Saturday 22 October 2016

It's not just about the sex, it's the money and power too

Lorraine Courtney

Published 30/06/2015 | 02:30

Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson
Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson

Yes, I know it prompted 50 shades of dreadful copycats and parodies, not to mention 50 shades of punning headlines, meaning we should be well and truly sick of it by now. It also launched a billion finger-wagging pieces from both ends of the political spectrum about how the books glorify abuse and cultivate a rape culture. But you just can't ignore its popularity and it seems we Irish still haven't reached peak 'Fifty Shades' yet.

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Irish readers have bought almost half a million copies of EL James's books over the past four years. New figures from Nielsen Book Research reveal that readers here have bought 458,995 copies from the series, generating a cool €5.26m for the author. The endlessly harped-upon film adaptation smashed Irish box office records earlier this year, generating €3m in ticket sales. Interest in the series shows no sign of abating either, with the latest instalment, 'Grey', selling 8,164 in its first week, almost double the rest of the top 10 best-selling books combined.

The first week of sales was enough to already push it into third position in the list of highest-selling books in Ireland so far this year. But what's the appeal? It wasn't like erotic fiction or satisfyingly filthy online stories haven't long been available to us all.

Although James's biggest success probably was her bringing it all out from under the duvet, she showed, very publicly, that we women do occasionally enjoy a little bit of in-your-head titillation as much as men traditionally do.

And we just might have finally put to bed that tired old stereotype: men like sex and women just put up with it.

The books seemed like a fun, safe, sexy read but on Valentine's Day, as women were flocking to the box office, Graham Dwyer, a married architect, was being tried for the murder of Elaine O'Hara, a childcare worker with whom he was engaged in a BDSM relationship. The motive was sexual gratification.

O'Hara was vulnerable, suffering from mental health issues, and Dwyer exploited this. But these cinema-going women were able to separate the two narratives, since James is mostly peddling us the classic 'Cinderella' story and it's not really about sex at all.

Her books aren't about cable ties and duct tape but really about the ultimate female fantasy - a rich man singling out a poor girl and rescuing her from a life of drudgery. You see, James's BDSM is appealing because it is served with a hefty side of private helicopters and the temporary suspension of money worries.

There's nothing sexy about spanking if he's skint. I might have considered signing Grey's contract if only for the iMac upgrade of my worn out laptop with a missing letter "t" and "x".

Recessions come with plenty of side-effects. And if you read the small print of any credit crunch and its painfully slow recovery, you find out that it brings along with it the increased risk of all manner of physical disorders, like anxiety, sleeplessness, depression and, therefore, as your pharmacist might advise, a very predictable loss of libido.

So not only is EL James whipping up the repressed fantasies of a receptive audience, at the same time she is secretly appealing to a make-believe where financial insecurity is suddenly a thing of the past.

It is 'Pride and Prejudice' with spanking. I know it is fiction. But fiction that sells a gazillion copies matters. When a story becomes mainstream it also becomes very influential. I know all these facts, and I don't like them. Because the millions of women who read the books and who watch the film are being sold the same outdated narrative over and over again: the story of a strong, attractive, rich and dangerous man who falls for a poor submissive innocent young girl, and rescues them.

It's all very shocking. Not because it's sexually deviant, but because the ambitions of its heroine are so conventional. And men: do not read this book. Ever. It will only depress you. That is, unless you are a handsome, 27-year-old billionaire, and women can't look at you without biting their bottom lip.

Irish Independent

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