain and agony Ana suffered. Would this be the end of their love affair?

  15. Sonja

    Very proud of what became of this article… I was prepared to delete the email with as much distain as possible but I was pleasantly surprised when you addressed the abuse. Well done!

    • Joe Bunting

      Thanks Sonja! I’m glad you trusted us enough to give the article a shot!

  16. Pat

    Absolutely agree. I would also like to mention the non-work of the editor of the series. Incredibly awful job. Interesting premise with poor writing.

    • Joe Bunting

      You do wonder what those Big 5 editors are getting paid to do. Thanks for the comment Pat!

    • Joanna Aislinn

      I forgot about the editors’ efforts, or purported lack of them. (Seems to apply to a book I’m currently reading, too.) Guess it ain’t just ‘indie’ that doesn’t always present as its ‘polished best.’

  17. Joanna Aislinn

    I haven’t read this series, nor do I intend to. (I got sucked in with Twilight. Eh. I’ve read better, but at least there was some kind of a story there. It also showed me that ONE character could carry a story through an extended plot, but that’s beside the point.)

    By no means do I support abuse, but I like what you said about venturing into the grey areas of morality, Joe. Ties in well with a romantic novel I wrote where the protagonist let herself wander into that area b/c of loss. She judged herself and was judged, but ultimately decided to accept the good life presented, even if it came from a ‘grey’ and unexpected source. (No abuse either 😉 )

  18. Mandy Carroll

    First, I appreciate the prompts for writing. I have been using them near every day and they help a great deal. They allow me to explore areas I had no idea existed.
    I would like to comment on today’s piece.
    We definitely tolerate abuse…we glorify it…we think and feel it is normal. Thus we stay in relationships and place ourselves in situations that are flat out brutal.
    It is almost as if we trust lies, cheating, pain and suffering and pull it close to us…and kindness and such we make bad and we push it far far away….
    Why have we become so twisted that we actually believe we deserve to be manhandled in our hearts, physically, emotionally and spiritually….?
    Why do we persist and try to fix by our death of self for one who is twisted by their own hand….Christain was abused…and so was I…but I knew…and I honestly think we all do…I knew that what was happening was not good on any level….its like saying he/she only shoved me they did not punch me….
    For years I tried to correct myself for what happened in my childhood and my marriage…and then I stopped….and listen…
    I do not need to be sliced and diced so I am grateful….I do not need to experience self loathing and hate to know love….they are already in me…gratitude and love…
    The perplexing thing is this….
    When did I take those and consider them dirt…and being lied to, used, shortened, devalued…..etc…
    As of value….?
    Its like people saying…that most difficult person you are with…who lies, cheats and makes life hell for you…is good for you….
    Look at all the good stuff they teach you…and make you fight for myself….
    If I do not know…light and love…by simply looking out the window and seeing trees, wind, rain…or look at myself in the mirror and see love…and need a bully to take me to deaths door…
    I am one screwed puppy….

  19. Hayley

    Great article!

    I saw a man on my tram today reading The Devil Wears Prada and beside him was a lady reading Fifty Shades of Grey and my initial thought was ‘Oh, how times have changed!’

    I have to admit, I did attempt to read Fifty Shades just to see what the fuss was all about, but I couldn’t even make it through the first two chapters before I threw it across the room in anger. The writing was horrible! And I’m not one to waste my time reading horrible books. It amazes me how something like that was published, let alone sold as many copies as it did. Hemingway would be turning in his grave!

    I’m a 25 year old girl and you can give me a literary great over cheap porn any day! So with people like me about I like to think there’s still hope for the human race (I’ll publish a masterpiece one day, just you wait!).

    And yes, I agree we live in an abusive society. Woman shouldn’t be lusting after a man who treats them like a sex slave, tells them what to eat, what to wear and how to act. It makes me upset to think this is the kind of fantasy woman crave.

    And lastly, I won’t be going to see the movie and I’m confident I won’t miss much (my sex life is better anyway).

  20. Allyson Vondran

    So, i agree with the points made in this article. I would also like to mention that now days people are looking for anything they can get their hands on for dominatrix or sex or literally anything where one of the two consenting people are being dominated. The youth are being introduced to the prospect of sex younger and they think of things in a dirtier way. More and more stories are becoming globally known if they have sex or some kind of romance in it. I just wish that I could find a decent action book. I will admit the prospect of love when i am reading does grab my attention but the way love is thrown about these days makes me question the sincerity of it. I was on wattpad (reading/writing site) and i see these great stories with no love brilliant details and the most well written plot with few reads. Then i see a story about sex like literally the king wants her so he says “Dibs” And when she keeps refusing him he rapes her then she starts to fall for him and i had to stop halfway through because i felt like i would be sick. The story was amazing with its quality but not its subject. Also action with underlinings of love that always makes me smile (which is weird since when i first started reason i hated love but that Is for a different reason) Great article I will write the prompt and i know where to keep it to!

  21. Hannah B

    “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.” Im a young adult woman who read 50 Shades and saw the movie, I dont have or ever have had an eating disorder and Ive never had an abusive or verbally abusive partner. That stat is complete bullshit. I have over 30 female friends in/around my age group who read the book as well and dont have eat disorders or abusive partners. Lets not make people who read the book and enjoyed it (even though it wasnt well written) out to victims or judge them. Its a fictional story…Not real life or a self help books. Theres dozens of books out there that are just as poorly written and have even more questionable things in them…Anne Rice’s erotica and Maya Banks’ books are the first that come to mind. I was way more shocked and horrified by Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty Books then I was 50 Shades.

  22. th

    to me the books are not about bdsm.it is a love story. there is a bdrm element do to Grey’s past abuse . a pedophile old woman taking advantage of a 15yr old child. bdrm is wrong and not my taste.but like grey said he was taught that. that’s all he k ows.in the book the bdrm between Anna and grey was tamed. most of the time they had vanilla sex. they harsh aspects were only talked about. as thing grey refuse to do . so some bdrm was too extreme for even him. the harsh bdrm was only talked about not really done. to me bdrm was a small part. to me if removed from the storyline. it wasn’t missed.

  23. milli

    i wanted to raise a point though; we all know e l James is a bad writer who cannot possibly have English as her third or even forth language but that makes interpreting her characters quite easy in the trilogy.i mean her words are so literal that you would not need to think about the hidden agenda behind her sentences like we do with George r r martin 😛 .and there is one more thing, i don’t think Anastasia completely changed or “healed” him or whatever.remember chapter eleven playroom episode in fifty shades freed?(at least, e l james got the concept of relapse).i wish the story could have been written by j r ward or Monica McCarty , so maybe we could have justified it’s world-wide 30 translations (oh man! :/ ).if we look at the book fifty shades of grey alone though, it would be another nine and half weeks but with the heroine’s sanity intact and with disillusionment .



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