The Fifty Shades movie opens today, a good opportunity for a topical post. Did you know the original books have sold over 100 million copies, and been translated into 52 languages? To put that in context, Wolf Hall, the critically acclaimed tale of Tudor intrigue had sold about 3 million copies by last year (mostly in the UK and the USA).
In the UK, Fifty Shades of Grey is the fastest-selling paperback of all time, despite poor reviews that have criticised not just the quality of its writing but also the disturbingly manipulative abusive relationship at its centre.
So how has a poorly written book about a belittled woman and her privileged stalker managed to become so successful?
Part of the reason might be it’s the literary equivalent of fast food, easy to pick up (eBook, stations, supermarkets), easy to consume (you don’t have to think too much) and naughty enough to be considered a guilty pleasure. But I think the real secret of Fifty Shades’ success is that it isn’t really about kinky sex, it’s about the fetishisation of Power – and the sexual attractiveness of massive wealth.
Would Fifty Shades have been anywhere near as popular if protagonist Christian Grey was, like most 27-old males, a young professional striving to build a career, who was still renting or sharing a flat. Of course not. That’s the world we’re all too familiar with, a reality that doesn’t excite us.
Fifty Shades is an escapist fantasy, of helicopters and penthouses, exotic destinations and luxury goods. The leading lady is seduced not by a man, but his lifestyle. But she doesn’t submit to him, she’s emotionally manipulated until she eventually surrenders. The story is a surprisingly old-fashioned parable – in exchange for a life of luxury she trades away her virtue. Although he wins her with all the subtlety of a grey knight corporate raid, even formalising her obedience to his domineering demands with a written contract.
That Fifty Shades is Business Porn with kinky trappings is no great secret. After all, its original title was Master of the Universe, a term borrowed from Tom Wolfe’s tale of 80s excess The Bonfire of the Vanities, which has since come to refer to self-aggrandising members of untouchably powerful business cabals.
Fifty Shades is a celebration of modern predatory capitalism, American Psycho without any of the irony. Not that this should be any surprise, money has always been a turn-on, and now we live in the age of The 1%, of magnates and oligarchs. Wealth, rather than royalty, is now the ultimate measure of social status. Centuries ago, wish-fulfilment stories would have featured a Prince Charming in a gilded cloak and a golden carriage. Now the fantasy is being seduced by a billionaire on a private yacht, and somehow capturing his heart.
Yet ask someone what Fifty Shades is about, and I bet they’ll use words like “kinky”, “bondage” and “whipping”. And that, perhaps, is the book’s unwitting genius, because the explicit sex helps camouflage the bullying behaviour of Mr Grey. Whips and anal sex titillate the reader, suggesting that what they’re reading is naughty, forbidden and transgressive. But I wonder how many see the real message: that secretly we’re all whores, willing suffer any degradation to become part of the social elite.
Because rather than challenge the plutocratic super-rich, we look up to them, admire them, and aspire to join them. Ask yourself this: what would you do if you found yourself catching the eye of a billionaire, a modern genie with the power to grant your every whim?
It seems many of us would be quite happy to kneel obediently before his cock, to masturbate when he commands us, and bend over submissively when it’s time to be fucked…
Of course, we might tell ourselves we’d never do that, we’d never sell our love or our principles! But deep down we know it’s easier to be a whore than a hero, to give ourselves away in exchange for gifts rather than struggling to earn them. And that’s the power of fantasies, an alternate reality we can play out in our imaginations, exploring all those secret things we’d rather not admit.
The figures speak for themselves, the wealth-worshipping fantasy that is Fifty Shades has attracted over 100 million readers. But dismissing it as poorly written trash is to ignore the fundamental message about human nature at its core, one which deserves to be much better appreciated.
Dostoyevsky put it best in The Grand Inquisitor:
“In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say: Make us your slaves, but feed us.”
A truth at the heart of many fantasies, don’t you think?