Skip to main content

'Mommy porn' novel has retro message

By April Alliston and Susan Celia Greenfield, Special to CNN
March 29, 2012 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • April Alliston and Susan Greenfield say "mommy porn" novel a big hit
  • They ask: Is "Fifty Shades of Grey" about women's sexual freedom or their debasement?
  • They say plot device is centuries old: Older man dominates younger woman
  • Writers: Times have changed, but political rhetoric, social norms still not good for women

Editor's note: April Alliston is a Guggenheim fellow and professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. She has written several books on 18th-century women's novels and is working on a book about the novel's focus on the control of women's sexuality, then and now. Susan Greenfield, associate professor of English at Fordham University, has published books and articles on the early novel; she also writes fiction. This commentary was written in association with The Op-Ed Project.

(CNN) -- There is nothing new under the sun, the saying goes, and it could not be more true than with the recycled literature of the popular "mommy porn" trilogy "Fifty Shades of Grey."

Just this week, Universal Pictures acquired the movie rights to the bodice ripper for reportedly more than $5 million as traditional publisher Knopf/Vintage promises to turn the book, which has been sold mainly as an e-book, into a paperback version with a 750,000 copy print release next month.

However hot the property appears, the plot and devices are centuries old, leading us to wonder whether the commercial success signals a breakthrough in women's sexual freedom or a new low in women's debasement.

April Alliston
April Alliston

The novel tells the story of Anastasia Steele, who finishes college by losing her virginity to billionaire Christian Grey, becoming his "submissive" in a sadomasochistic relationship. The e-book version of the trilogy has gone viral with mature women readers, even as critics have denounced the book's reactionary gender politics.

Susan Ceila Greenfield
Susan Ceila Greenfield

Neither extreme explains the novel's compelling relevance.

Though no literary masterpiece, "Fifty Shades" is more than parasitic fan fiction based on the recent "Twilight" vampire series.

Its abundant references to classic literature unlock a subtler commentary on enduring obstacles to women's individual freedom and rights. Whenever power relations are unequal, the novel implies, sexual consent is never black and white: It is always fifty shades of gray. Paying attention to its literary signposts shows what has changed for women in that regard and what has not.

When "Fifty Shades" begins, the heroine's favorite pastime is to curl up with a good book, not a whip. After the hero asks her to sign a contract defining her role as his submissive, she tells the reader, "[Austen's] Elizabeth Bennet would be outraged, [Bronte's] Jane Eyre too frightened and [Hardy's] Tess would succumb, just as I have."

Insistent references like this remind us that "Fifty Shades" is recycling the classic novel plot about a vulnerable young woman and a brooding older man. The hero has the lion's share of socioeconomic power; the heroine has only her magnetic strength and intelligence.

News: Erotic book surges up best seller list

The classic plot promises that by steeling her virginity and holding out for marriage, women can achieve intellectual equality and love. Those who fail come to bad ends, but the victorious novel heroine learns the hero's secrets and gains ownership of his heart and true self. This last is exactly the fantasy that "Fifty Shades" sells.

There is nothing new either about this plot's association with pornographic whips and chains.

Alongside the genre of the novel, the 18th century saw the emergence of modern pornography, from John Cleland's "Fanny Hill," to works by the Marquis de Sade, whom Christian Grey imitates as a confessed "sadist." Gothic horror novels, which specialized in sadomasochistic innuendo and supernatural phenomena, were also sensationally popular. The whip and the vampire emerged in tandem with the marriage plot and chick lit.

Christian gives Anastasia an app for all the 18th- and 19th-century novels in the British Library, but he also presents her a $14,000 first edition of Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles." The still-disputed question Tess poses concerns whether the heroine is raped or seduced.

Though Anastasia Steele is never raped, her individual agency is equally ambiguous.

She refuses to sign Christian's contract, but she lets him spank, whip, chain and blindfold her for the remainder of the trilogy. When the debasement gets too extreme, she walks away (like Jane Eyre upon discovering Rochester's bigamy).

Yet she returns, echoing Tess: "The physical pain you inflicted was not as bad as the pain of losing you." Throughout, her self-punishing "subconscious" drives her away from Christian, while her libidinous "inner goddess" makes her dread losing him. If she doesn't submit, she will have only her books.

In exchange for her masochistic submission, Anastasia receives an infinite array of explosive orgasms and Christian's love and protection.

Sadistic Christian always uses a condom, never uses porn and always puts her pleasure first. He loves, cherishes, provides and above all uses his power to protect Anastasia -- all while gradually opening up to her, making himself psychologically vulnerable.

SPOILER ALERT: It turns out that he is a sadist because he was once victimized by older women. Lest you think women are unequal, the novel emphasizes the hero's ultimate powerlessness.

No wonder female readers are falling for this story. When the story was first popularized in the 18th century, women had virtually no individual rights. They could not vote, could rarely own property and were themselves seen as property -- so much so that if a wife had an extramarital affair, a husband could sue her lover for damages.

Though many things have changed, women remain economically disadvantaged, are far more likely to be violated than titillated by the porn industry and are publicly called "sluts" for demanding insurance coverage for birth control.

The enduring appeal of a plot like that of "Fifty Shades" suggests that even in 2012, most women cannot imagine how such inequality might disappear. Instead they clamor for the delusion that submission to men's greater power means being taken care of by them.

Of course, pornography can be seductive, and "Fifty Shades" is hot. Less enjoyable is the undercurrent about women's lack of rights.

Christian tells Anastasia, "You need to free your mind and listen to your body."

But to what extent can women enjoy free play in a country where those going by the name of "Christian" mount legislation forcing them to bear children conceived in rape? When poor young women like Christian's "crack whore" mother are denied access to birth control? By enjoying a porn of their own, women can at least indulge the fantasy that their pleasure comes first even as politicians are devising new forms of punishment.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of April Alliston and Susan Celia Greenfield.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT