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'Mommy porn': Rachel Kramer Bussel and Shelley Taylor on 50 Shades of Grey

| June 12, 2012
50 Shades of Grey book cover

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By now, you've heard of 50 Shades of Grey.

The book jacket description is something like: "unwordly, innocent Ana" falls for handsome and mysterious businessman Christian Grey (get it?) a man "consumed by the need to control." The novel was originally Twilight fan fiction, and some have pointed out Ana's similarities to Bella Swan, among them clumsiness and a often-mentioned love for British literature. 

If you haven't read it, you might have a hard time finding a hard copy -- it's on back-order practically everywhere. If you happen to be in Fredericton, N.B., you're particularly hard up; as of a few weeks ago more than 200 people were waitlisted for a copy.

You've heard the joke: if you're really desperate, you might try your mother's sock drawer. 50 Shades is "mommy porn." It represents older women's collective discovery of pornography, a strange and apparently hilarious phenomenon for which EL James and her book are responsible. There was a skit on SNL and newspaper articles, and more newspaper articles, and blog posts, and TV coverage in Houston

It's making kids on Twitter feel uncomfortable, what with moms buying it or asking to borrow it from their offspring. Miley Cyrus has been reading it while sitting beside elderly gentlemen.

Miley Cyrus, you guys. 

But it turns out -- despite all the 50 Shades drama -- women have been reading erotica for a while.  

Rachel Kramer Bussel is an author and editor of erotica, including books aimed at women. 

In her experience, she says, it's "women who buy the majority" of erotica. She says it's about escapism, about validating one's own ideas, and also about getting real life ideas. 

Given existing stereotypes about women's love for romance novels in which heroines are very pretty, heroes are impossible noble and the whole debacle ends in marriage, 50 Shades' BDSM plotline is a bit surprising. 

Bussel admits some of it is "pretty explicit." But, she says it probably isn't all the BDSM making 50 Shades so popular. "It's BDSM second, romance first."

Shelley Taylor, founder of Venus Envy, an inclusive sex shop with locations in Halifax and Ottawa, agrees that it is mostly women buying erotica. She thinks men are more comfortable buying and renting porn, but, really, "I don't think men and women are that different." 

While Taylor is pro-porn, and Venus Envy carries an array of erotica, including BDSM erotica, she says she's "of two minds" when it comes to 50 Shades. She says its popularity might reduce the shame some people associate with erotica, but "it's a really problematic book."

Taylor says 50 Shades is "so heteronormative," inconsistent in its portrayal of the relationship, and ultimately produces a damaging portrayal of kink. 

The main line of the story, wherein a pretty, young and inexperienced girl falls for an older and more experienced man, isn't so much audacious, says Taylor, but reflective of culturally entrenched ideas.

As for the term "mommy-porn," it's "meant to be dismissive." For Taylor, the term goes beyond a description of the novel's target demographic. "Anything that women like, we tend to minimize. Like 'chick flicks.'"

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